Why you should not go to medical school — a gleefully biased rant

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In the few years since I’ve graduated from medical school, there has been enough time to go back to medical practice in some form, but I haven’t and don’t intend to, so quit yer askin’, dammit.  But of course, people keep on asking.  Their comments range from the curious — “Why don’t you practice?” — to the idealistic — “But medicine is such a wonderful profession!” — to the almost hostile — “Don’t you like helping people, you heartless ogre you?”

Since it’s certain that folks will continue to pose me this question for the rest of my natural existence, I figured that instead of launching into my 15-minute polemic on the State of Medicine each time and interrupting the flow of my Hefeweizen on a fine Friday eve, I could just write it up and give them the URL.  So that’s what I did.

Now, unfettered by my prior obligations as an unbiased pre-med advisor, here are the myriad reasons why you should not enter the medical profession and the one (count ‘em — one) reason you should.  I have assiduously gone through these arguments and expunged any hint of evenhandedness, saving time for all of you who are hunting for balance.  And here are the reasons:

1) You will lose all the friends you had before medicine.
You think I’m kidding here.  No, I’m not: I mean it in the most literal sense possible. I had a friend in UCLA Med School who lived 12min away, and I saw her once — in three years (UPDATE: twice in 4 years). I saw her more often when she lived in Boston and I was in LA, no foolin’.

Here’s the deal: you’ll be so caught up with taking classes, studying for exams, doing ward rotations, taking care of

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It’s not you — actually, it is you: friendship-terminating linguistic pet peeves

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1) “Homogenous” instead of “homogeneous”: The correct word rhymes with “you’re a genius”, not with “erogenous.” Yeah, I know the verb is “homogenize”, so homogenous sounds right, but it’s totally, completely and utterly wrong. Note: “homogenous” is a word, but it’s rarely used and means homologous or of same origin. Unless you’re a professional evolutionary biologist talking about phylogenetic trees, leave it alone and you’re a genius.

2) “Compliment” vs “complement”: In the salad bowl, the fennel turned to the orange rind and said, “My, you look zesty today.” Unless you’re on ‘shrooms and this kind of thing happens to you regularly, then you may not say “compliment” when you really mean “complement” — you know, like when something goes well with something else. When it’s complementary and stuff. Don’t even tell me they’re close in meaning, because they’re about as close as Guinea and New Guinea.

3) “Processes” being pronounced “process-ease”: If you’ve got a Latin word ending in -is like “nemesis”, the plural is “nemeses.” Most of the time. Some of these Latin words are Greek-derived, though, and the correct plural substitutes -ides for the -is, as in “clitorides” for “clitoris.” (See, your day just got more interesting.)
I go down this rambling path to demonstrate that unless the singular form is “processis”, there is no way that can turn into “processeeeeez” when pluralized. It’s a faux-erudite overcorrection that I’ve heard committed by professors (professors!) and others who should know better. Stoppitalready. I don’t care that people have been doing it for so long that now some dictionaries consider it acceptable — it’s still wrong. This argument is not going to be one of your success-eez. See? It does sound retarded.

4) “Laissez-faire” being pronounced “lay-zay faire”: Look, I know that words like “Missouri” and “dessert” screw up the whole rulebook and turn a double-S, which should be even more S than a single S, into a Z. But you know what? That never happens in the original Frenchish. So laissez-faire is pronounced “lay say fair”, always, and if you continue to disagree, you’re azzazzinating two languages, not just one, and being just plain lay-zay.

5) “Relative” vs “relevant”: If you think that this error is not relative to you, then I really hope we’re not relatives.

Oh, we’re just getting started here…

Book Review: On Looking – Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes

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A fabulous blogger whom I hold in great respect turned me on to Alexandra Horowitz’s On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes. And who was I to resist eleven walks with expert eyes? If the whole point of life is to see a little better, then I’m all for a book that can expand my vision.

Here’s some of what I really liked about the book:
• The expert walk vignettes are very engaging, and Horowitz has a beautifully poetic writing style. The book is a joy to read. I finished it in two sittings, one of them late into the night. This is thriller-level readability, folks.
• The experts really do have super x-ray vision in their domains. Their vision is so different, in fact, that when you enter their world, you feel as if you’re moving around in a virtual reality overlay of a whole new dimension. Plants, animals, insects, rocks, letters, sounds you had never considered, all rise to attention’s surface in 3-D relief.
• The book is a bounty of

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“Days of God”: A thrilling firsthand account of the Iranian Revolution

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“Is that the sound of firecrackers, Mom?”

“No. That’s the sound of bullets, Ali. You should stay inside.”

That was my first revolution, in January 1979. We lived in the upper-middle class North Tehran neighborhood of Saltanat Abad (“Monarchyville”), but I could still hear the report of gunshots from Jaleh Square far south. What were people fighting over? To a six year old, it didn’t make any sense.

The standard narrative of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 reads something like this: The Shah was a dictator who did a fair amount to build up and reform the country but was also profligate and repressive. He used the Savak, his secret Police, to silence and torture dissenters. Eventually, his time came up, and a monolithic popular uprising brought Ruhollah Mousavi Khomeini, a.k.a the Ayatollah, to power.

That’s not even close to the whole murky, thrilling and heartbreaking story.

James Buchan, the author of Days of God: The Revolution in Iran and Its Consequences, was a student in Tehran in 1973. From that vantage point,

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On pain and how to handle it

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On the morning of Saturday, March 15, I woke up to shooting and stabbing pain down the right side of my neck, upper back and right arm. The pain encircled my ribs and was literally breathtaking.

I figured I must have slept with my neck in a funny position and a little massage would relieve it. But there was no part of my neck and back that my visiting friend could touch without eliciting a howl from yours truly. So I called my acupuncturist and bodywork specialist Steve, who was kind enough to accommodate me on short notice. Although the session gave me some relief, I realized that this was a different beast than a simple stiff neck.

Eventually, I found an experienced physical therapist/bodyworker based in San Rafael named Al Chan, whose deep knowledge of anatomy combined with his iron paws (I call his technique “Ow now, wow later”) helped put me on the mend.

This article is not about the clinical course of my ailment, though. This is aboutpain – where it

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Life, Death, Youth, the Red Book, Oprah and Truth: Harvard Commencement and Reunion 2013

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One of the things that I remember best from my 15th college reunion was looking over at the 20th reunion people and noticing how impossibly old they looked. These were some paunchy, bald folks in dad jeans, with crevasses on their faces and the teenage kids responsible for said erosion. That would never happen to us whippersnappers of the Class of 1993.

Well, it did. And I’m glad it did, since the alternative (e.g. death) is neither novel nor exciting.

Like a wedding, a college reunion is an occasion of almost unalloyed joy. You get several days to catch up with long-lost friends on years of stories, all in the midst of an endless banquet. You meet the heretofore mythical spouses (“Oh! Someone actually agreed to commit her life to you – that’s great!”), you hug their impossibly cute kids, have great conversations, remember old times, and drink far too many Cape Cods strong enough to remove paint and half your liver.

Another similarity with weddings is that a reunion is a gathering of victors. If you’re broke, sick, alcoholic, getting a divorce, grossly out of shape, prematurely aged, going bankrupt, tangling with the law or otherwise on the receiving end of a bad fortune cookie, you’re probably not going to show up. At a place like Harvard, the impulse to avoid the scrutiny and comparison of peers is perhaps even stronger. What, you haven’t published your third bestselling novel yet? How many IPOs? Not the head of Neurosurgery? No tenure? Only spoken at TED Mainstage once? No Pulitzer, MacArthur or Nobel? Why are we friends again?

The Class Report

Exacerbating all of this is the Class Report, better known as the Red Book. Every five years, we are encouraged to

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How to Write and Publish Your Book in 30 Days: A Guide for Busy People

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Lately, I’ve been talking to many of my friends about getting their books published. Not that they have big, fat manuscripts lying around just waiting to be published. No, no — most of these people aren’t even thinking about writing a book. I’m the one who says they have a book in them that’s itching to come out. They were just minding their business, perfectly happy with their non-authorial existence, until I waltzed along and persuaded them that their lives were empty and meaningless without getting their noble thoughts down in book form for posterity to enjoy.

I’m exaggerating here, but only a little: I do believe that most people have a book in them. I’ve self-published all of my books so far: The Tao of Dating: The Smart Woman’s Guide to Being Absolutely IrresistibleThe Tao of Dating: The Thinking Man’s Enlightened Guide to Success With Women, and Best Dating Advice I Ever Got: 3000 Women Pick Their Favorite Love Tips.* And as an independent author and publisher, it’s my goal to help as many people fulfill their authorial ambitions as possible. Because it has never been easier in the history of mankind to write a book, publish it, and make it available to millions of potential readers — and to even make a buck doing it all.

In this article, I’ll endeavor to tell you about the steps you need to take to write a book and publish it, fast, even ifyou believe you have no

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Dr Obama, Vaccination, and the Health of a Nation

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Recently I read about a new movie about a person with polio. “Wow. I’m really lucky not to have gotten polio,” I thought, for the first time ever. A tingly wave of gratitude washed over me for functioning limbs that can run, dance and kick a football.

Come to think of it, nobody in the U.S. has polio these days. And the disease has been nearly eradicated worldwide. Why?

Because of vaccination, that’s why.

In fact, as you are sitting there, reading this, chances are you don’t have measles, mumps, pertussis, diphtheria, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, or TB. It’s no exaggeration to say that vaccines are the single advance most responsible for the elevated standard of living in industrialized nations today.

At the same time, it’s a pretty sure bet that you’re not sitting there thinking, “Omigod! I just noticed that

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‘God’s Hotel’ by Victoria Sweet: A Profoundly Human Book

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A book that can delight you through its entertainments or instruct you with useful knowledge is a good book; one that does both is a great book. Rarely, a book comes along that not only instructs and delights but also deepens your humanity, carving out extra space inside us to carry even more compassion. God’s Hotel by Victoria Sweet is such a book. [A hat-tip to Jesse Kornbluth of Head Butler for introducing me to it.]

There were many reasons I enjoyed this book, which is really many books at once:

1) The author, Dr Victoria Sweet, who has a PhD in medieval history as well as an MD, shares the ancient Latin and Greek etymologies of many terms used in patient care today. Hospitality, community, charity – what do they really mean? Through her stories about her time taking care of patients, Dr Sweet shows how those formed the three foundational principles of Laguna Honda Hospital.

Hospital comes from hospitality, the root of which is hospes, which means both ‘guest’ or ‘host’. This is how Sweet explains this:

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Impressions: Amsterdam

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  1. Included with your admission ticket to the Concertgebouw is free coffee and tea before the concert, and wine at intermission.
  2. Sandwiches come with knife and fork.
  3. The biggest hills in town are bridges.
  4. An intersection can have separate traffic lights for pedestrians, bikes, cars and trams. They are not necessarily synchronized with each other. Each segment of the street has separate lights (i.e. there’s a light to the first traffic island, then another).
  5. The fanciest cars on the road are taxis – late-model Mercedes E-Class.
  6. Trash is deposited in huge subterranean bins which are picked up and emptied by giant cranes.
  7. At an intersection, both cars and pedestrians yield to bikes. Cars are especially careful, since they’re liable for all damages from collision with a bike.
  8. People are not big on curtains. Half the homes don’t even have them, and the other half are cavalier about pulling them shut.
  9. There are no Dutch restaurants outside of Holland.
  10. In the same way that London has lots of

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Taoism in Three Easy Pieces

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It must have happened to you hundreds of times.

There you are at a cocktail party, holding a mojito in one hand and holding forth on everything and nothing with the other, eliciting nods and knowing chuckles from your audience. You look good. Life is good. Then someone asks out of the blue, “So what the hell is this whole Taoism thing about?”

Aw man. Not that again. I mean, is it Taoism with a T, or Daoism with a D? And what’s that yin-yang symbol thingie anyway? Not your area of your expertise, not your bowl of porridge, not in your wheelhouse. End of your cocktail party mojo.

This is a pretty common condition, as I recently found out. A friend who was intrigued by Eastern philosophy but hadn’t the occasion to study it yet asked me what Taoism was all about. Mojito in hand, three basic principles came to mind which I thought you would find useful as a quick introduction, so you’re properly armed for next time it comes up:

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Partial Continuous Ecstasy: Can You Reside in Bliss Around the Clock?

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I want you to stop what you’re doing right now and really pay attention to… your breath. Slow down your breath, and make an effort to feel the air as it enters your nose.

Maybe even pinpoint a particular molecule of air, and follow its path as you feel it move along your airways, as you become conscious of every part of your body it touches.

First, feel it slide into your nostril. Then, slowly, it caresses the inside of your nasal passages, up and over into the back of your throat, down into your trachea. Slowly now – become aware of and really feel every little bit of

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What I learned at SXSW 2012

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I recently got back from the South By Southwest Conference and had a marvelous time. One unusual thing that happened this time around was that several people asked me, “Why are you here?”  It was a bit like asking why do you drink water, or what’s the big deal about this whole breathing thing anyway.

And yet, a trivial question it is not.  In fact, I very nearly didn’t go this year, so it’s important for me to remind myself why I do take 6 days off from work, buy a non-cheap pass, pay for non-cheap airfare and scrounge for accommodations in an overstuffed Austin during the second week of March every year to go to SXSW Interactive (NB: to add the Film and Music portions would frankly be too much). Here are my five reasons:

1) Encountering new ideas.  SXSW consistently pulls to its stages some of greatest minds in science, business, technology, entrepreneurship, journalism and all-around awesomeness.  Because there are so many stages, these speakers have incentive to share their best work with us lest we leave for another of the 35-40 simultaneous talks.  This year alone, I was lucky to catch talks by neuroscientist David Eagleman, inventor Dean Kamen, game designer Jane McGonigal, Mathematica creator Stephen Wolfram, and X Prize founder Peter Diamandis (about all of whom I will share below).

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Notes from a great conference

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I just came out of a four-day conference (which shall remain nameless), and it was such a life-affirming, mind-expanding, invigorating experience that I thought I would share my notes.  I got doused by a downpour of novel ideas from disparate fields in the many talks I attended.  Here’s a sampling, in no particular order:

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Why I can’t stand the freakin’ holidays

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There used to be a time when I really liked the holidays.  Heck, it was vacation!  Any excuse for no school was a good excuse for no school.  It was actually called Christmas vacation then, until it was politically corrected so it would both include all the bellyaching factions who wanted to be included and not offend the atheists, agnostics, and Flyingspaghettimonsterites.

But I digress.  Let’s get to the heart of the matter: why Christmas vacation sucks.  I know my fellow curmudgeons are out there, and thanks to the internet, they too can find a few words to warm their shriveled little Scrooge hearts.  Read on:

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The best languages to learn in college and beyond

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One of the biggest pieces of advice that I dispense to the rising Harvard freshmen is to take language classes.  Harvard does a fantastic job of teaching them, they’re a super-useful lifelong skill, and they’re generally an easy ‘A’.  You just can’t go wrong.

The big question is, which languages should you take?  Here’s my take on which to take, with a rough rating for each.  I’ve taken French, Italian, Spanish, German, Swedish, Portuguese, Arabic and Chinese lessons, so those are based on firsthand experience:

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The Fatal Flaws of Traditional Publishing (or: Why You Should Self-Publish)

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In 2005, I left my job at a fancy consulting firm to start an online publishing business.  That’s when I started to go to publishing conferences, just to see how the industry worked (and to wander like a crackhead at a dealer’s convention, but that’s a separate story or two).

Trained as a physician and business consultant, my mind has a tendency to spontaneously diagnose problems and notice what’s weird.  For an industry that is presumably invested in its own perpetuation and success, the counterproductive practices I noticed about the publishing industry were very strange indeed. Some practices (like

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Why really smart people have a tough time dating

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I have a mini-confession to make: I wrote the Tao of Dating books specifically for really smart people (both women and men).  The writing of the books was precipitated by the endemic dating woes on the Harvard campus, as I observed them as an advisor and, earlier, wallowed in them as a student.

Those kids graduate and pretty much continue to have the same dating woes — only now with fewer single people around living in the same building and sharing meals with them every day.  So if they had challenges then, it gets about 1000 times worse once they’re expelled from the warm womb of alma mater.

From my observations, the following dating challenges are common to most smart people.  In fact, the smarter you are, the more

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What are the chances of your coming into being?

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A little while ago I had the privilege of attending TEDx San Francisco, organized by the incomparable Christine Mason McCaull.  One of the talks was by Mel Robbins, a riotously funny self-help author and life coach with a syndicated radio show.  In it, she mentioned that scientists calculate the probability of your existing as you, today, at about one in 400 trillion (4×1014).

“That’s a pretty big number,” I thought to myself.  If I had 400 trillion pennies to my name, I could probably retire.

Previously, I had heard the Buddhist version of the probability of ‘this precious incarnation’.  Imagine there was one life preserver thrown somewhere in some ocean and there is exactly one turtle in all of these oceans, swimming underwater somewhere.  The probability that you came about and exist today is the same as that turtle sticking its head out of the water — in the middle of that life preserver.  On one try.

So I got curious: are either of these numbers correct?  Which one’s bigger?  Are they gross exaggerations?  Or is it possible that they underestimate the true number?

First, let us figure out the probability of one turtle sticking its head out of the one life preserver we toss out somewhere in the ocean.  That’s a pretty straightforward calculation.

According to WolframAlpha, the total area of oceans in the world is 3.409×108 square kilometers, or 340,900,000 km2 (131.6 million square miles, for those benighted souls who still cling to user-hostile British measures).  Let’s say a life preserver’s hole is about 80cm in diameter, which would make

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‘Tous les Matins du Monde’: a great movie

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Last night I finally had the chance to watch a movie that I had on my ‘must see’ list for a couple of centuries — Tous Les Matins du Monde (1991), directed by Alain Corneau, after a novel by Pascal Quignard.  It’s a fictional story based on historical characters.  Gérard Depardieu plays Marin Marais, a viola da gamba player and court musician to Louis XIV.  As a young man (played by Depardieu’s son Guillaume), Marais was a student of M. Sainte-Colombe, a recluse after the death of his young wife.

The movie is about music, love, betrayal, regret, longing, and the meaning of true art.  It has a largo pace, with long takes allowing you to imbibe scene and nuance.  It’s hard to imagine a Hollywood movie allowing any one character to speak as long as the young Marais in his first visit to Sainte-Colombe, where, in an incredibly discursive and ballsy monologue, he makes his case for being taken on as the maestro’s student; or to have so many scenes of uninterrupted bucolic beauty; or to dare to dwell on close-ups conveying worlds of meaning with the subtlest of facial gestures.  Although the score is ravishing — put together by Jordi Savall from his own and the protagonists’ compositions — in a movie about music, the silences sometimes speak the loudest.

In my research into the movie, I made a heartbreaking discovery: Guillaume, who plays the preposterously handsome young Marais, died of a freak lung infection in 2008 at only 37.  That this eerily paralleled some of the fictional action underscored the film’s pathos.

In the end, if the best art compels us to nobler thought and deed, Tous les Matins du Monde certainly qualifies.  Should you watch the movie — to paraphrase Coleridge from the closing lines of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner — a sadder and a wiser man (or woman) you shall rise the morrow morn, and more human.

The Persian Primer: How to Understand and Properly Make Fun of Iranian-Americans

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Everywhere I turn these days, Iranians seem to be in the news. Back in the home country, the women are causing tremors through sheer power of thought and implied hotness under the tents they wear. Both the women and men are causing minor tremors in the US, becoming culturally prominent in ways that I can no longer ignore. And it’s not just here in Los Angeles – they’re everywhere!

Iranian authors are all over the bookstore: Marjane Satrapi with Persepolis; Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran; Roxana Saberi’s just released Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran; Firoozeh Dumas’s Funny in Farsi. Shirin Ebadi took the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. Nasim Pedrad is our very own Saturday Night Live cast member. The founder of eBay, Pierre Omidyar, is Iranian. So is Firouz Naderi, the head of NASA’s Mars Exploration; Omid Kordestani, Senior VP at Google; hundreds of super-genius university professors; and about 12 million doctors and dentists, one of which has made you say ‘aaah’ in the past week.

Unfortunately, there has not been a commensurate rise in Iranian-American jokes. There are jokes about Irish-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Polish-Americans and Italian-Americans. (To be fair, there are also no German-American jokes, but what is there to make fun of? Punctuality? Good hair? Superior engineering? But I digress.) Heck, there are even jokes making fun of Southeast Asian drivers.

But who’s making fun of Iranians? Nobody. Except for Iranians themselves, like Maz Jobrani and his riotous US Census videos. Most likely, this shortcoming stems from

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Danny Hillis and Robert Thurman in conversation: Science, Religion and Ethics

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I just got back from a talk with Robert Thurman and Danny Hillis at the Skirball Center here in Los Angeles.It was about religion, science and ethics, bringing together Danny’s viewpoint as a scientist and Robert’s viewpoint as a Buddhist scholar. Basically the equivalent of crack cocaine for my brain.

Thurman is the leading Tibetan Buddhist in America, a professor of religion at Columbia and buddy of the Dalai Lama.He’s just one seriously cool guy – take my word for it.

Danny Hillis is a genius.For me, the idea of genius isn’t just about being smart and having the intellectual horsepower. It’s about generativity, about making things.Well, in his spare time, Danny Hillis created the 10,000 year clock to illustrate his concept of ‘the long now’ – the idea that it’s a good idea to lead our lives now as if we’re having impact way beyond our own lives and that of our children. Hence, ‘long now’.

He’s also made a computer out of tinkertoys and been a Disney Imagineer and a zillion other things.I’d never met Danny in person, and the one thing that I noticed is that this guy is massive.He’s got these meaty bear paws, is at least 6’3”, and has the biggest head I’ve seen on a person.In fact, you could easily fit two of my heads inside his.All them neurons need a home, I tell ya.

But enough introduction.The conversation started civilly enough.Thurman talked about the 3 jewels (or refuges, or rattanas) of Buddhism:

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Beijing 2008: Cultural, Culinary and Linguistic (Mis)Adventures

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Around January of this year, my friend Randall and I started to discuss the possibility of visiting China for the Beijing 2008 Olympics.Randall had been taking Chinese lessons for some time, and I was itching for an excuse to start them myself.After some back-and-forthing over phone and email, we carpe’d the diem on February 27, when Randall purchased a brace of plane tickets to the Imperial City.Alea iacta est — the die is cast; can’t go back.We would arrive in Beijing on Sunday, August 3, five days before the opening ceremonies of the Games of the 29th Olympiad.

Before I launch into the story, you should recognize that neither Randall nor I is a rabid sports fan.In fact, we couldn’t be bothered about organized sports at all.Our interest was in seeing China, breathing its air (occasionally), eating its food, practicing its language, and witnessing the spectacle of the games up close.And if we caught an event or two, even better.

Having attended the Games in Athens in 2004, I just wanted to marinate in the unique atmosphere the Olympics create: revelry and friendly competition between all nations; being amidst some of the most talented, hard-working, accomplished young folks on the planet; witnessing the spectacle of human achievement; seeing which country’s fans got wasted the most.Athens was an amazing experience, and I was eager to repeat it Beijing-style. As it turns out, Athens also became the touchstone by which Beijing would be judged, as Greece and China went about hosting the world’s biggest party in dramatically different ways.

Incheon our way to Beijing

If for some reason the story of our trip were to be read in Mrs Golding’s English class, she’d say that our stopover at Seoul/Incheon International Airport was an example of foreshadowing.Why?Seoul was awarded the hosting of the 1988 Olympics.At the time, Korea was at best a developing nation, their most visible product being

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The New Yorker Conference 2008: A Hail of Big Ideas

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Last year was the first time The New Yorker magazine organized a conference around innovators. At first, I was a bit skeptical, especially since the whole affair lasted just a day and cost a pretty penny and a half. But over the weeks, as every issue of the magazine teased me with yet another brilliant speaker eager to share presto-neato ideas with the world, I decided to plunk down — to find that it was sold out. I had already bought my plane ticket to New York City, so I flew in anyway and spent some quality time with friends. Of course, not before making a quasi-valiant effort at socially engineering my way into the conference — le système D, as the wily French put it.  But pan out it did not, leaving me resolved that this business of being shut out of overpriced conferences will never happen again.

So when the 2008 edition of the conference was announced, I made a big sticky note of the date and time online registration opened, and hopped on it mere seconds after the e-doors opened at 9.00am PST on February 6, 2008. This time the conference cost two pretty pennies, but clearly that was not going to deter this here man on a mission. I was in, baby, in. Later I was informed by one of the kind organizers that I was the very first registrant. Zealotry = results.

Fast forward to the morning of Thursday, May 8. I arrived by cab on a rainy New York morning before the whimsically imposing InterActive Corp (IAC) Headquarters building by the Chelsea Piers. The first impression I got of this building was of a giant wedding cake, with a lot of reflective meringue frosting, if that makes any sense. The swoopy lines and curvilinear facade practically scream “Frank Gehry was here.” And the frosted glass with the transparent bands makes it look like the entire building is

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Rio de Janeiro

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When I arrived in Rio de Janeiro’s Antônio Carlos Jobim International Airport (three-letter symbol: GIG, obviously), it had more of the feel of the tiny Treviso airport (trip to Croatia, Summer 2003) than one serving a city of 8 million. João was holding up a card with my name in the small receiving area — let the royal treatment begin! — and directed me towards my cab. I found it heartening that a country would name one of its biggest airports after a composer — namely, “Tom” Jobim, the man who wrote the lilting tones of The Girl from Ipanema (in Portuguese: A Garota de Ipanema). Can you imagine an American airport being named after Irving Berlin or Aaron Copland instead of some dead president? Ladies and gentlemen — I had officially arrived in a place that was Different.

There are shiny airports, and then there are not-so-shiny airports. Airports tend to reflect the rest of the city. JFK is marginally shiny. LAX is shiny. Amsterdam’s Schiphol is way shiny. Heathrow is gleaming. GIG is not shiny. And Rio itself is great, but shiny it is not. In fact, I got a feeling that it disdained shininess.

The drive through Rio immediately reminded me of Tehran, another vast metropolis with upwards of 8 million people, lots of culture, and great disparities in wealth (the absence of half-naked people running through the streets at all hours is a subtle difference between the two cities). As we drove towards our condominium in Ipanema — about as far from the airport and downtown area as you can get — we went through the favelas, the slums made famous by movies like City of God (Cidade de Deus). I had imagined these shantytowns to

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Penguins and the Meaning of Life

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A couple of nights ago, I had the pleasure of seeing The March of the Penguins, the acclaimed Luc Jacquet documentary.  The screening room at the William Morris agency did the sweeping Antarctic vistas and majestic aerial shots of the movie justice, and some friends were on hand to
share the experience.  If you haven’t seen the movie, it follows the breeding ritual of the emperor penguin, one of the few animals that
makes its home on Antarctica (where I hear beachfront real estate is still eminently affordable — buy before everyone else catches on to
this whole global warming thing).

The story goes something like this.  Towards the end of the Antarctic summer, penguins rocket out of the water and start a
migration en masse to the breeding grounds where they were born. Now penguins are pretty picky about their real estate.  Because
they will be particularly vulnerable during this time, they need to be far away from predators.  They also need to be in a place where

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Costa Rica

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As with all trips, there was some pre-departure hesitation before leaving for my cousin’s wedding in Costa Rica last week.  Right at that metaphorical threshold which has “Go” on one side and “Stay” on the other, all the demons of habitude and hebetude rise from the nether regions of the psyche and insinuate themselves into your internal dialogue with such profound pronouncements as “Dude, it’s gonna cost you money”, or “It’s going to be so different — you sure you want that?”  The tautological reasons, even though they generally come under the “It’s a feature, silly, not a bug” heading, seem strangely compelling at the moment you’re about to plunk down hundreds of hard-loaned bucks and several days of life for what is basically a deliberate venture into the unknown.  For such occasions, it’s handy to have a rule to live by (rules being, in my book, what you use only when common sense fails).  My rule is simple: When in doubt, go.  So go I did. 

The 1.05am departure from LAX arrived in San Jose’s Juan Santamaria Airport to a blazing 8am sunshine through crisp skies, resulting in an industrial-strength reset of my circadian clock by a solid 2 hours.  The airport is named after the wily drummer boy who torched the wooden fort where the crazed invader William Walker had taken refuge in February 1856. Walker fled as a result, Costa Rica was

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Confessions of a bookaholic

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It all started innocently enough.  I was having a little promenade on the Promenade here in Santa Monica when I saw the shop window.  At first I tried to ignore it, but resistance was futile.  Slowly, the decidedly straight path my feet were on turned into an arc, like an electron deflected by a magnetic field, as some mysterious force drew me towards the front entrance.  Oh no, not again — I had just promised myself last week that I was going to lay off for a spell.  Go cold turkey.  Force of will.  And I had been doing so well.  But I saw the wares in the shopfront, in all their seductive shapes and colors, and before I could muster up some resistance,

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“Can I help?”: A Sojourn in Cambridge

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Here’s a little something I wrote about Cambridge when I first got there. May you find it enlightening and amusing.

A late welcome from the banks (and BoGs) of the Cam

It is a Sunday morning here in Cambridge, with an absurdly forceful wind whipping through town, ripping off tree branches, launching horizontal raindrops at pedestrians at relativistic speeds and making cyclists ride at oblique angles just to maintain balance. It’s been nearly three weeks since I arrived here, having left on a Sunday afternoon to arrive at the Monday morning opening ceremonies of my course with 150lb of luggage in tow. Just days before, I had been told by the course assistant director that ‘There’s no reason for you to show up before October 5′, only to be informed the next day that orientation begins October 7. As it turns out there were many reasons to be present before the 5th — somewhat symbolic of the slapdash nature of this course, as it is the first time it’s being done. More on that later.

It is just after brunch at the Caius College (pronounced ‘keys’) dining hall, which comprised

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Travels in Red America

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About a month ago, I had the opportunity to visit parts of the US that I had not seen before. Having lived mostly in Boston and Southern California, I had left the vast middle portion of the country unexplored. So I welcomed the mission to get some work done in San Antonio, Dallas, Ft Worth, St Louis and Cleveland. The cities were lovely: San Antonio’s Riverfront eating/shopping district was quite charming even late on a sleepy Monday night; Dallas had an upstart, upwardly mobile feel to it with a very lively youth culture (and exceptionally welcoming people); and St Louis seemed to have much more to commend it than just a big ol’ arch. I was particularly gratified that in my 24-hr sojourn in St Louis, I very nearly got caught in a hailstorm of 2-inch ice pellets and a tornado. To this here left- and right-coaster, that was as quintessentially Midwestern an experience as having an earthquake and brushfire would be to Joe Sixpack visiting LA for a day from Kansas City.
Although my time to roam amongst the natives was limited, I thought that a scan of the area radio stations from the comfort of my rental car would be a step towards capturing the local zeitgeist. And so, armed with the craftily-named ‘Scan’ button of the radio, I listened. The very first station that tuned in caught a female voice singing the chorus of a song: ‘God is with us.’ The second station was talk, not music, and sounded like a speech or a sermon — something about Michael looking across the water to see Jesus walking on it. The next one was a Christian rock station. Of the seven or so stations that I scanned before settling on some classical music, four were broadcasting either Christian music or preaching. Now an evangelical radio station per se is not anomalous, but what struck me was the preponderance of such formats in these markets. Clearly all these stations have an audience to make them economically sustainable. Although my survey was informal, you would never get such a high percentage of Christian stations in Los Angeles, New York City, Boston or San Francisco. I’d even argue that there isn’t a total of 4 such stations on the FM dial in any one of those markets.
OK, so what? In my last blog entry, I talked about my surprise at finding out about the vastness of the evangelical book market. And these travels along the highways of Middle America, where billboards urge passersby to accept Christ as their savior at a weekend-long revivalist retreat, confirmed my suspicion of the existence of an America with which I am less familiar: what the journalists have been calling ‘Red America’, after the infamous map of the 2000 Presidential election showing the states voting for Gore in blue (mostly seaboard states) and those voting for Bush in red (the inland states). The designation ‘Red America’ is particularly ironic, since the color red has historically carried strong anti-American connotations: first symbolizing the perceived Native American threat (the ‘red man’) to homesteaders in the nation’s earlier years; and then standing in for Communism (the ‘Red Menace’) from the early twentieth century till 1989 (and today to some extent).
This evening I had the privilege of seeing Robert Reich, the Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton, give a speech at the United Methodist Church in Venice, CA. He was his usual self-deprecatingly funny self, opening with: “All these years in public service have worn me down. I started out being 6’2″, and now look where I am.” Although me may stand a mere 5 feet tall, his persona and charisma more than filled the room. He talked about many subjects, including his forays into Red America along his cross-country drive from Cambridge, MA to Berkeley, CA with his eldest son. At the roadside diners, he would sometimes be approached by locals (“because I looked peculiar”), who would engage him in discussion with a “You’re a Democrat, aren’t you?,” to which he would respond, “Yes, and I’m proud to be one.” After the native would proclaim himself/herself a Republican, Reich would ask why he/she would vote for Bush. According to Reich, the near-unanimous response in all of these states was “because he’s honest” (which elicited audible groans from the Venice audience). After Reich presents his interlocutor with a few incontrovertible counterexamples to this trope, the native changes his tune and says, “Well, it’s really because he’s so folksy.” Aaaah. So that’s it — somehow W’s good ol’ boy talk and broken English conveys to these Reds that he’s one of them, in spite of his blue-blood pedigree and life of perpetual privilege. The surprising and even encouraging part of Reich’s report was that, after only 3 or 4 minutes of presenting some simple facts about the current administration’s record, many of those he spoke to were quite willing to admit, “Well, y’know, maybe I won’t be voting for him after all.”
All of this brings me to this question: Is America really as divided as the red-blue map would make us think it is? Reich would have us reconsider that, and there’s evidence to support that. You can see the red-blue map from the 2000 election at this site  http://www.makethemaccountable.com/misc/…). If you scroll down further, you will see another quite ingenious (and utterly logical) map that colors each state in a blend of blue and red in its proportion of Democratic and Republican votes cast in the 2000 elections. What this map shows is that almost all of America, with the exception of a handful of stronghold states (CA, IL, NY, MA, RI, HI for the blues; ID, NB, WY, UT for the reds) is more or less the same shade of purple. So perhaps there are more of the 40% self-identified evangelical Christians in those red states, who may identify with the Bush born-again persona and some its attendant dogmatism, and maybe they did vote for him in the 2000 elections in greater proportion. But in the end, we all want to be able to stand tall as Americans and be proud of the values of freedom, tolerance and high-mindedness that has made this country great, prosperous and a model of hope. And all Americans are smart enough to know that no amount of folksiness can ever make up for a compromise of those values, or being worse off then they were four years ago, or the threat of being drafted to an unjustified war, or having their sons and daughters come back from halfway across the globe in a body bag. Reich’s note of pragmatic optimism, echoing that of Clinton in his BEA speech three weeks ago, resonates with me. The American people have consistently chosen and will choose unity, democracy still works, and we’re gonna be alright. Now get out there and get the word out.

Meanderings Amongst Words: Book Expo America, Chicago, 2-5 June 2004

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People have brought to my attention that my blog here has been gathering e-dust, languishing in the vast underworld of unheralded, undersubscribed blogs. It ain’t for lack of material — lord knows all kinds of zany things have been happening. So, best to write up the events of last week before they get corrupted and ultimately deleted by the editorial caprices of that gentle tyrant, memory.

I spent the better part of this past week at Book Expo America in Chicago. I arrived in the Windy City — so-called apparently because of its fickle political affiliations and not the hearty sweep of air through its skyscraper-fortified corridors — on a Tuesday night, and through some strange convergence of fate, all of my

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Castes in the Bhagavad Gita

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Friday night I attended a talk by Chris Chapple (pronounced like ‘chapel’), professor of theology at Loyola Marymount University, on the Bhagavad Gita. I’ve just started reading the Bhagavad Gita, half out of pique, since TS Eliot has this habit of referencing it gratuitously in his work and I’ve been re-reading some of his stuff lately, half out of complementarity, since along with the Tao Te Ching it is one of the main texts of Eastern philosophy, and half out of morbid curiosity since I’d never gotten around to reading it. And yes, Mr or Ms Smartypants, I’m fully aware that three halves make for one and a half, and one and a half of everything makes for a fuller life, and I like it better that way; thanks for noticing. Anyway. One cool thing about the Gita — basically a conversation between Arjuna, the super-warrior wracked by guilt and indecision before the imminent bloodshed of his kinsmen, and Krishna, his charioteer/advisor, who is really an avatar (earthly incarnation) of the powerful god Vishnu — is that it makes for a powerfully dramatic story. And, in the conversation between Arjuna and Krishna/Vishnu, a great deal of wisdom is passed along, much of it in the vein of Lao-Tse and the Tao. But every once in a while, something like this creeps in:

Krishna: If I did not continue to work untiringly as I did, mankind would still follow me, no matter where I led them. Suppose I were to stop? They would all be lost. The result would be caste-mixture and universal destruction (italics mine). Bhagavad Gita, Ch 3

So ‘universal destruction’ and ‘caste mixture’ are uttered in the same breath here. OK, so maybe this is just an aberration, they’re not really serious, right?

We know what fate falls/ On families broken:/ The rites are forgotten,/ Vice rots the remnant/ Defiling their women,/ And from their corruption/ Comes mixing of castes:/ The curse of confusion/ Degrades the victims/ And damns the destroyers. (Ch 1)

Well. Glad we made that one clear. I’m only up to Chapter 4, and there have already been 4-5 mentions of how caste-mixing is the ultimate evil, almost as bad as deep-fried chocolate bars or voting Republican. Could it be that this book of scripture — as influential in India as the gospel of Hinduism as the Bible is to an American audience — could have perpetuated the hereditary Indian caste system for centuries while holding back the development of egalitarianism even to this day? Could it be that the priesthood, the Brahmins, the members of the highest caste and the only ones capable of writing, conveniently slipped in these oppressive clauses in the otherwise transcendent, timeless narrative of the Gita? I’ll read more before I decide, but in the meantime I refer you to my particular translation, published by Barnes & Noble, which is not only quite easy to read but also has a magnificent introduction by Aldous Huxley, who not coincidentally, names the escapist drug in the epochal Brave New World after Indra the thunder-god’s favorite hallucinogen — soma.

Affluence as blessing and disease; tipping in the USA

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Recently I spent a weekend in Las Vegas, and before I go on any further, let’s go through all the possible nicknames for that town and get it out of our system: Lost Wages, Sin City, Lust Vegas, The Meadows (you’d think ‘vegas’ would be Spanish for ‘arid lifeless desert’, but it’s not), insert your favorite nickname here. Now every time I go there I have a blast, as long as I limit my sojourn to 48hrs or less (and even then, I need to undergo a full mind-and-body disinfectant scrubbing before I’m fit to re-enter proper society, but that’s a story for a different late Sunday night). A particularly surreal moment occurred when I was in the poker room of the Mandalay Bay casino, overlooking the sports book. There, amidst the solid burghers and dedicated hedonists betting on ace-king or Dudley’s Dignity the harness-racing horse, two monitors were turned to CNN, which just happened to be showing an undercover special on trafficking and prostitution of minors in Romania. The contrast between this industrial-strength dose of reality and the foam upon the foam that Vegas rests on was sobering. Of course, both scenarios are real, in the sense that they are both occurring and constitute economic activity. However, I will hazard to say that the Americans in that poker room were experiencing a higher standard of living than the hapless Romanian abductees. The US is a remarkably affluent society, as even its poorest members enjoy a remarkable degree of abundance. Merriam-Webster online weighs in on the word thus  www.m-w.com):

affluence, n. 1 a : an abundant flow or supply : PROFUSION b : abundance of property : WEALTH

But let us abstain from conjecture and refer to the facts instead: per annum, the average American consumes 7960 kg of oil equivalent and 730 pounds of paper; use 484,000 gallons of water; own 844 TV sets and 774 vehicles per 1000 people; and consumes 269 pounds of meat (compare these figures to those for China: 880, 73, 116,000, 292, 16 and 104, respectively). (Source: National Geographic, 3/04, p 91). From this and anecdotal evidence (I’m living in Santa Monica, CA now — enough said), we will conclude that there is much abbondanza in our fine country. But abundance, a complicated boon like all others, has its side effects. Too much of it can make you ill or just plain kill you. Back to Merriam-Webster:

disease, n. : 1 : a condition of the living animal or plant body or of one of its parts that impairs normal functioning : SICKNESS, MALADY
2 : a harmful development (as in a social institution)

To me, ‘dis-ease’ implies an absence of ease — something absolutely ubiquitous in our hyper-affluent society even under the most cursory scrutiny. Too much food and leisure results in large paunches, sluggish bodies and clogged arteries, antitheses of ease if they ever existed. Traffic, overcrowding, pollution, time pressure, and covetousness compromise mental ease. Affluence means distancing oneself from the ‘real’ preoccupations of sustenance (finding food, shelter, clothing) and instead getting embroiled in monitoring our body fat percentage, following fashion, and losing a month’s salary at the roulette table. It means affliction with diseases like depression, anxiety, bulimia, anorexia and fibromyalgia which did not exist for 99.8% of recorded human history.

Let me make clear that I am not advocating some kind of atavism (although in the old days, the physical requirements of daily sustenance had some stress-relieving effects that desk jobs don’t provide), and Hobbes’ point about ancient man’s life being ‘nasty, brutish and short’ is probably true. Nor am I a fan of austerity — the greatest act of worship is in acknowledging and celebrating the bounty of the earth. However, it would seem that too much of a good thing ceases being a good thing. Affluence can make you sick. Yet, perversely, that same affluence has managed to procure the salves against these maladies — bypass surgery and simvastatin, credit cards and equity loans, psychiatrists and Zoloft — such that we can mollify their symptoms for three quarters of a century before succumbing to the cumulus of decay.

But fret not, my dear readers, for there is a solution. It’s called yoga.

The Dream Factory (or: Walking Sunset Boulevard on a Thursday night)

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Last night I attended a reading of an avant garde-ish book called Pills, Chills, Thrills and Heartache: Adventures in the First Person at Book Soup, the rather eclectic bookstore on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, right across from Tower Records. After the event, which primarily made me wonder whether terminal hipness can only be achieved through large-scale consumption of drugs, I took a walk on Sunset, just to observe, and perhaps to see. In the unwritten code of LA cool, it is clearly not permissible to

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What is cool?

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For some reason this popped into my head while dining on pansit, a filipino dish. Perhaps it was something in a Time magazine article on John Kerry, which made me wonder. Now normally these thoughts go unacknowledged and experience their own exponential decay, with no herald of their birth nor record of their demise. But now I have a blog, which is precisely for this kind of fleeting thought-form to have its moment of exposure to retinas not my own. Of course, dear reader, now you get impatient — ‘Which thought, for godssakes?’ Ah yes. I was thinking what constitutes ‘cool’ and ‘coolness’. Such a bandied-about term, and one that at best has a Justice Felix Frankfurter definition to it (“I know it when I see it”). In fact there was a good part of one Simpsons episode devoted to deftly defining ‘cool’ (or at least demonstrating its undefinability). So, in the fine tradition of the reductionist, I will say that coolness is a mix of several components. Tolerance is one of them — to ‘be cool about something’ means that you do not bludgeon it with your judgment. A corollary to that is imperturbability — if you are cool, you tend not to get too riled up, emotional, defensive about things. But the mix of imperturbable and tolerant merely makes for mellow; there must be other factors involved. Edginess and an independent spirit certainly qualify, as does a tendency to care for others (although I would argue altruism is not a requirement of cool, but an adjunct). Talent is good. Egolessness is good, although there are some industrial-strength braggarts out there who love themselves so much, we sometimes find ourselves swept into their world and find them undeniably cool (e.g. Muhammad Ali). I think if I were to pick one characteristic to round out what makes cool, it would be competence. Without manifestation, talent means little and fails to communicate itself. So, until the next revision, here are the x-y-z axes of cool, the Holy Trinity of Tolerance, Imperturbability, and Competence.
Question for follow-up: Which other countries and linguistic traditions have an equivalent word for ‘cool’? How many of them have appropriated it from America? Is ‘cool’ an American concept at its heart?

Masses rejoice: my first blog!

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Hey there, boys and girls. I suppose you can now welcome me to the digital age, and to this populist phenomenon called the blog. I’m not quite sure what its purpose is, and I’m even less sure why I signed up for it. But I suppose the self-aggrandizement associated with having a law.harvard.edu blog is just too juicy to resist. I’ve just returned from a class at Yoga Works (led by the infamous Vinnie Marino), and I feel as if my whole body has been pulled through the eye of a needle. Now does that tentatively qualify me for admission to heaven, or do I have to do it all again when I’m rich while riding a camel? All you New Testament scholars out there kindly clarify.

So I would surmise that part of the function of this whole blog thing, besides self-indulgence (duh), is to provide a forum for all the heretofore voiceless individuals to express themselves publicly, sans censorship or fear of reprisal. That’s nice, but taken to its theoretical limit, reading other people’s blogs would require several lifetimes, and so if enough people blog, blogs simply become reduced to fancy electronic diaries that can vanish in the blink of a server that the world can peek into if it had time. It follows that some blogs are more equal than others, and some convergence has to occur as certain prominent blogs get more readership than others (the 80/20 rule again, manifesting itself once again in the context of a network). So, with any luck, my blog will be one of the ignored ones, and my miscellaneous incendiary ramblings will go unnoticed by the objects of my disaffection, and I will have an excuse to exercise the writing muscle, which shall soon become the source of my vast income and impending immortality, hallelujah and amen.

This is already more fun than I thought.
Cheers for now
AB