Saturday, February 21, 2009

G wiz

The amazing Varanasi photographer Laurent G has a beautiful post on the Eleusinian Mysteries, which he illustrates with this typically haunting image.For anyone with an interest in the religion and mythology of India, I urge you to visit his gorgeous site, designldg. Here are just a few of his astounding photographs.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Beauty and a Poet's Death

The US Postal Service has issued a new stamp com-memorating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe. "For more than a century and a half, Poe and his works have been praised by admirers around the world, including English poet laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who dubbed Poe 'the literary glory of America.' British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle called him 'the supreme original short story writer of all time.'" The tender and somewhat idealized stamp portrait (click to enlarge) was painted by the highly accomplished American artist Micheal J. Deas.

Deas' book, The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe, contains this more troubling image of the master, taken the year before his untimely death (click HERE to enlarge).

Here Poe's oddly bifurcated face appears simultaneously arrogant and afraid, giving hint to the deep divisions of his soul. Poe was a famously haunted writer, obsessed with the paradox of beauty and death.

He married his 13-year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm, and for six years watched her slowly die of consumption. Peter Ackroyd, in Poe, A Life Cut Short, writes that "All his life he liked to wander through cemeteries. Death and beauty were, in his imagination, inextricably and perpetually associated. 'No more' was his favorite phrase. The secret chambers and the mouldering mansions, in which his fictions loved to dwell, are to be construed as those of the mind or of the grave."

His own strange death is worthy of an Edgar Allan Poe story. Here's how his demise is described in Wikipedia:

On October 3, 1849, Poe was found on the streets of Baltimore delirious, "in great distress, and... in need of immediate assistance", according to the man who found him, Joseph W. Walker. He was taken to the Washington College Hospital, where he died on Sunday, October 7, 1849, at 5:00 in the morning. Poe was never coherent long enough to explain how he came to be in his dire condition, and, oddly, was wearing clothes that were not his own. Poe is said to have repeatedly called out the name "Reynolds" on the night before his death, though it is unclear to whom he was referring. Some sources say Poe's final words were "Lord help my poor soul." All medical records, including his death certificate, have been lost. Newspapers at the time reported Poe's death as "congestion of the brain" or "cerebral inflammation", common euphemisms for deaths from disreputable causes such as alcoholism. However, the actual cause of death remains a mystery...

We may be com-memorating his birth this year, but Poe might have preferred that we commemorate his death--the moment when the poet was, finally, 'no more.'

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Two Sides of the American Coin

We hear that at the Davos economic summit world leaders were piling on the new game in town--blaming America for causing the global financial crisis. However just or unjust this may be, it's certainly understandable, especially with the American Bernard Madoff parading as the new poster boy for greed run amock.

At this lowly juncture, it may be worthwhile to point out that the flip side of America's 'excessive' greed is America's great generosity. Indeed, the worst thing about the Madoff scandal is the number of charities whose funds have been lost. As has often been noted, Americans lead the world in charitable giving:

In 2005, Americans gave $260.28 billion to scores of religious, environmental, and health organizations—$15 billion more than in 2004.

In 2006, Americans gave nearly $300 billion to charitable causes, setting a record and besting the 2005 total that had been boosted by a surge in aid to victims of hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma and the Asian tsunami.

Warren Buffet pledged to donate $37 billion to charity.

About 65 percent of households with incomes lower than $100,000 give to charity.

The U.S. government gave about $20 billion in foreign aid in 2004, while Americans privately gave $24.2 billion.

Americans per capita individually give about three and a half times more money per year, than the French per capita. They also give seven times more than the Germans and 14 times more than the Italians.

Everyone understands the temptation of greed. What remains a great mystery is the impulse of human kindness. Here's a very elegant and beautiful statement on the nature of kindness--from, of all people, that renowned philosopher of economic selfishness, Adam Smith:

"How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it."

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Swarms Spawned from Serotonin?

From Los Angeles Times:
Desert locusts are normally solitary individuals who eke out a meager subsistence while avoiding others of their species. But when food sources become abundant, such as after a rain, they transform into ravening packs of billions of insects that can strip a landscape bare.
The key to the transformation, researchers said Friday, is the brain chemical serotonin, the chemical that in humans modulates anger, aggression, mood, appetite, sexuality and a host of other behaviors.

Serotonin at Work: On left, a locust is ready to swarm and devastate crops. On right, one is in loner mode.

The locusts swarm when contact with one another triples their serotonin levels, British and Australian researchers reported in the journal Science.
It appears from this video that certain aromatic compounds can have a similar effect on human serotonin levels :