Friday, November 30, 2012

December Excerpt: The Threat and Promise of Rural Development in China by F. Thomas Trotter and Zhihe Wang

The Threat and Promise of Rural Development in China
F. Thomas Trotter and Zhihe Wang

China’s stunning economic and industrial growth is breathtaking in its scope. This was confirmed by the extensive coverage of the Beijing Olympic Games. The world saw the dramatic changes in the urban face of the nation. But behind the glittering landscapes lies an urgent challenge that is still to be faced. How will China feed its people?

The concentration of industrial enterprises in the eastern part of the nation has profoundly shaped the landscape. Ten cities have populations of about 10 million and urban growth continues. Yet the amazingly rapid modernization of China thus far has barely scratched the surface of the nation’s rural life. 

President Hu Jintao has asked the nation to work together on a project called “Building New Countryside” under the slogan “putting people first.” He has said, “the only way to ensure sustainable development of the national economy and continuous expansion of domestic demand is to develop the rural economy and help farmers become more affluent.”

But what will Hu’s “sustainable development” mean for rural China? China’s leadership faces a daunting problem. Acceptance of Western industrial models has proven extraordinarily successful in manufacturing. So the probability is that Western industrial models will offer agricultural planners an immediate solution. If so, there will be predictable catastrophic consequences.

The most dramatic consequence will be a vast dislocation of population. If peasant farming is replaced by corporate farming, productivity of labor would be increased. Indeed fully ‘modern’ agriculture in China would only require about 13 million farmers, or only 1% of China’s population. Then China would have to absorb the hundreds of millions of people who will become surplus labor in the countryside. It is estimated that nearly 800 million people would leave rural areas and move to cities. Or, to use a more dramatic illustration, an additional 80 cities, each with a population of 10 million, would be required.

Another consequence flows from the fact that modern industrial farming is driven by petroleum. Adding commitment to petroleum to drive agriculture is problematic given the present reality of scarcity of oil and the prospect of exhaustion of oil reserves in the foreseeable future. We now know that CO2 released from burning fossil fuels is negatively affecting the biosphere upon which all life depends.

Agricultural modernization means increased irrigation, and petroleum-based farming results in more pollution of water. Water is already scarce in northern China and much of what remains is polluted. The melting of the Tibetan glaciers due to global warming threatens water shortages in central China as well.

A further by-product of modern agriculture is soil degradation. With all our scientific ingenuity, the challenge of producing food without erosion and salinization remains. Pre-modern and modern agriculture present a history of environmental devastation. This on-going devastation is due to the 10,000 year old practice of cultivation. Plow any land long enough and it will turn into a desert of sand or a field of rock.

Is there an alternative to the dangers of industrial agriculture in China? Modernization of agriculture follows quite naturally from what some intellectuals are calling the “First Enlightenment.” This was based on following the European Enlightenment in adopting the mechanistic world view as the basis for development.

Mao and other 20th-century political figures correctly discerned that China needed to commit itself to Western methods of industrialization to become a modern nation. In that commitment, however, there was a tragic rejection of a culture that involved a way of life and an ethical consensus that had sustained the Chinese people for millennia. The most egregious evidence of the rejection of China’s cultural achievements was the excesses of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

Partly in reaction to the Cultural Revolution, many Chinese began to re-appraise Chinese cultural values. These include respect for family and community, respect for the earth and other forms of life, respect for tradition and the rituals that hold people together, a sense of the spirituality found in harmony between people and nature, and a way of living (Shangquing) that provides peace in human affairs.

Contemporary industrialized society in China appears to have rejected these classical values and any form of Western ethic other than the private freedom in the market place. Many Chinese are now concerned about the future of a society that lacks any cohesive moral teaching.

The main reason for breaking with the Chinese tradition was that it had not encouraged the development of advanced science and technology. Recently many Chinese are re-thinking the possibility of linking traditional values with science and technology. Some have called this the “Second Enlightenment.” They have been encouraged to believe this is possible by their encounter with the Western philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. Although Whitehead has been largely ignored in the West, eighteen Chinese universities have established centers to promote study of his thought.

You can read the rest of the article by picking up the December issue available now. Visit the Empirical website for more information about subscriptions, single issues, and submissions.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

December Excerpt: A Rich Country by Hugh Mercer Curtler

A Rich Country
Hugh Mercer Curtler
Quaker Meeting House, Greenwich, NJ
PHOTO: pwbaker

In one of his travel notes written in 1788, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “What a cruel reflection, that a rich country cannot long be a free one.” He was even then concerned about America’s preoccupation with the accumulation of wealth as an end in itself. As Jefferson saw it, the reason wealth interferes with freedom is to be found in the captive nature of avarice.

As it happens, Aristotle had the same thought more than two thousand years before Jefferson when he attributed the breakdown of aristocracies to the unnecessary accumulation of wealth; the aristocracy degenerated into an oligarchy, rule by the rich. The problem as Aristotle saw it was that the rulers lose sight of the common good out of a growing concern with their own self-interest. Jefferson, along with other eighteenth-century American thinkers, came to call concern with the common good “public virtue.” It was supposed to be a republican virtue and should keep men away from the lure of self-interest and the accumulation of unnecessary wealth and luxuries. But both of these thinkers were putting their fingers on a central problem that worried the founders of this nation: what are the effects of unnecessary wealth on a republic?

In The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787, Gordon Wood, quoting from a sermon delivered in 1778 by the Rev. Payson, has this interesting paragraph for us to ponder:

Because it was commonly understood that “the exorbitant
wealth of individuals” had a “most baneful influence” on
the maintenance of republican governments and “therefore
should be carefully guarded against,” some Whigs were even
willing to go so far as to advocate agrarian legislation limiting
the amount of property an individual could hold and “sumptuary
laws against luxury, plays, etc. and extravagant expenses
in dress, diet, and the like.” 

Though a number of the framers of our Constitution were themselves deists, we must recall the prevailing influence of both the Puritans and the Quakers on the minds of those who prepared the nation to revolt against England. This is especially so in an age in which the conservative element among us tends to emphasize the influence of the Christian religion on the founders of this nation while at the same time they promote the conflicting myth of free enterprise capitalism–which was never regarded as an ideal in the minds of the colonists. In fact the early colonists insisted that “commerce . . . had destroyed England’s soul”; it was beneath the true calling of human beings who are at their best when they remain close to the earth and control their appetites and desires.

Much of this thinking stemmed from their reading of the New Testament, of course. But many of them were avid readers of history and were convinced that excessive wealth and luxuries were among the major causes of the downfall of the Roman republic, which they greatly admired. They advocated “enterprise,” to be sure, but there were both legal and moral restraints in many of the colonies against the unlimited gathering of wealth and luxuries–laws against entail, primogeniture, and even monopolies. Indeed, as Wood tells us, “A preliminary draft of Pennsylvania’s Declaration of Rights even contained an article stating ‘that an enormous Proportion of Property vested in a few individuals is dangerous to the Rights and destructive of the Common Happiness of Mankind,’ and therefore should be discouraged by the laws of the state.”

The very problems the colonists were most concerned about have come to pass largely as a result of the combination of the role of very wealthy individuals–like the Koch brothers–and multi-nationals, who have bottomless pockets when it comes to playing poker at the political table. The rest of us hope to get by by bluffing. Let me expand.

You can read the rest of the article by picking up the December issue available now. Visit the Empirical website for more information about subscriptions, single issues, and submissions.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

December Excerpt: Renewable Ignorance by Herman Daly

Renewable Ignorance
Herman Daly

We are all born pig-ignorant. Upon having accumulated a lifetime of knowledge, we all promptly die. Ignorant babies replace learned elders. Knowledge is a depleting resource; ignorance is renewable. Yes, libraries and data banks grow, but knowledge finally has to exist in the minds of living people to be effective and evolve; unread books, unseen videos, and un-accessed hard drives are inert. They are also subject to destruction by teeth of time: fire, flood, mildew, and moth, as well as that modern bookworm, the computer virus.

Like Sisyphus we push the rock up the hill only to have it roll back down again. Progress is not completely illusory. However, it is three steps up followed by two and a half steps backward. Successive generations repeat earlier mistakes. They also invent new ones. Any solution to a given mistake is usually forgotten within two or three generations and we have to learn it again. But it is not all bad—after all, babies are delightful and happy while old people are grumpy—ignorance is bliss. Life consists of more than knowledge. Life expectancy has increased, so the old know more when they die, leaving the babies with still more to learn.

A massive transfer of knowledge each generation is an unavoidable necessity. This transfer is not automatic. It requires two decisions. The old must decide what knowledge is worth their effort to teach, and the young must decide what is worth their effort to learn. Some knowledge passes both filters and becomes the basis for guiding the future and for discovering new knowledge. Other knowledge fails to pass one or both filters and is lost. Just as the world is always only one failed harvest away from mass hunger, so it is always only one failed generational transfer away from mass ignorance.

What do we know about these two generational knowledge filters? What do they let pass and what do they filter out? I really don’t know the answer, but I have one speculation, taken from E. F. Schumacher’s reflections on Thomas Aquinas and Rene Descartes. Aquinas said that even uncertain knowledge of the highest things is worth more than certain knowledge of the lowest things. Descartes believed otherwise, that only knowledge that had the certainty of geometry was worth retaining, and uncertain knowledge should be abandoned even if it pertained to higher things. These two filters have very different selection biases. In their extreme forms they represent opposite errors of judgment about what knowledge to keep and what to jettison.

Which error are we most likely to commit today? I believe we overemphasize Descartes and pay too little attention to Aquinas. I take Aquinas’ “higher things” to mean purposes, knowledge about right purposes. Lower things I take to refer to techniques–how to efficiently do something, assuming it should be done in the first place. We have overdeveloped our relatively certain knowledge of technique, and left underdeveloped our less certain but more important knowledge of right purpose. The old seem more interested in teaching technique than purpose, and the young obligingly seem more interested in learning technique than purpose. So we develop more and more power, subject to less and less purpose. As physicist S. Weinberg says, the more science makes the universe comprehensible and subject to our control, the more it also seems to render it pointless, and the less our control is guided by purpose.

These thoughts remind me of a public debate I participated in at LSU in the 1970s regarding the construction of the River Bend Nuclear Power Plant near Baton Rouge. I presented economic and safety reasons for believing that the plant should not be built, that there were cheaper and safer alternative sources of electricity, etc. After my presentation, a nuclear engineering consultant from MIT made his rebuttal on behalf of Gulf States Utilities. It consisted entirely of presenting a scale model of the reactor core and explaining how it worked. He never replied to any of my arguments or said a word about why the reactor should be built. But his exposition of technique easily won the public debate. Afterwards everyone crowded around his model pointing to this and that, asking how it worked. “How to” questions of technique totally displaced “what for” questions of purpose. Maybe I needed a scale model meltdown of a reactor core! Maybe I needed a course in public relations. I might as well have been whistling Dixie.

You can read the rest of the article by picking up the December issue available now. Visit the Empirical website for more information about subscriptions, single issues, and submissions.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Announcing the Best Fiction and Poetry of the Year

Just In Time For The Holidays

Cool Waters Press announces its first annual collection of the best fiction and poetry published in Empirical magazine. We here at Empirical love to not only produce a quality magazine, but as well bring great authors (both fiction and non-fiction) and poets to the forefront of the publishing industry. We will be featuring excerpts from the collection throughout the month, but I have included a broad overview:

May 2012 

The Storytellers – Laura Rittenhouse (fiction) 
Picnic – Kenneth Weene (fiction) 
Syrinx – Nina Kossman (poetry) 
My Doctor – Troy Jollimore (poetry) 
Your Voice – Walter William Safar (poetry) 
Psychadelic Substance – John Elywn Kimber (poetry) 
Belief Systems – Betsy A. Riley (poetry)

June 2012

The Solitary – Anne D’Arcy (fiction) 
Hush – Mikelle Gaines (fiction) 
Street Bequest – Cake! (flash fiction) 
“L” is for Lichen – Martin Willitts, Jr. (poetry) 
Mother – Hazel Quigley (poetry) 
On a Theme by Keats – George Freek (poetry) 
Chalk Talk – Marc Shapiro (poetry) 
Exist – Rachel Kuintzle (poetry)

July 2012 

Wonderland, Neverland, and Oz – Randall Auxier (fiction) 
Beside Blue Horse Creek – Louise Young (fiction) 
A Flight of Paranoia – Derek Keeling (fiction) 
Paper Palace – Jami Kali (poetry) 
Winter Flies – Gary Metras (poetry) 
Submarine – Christopher Woods (poetry) 
Silent Symphony – Betsy A. Riley (poetry)

August 2012 

Sneakers – Aaron Gudmunson (fiction) 
Things Look Nice – William Cass (fiction) 
Charred Cat Ears – Melissa Darcey (fiction) 
The One Who Carries the Sun on His Back – Louise Young (fiction) 
The Imitator – Alexandra Wilson (poetry) 
Japanese Garden in a French Mind – Stephanie Sears (poetry) 
To Perform – Maude Lauke (poetry) 
Energy Independence – Edward Zahniser (poetry) 
Assisted Living – Mercedes Lawry (poetry) 
In Paris – Catherine Edmunds (poetry)

September 2012 

My Thoughts Exactly – Jennifer Hanno (fiction) 
Coyote Dreams – Louise Young (fiction) 
The Farm – Sabah Muhammad (fiction) 
Here – Robert Balun (fiction) 
Let Her Be a Flower – Lara Gularte (poetry) 
Joining the Thousand – Maude Larke (poetry) 
Conference of Crows – Francis Opila (poetry) 
Scratch Apple – Christopher Bacavis (poetry) 
Yang Guifei’s Welcome Feast – Bryan Jones (poetry)

October 2012 

One Brother – Karim Julien (fiction) 
Discontinuity – Mike Berger (poetry) 
Johnny – CS Fuqua (poetry) 
Bathsheba – Gary Corseri (poetry) 
The Woman in McDonalds – Richard Luftig (poetry) 
The Rites of Wealth – Lorna Davis (poetry) 
Savages Came – Christopher Wolfe (poetry)

November 2012 

In My Father’s Silence – Finn Kraemer (fiction) 
What I’d Ban – Carol V. Davis (poetry) 
Molar – Carol V. Davis (poetry) 
Cycling – Travis Laurence Naught (poetry)

December 2012 

Maman, Maman – Jaime O’Neill (fiction) 
Globster – Laura Elizabeth Woollett (fiction) 
Shadows in Winter – F. Jay Fuller (fiction) 
Capsized – Shannon Rooney (poetry) 
Within the Going – Peggy Aylsworth (poetry) 
The Bridge, the Warrior, and Blue Eyes – Peggy Aylsworth (poetry) 
Drought Conditions – Travis Laurence Naught (poetry) 
Voices II – Carol V. Davis (poetry)

As you can see, there is a lot of wonderful poetry and fiction in this collection. It is available in print and on Kindle. Be sure to follow the blog to receive updates about stories from the Empirical archives, as well as what we are planning in the future.

Where To Find Us

Monday, November 26, 2012

From the Empirical Archives: The Value of Polyamory by Adrienne Parker

The Value of Polyamory
Adrienne Parker
Originally Published in Empirical magazine in may 2012

The value of a polyamorous lovestyle is difficult for many to comprehend, and they are sincerely bemused as to why anyone would want to run a relationship in this manner. “It seems much too complicated,” they say, “One intimate loving relationship is difficult enough to maintain; who in their right mind would want the added burden of two or more partners? Besides, who has the time?” I agree—polyamory is complicated. It takes a significant amount of devoted time and energy to create and maintain just one healthy relationship. Two relationships take even more. Are there really benefits to loving more than one person? And are those benefits worth it? These are good questions to ponder.

Obviously, polyamory is not for everyone. Monogamy is the cultural norm, the tried and true way to structure our relationships. But should it be? It does seem to work well for many people, but not for all. I do think it is important to note that our concept of monogamy has evolved from what it once meant, in the strictest sense, of having only one spouse/sexual partner for life.

When people speak of monogamy nowadays, they are usually referring to having only one sexual partner at a time, what is commonly called “serial monogamy.” Currently, the majority of people practice serial monogamy as their relationship style of choice. And many of these “monogamous” relationships are affected by cheating.

My experience is that many people are more comfortable with the idea of cheating than they are with polyamory. Not that they condone cheating—most abhor it—but it confuses them less than polyamory
does. People are aware that temptations abound, that it is natural to be attracted to someone other than one’s spouse, and sometimes we succumb to these natural urges. These things happen. People cheat. We have all seen it time and time again. It makes us angry, jealous, and sad. But, we are all aware that it is common place.

Within this cultural norm of monogamy, once the cheating is disclosed or somehow discovered, there are choices to be made. If the cheated-on partner is willing to continue on with the relationship, one option is for the cheating partner to give up the new partner and recommit to monogamy. Or perhaps the cheating partner has fallen in love with the new partner, and thus makes the choice to leave the old partner for the new one, with whom they will now commit to monogamy. This scenario can play out in several ways, but the promise of monogamy is most likely a part of the new arrangement. One interesting aspect for these serial monogamists is that they often find themselves loving more than one person and having to choose one relationship over the other. There is no mental construct, no societal support that allows for the consideration of sustaining both relationships. So even monogamists sometimes experience themselves as polyamorous at heart, if not openly and honestly practicing it as their lovestyle of choice.

But for many, polyamory is still scarier than cheating. Giving your partner permission to cheat is downright nuts. Right? Well, that is really not what is going on with polyamory. Cheating is not a good thing. Cheating is about lies and deception. It is the breaking of vows and betraying the trust of the one to whom you have committed your love and life to. But engaging in a sexual, loving relationship with a person who is not your spouse or committed other is not cheating when you are being open and honest, and have a mutual agreement to be non-monogamous.

The fact is monogamy is complicated too. It restricts certain aspects of personal freedom and individual choice. It limits the potential of sexual expression and how we love. I am not saying that monogamy is a bad choice. But it is not a good choice for everyone. I have already mentioned how, monogamously committed or not, people have the tendency to stray. In both happy and not-so-happy relationships, people get sexually involved with others who are not their spouse. But as common as cheating is, not all people cheat. Many,\ even if they secretly (or openly) like the idea of having a sexually loving affair with another, would never cheat. Some are comfortable with this decision and some maintain resentment.

There seems to be a movement of sorts where committed couples are more and more openly communicating their desire to be sexually involved with another or others. They discuss the pros and cons of taking their relationship down the polyamorous path. Some simply decide it is not for them. Others remain open to the idea, but leave it at that. Some gingerly put their toes in the water and others jump right into the deep end. Some try it out and let it go. Others stay with it for life.

Most people are fortunate enough to love more than one person. We love our parents, our children, our brothers and sisters, our friends. It is in the sexual love category that we close ourselves off to loving more than one. A polyamorous person keeps his or her heart open to the possibility of having more than one sexual, loving relationship. But the sex is not a given. What is a given is the love. A key point is that polyamory is not just about the sex. I am not saying it is not about the sex because that certainly is a part of it. Sex is an option in polyamorous relationships, not a requirement (Sex should never be a requirement for anyone at any time whether in a monogamous or polyamorous relationship). Just because polyamorous people are non-monogamous doesn’t mean they are having sex with more than one person.

They leave the option open to have sex with more than one person. There are non-monogamous relationship styles that differ from polyamory, where opening yourself to love and emotional intimacy with someone other than your spouse is not an option. In these relationships, the non-monogamous aspect of the relational agreement is centered on having more than one sexual partner, or “swinging.” There is nothing wrong with this type of relationship if that is what you want, but it is not polyamory.

That being said, sexual variety is an important aspect of polyamory. For some, sex really isn’t that big of a deal. But it is for many, and they get bored with the limited experiences available with just one sexual partner. That doesn’t mean they do not enjoy sex with their long-term partner of five, ten, or twenty years (but it is possible that they do not). It simply means that they enjoy more variety to spice things up. Every lover is different and unique in his body shape and size, voice, words he uses, the way he smells and tastes, moves, and makes love.

Every lover ignites a different aspect of ourselves.

Having more than one lover does not necessarily mean you prefer or enjoy one over another (although you may), or that you love one more than another (although you may). It simply means that you are attracted to more than one person, that you love more than one person, that you appreciate the variety of their differences and the way you weave your energies together. Another lover can be a breath of fresh air for you individually, and she can also breathe new life into your existing relationships. New friends offer new energy and perspectives that permeate every aspect of our lives. Making a new friend doesn’t mean we don’t love and enjoy our old friends.

Back to the question: is polyamory worth it? Why, with all the admitted complications, time and energy constraints, does polyamory seem to be the lovestyle du jour? Human beings are complicated creatures, even those of us who like to keep things simple.

Jealousy is an issue in many relationships, including monogamous ones. We have been culturally indoctrinated to view our partner’s other relationships as a threat. And in a monogamously minded culture where
having relationships with two people simultaneously is not an option, another person is a threat. So whether the threat is real or imagined, jealousy is often a big issue to contend with; many are not up to the challenge of inviting it into their relationship.

Fair enough. But for those who are interested in looking jealousy square in the face (or the mirror, as the case may be), it can be an amazing journey into personal and spiritual enlightenment. Jealousy is often rooted in, and fueled by, our insecurities of self-worth and fear of abandonment. And although it is a natural human emotion, such as anger, sadness, and fear, it has the potential to grow like a cancer until it holds great power over a person and is a force to be reckoned with. Some people intentionally choose polyamory as a means to consciously deal with their jealousy. If you are a relatively emotionally mature person (or desire to develop more emotional maturity) and have developed a fair amount of self-responsibility in both your intrapersonal and interpersonal relationships, polyamory can work well for you in this regard. You’ll get lots of practice behaving in a loving, responsible manner when you experience your beloved engaging in a sexually loving
relationship with someone else!

Availability (or lack thereof ) of enough time is another issue. A well-known adage in polyamorous circles is, “Love may be unlimited but time is not.” With so many of us are already feeling a crunch for our time, how is it possible to make room for another intimate loving relationship? Building intimacy takes a lot of time, and once created, it must be maintained. Polyamory is not about giving your partner a free pass on Friday nights to go out to the bar and find someone for a one-night stand. That is fine and dandy if that is what you are looking for, but it is not polyamory. Polyamory is about loving more than one person. The key word here is love. When we enter into love-relationships, they take time and commitment. Polyamory starts with sustaining the relationships you already have. So if you are already pressed for time and your current partner is clamoring for more attention, it probably is not a wise decision to get involved with another person who will require more than your ability to give.

Then again, another lover can equate to more helping hands, collective energy, and resources to throw into the pot. Many people prefer family-style polyamory where everyone is good friends, and the new lover becomes part of one big extended family. Everyone is probably not sleeping together (they could be), but the friendships are the most cherished aspects of the polyamorous arrangement. When children are involved, it is a godsend to have another adult in the carpool or to call on in emergencies. Children feel safer with more loving, cooperative adults in their lives to depend on. It is also handy to have an extra someone to call for a dinner or movie date, to lend a shoulder to cry on, or to offer a different perspective. Of course, if they are fortunate, families already create these types of relationships, whether they are polyamorous or not. You don’t have to be polyamorous to set yourself up in a loving, extended family, but polyamory does tend to arise naturally with those engaged in this lovestyle.

One of the things I enjoy the most about polyamory is the opportunity to focus on the friendship. Opening our hearts to honest communication and emotional intimacy is what grows love. What could be better than growing more love and friendship in our lives? Love and friendship make us happy, peaceful people; and happy, peaceful people make for an overall happier, more peaceful world. For people who resonate with the value of leading a polyamorous life and choose to move in this direction, I encourage them to take it one small step at a time. Start by opening your heart to loving yourself along with the family and friends you already have in bigger and better ways. Intend to keep your heart open to making interesting new friends who are open-hearted, open-minded people. If you have a partner, communicate openly and honestly to her or him about your thoughts and desires before you do anything. Keep your heart and mind open to your partner’s emotional reactions and thoughts. Find new and exciting ways to spice up and grow the love you already have in your life as you open to creating more.

Be sure to visit the Empirical website to subscribe!

If you are a writer and are interested in writing for Empirical, check out this link to find out how to submit.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

From the Empirical Archives: My Doctor by Troy Jollimore

My Doctor
Troy Jollimore
Originally Published in Empirical magazine in May 2012

I used to think that I was a right brain person.
Now my doctor tells me that I’m a wrong brain person.
The X-rays and the CAT scans clearly show it. His lab coat
has yet to come back from the bleachers – “You don’t mind,
do you?” he asks me. “You don’t worry that
the kimono makes me seem unprofessional?” No.
What makes him seem unprofessional is
the candy jars of red, blue and green pills he keeps
within easy reach—not that I’m complaining, not that these
little mental jujubes can’t be credited with helping me
endure more department meetings, kids’ birthday parties,
and church services than you can shake a stethoscope
at. Two weeks in Barbados, he says,
is much more effective than any treatment he could
prescribe. He introduces me to his wife—
something he has done before, though last time
it was a different woman, and I kind of liked her better—
gives me the firm “let’s play golf or do lunch” eye
contact and handshake they teach you in the first week
of medical school, and then his face
turns serious and he says, “By the way,
I just don’t like the look of that last set of MRIs.
Not at all. But we’ll talk about that later.
And hey, why do they call it masking tape,
anyway? It doesn’t mask anything I
can think of.” And then, like a pinch of salt,
he is gone.

Be sure to visit the Empirical website to subscribe!

If you are a writer and are interested in writing for Empirical, check out this link to find out how to submit. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

From the Empirical Archives: The Psychedelic Substance by John Elwyn Kimber

The Psychadelic Substance
John Elwyn Kimber
Originally Published in Empirical magazine in May 2012

New as the aboriginal dawn of consciousness: -
Forced open wide, the childlike eyes are drawing down
An unknown planet’s visionscape of paradise
On blind facades, the meanest ways of everytown.

Till blocked, by childish terrors in the haunts of love -
That playground of your infant hopes and cosmic fears.
The primal vision of the final eden,
Free of all interference from your priests or peers.

So here is here and there is there, though one-the-same
Beneath interminable mires of loss-in-time,
Mysterious as the karmic knot you must unbind,
Ancestral as unconscionable crime,

And how they shall be one-the-same, though one-the-same
Beneath-beyond all shatterings of toxic shock,
Our toxic medicines cannot inform -
A sphinx of a joke, blind as a keyless lock.

Back, then, to the yet-unrealized human being -
Abysmal dungeons of the self ’s ancestral hall;
Your deepening soul high-diving for each cause and cure,
A work of centuries, awaiting each and all; -

And how we might be one-the-same, though one-the same
As humans-in-being, our final selves at ease,
The tribal gods in primal vision ask of us
As yet without release, O child of locks and keys.

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From the Empirical Archives: Neutrinos Break Cosmic Speed Limit by Aliman Sears

Neutrinos Break Cosmic Speed Limit
Aliman Sears
Originally Published in Empirical magazine in May 2012

The bartender says, “We don’t serve your kind in here.” 
A neutrino walks into a bar.

What’s a neutrino? Look at one of your fingernails for exactly one second. During that second, about 65 billion subatomic particles called neutrinos passed undetected through the tip of your finger. Neutrinos are so small that they sail effortlessly through atoms, and the atoms don’t have a clue. Scientists thought they knew a lot about neutrinos, but in September 2011 these little buggers potentially turned the scientific world upside down. The European Center of Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland announced that they had clocked a neutrino zipping along faster than the speed of light. This revelation shocked the physics world to its core. One ramification of this super-luminous travel is the mind-boggling idea of reversed causality.

Walking into a bar could still cause a bartender to insist that you’re an unsavory character, but in some circumstances the bartender insisting you leave the bar could cause you to walk into the bar. Sounds hinkey? That’s because it is. However, scientists are quick to tell us not to worry about trying to than light paradoxical ideas. First, it’s not clear that the CERN neutrinos actually broke the cosmic speed limit of 700 million miles per hour. Other teams of scientists are trying to replicate these results and hope to announce corroboration, or lack thereof, sometime in 2012. For reasons we’ll see in a moment, many scientists don’t believe the speedy neutrinos are actually that speedy. Second, scientists tell us not to worry about faster-than-light paradoxes because . . . wait for it . . . the causal structure of events isn’t really violated because there’s still a causal relationship—even if it’s a backwards relationship!

What are these scientists thinking?

The rest of us are still mystified about what a backwards causal relationship could possibly mean. One wonders what Immanuel Kant would think about backwards causation. Leaving these paradoxes aside, what exactly was the landmark discovery that shook the physics world in September? The OPERA team (Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus) shot neutrinos from an underground particle accelerator in Switzerland through 454 miles of rock into a neutrino detector in Gran Sasso, Italy. Using atomic clocks and GPS tracking systems, they determined that the neutrinos arrived in Italy 60 nanoseconds faster than they should have if they were traveling at the speed of light.

And why is this significant? Star Trek’s “warp speed” ships notwithstanding, anything traveling faster than light speed violates one of the main theories of modern physics, Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity (STR) published in 1905. Part of SR is the well-known E=mc2. According to STR, if something has mass, even a tiny bit of mass like the neutrino, it should take an infinite amount of energy to surpass the speed of light. This is great news for the textbook publishing industry because if neutrinos did break the light barrier, then all of our physics texts are outdated and a massive re-writing and re-publishing is in order. A lot folks stand to make substantial amounts of money.

But it’s much more than just a boon for the publishing industry. It’s a colossal rethinking of nearly everything we know (or thought we knew) about physics. This is why many scientists don’t know whether to be shocked or skeptical. Many are saying OPERA overlooked a critical step in their months of painstakingly careful research, and simply published too soon. Others are ready to uncork their finest wine, set their scientific libraries ablaze, and revel in astonishment and awe in the face of a faster-than light universe.

Is this really that monumental? In a word, yes. Einstein’s SR, and by extension his General Theory of Relativity, published in 1916, have mountains of evidential support and are the blueprint for how we think the universe works. If those theories are wrong, then physicists are starting over from day one.

Let’s take three ideas that are well-known by college-level physics majors. Even though the following ideas sound strange, STR is accepted as solid today because scientists have experimentally confirmed that STR consistently makes reliable predictions across the board:

1. Lorentz Contraction : The faster you travel, the thinner you get. This effect is irrelevant at slow speeds, and has been measured in rockets and satellites, but at near light speeds you’d be squeezed into a small space from an outside observer’s point of view. For example, the USS Enterprise was about 950 feet long, but it’s apparent length traveling at 99.9% the speed of light would be just 14 feet long. Problem: the reason why Einstein concluded that the speed of light was the cosmic speed limit is because once you pass the light barrier, the Enterprise would have negative length. Go figure.

2. Time Dilation : According to STR the faster you go, the more time slows down for you. Experiments with 
supersonic aircraft show this. But let’s up the ante: if you embark on the Starship Enterprise to explore strange new worlds and seek out new life and new civilizations, and travel at the speed of light for about a year, then upon your arrival back at Starfleet Command your colleagues will have aged about ten years. So, time significantly slows down for you. Problem: If you’re traveling faster than light, time may slow down so much that it starts to go backwards. You may get back before you even left. Talk about back to the future.

3. Mass Gain: According to STR, you tend to get more massive (that is, put on more weight) as you move faster and approach the speed of light. This is because your energy equals your mass times the speed of light squared (E=mc2). In other words, because your energy is increasing with your speed, your mass necessarily increases. As you approach the speed of light, your weight becomes, well, huge. All those “yo’ mama” jokes suddenly become real: “Yo’ mama is so fat, small objects orbit her.” Her weight increases by 100, 1,000, 10,000 times. Problem: at greater-than-light speeds, she’d be infinitely heavy—heavier than the entire universe. No diet, however radical, can hope to save your mama at that point.

In short, all of physics is thrown into doubt if those neutrinos actually can achieve faster-than-light velocity. All is not lost yet, however. One issue is that the distance between the exact point that the neutrinos are shot out of the accelerator in Switzerland, and the exact point that they are detected in Italy, must be measured within inches. One thought is that maybe the GPS system isn’t accurate enough. There are several such speculations on what could have gone awry with the OPERA and its methodology, as well as workarounds that enable SR to retain its standing, such as quantum tunneling solutions, string theory solutions, and tachyon solutions. But scientists just don’t agree that there’s any solid ground to hold onto here. Time will tell. The universe is an amazing place. In lieu of a strange STR universe where time slows down and mamas gain thousands of pounds, we may have to get used to a bizarre faster-than-light universe where bartenders tell folks to take a hike—folks who haven’t yet walked into the bar.

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Thursday, November 22, 2012

From the Empirical Archives: Syrinx by Nina Kossman

Nina Kossman
Originally Published in Empirical magazine in May 2012

The nymph
flees from him who desires her,

the water knows what equals it:
fire - Pan - goat.

O Syrinx, o water-nymph,
your innocence,

your remote, reflective will
sways, green and supple,

on the bank of Pan’s forest-brook:

you’re now the soughing of
the wind, in distance

and ether;
the measured pace;

the sound,
(like echo,

without a body:
Pan’s greed for a mirror)

how you weep,
mother to Memory,

mere leaf, turmoil,
the muse’s nurse,

your madness turned to
prophetic gift,


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From the Empirical Archives: Intimations of the Baseball Gods by Randall Auxier

ILLUSTRATION: Steve Ferchaud

Intimations of the Baseball Gods
Randall Auxier
Originally Published in Empirical magazine in May 2012

Today the good people of St. Louis are having a big parade for their major league baseball team. After making their way through the city, the parade ends at Bush Stadium, led by the Budweiser Clydesdales and their beer-wagon, and a none-too-comfortable Tony LaRussa perched atop; now he manages not Pujols and Carpenter, but a barking Dalmatian and a teamster in a green suit that must have been stolen from a bellhop in 1954. Tomorrow he will retire, but today no one knows that. Each Cardinal player is allotted a gigantic red or white pick-up truck to convey him and his family into the stadium (courtesy of the friendly Ford or Chevy dealer at a location near you). Each player stops for a brief interview on his way to the reviewing stand. The message they convey is, basically, “Woo-hoo!” This team is together for the last time, and everyone knows it. Much will have changed by the spring; such is life and such is baseball.

St. Louis is a town long down on its luck–the current whispers are: “At least it isn’t Detroit.” The news has been mostly bad for St. Louis since about 1909. The population actually declined for a full century, as the likes of Chicago and LA and New York exploded in people, prosperity, and pulchritude. But St. Louis slept, perchance to dream of its elder days as a cosmopolitan haven in the wilderness. Even the sweetest dreams fade amid the ravages of time.

St. Louisans got used to cutting their losses, amputating pieces of the city. North St. Louis became a step child in the Depression and an orphan after the Second World War, now alternating in blocks between drastic blight and urban prairie. Then East St. Louis, unable to protect them, farmed out its children, sending the trumpet of Miles Davis’ to one coast and Tina Turner wailing to the other. The football Cardinals, bulky fellows in scarlet garb performing tricks for graying peoples who have never seen an actual redbird, vacated to the fair weather fans in Arizona, while those in St. Louis try desperately to care about a team that would rather be back in Hollywood. Meanwhile, Trans World Airlines was gobbled up by American, leaving the St. Louis airport even emptier than Wrigley Field in October.

But the city still has heart, or so I would gladly believe. Indulge me for a few minutes if you can spare them. This does concern you, even if your city is thriving and you can’t say where your baseball team finished in the standings.

PHOTO: Rian Castillo

Watching the gathering in Busch Stadium, I think back to the World Series of 2006 when St. Louis and Detroit actually met in the fall classic, and I remember thinking: “This isn’t the match-up the TV executives were hoping for, the contest between ‘worst city in America’ and, well, ‘city that celebrates not being the former’.”

It was small market baseball, and a snooze for the coasts. What about the Yankees vs. the Giants? Now that would generate some ratings. I remember reading that the 2006 World Series had the lowest viewership of any since they started televising the event. The blight of north St. Louis versus the DMZ of Woodward Avenue, more houses empty than occupied, and all of it being just a glimpse of the backside of America. Who cares?

And this brings us to a point worth considering. What is piety? You might think that’s a leap. It isn’t. Unlike 2006, for some reason, the nation took note in 2011. A vague and creeping awareness, a vision that was planted in our brains still remains, as Paul Simon put it. And what was it? Inklings of piety, rumors of grace, hints of salvation.

Part was surely happenstance. There were tight races involving what we in the middle call “coastals,” our heartland term of disdain for those who think of us as “the flyover.” Coastals are people who have no idea how weary the rest of us are at having so much of our lives in the middle dictated to us by their priorities. I speak not of red and blue, or left and right. I speak of crowds and space, and I do so from a spacious parcel of rural Illinois, where people chafe under the yoke of the coasts and would sooner be buried with Albert Pujols than have A-Rod’s autograph. But because the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Giants, the Braves, the Rays, and the Angels were all in the race until the end, the folks on the bookends were obliged to watch a few Cardinals games in 2011.

Albert Pujols

And the Coastals noticed that this particular team played with, well, guts and heart, and simply would not quit. The script was written by the Baseball Gods themselves. “Let the team be over ten games behind when September beginneth,” they decreed in their customary Elizabethan lisp. “Let them battle injuries, heart-breaking losses in extra innings, humiliating shellings of their starting pitchers, and most of all let there be double plays, for nothing destroyeth the will like that!” But as the Lord said to Jeremiah, “I will not make a complete end of them.” I hear also in the echoes, “Let them want victory more than they want their salaries, their egos, and their very starting positions.”
In short, let these ballplayers reform their errant ways and for the sake of us all, and if they do, there is a path, however unlikely, to salvation.

You already know that the Cardinals were a single strike away from losing twice at the end of the sixth game of the World Series. You know that bit of trivia because even though you didn’t care who won, you watched–this time. You know that a kid from St. Louis, who had struggled with whether to stay in baseball, hit a triple to tie the game in the 9th inning, and a homerun to win it in the 11th. You know that the youngster was named series MVP, after having also been named MVP of the NLCS. You may not know that he gave the prize Corvette to his manager, in appreciation for the chance to play. It ain’t nuthin’ but a thang.

Tony LaRussa
PHOTO: Brian Bennett

Here on the ground, in home territory, I heard the yacking on sports radio of the faithless and the foolish, saying in September, “It is time for LaRussa to retire,” and on and on. But I know what you know, which is that this isn’t about who is washed up and who has a future. It isn’t about where St. Louis is, or the Metroplex surrounding the Rangers in Texas. It isn’t about deserving or earning anything at all. It is about finding an open and a stout heart when you have two strikes on you and you’re two runs down, and there are no more innings unless somehow, some way, you can hit it where they ain’t. There is no human being alive who doesn’t hope for that, excepting those silly enough to believe that the good and the bad of it all are within our slender powers.

I don’t mean to turn life into a game, let alone a competition. But it is impossible, I think, not to look seriously upon Bart Giamatti’s words about this matter in Take Time for Paradise:

A “win” is the actual realization of what is centrally an imaginative surge. . . . The spectator, seeing something he had only imagined, or, more astonishingly, had not yet or would never have imagined possible, because the precise random moments had never before come together in this form to challenge the players, is privy to the realized image and assents, is mastered, and in that instant bettered. “Winning” for player or spectator is not simply outscoring; it is a way of talking about betterment, about making oneself, one’s fellows, one’s city, one’s adherents, more noble because of a temporary engagement of a higher human plane.

If we did not experience this uplifting to the skies, the sense of bettering the north St. Louises of our souls, then perhaps we have not deserved the favor of the gods. But there were about forty men, men whose totem is a small but bright red songbird, who decided to pay attention on behalf of the rest of us, at least in the spring, summer, and fall of 2011. I grew up a fan of this particular group, but I realized when Game Six ended as it did, that it no longer mattered who won the Series, since both teams had given their utmost and had deserved the victory. From that point forward, it was about piety, grace, and salvation.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

From the Empirical Archives: The Bucket and Mr. Muir by Randy Larsen

The Bucket and Mr. Muir
Randy Larsen
Originally Published in Empirical magazine in May 2012

John Muir’s father was unsatisfied and had visions of expansion. He moved the family from Fountain Lake Farm, Wisconsin, to a larger tract of land on nearby Hickory Hill. The new land was without accessible water and John’s domineering father had determined a well must be dug and young John would do the digging. The well would be ninety feet deep with all but the first ten feet or so in granite-like, finely grained sandstone. Each morning, after being lowered into the well in a wooden water bucket, John would sit cramped in a space about three feet in diameter and chip away at the sandstone with a mason chisel. It was painfully slow and tedious work.

One night, when the well was about eighty feet deep, it filled with deadly carbonic acid gas. The next morning, John was lowered into the well and immediately began to sway back and forth from the effects of the poison. He was about to lean back against the well wall, fall asleep, and die, when he chanced to look up and see the overhanging branch of a bur oak tree. The oak reminded him of life outside the well. He feebly cried out to his father “Take me out.” As his father began to crank on the windlass, he quickly realized John was not in the bucket. He shouted out in wild alarm, “Get in! Get in the bucket and hold on! Hold on!” 

Somehow, Muir did not remember how, he managed to crawl into the bucket. He was dragged out of the well, violently gasping for breath. Muir says the family’s move to the larger farm and associated need for a new well was the consequence of his father’s “vice of over-industry.” John had protested the move, saying if people lived on smaller tracts of land, they would be less likely to sacrifice happiness for the sake of money. Although he argued “living is more important than getting a living,” his opinion carried little weight, and his family moved to the larger farm and began working the land and themselves tirelessly.

Muir was a hard worker his entire life. He valued focus and dedication. But to Muir, hard work was different than over-industry. Whereas hard work can lead one toward a full and flourishing life, over-industry represents a mindless pursuit that is categorically counter to good living. Muir later recalled: In those days … it often seemed to me that our fierce, over industrious way of getting the grain from the ground was closely connected with grave digging. The staff of life, naturally beautiful, oftentimes suggested the grave digger’s spade. Men and boys, and in those days even women and girls, were cut down while cutting the wheat. . . . We were all made slaves through the vice of over-industry.

Muir’s choice of the image of slavery is telling. Slavery as a metaphor indicates his belief of the insidiousness of over-industry’s effect on freedom. Muir believed the grip of over-industry can be so tight that one can even forget there are other choices. He tended to believe that we—and this is where the metaphor with slavery ends, of course—are not so much oppressed by others as victimized by our own inclinations to conform to societal norms. In this sense, to extend Muir’s metaphor, over-industry fosters a situation where the self is both slave and slave owner.

Some things we learn so slowly. And after having lived fairly free in the mountains of California for some years, Muir returned to an over-industrious life. This time the choice was not in the hands of his father. At the age of 42, Muir chose to marry, raise a family and, for the better part of a decade, work relentlessly though ambivalently cultivating a fruit orchard in Martinez, California.

The record of this time is thin and Muir’s previously lavish journal entries praising Nature became sparse. Instead we read of a husband and father often under great stress. During these days of full-time farm management, the editor of the Overland Monthly magazine asked Muir to write an article about the Sierra. Muir responded: I am lost & choked in agricultural needs & am almost beyond the memory even of literary work so that much as I should like to give you the article you want I am not able or nearly able to do so. Work is coming upon me from near & far & at present I cannot see how I am to escape its degrading vicious effects. Get someone to write an article on the vice of overindustry, it is greatly needed in these times of horticultural storms.

In 1883, his friend from Alaska and former trekking buddy, Reverend S. Hall Young, came to the Martinez ranch for a visit. Young says Muir broke into a “passionate” voicing of his discontent. “I am losing precious days,” Muir told Young. “I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get out into the mountains to learn the news.” Five years later Young again visited Muir and found him still lamenting his situation: I am a horrible example. I, who have breathed the mountain air—who have really loved a life of freedom—condemned to penal servitude with these miserable little bald-heads! (holding up a bunch of cherries). Boxing them up; putting them in prison! And for money! Mon! I’m like to die of the shame of it.

In a letter to his brother David in August 1887, Muir wrote, “I am all nerve-shaken and lean as a crow loaded with care, work, and worry.” Muir wanted to marry and raise children. He found great joy in it. Letters to his daughter Wanda reveal a highly sensitive and even doting father, filled with conviction and love for his family.

But Muir was inundated by what he saw as the trivial, oppressive, and (most worrisome of all) distracting details of farm life. For example, he bemoaned the need to choose between which of a dozen different grape varieties would be best to cultivate. He didn’t see such choices, to paraphrase William James, as a difference that makes a difference.

Muir’s attitude speaks to the relationship between autonomy and freedom of choice described by Nobel Prize-winning economist and philosopher Amartya Sen. Sen distinguishes the importance of choices in our lives from the functional role they play. He suggests that instead of upholding freedom of choice per se as a good, we might ask whether it nourishes or deprives us, makes us more mobile or hems us in, enhances self-respect or diminishes it. In short, do the choices available to us better our lives? Not all choices enhance freedom. In fact, some may impair freedom by taking time and energy we’d be better off devoting to other matters.

Even though choice has a clear instrumental value, in that it helps us get what we want, an over-abundance of choices can have, paradoxically, the opposite effect. Too many choices become time consuming and even burdensome; this is especially true, in a situation like Muir’s, where the choices do not advance a deeper value or help one move toward a flourishing life. Today one can choose from thirty distinct styles of blue jeans or 6000 different TV stations, but passing the afternoon deciding about pants or watching television doesn’t necessarily make our lives better. The essential question for Muir, as it is for us today, is how much of what we might call “life” is exchanged for considering all the options and resisting the inherent temptations. 

A good life is not the same as a complex life; and for John Muir, a man who walked from Wisconsin to the Gulf of Mexico with only a comb, change of underwear, couple of books, and a plant press in his pack, simplicity was a deeply seated value. Farming life took a toll on John Muir’s physical and spiritual health. It was his wife Louise Wanda who finally released him from the “penal servitude.” Believing the family had ample money, she prepared to sell or lease much of their ranch. In a touching letter, she explained to John that she had seen a devoted husband and father give too much of himself. She urged him to give more of himself to Nature in order to feel strong and at peace and to devote himself to his Nature writing. She ended the letter saying: A ranch that needs and takes the sacrifice of a noble life, or work, ought to be flung away beyond all reach and power for harm. . . . The Alaska book and the Yosemite book, dear John, must be written, and you need to be your own self, well and strong, to make them worthy of you. There is nothing that has a right to be considered beside this except the welfare of our children.

At Louise’s urging, John hit the trail. He visited Lake Tahoe and mounts Shasta and Rainier with his good friend William Keith. During their excursion Muir affirmed his commitment to wilderness preservation. When he saw rampant “commercialism and destruction,” he was appalled to realize that this was happening while he was too consumed with “money-grubbing” to protest.

Camping at the base of Mount Rainier, feeling unwell, unfit, and unprepared, the fifty-year old Muir had no intention of climbing the mountain. Encouraged by a group of much younger men, Muir found himself overcome by enthusiasm. He wrote to his wife, “Did not mean to climb it but got excited and was on top.”

Muir was inspired and invigorated. In the years that followed, he would become the leading voice for the protection of wild places; he would found the Sierra Club and help establish the National Park Service. Galen Rowell once asked Rheinhold Messner, perhaps the world’s most accomplished mountain climber, why the most beautiful mountains and valleys of the European Alps are so highly developed?

“How is it that we Americans have managed to preserve our mountain areas while you Europeans have trashed yours?”

Messner explained the difference in three words, “You had Muir.”

In the 1980’s, the California Historical Society voted Muir the “greatest Californian in the state’s history” (besting President Reagan). In order to be free to dedicate himself to wilderness protection he first had to be free from the vice of over-industry. Later in his life, while wandering in the Sierra, Muir recalled the childhood situation of digging the well on his father’s farm. In his notebook, he scribbled this warning: Once I was let down into a deep well into which chokedamp had settled, and nearly lost my life. What I recall is this. The horror was this. The deeper I was immersed in the invisible poison, the less capable I became of willing measures of escape from it. And in just this condition are those who toil or dawdle or dissipate in the crowded towns, in the sinks of commerce or pleasure.

What saved Muir’s life in this allegory was his vision of Nature. If the “branch of the blessed bur oak” had not reminded him that there was life above, he would not have been able to rile himself and escape the poison. When stuck, one often forgets there are other options.

The well story is more than a metaphor for the role of Nature in living a good life. It is an allegory for the condition of being so enmeshed in toxicity that one can’t even muster the energy to make a decision about getting free. Muir would return to these themes for the rest of his life, exploring and developing them through his writing. The basic formulation is this: There is an inspired life to be lived if we can brush off apathy and inertia, energize ourselves and each other, and allow Nature to remind us of callings above and

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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

From the Empirical Archives: A Moment with Madeeha Al-Hussayni

A Moment with Madeeha Al-Hussayni

Empirical: How did you get started in photography?

Madeeha: Well, it was back in 2001. I used to paint with oils, but since the UK weather is very wet, I decided to buy a simple point-and-shoot camera to photograph landscapes, in order to print and view them any time. I’ve loved taking photographs from the very first time I took my camera out. It’s 2012 and I still haven’t used any of my cameras I’ve had for my original intention, to photograph something to paint from.

Empirical: What kind of camera are you using?

Madeeha: The camera I’m using for now is a Nikon D200 but I’m due for an upgrade soon. I’m definitely a Nikon girl.

Empirical: Do you notice a difference in the various cameras you’ve moved up with as the technologies have changed?

Madeeha: Yes, indeed. I’ve noticed the difference in flexibility, usability, and convenience in certain features. I am a little behind the times with the camera itself despite it serving me well. I’ve been concentrating more on the lenses themselves.

Empirical: Could you elaborate on that?

Madeeha: Well, nothing spectacular, but one thing I’ve learned is that the lens makes more of a difference in terms of the look of the photo than the camera itself. I have an 18- 200mm wide and telephoto lens which I bought because it was more cost effective to have almost an “all-in-one” range. However, the image quality suffered at the ‘wide’ end of it, there were more distortions, not as much depth, but it’s a great telephoto. Now I have a fixed 50mm f/1.2 lens, which is excellent for portraits as you have more control over the depth. I also have the macro filters in my kit which fit the telephoto. They allow the lens to focus on objects close up. I do have some technical knowledge of how it all works, but my mind is very visually oriented. I’m more interested in the imagery and trying to capture what I see from my perspective.

Empirical: What kinds of projects do you work on?

Madeeha: So far I’ve only done product shots for companies, a major one being a friend’s business of selling shisha pipes and other ornaments from the Middle East. In the future, I do hope to get more into travel and documentary photography as I did love my trips to Morocco and Turkey. At some point, I would love to travel around Europe and the Middle East.

Empirical: How much time do you spend setting up shots like the ones we’re featuring here?

Madeeha: The self-portraits are always tricky! One thing I love to do is play around with lighting. The shot in Morocco, “Koutoubia,” was pretty much instant. The others, however, would have taken me probably half an hour to a shot roughly. This was taken on my trip in 2006. The people here are comfortable enough to have an afternoon nap outside the Koutoubia Masjed (Mosque) in Marrakech.

Empirical: How does that differ compared to the time you spend on the product shots you’ve done?

Madeeha: A product shot is more about the backdrop, lighting, and camera. Once that is done (which takes about 15 minutes), the rest of the work is just shooting and replacing products. However post processing, the exposure and contrast settings, does take its time. All the things one would do in a darkroom in the days of film are now done digitally, but the process is the same.

Empirical: In what ways, if any, does your painting background help your photography?

Madeeha: I think it’s been more the other way around. Photography has given me more of an instant connection with a device that has let me capture things as I see them from my eye. I have space and ability to tweak and set up shots which I originally see in my mind’s eye. The photography has helped train me by strengthening the connection between the mind’s eye and physical eye. As a result of that I’m more in tune with perspective, color, and mood. And I am inspired to paint accordingly. “Disconnected” is one from a series of shots I photographed for a project on dementia and Alzheimer’s. The photographs depict the causes and the results of the condition in a visually metaphorical manner. This image represents the disconnection to part of one’s memory, represented by the filament. Confusion and absence are represented by static on the television in the background with no signal.

Empirical: What was your reaction when England, along with the US, went to war against Iraq?

Madeeha: I felt absolutely outraged and very upset. I even took part in one of the protests in the North of England. It just felt someone destroyed my roots and where I came from. I rarely talk politics because it frustrates me to the point of depressing me. Back then I had so many fellow college class “mates” strongly in favor of the Iraq war while at the same time constantly complaining about asylum seekers coming in from Iraq. I’m an introvert, but there were many times I was boiling inside and had to seriously bite my tongue!

Empirical: Do you have relatives in Iraq?

Madeeha: Our family is a little scattered around. There are some in the US, some in the UK, we lost touch with those in Iraq before the war. A few members of our family were planning to track them down and reconnect with them. Now I have absolutely no idea who or what is left! That country has been torn apart. But I strive to hold onto the good things of my culture—they are a part of me after all.

Empirical: Has it been difficult for you as someone of Arab descent growing up in England?

Madeeha: Indeed, it has been quite difficult being someone of not only Arab descent but also Muslim too. I’ve encountered racism from an early age. Because of this, despite being born and brought up here, it doesn’t feel like my homeland. I don’t feel a sense of belonging. The brunt of it was actually when I was at the university getting my photography degree. I had very bad luck with the two tutors who ran the course. They were uncomfortable with me—my beliefs, background, as they are alien to them. I’m dyslexic, too, and they saw it as an inconvenience rather than helping me. Even though I got my degree, I came out of it with my passion for photography doused. The racism in the UK is on a very subtle, cunning, and underhanded level, the sort where you know it’s there but are unable to speak out on it or do anything about it. But, saying that, I’ve also met some amazing White British friends. There are still people who smile at me in the street and on trains, etc., which does make me feel warm inside, so it really depends where you live and in what area. I continue to strive to be a good and positive example of a Muslim and an Arab. I do this by mixing with different people and at the same time holding on to my values. I’ve become proud of being different and an individual outside the box. You can see this in “Incense,” which is from a photography project during the month of Ramadan in 2011. I try my best to capture the essence and mysticism of Ramadan. This is a photograph of Bakhoor (Arabic incense) to sweeten the air after the evening feast.

Empirical: You’ve said elsewhere that you’ve become interested in Sufism. What drew you in that direction?

Madeeha: I’ve always been a Sufi at heart, and Sufism has nothing to do with the politics of Islam because it’s universal within Islam. If anyone asks, I’m simply Muslim. I’ve always had that Sufi way of thinking, as it’s my personal interpretation of Islam in accordance with my nature. Anything to do with the spiritual realm has always fascinated me, as I’m a deep romantic. The photograph “Forgotten” represents the deep part of us, which seems to be overlooked and forgotten as we dwell in this materialistic world. This deep inner core within us needs discovering and spiritual nourishment, but over time it tends to be slowly buried by the chaos that surrounds us. Since the beginning of 2011, I’ve delved more deeply into Sufism, and what sparked off this sudden dive were events in my life. Injustice—whether it is discrimination, poor health, or loss of family—seems to discourage faith in many I’ve met. In me it has done the opposite. Because I have experienced so much injustice, it has made me question life more. I’ve always been one who tries her best to learn from life no matter how much an event or situation distresses me. I believe everything happens for a reason, and has always happened for a reason. I’m quite a deep thinker and ponderer. The photograph “Moment” is about the feelings and emotions that the bright lights of life around us tend to drown out and cause us to suppress. However, tears still need to flow from the heart. It’s difficult to say this, but had I not gone through the things I have, my way of thinking and feeling would be very different. I would take so many things for granted. I would not be the person I am today.

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