Tuesday, 17th February, 2004

I get a kick out of you

Feb 12th 2004
From The Economist print edition

Scientists are finding that, after all, love really is down to a chemical addiction between people

OVER the course of history it has been artists, poets and playwrights who have made the greatest progress in humanity's understanding of love. Romance has seemed as inexplicable as the beauty of a rainbow. But these days scientists are challenging that notion, and they have rather a lot to say about how and why people love each other.

Is this useful? The scientists think so. For a start, understanding the neurochemical pathways that regulate social attachments may help to deal with defects in people's ability to form relationships. All relationships, whether they are those of parents with their children, spouses with their partners, or workers with their colleagues, rely on an ability to create and maintain social ties. Defects can be disabling, and become apparent as disorders such as autism and schizophrenia—and, indeed, as the serious depression that can result from rejection in love. Research is also shedding light on some of the more extreme forms of sexual behaviour. And, controversially, some utopian fringe groups see such work as the doorway to a future where love is guaranteed because it will be provided chemically, or even genetically engineered from conception.

The scientific tale of love begins innocently enough, with voles. The prairie vole is a sociable creature, one of the only 3% of mammal species that appear to form monogamous relationships. Mating between prairie voles is a tremendous 24-hour effort. After this, they bond for life. They prefer to spend time with each other, groom each other for hours on end and nest together. They avoid meeting other potential mates. The male becomes an aggressive guard of the female. And when their pups are born, they become affectionate and attentive parents. However, another vole, a close relative called the montane vole, has no interest in partnership beyond one-night-stand sex. What is intriguing is that these vast differences in behaviour are the result of a mere handful of genes. The two vole species are more than 99% alike, genetically.

Why do voles fall in love?
The details of what is going on—the vole story, as it were—is a fascinating one. When prairie voles have sex, two hormones called oxytocin and vasopressin are released. If the release of these hormones is blocked, prairie-voles' sex becomes a fleeting affair, like that normally enjoyed by their rakish montane cousins. Conversely, if prairie voles are given an injection of the hormones, but prevented from having sex, they will still form a preference for their chosen partner. In other words, researchers can make prairie voles fall in love—or whatever the vole equivalent of this is—with an injection.

A clue to what is happening—and how these results might bear on the human condition—was found when this magic juice was given to the montane vole: it made no difference. It turns out that the faithful prairie vole has receptors for oxytocin and vasopressin in brain regions associated with reward and reinforcement, whereas the montane vole does not. The question is, do humans (another species in the 3% of allegedly monogamous mammals) have brains similar to prairie voles?

To answer that question you need to dig a little deeper. As Larry Young, a researcher into social attachment at Emory University, in Atlanta, Georgia, explains, the brain has a reward system designed to make voles (and people and other animals) do what they ought to. Without it, they might forget to eat, drink and have sex—with disastrous results. That animals continue to do these things is because they make them feel good. And they feel good because of the release of a chemical called dopamine into the brain. Sure enough, when a female prairie vole mates, there is a 50% increase in the level of dopamine in the reward centre of her brain.

Similarly, when a male rat has sex it feels good to him because of the dopamine. He learns that sex is enjoyable, and seeks out more of it based on how it happened the first time. But, in contrast to the prairie vole, at no time do rats learn to associate sex with a particular female. Rats are not monogamous.

This is where the vasopressin and oxytocin come in. They are involved in parts of the brain that help to pick out the salient features used to identify individuals. If the gene for oxytocin is knocked out of a mouse before birth, that mouse will become a social amnesiac and have no memory of the other mice it meets. The same is true if the vasopressin gene is knocked out.

The salient feature in this case is odour. Rats, mice and voles recognise each other by smell. Christie Fowler and her colleagues at Florida State University have found that exposure to the opposite sex generates new nerve cells in the brains of prairie voles—in particular in areas important to olfactory memory. Could it be that prairie voles form an olfactory “image” of their partners—the rodent equivalent of remembering a personality—and this becomes linked with pleasure?

Dr Young and his colleagues suggest this idea in an article published last month in the Journal of Comparative Neurology. They argue that prairie voles become addicted to each other through a process of sexual imprinting mediated by odour. Furthermore, they suggest that the reward mechanism involved in this addiction has probably evolved in a similar way in other monogamous animals, humans included, to regulate pair-bonding in them as well.

You might as well face it...
Sex stimulates the release of vasopressin and oxytocin in people, as well as voles, though the role of these hormones in the human brain is not yet well understood. But while it is unlikely that people have a mental, smell-based map of their partners in the way that voles do, there are strong hints that the hormone pair have something to reveal about the nature of human love: among those of Man's fellow primates that have been studied, monogamous marmosets have higher levels of vasopressin bound in the reward centres of their brains than do non-monogamous rhesus macaques.

Other approaches are also shedding light on the question. In 2000, Andreas Bartels and Semir Zeki of University College, London, located the areas of the brain activated by romantic love. They took students who said they were madly in love, put them into a brain scanner, and looked at their patterns of brain activity.

The results were surprising. For a start, a relatively small area of the human brain is active in love, compared with that involved in, say, ordinary friendship. “It is fascinating to reflect”, the pair conclude, “that the face that launched a thousand ships should have done so through such a limited expanse of cortex.” The second surprise was that the brain areas active in love are different from the areas activated in other emotional states, such as fear and anger. Parts of the brain that are love-bitten include the one responsible for gut feelings, and the ones which generate the euphoria induced by drugs such as cocaine. So the brains of people deeply in love do not look like those of people experiencing strong emotions, but instead like those of people snorting coke. Love, in other words, uses the neural mechanisms that are activated during the process of addiction. “We are literally addicted to love,” Dr Young observes. Like the prairie voles.

It seems possible, then, that animals which form strong social bonds do so because of the location of their receptors for vasopressin and oxytocin. Evolution acts on the distribution of these receptors to generate social or non-social versions of a vole. The more receptors located in regions associated with reward, the more rewarding social interactions become. Social groups, and society itself, rely ultimately on these receptors. But for evolution to be able to act, there must be individual variation between mice, and between men. And this has interesting implications.

Last year, Steven Phelps, who works at Emory with Dr Young, found great diversity in the distribution of vasopressin receptors between individual prairie voles. He suggests that this variation contributes to individual differences in social behaviour—in other words, some voles will be more faithful than others. Meanwhile, Dr Young says that he and his colleagues have found a lot of variation in the vasopressin-receptor gene in humans. “We may be able to do things like look at their gene sequence, look at their promoter sequence, to genotype people and correlate that with their fidelity,” he muses.

It has already proved possible to tinker with this genetic inheritance, with startling results. Scientists can increase the expression of the relevant receptors in prairie voles, and thus strengthen the animals' ability to attach to partners. And in 1999, Dr Young led a team that took the prairie-vole receptor gene and inserted it into an ordinary (and therefore promiscuous) mouse. The transgenic mouse thus created was much more sociable to its mate.

Love, love me do
Scanning the brains of people in love is also helping to refine science's grasp of love's various forms. Helen Fisher, a researcher at Rutgers University, and the author of a new book on love*, suggests it comes in three flavours: lust, romantic love and long-term attachment. There is some overlap but, in essence, these are separate phenomena, with their own emotional and motivational systems, and accompanying chemicals. These systems have evolved to enable, respectively, mating, pair-bonding and parenting.

Lust, of course, involves a craving for sex. Jim Pfaus, a psychologist at Concordia University, in Montreal, says the aftermath of lustful sex is similar to the state induced by taking opiates. A heady mix of chemical changes occurs, including increases in the levels of serotonin, oxytocin, vasopressin and endogenous opioids (the body's natural equivalent of heroin). “This may serve many functions, to relax the body, induce pleasure and satiety, and perhaps induce bonding to the very features that one has just experienced all this with”, says Dr Pfaus.

Then there is attraction, or the state of being in love (what is sometimes known as romantic or obsessive love). This is a refinement of mere lust that allows people to home in on a particular mate. This state is characterised by feelings of exhilaration, and intrusive, obsessive thoughts about the object of one's affection. Some researchers suggest this mental state might share neurochemical characteristics with the manic phase of manic depression. Dr Fisher's work, however, suggests that the actual behavioural patterns of those in love—such as attempting to evoke reciprocal responses in one's loved one—resemble obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

That raises the question of whether it is possible to “treat” this romantic state clinically, as can be done with OCD. The parents of any love-besotted teenager might want to know the answer to that. Dr Fisher suggests it might, indeed, be possible to inhibit feelings of romantic love, but only at its early stages. OCD is characterised by low levels of a chemical called serotonin. Drugs such as Prozac work by keeping serotonin hanging around in the brain for longer than normal, so they might stave off romantic feelings. (This also means that people taking anti-depressants may be jeopardising their ability to fall in love.) But once romantic love begins in earnest, it is one of the strongest drives on Earth. Dr Fisher says it seems to be more powerful than hunger. A little serotonin would be unlikely to stifle it.

Wonderful though it is, romantic love is unstable—not a good basis for child-rearing. But the final stage of love, long-term attachment, allows parents to co-operate in raising children. This state, says Dr Fisher, is characterised by feelings of calm, security, social comfort and emotional union.

Because they are independent, these three systems can work simultaneously—with dangerous results. As Dr Fisher explains, “you can feel deep attachment for a long-term spouse, while you feel romantic love for someone else, while you feel the sex drive in situations unrelated to either partner.” This independence means it is possible to love more than one person at a time, a situation that leads to jealousy, adultery and divorce—though also to the possibilities of promiscuity and polygamy, with the likelihood of extra children, and thus a bigger stake in the genetic future, that those behaviours bring. As Dr Fisher observes, “We were not built to be happy but to reproduce.”

The stages of love vary somewhat between the sexes. Lust, for example, is aroused more easily in men by visual stimuli than is the case for women. This is probably why visual pornography is more popular with men. And although both men and women express romantic love with the same intensity, and are attracted to partners who are dependable, kind, healthy, smart and educated, there are some notable differences in their choices. Men are more attracted to youth and beauty, while women are more attracted to money, education and position. When an older, ugly man is seen walking down the road arm-in-arm with a young and beautiful woman, most people assume the man is rich or powerful.

These foolish things
Of course, love is about more than just genes. Cultural and social factors, and learning, play big roles. Who and how a person has loved in the past are important determinants of his (or her) capacity to fall in love at any given moment in the future. This is because animals—people included—learn from their sexual and social experiences. Arousal comes naturally. But long-term success in mating requires a change from being naive about this state to knowing the precise factors that lead from arousal to the rewards of sex, love and attachment. For some humans, this may involve flowers, chocolate and sweet words. But these things are learnt.

If humans become conditioned by their experiences, this may be the reason why some people tend to date the same “type” of partner over and over again. Researchers think humans develop a “love map” as they grow up—a blueprint that contains the many things that they have learnt are attractive. This inner scorecard is something that people use to rate the suitability of mates. Yet the idea that humans are actually born with a particular type of “soul mate” wired into their desires is wrong. Research on the choices of partner made by identical twins suggests that the development of love maps takes time, and has a strong random component.

Work on rats is leading researchers such as Dr Pfaus to wonder whether the template of features found attractive by an individual is formed during a critical period of sexual-behaviour development. He says that even in animals that are not supposed to pair-bond, such as rats, these features may get fixed with the experience of sexual reward. Rats can be conditioned to prefer particular types of partner—for example by pairing sexual reward with some kind of cue, such as lemon-scented members of the opposite sex. This work may help the understanding of unusual sexual preferences. Human fetishes, for example, develop early, and are almost impossible to change. The fetishist connects objects such as feet, shoes, stuffed toys and even balloons, that have a visual association with childhood sexual experiences, to sexual gratification.

So love, in all its glory, is just, it seems, a chemical state with genetic roots and environmental influences. But all this work leads to other questions. If scientists can make a more sociable mouse, might it be possible to create a more sociable human? And what about a more loving one? A few people even think that “paradise-engineering”, dedicated to abolishing the “biological substrates of human suffering”, is rather a good idea.

As time goes by
Progress in predicting the outcome of relationships, and information about the genetic roots of fidelity, might also make proposing marriage more like a job application—with associated medical, genetic and psychological checks. If it were reliable enough, would insurers cover you for divorce? And as brain scanners become cheaper and more widely available, they might go from being research tools to something that anyone could use to find out how well they were loved. Will the future bring answers to questions such as: Does your partner really love you? Is your husband lusting after the au pair?

And then there are drugs. Despite Dr Fisher's reservations, might they also help people to fall in love, or perhaps fix broken relationships? Probably not. Dr Pfaus says that drugs may enhance portions of the “love experience” but fall short of doing the whole job because of their specificity. And if a couple fall out of love, drugs are unlikely to help either. Dr Fisher does not believe that the brain could overlook distaste for someone—even if a couple in trouble could inject themselves with huge amounts of dopamine.

However, she does think that administering serotonin can help someone get over a bad love affair faster. She also suggests it is possible to trick the brain into feeling romantic love in a long-term relationship by doing novel things with your partner. Any arousing activity drives up the level of dopamine and can therefore trigger feelings of romance as a side effect. This is why holidays can rekindle passion. Romantics, of course, have always known that love is a special sort of chemistry. Scientists are now beginning to show how true this is.

* “Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love”, by Helen Fisher. Henry Holt and Company, New York.

I get a kick out of you
logged by alf at 13:16, Tuesday, 17th February, 2004

Tuesday, 10th February, 2004

The Computer at Nature's Core

By David F. Channell
WIRED 12.02

In November 1944, as the Allies were moving toward victory, President Franklin Roosevelt asked Vannevar Bush, his director of US wartime research and development, to outline a program for the role of government in postwar science and technology. World War II had led to radar, sonar, and the atomic bomb, all of which would play a major role in the eventual Allied victory. But Roosevelt was concerned about how the nation's newly science-dependent economy would fare once the conflict ended. War-ravaged Europe could no longer be counted on to provide fresh scientific knowledge.

A few days after the first successful test of the A-bomb in July 1945, Bush delivered his report "Science: The Endless Frontier" to the new president, Harry Truman. He outlined an agenda for government support of postwar science and technology with an emphasis on basic research, which he defined as the "free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice, in a manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration."

Bush's report helped to popularize the notion that science is the engine that drives technology. Before technology could advance, "scientific capital" had to be built up through research. Such a view implied that technology ultimately depended on knowledge of the natural world: Technology was nothing more than applied science. One of the results of Bush's report was that the government established the National Science Foundation - but not, as some wanted, a National Engineering Foundation.

Yet increasingly, the scientists who do the sort of pure research advocated by Bush explain natural phenomena by invoking such man-made artifacts as the computer. Theoretical physicist John Archibald Wheeler has coined the phrase it from bit to convey the idea that the entire universe is the result of a series of yes-or-no choices that take place at the level of quantum mechanics. Much of the recent work on black holes, including Stephen Hawking's, places a great deal of emphasis on explaining the apparent loss of information when matter is drawn into one. Also, research into quantum computers has implied that matter itself processes information. This has led some in the pure research world to the controversial claim that the universe itself is governed by the laws of computation and is, in fact, a computer.

It's not just physicists. Biologists are also drawn to the computational worldview. Ever since Erwin Schrödinger suggested in 1943 that genes carry a "code-script" similar to Morse code, biology has focused on understanding how genes control and regulate life. Today, the burgeoning field of systems biology is explicitly predicated on a computational model.

Ironically, the most significant consequence of the view that the natural world is computational may be the death of the notion that technology is applied science. If both the physical universe and the biological world are best understood in terms of information and computation - concepts that arise from the artificial world of technology - it no longer makes sense to think that technology results from an application of science. Indeed, if computation is the basis of all nature, then science is just applied technology.

If that's the case, then science becomes less purely contemplative and more purposeful, and as fraught with social and political goals as technology is. Scientific theories are more properly viewed not as discoveries but as human constructions. It's already happening in physics: Philosopher of science Andrew Pickering suggests that the quark, which in its unbound state has not - and some say cannot - be observed, should be regarded as a scientific invention rather than an actual particle. In the future, we may come to see the second law of thermodynamics (entropy) as a consequence of information theory and not the other way around. And if science is a subset of technology, our system of research support will definitely have to change. Maybe we'll get that National Engineering Foundation after all.

David F. Channell (channell@utdallas.edu) is a professor of the history of science and technology at the University of Texas at Dallas.

The Computer at Nature's Core
logged by alf at 19:14, Tuesday, 10th February, 2004

Thursday, 5th February, 2004


By Goenawan Mohamad

Nine of the stupas at Borobudur temple are smashed, and the palace at Surakarta is burnt down. Each time an historic artefact is ruined, we are probably shocked, feeling that, a trace of the past is lost -- has become even more lost. But then perhaps you ask, as I and my neighbours asked, whose history is lost?

When I was seven years old, I went with my family on a picnic to Borobudur. There were hardly any visitors at the temple. The area around Borobudur was not yet crowded with houses. I remember a tree that gave some shade in the grounds around that ancient, still monument. Here we sat and met the old caretaker.

It was the revolutionary time of Indonesian independence. Even now I do not know if that caretaker was working voluntarily, whether he earned his living from the rare passing tourists (not foreign tourists of course), or whether he was being paid by the young Republican government -- at that stage not yet one corn-harvest old. "Please do not eat when you are on the temple, for the people who built the this temple had to fast while they were working here putting these stones together and carving the reliefs."

His voice was convincing: at least we children, the youngest in the party, took note. We did not eat the rice and fried noodles and whatever else we had brought with us. But it wasn't just this that was important. The caretaker, who seemed to really love the temple and who was probably not receiving any pay from the Republican government, with a little story made up to discourage children who liked to throw rubbish around, succeeded in linking my body in the present with a huge task that took place in the ancient past. He connected a single history between those builders of Borobudur and me, a little snotty-nosed kid. The history held in those hills of Kedu was my own past.

Not all heritage is like Borobudur. There is not always a clear link between ourselves and a historic edifice. What is the relevance of Versailles Palace to me? And what is the relevance of the palace in Surakarta, Central Java, to a child from the coastal towns of Cilacap or Weleri, even though these two towns are also in Central Java, like the kingdom of Paku Buwana and his palace in Surakarta?

The sense of proximity or distance of historic artefacts is not determined by a map, nor even will it always be determined by chronology.

Take, for example, a photo album: who do we see there, in a 1930's style white-collared shirt, in a large garden decorated with oleander bushes? The child of the servant is not going to see any part of himself in this old yellowing photograph -- he is not part of that particular sense of pride. He instead sees something bitter and hurtful: a record of his status as offspring of a servant, a lasting proof of his misery as part of a lower stratum of society. Or perhaps he will view the photograph with neutral eyes: as a curiosity because it is antique -- something that could be sent to the 'Stories and Photos from Times Past' section of Femina magazine as an important document for future historians.

So it could be because of this that many physical remains of Dutch history in Jakarta -- the buildings of Weltevreden and other structures from old Batavia -- were destroyed to make way for a new Republican city that wanted a new history, a new pride. Those in the 1980s who read the sad stories 'Si Jamin dan Si Johan' (Jamin and Johan) by Merari Siregar and 'Si Dul Anak Betawi' (Dul, a Betawi child) by Aman, will get the sense of a landscape that can indeed provide a particular kind of enjoyment, but yet cannot really be glorified. We know that in life, no matter how short, there is always something that we must let go -- not always to become something better but sometimes to become something worse. And what is 'better' or 'worse' in any period has never been agreed on.

We do not always have the energy to save things, just as we cannot save all remains of our other 'histories' that are destroyed -- the house where our children were born, for example.

In 18 February 1950 a group of artists and intellectuals prepared a statement that used to be very well knwon but is now virtually forgotten. The called this manifesto the 'Surat Kepercayaan' (The Mandate of the Gelanggang Literary Movement). Its contents were passionate, for according to them at that time 'the revolution in our country is not yet over'. To them, the revolution consisted of 'the replacement with new values of old worn-out values that must be destroyed'. When they spoke of 'Indonesian culture' they did not mean 'the polishing up of old culture until it shines and becomes an object of pride'. According to them, what they thought of was 'a new, healthy culture'.

There is a certain arrogance in the tone of this statement. It is a gross error to think that we are a test-tube baby with no connection to any past. However, the nine stupas of Borobudur temple are smashed, and the Surakarta palace is burnt down, and perhaps it is true that what is important is not to adopt the defence attitude of conservation, but rather to create. For in the end the sign of civilisation is our actual behaviour, our respect for everything that emerges from life.

'Puing. TEMPO, 9 Feb 1985'

logged by alf at 18:04, Thursday, 5th February, 2004

'Mindsight' could explain sixth sense

19:00 04 February 04
New Scientist

Some people may be aware that a scene they are looking at has changed without being able to identify what that change is. This could be a newly discovered mode of conscious visual perception, according to the psychologist who discovered it. He has dubbed the phenomenon "mindsight".

Ronald Rensink, based at the University of British Columbia in Canada, showed 40 people a series of photographic images flickering on a computer screen. Each image was shown for around a quarter of a second and followed by a brief blank grey screen. Sometimes the image would remain the same throughout the trial; in other trials, after a time the initial image would be alternated with a subtly different one.

In trials where the researchers manipulated the image, around a third of the people tested reported feeling that the image had changed before they could identify what the change was. In control trials, the same people were confident that no change had occurred. The response to a change in image and control trials was reliably different.

Our visual system can produce a strong gut feeling that something has changed, Rensink says, even if we cannot visualise that change in our minds and cannot say what was altered or where the alteration occurred.

"I think this effect explains a lot of the belief in a sixth sense." He has no idea what physical processes generate mindsight, but says it may be possible to confirm it exists using brain scanners.

Mindsight is not simply a precursor to normal visual perception, he argues, because there seems to be no correlation between how long it takes someone to feel the change, and the time taken to identify what it is. The two sometimes happened almost simultaneously, while at other times the subjects did not report seeing any difference until seconds after they were aware of it.

Vision researcher Dan Simons of the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign says Rensink's finding "suggests the existence of an interesting and previously unknown attentional mechanism".

He cautions that people can sometimes believe they have perceived something when they clearly have not, pointing out that Rensink's volunteers sometimes reported seeing a change in the image when in fact it remained consistent. But he says Rensink's study is an important first step in distinguishing accurate sensing from believing.

Rensink acknowledges that not everyone seems to sense something, and that the experimental setting might encourage people to simply guess. But he also thinks that people who do not experience mindsight may be screening out what appear to be gut feelings in favour of what appears to be more rational information, while those who do are happy to trust their instincts.

Mindsight may also be at work when someone goes into a room and senses something is different but cannot put their finger on what. "It could well be an alerting system," he says. There is no reason the effect shouldn't operate with other senses too, he says. Knowing someone is behind you may be the auditory equivalent.

Journal reference: Psychological Science (vol 15, p 27)

'Mindsight' could explain sixth sense
logged by alf at 15:48, Thursday, 5th February, 2004

THE ECONOMIST : The evolution of English - Talking down

Jan 29th 2004
From The Economist print edition

IN 1896, William Jennings Bryan, a three-time candidate for the American presidency, gave a speech on a relatively dry financial topic, criticising the gold standard. But his rhetoric was for the ages: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labour this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!”

Just over a hundred years later Sam Brownback, arguing for war against Iraq in a speech to the American Senate, said, “We go at Iraq and it says to countries that support terrorists, there remain six in the world that are as our definition state sponsors of terrorists, you say to those countries: ‘We are serious about terrorism, we're serious about you not supporting terrorism on your own soil'.”

What happened over the 20th century? Americans (and, to a lesser extent, Britons) no longer expect public figures, whether in oratory or in writing, to command the English language with skill and flair. Nor do they aspire to such command themselves. John McWhorter, a linguist and controversialist of mixed liberal and conservative views, sees the triumph of 1960s counterculture as responsible for the decline of formal English.

Blaming the permissive 1960s is nothing new, but this is not yet another screed against the decline in education. Mr McWhorter's academic speciality is language history and change, and he sees the gradual disappearance of “whom”, for example, to be natural and no more lamentable than the loss of the case-endings of Beowulf-era English.

But the cult of the authentic and the personal, “doing our own thing”, has spelt the death of formal speech, writing, poetry and music. While even the modestly educated sought an elevated tone when they put pen to paper before the 1960s, even the most well regarded writing since then has sought to capture spoken English on the page. Equally, in poetry, the highly personal, performative genre is the only form that could claim real vibrancy. In both oral and written English, talking is triumphing over speaking, spontaneity over craft.

Illustrated with an entertaining array of examples from both high and low culture, the trend that Mr McWhorter documents is unmistakable. But it is less clear, to take the question of his subtitle, why we should, like, care. As a linguist, he acknowledges that all varieties of human language, including non-standard ones like Black English, can be powerfully expressive—there exists no language or dialect in the world that cannot convey complex ideas. He is not arguing, as many do, that we can no longer think straight because we do not talk proper.

Russians have a deep love for their own language and carry large chunks of memorised poetry in their heads, while Italian politicians tend to elaborate oratory that would seem anachronistic to most English-speakers. Mr McWhorter acknowledges that formal language is not strictly necessary, and proposes no radical education reforms—he is really bemoaning the loss of something beautiful more than useful. We now take our English “on paper plates instead of china”. A shame, perhaps, but probably an inevitable one.

Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care.
By John McWhorter.
Gotham Books; 304 pages; $26

THE ECONOMIST : The evolution of English - Talking down
logged by alf at 11:38, Thursday, 5th February, 2004

Wednesday, 4th February, 2004

NYT: This 21st-Century Japan, More Contented Than Driven

New York Times, Letters From Asia

TOKYO, Feb. 1 — Japan said last week that it was reviewing how it wants to explore space and added, somewhat vaguely, that it might for the first time consider putting a man up there.

No matter how vague, the mere mention of a manned flight touched upon something profound going on here: After a century and a half of singlemindedly catching up and competing with the West, Japan is asking itself what kind of country it wants to be. Does Japan, in short, want to compete with the world's great powers?

The review resulted from recent failures of Japan's space program, but perhaps Japan was also reacting viscerally to actions taken by the two nations that have most shaped its history. The United States has said it will send astronauts to the Moon and to Mars, reiterating its intention of staying No. 1. And China launched a man into space three months ago, becoming only the third nation to do so, after the former Soviet Union and the United States, and announcing its resolve to become a global power.

How to deal with the rise — or re-emergence — of China as a great power will very likely be the biggest foreign policy issue facing Japan over the next generation. For East Asia, it is often pointed out, has never had both a strong China and a strong Japan at the same time.

China, long the center of Asia, fell under foreign domination in the last century and a half. Japan, long content in its relative isolation or as a tributary nation to China, went out into the world, competing against the West and dominating Asia.

But China never lost its sense of being a great power and appears comfortable now in reassuming its traditional role in Asia.

What of Japan then? Let Americans land on Mars or even Venus. Having lost militarily and economically to the Americans, the Japanese have no problem accepting that. But even as Japanese have become less focused on competition and more on their quality of life, there is deep fear and ambivalence about becoming second class to the rising power next door. It is, after all, a country that the Japanese had colonized a mere half a century ago.

Kiichi Miyazawa, a former prime minister, pointed out in an interview that Japan thought of itself as a great power only once in its history, in the decades leading up to World War II, when Japan ruled swaths of Asia and eventually attacked Pearl Harbor. "Japan wanted to compete, and did it fully," Mr. Miyazawa said. "Only we failed and gave up."

Not completely, of course, In the 1980's, during the height of the so-called bubble economy and talk of "Japan as No. 1," some businessmen and politicians spoke of teaching lessons to the world. But that talk died down long ago, as Japan's economy ground through a decade-long recession in the 90's.

Many Americans — reared in a nation whose identity is inseparable from its No. 1 status — find it hard to grasp why there is not greater unhappiness in Japan, which fell from such heights and has yet to pull itself decisively out of the slump. But Japan has now grown into a mature society that is trying to forge forward with its own standards.

Hidehiko Sekizawa, executive director of the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living, conducts a comprehensive survey on attitudes toward life every two years. His findings show that people are focusing on enjoying life and are happy despite the long slump.

There is strong nostalgia nowadays for the Edo Period, the feudal era preceding the last century and a half of rapid change. While the Edo Period had many social problems, people are now remembering it as a time of stability and great cultural vitality.

"People want to return to an era where life was perceived to be more enjoyable," Mr. Sekizawa said.

The feeling is noticeably strong among the young. If the icon of the 1980's was the "salaryman" who sacrificed his private life for his company, today's icon is the "freeter" — the young Japanese who take odd jobs to make just enough money to enjoy their personal interests or choose their way of life. The stress of competing inside Japan, let alone as part of a country competing against a visibly, and to some, frighteningly, hungry China, is furthest from their minds.

Indeed, "soothing" is a key word nowadays. This year's popular car color is a soothing beige. A popular boyfriend is the soothing type, one who will relieve a woman's anxieties. Even Japan's decision to send ground troops to Iraq seems rooted not in an aggressive foreign policy but in a move to dispel worries over a nuclear North Korea and a rising China by cementing ties with the United States.

"Japan has the economic and technological power to put a man into space if it tried, but it doesn't do so," said He Zhi, 26, a Chinese graduate student at Kyushu University in Japan. "Japan gives No. 1 priority to economic advancement, not political advancement."

Against this backdrop, the prestige game of manned space flights "is not worthwhile for Japan as a nation," Mr. Miyazawa said.

Putting a man into space would require a big increase in Japan's current $1.7 billion space program. But even engineers at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency are looking inward.

"I'd like an increase in our budget," said Hiroshi Sasaki, 40, an engineer. "But many companies have gone bankrupt around me. It would be difficult to request a doubling or tripling of our budget when there are people being laid off around us."

The council reviewing Japan's space program is expected to present a new plan this summer. The decision should yield a clear indication of what Japan wants to be — and what Asia might become — in the decades ahead.

The annual New Year's Eve "Red and White Song Contest" television show provided a clue, though. SMAP, perhaps Japan's most famous pop group, closed the show with last year's best-selling song, "Only One Flower in the World." The song was popular among antiwar demonstrators, but more than anything else it struck a chord here by asking, "Why do we want to be No. 1 when each of us is different?"

Small flowers, big flowers, none of them are alike

So it's O.K. not to be No. 1

Every one of them is the only one.

Published: NYT February 4, 2004

NYT: This 21st-Century Japan, More Contented Than Driven
logged by alf at 14:48, Wednesday, 4th February, 2004