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This Is Why Indian Food Is So Delicious

Eupraxsophy:

Given my predilection of mixing together different foodstuffs and ingredients, my love of Indian food makes sense.

Originally posted on TIME:

Indian food is lauded for its curries, mouth-burning spices and complex flavor pairings. With its use of cardamom, cayenne, tamarind and other pungent ingredients, the resulting taste combinations are unlike anything found elsewhere around the world. But scientists in India have now discovered exactly why Indian food is so good — it’s the fewer number of overlapping flavors in ingredients.

Researchers at the Indian Institute for Technology examined how frequently overlapping flavor compounds factored into a dish’s ingredients. They reviewed thousands of recipes on TarlaDalal.com, scrutinizing the subtle molecular-level differences that distinguish the cuisine, reports the Washington Post.

“We found that average flavor sharing in Indian cuisine was significantly lesser than expected,” researchers wrote.

In Western cuisines, ingredients are usually paired together for their similar flavors. However, an average Indian dish includes at least seven ingredients, most of which do not contain overlapping flavors. Cayenne, green bell pepper, coriander and…

View original 53 more words

The Heroic White Helmets of Syria

Amid one of the most brutal conflicts and humanitarian crises of the 21st century, a small but powerful force for good has emerged against all odds to do what it can to help. These are the White Helmets of Syria, a volunteer group that offers well-needed emergency services to the millions across the nation who are continually slaughtered and maimed in the nearly four-year conflict.

More from Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times:

There are more than 2,200 volunteers in the White Helmets, mostly men but a growing number of women as well. The White Helmets are unpaid and unarmed, and they risk their lives to save others. More than 80 have been killed in the line of duty, the group says, largely because Syrian military aircraft often return for a “double-tap” — dropping bombs on the rescuers.

Wearing simple white construction helmets as feeble protection from those “double-tap” bombings, the White Helmets are strictly humanitarian. They even have rescued some of the officers of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad who are bombing them.

Since the White Helmets began in 2013, its members have saved more than 12,500 lives by its count.

A reputation for nonpolitical humanitarianism has allowed the White Helmets to work across lines of rival militias, including the Islamic State. In a land short of heroes and long on violence, many rally round the White Helmets. Syria may be notorious today for cruelty and suffering, but these men and women are a reminder of the human capacity for courage, strength and resilience.

I had the supreme honor of donating to this group last winter, but I wish I could do more. They are always in need of funding, so give what you can or spread the word. Their website is here.

Two Tragic Blows To Freedom Of Conscience

Over the past weekend, two prominent figures in activism and politics were killed.

On February 26, Avijit Roy, a Bangladeshi-American engineer, writer, columnist, and secular activist, was hacked to death by extremist Islamists while he and his wife were riding home from a book fair in the country’s capital, Dhaka (his spouse survived).

Roy founded and wrote for Mukto-Mona, an Internet community for freethinkers, skeptics, atheists, and humanists of mainly Bengali and South Asian descent. He was a prominent advocate of free expression in Bangladesh and human rights, coordinating international protests against government censorship and imprisonment of bloggers. He had long received death threats for his taboo works.

The following day, Boris Nemtsov, one of the few major opposition leaders and critics of the Putin administration, was shot in the back by unknown assassins while walking on a bridge near the Kremlin and Red Square in Moscow.

A physicist with a storied political career since the tumultuous 1990s, at the time of his death, Nemtsov was working to organize a rally against Russian involvement in the war in Ukraine and the country’s financial crisis. He was working with Russian journalist Kseniya Sobchak on a report proving the presence of Russian military in eastern Ukraine.

A long-time organizer of protests against the government, Nemtsov came into conflict with the government several times over issues of corruption, human rights violations, and policy abuses. In the weeks before his death, he expressed fear that Putin would have him killed, yet continued with plans to hold the rally. His last tweet called for Russia’s divided opposition to unite for an anti-war march.

The Whimsical Bookwheel

The bookwheel (sometimes called a reading wheel) is a rotating bookcase that allows one person to easily read a variety of heavy books in one location. The books rotate in a manner similar to a water wheel, rather than on a flat table surface (the Chinese apparently invented the horizontal variety over a thousand years ago).

The first and most well-known bookwheel design was featured in a book by 16th century Italian engineer Agostino Ramelli (which was delightfully titled “The Various and Ingenious Machines of Captain Agostino Ramelli”). Other inventors like Nicolas Grollier de Servière proposed their own variation this concept. Interesting, while his design inspired other bookwheels, Ramelli himself never constructed his own. Below is his original illustration.

Bookwheel (Agostino Ramelli)

Ramelli’s concept was deliberately complex, utilizing all sorts of gears and mechanics previously found only in clocks; this was because he wanted to display his mathematical and engineering skill. Ramelli described his invention as a “beautiful and ingenious machine, very useful and convenient for anybody who takes pleasure in study, especially for those who are indisposed and tormented by gout [a form of inflammatory arthritis especially common among the wealthy].” However, it is disputed to what extent it was purchased for its practical purposes rather than its unusual and aesthetic properties.

In any case, the bookwheel was an early attempt to solve the new problem of managing printed works, which were emerging in greater numbers due to the rapid spread of the printing press (books back then were far larger and heavier). Thus it is considered one of the earliest “information retrieval” devices – akin to modern technologies like hypertext and e-readers – that allow readers to store and cross-reference large amounts of information.

Nowadays, the bookwheel is valued for its historical importance, decorative appeal, and symbolic significance, making the rise of mass data and media. I would certainly love one as well.

Ramelli Bookwheel

A modern-day recreation by Léa Lagasse (Photo by Stroom Den Haag).

The Untold Story of Buddhism’s Struggle in America

Buddhism’s presence in the United States is seen as a very recent, if not trendy, phenomenon, becoming most visible starting from the 1960s and 70s. But like other minority religions, Buddhism has been around far longer than our public consciousness suggests, and its history here has not always been a pleasant one.

A recent article in The Atlantic discusses the tribulations of Buddhists in the context of Japanese internment during World War II. Because a large number of early American Buddhists were of Japanese ancestry, the legal and social problems faced by adherents were inextricably tied what Japanese citizens and residents faced as a whole.

73 years ago this week … President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the evacuation of all of those of Japanese descent from the West Coast to ten war relocation centers—often called “concentration camps” before that term came to have other connotations.

For the most part, the wartime fears that led to the relocation of Japanese­-born immigrants and their American­-born children were justified on racial rather than religious grounds. Those forced to leave behind homes, farms, and businesses in states bordering the Pacific were not of a single faith. There were Buddhists among them, and many maintained Shinto rituals that provided spiritual connections to their homeland, but there were also Christians of various denominations, as well as those with no particular affiliation.

Religion was not ignored, however. When the FBI set about compiling its list of suspect individuals after the attack on Pearl Harbor, they naturally included members of various American Nazi parties and groups with political ties to Japan. Yet they also paid particular attention to Buddhist priests.

J. Edgar Hoover’s Custodial Detention List used a classification system designating the supposed risk of individuals and groups on an A­B­C scale, with an “A” ranking assigned to those deserving greatest scrutiny. Ordained Buddhists like Reverend Fujimura were designated “A­1,” those whose apprehension was considered a matter of urgent concern.

The priests became the first of a relocation effort that would soon detain more than 110,000. Many within this larger group, having heard of the sudden arrests and harsh interrogations endured by Buddhist community leaders, sought refuge in Christianity, hoping—in vain, it turned out—that church membership might shield them from such treatment.

Those who did not go this route were called “Buddhaheads,” an epithet often applied to the Japanese Americans of Hawaii, but more broadly used to suggest a resistance to assimilation. Within the Japanese community, Buddhists were more likely than Christians to maintain their native language, as well as the customs and rituals performed in that language. They were also more likely than Christians to read publications concerned with Japanese political affairs. Subscription rolls of such publications provided the FBI with a natural starting point for building its “A” list of suspects.

Because of the connections and the traditional knowledge Buddhist temples helped maintain, to be a Japanese Buddhist in America during the 1940s was to be considered a greater risk to the nation.

I recommend reading the rest of this piece, which conveys the struggles of Buddhists and Japanese through the experiences of Reverend Fujimura, and looks at a little-known fight to get Buddhist troops due recognition of their faith on their memorials. Very informative look at one of the many neglected chapters of American history.

Apple Ends (Sort Of) Ends Indentured Servitude — In 2015

It is the 21st century, and the world’s most valuable company has finally ended a practice akin to slavery, up to a point. As the Washington Post reported:

The process works like this: Employment agencies recruit workers. They then charge them placement fees for jobs, often in foreign countries. Those fees end up putting workers in debt to the agency. If that wasn’t bad enough, according to Apple’s own audits, some agencies held the passports of bonded workers in safes until their debts were paid off.

That’s right, no passports. That probably means no form of identification, and it certainly means that they can’t go home.

It’s pretty close to what some might call indentured servitude. And that’s what Apple — the tech company that has taken a lot of heat and also offers the most information about its factory conditions — has only just stopped. (It did previously ban factories from using employment agencies that charged more than a month’s wages in fees.)

This is where we are in 2015.

And before any back-patting commences, it’s worth noting that even this step is just a small one, said Scott Nova of the Economic Policy Institute, who co-authored a paper raising questions about Apple’s auditing process. Nova noted that the policy only applies to those who travel across borders to work at Apple supplier factories —  not to the Chinese workers at Chinese suppliers, many of whom also use recruiting agencies.

As the article notes, Apple is hardly unique in this and other abusive practices, as labor exploitation is pretty much the norm among tech company (and for that matter in just about every industry). Even if this one company policy was fully eradicated, many other problems remain:

While Apple has made inroads in some areas, it actually saw compliance with overtime rules fall from the previous year. Last year, 92 percent of workers of factories that the company audited kept to a 60-hour work week, a decline from 2013 when it was 95 percent. That’s not nearly as bad as levels in 2007, when it was roughly 70 or 80 percent, but it is a dip. Not to mention the 60-hour work week, which many of us would balk at, is also 10 hours more than China’s poorly-enforced law limiting the work week to 50 hours. (Technically, Apples contracts with companies such as Foxconn to manufacture its electronics and does not directly employ those workers).

Recall that most of this data come from self-reporting on Apple’s part: the picture would no doubt be just as grim among every other major manufacturer in the world. When this sort of thing is so normal and acceptable that a minor tweak in policy is considered a new-worthy step, something is certainly amiss. Consider this proposed solution to speeding up reform:

So what could Apple, or any tech company, do to speed things up? Nova suggests a model recently struck with garment workers in Bangladesh, following the horrific factory fires in 2012. In that country, he said, 200 brands and retailers fashioned an agreement with groups that directly represent workers. The deal calls for independent audits of factory conditions and promises by the retailers to put up the money to renovate dangerous facilities.

That will cost money, of course, which would eat into the relatively high profit margins that tech companies — and Apple in particular — enjoy. Improving worker conditions would also likely mean that consumers would have to be okay with slower delivery rates, Nova said. Getting swamped with orders for the new iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, for example, could have been a reason that Apple’s overtime hours went up this past year.

Currently valued at over $700 billion — larger than most countries’ GDP — Apple’s total revenue for 2014 was $182 billion. Taiwan-based supplier Foxconn, the world’s largest electronics contractor, ended 2013 with total revenue of $131.8 billion (data for 2014 remain unavailable). I am pretty sure that a mere fraction of either company’s revenue would be enough to give workers descent treatment and pay.

I will never understand how highly profitable companies — whose executives and shareholders enjoy billions in compensation and dividends, respectively — can claim that customers must pay more in exchange for treating workers like human beings. The average corporate investor or upper manager could still remain fabulously wealthy — if heaven forbid slightly less so — while giving consumers and producers alike a better and more ethical deal.

Even if consumers should pay — and lets grant that in some cases — most of the time it will cost no more than a few cents or dollars per item, a literally small price to pay for our fellow humans to live better lives. (This applies as much to major domestic employers like Walmart and McDonalds as it does to manufacturers with global supply chains.)

Fighting Climate Change Can Be Cheap and Easy — If We Ever Get To It

Well, it is easy conceptually at least. While advanced “negative emissions technologies” (NETs) like carbon-absorbing towers and light-reflecting clouds are touted as solutions to mitigating climate change, the best approaches may actually be the simplest and most low-tech: planting trees and improving soil quality.

That is the conclusion of a recent Oxford study reported in The Atlantic:

Both techniques, said the report, are “no regrets.” They’ll help the atmosphere no matter what, they’re comparatively low-cost, and they carry little additional risk. Specifically, the two techniques it recommends are afforestation—planting trees where there were none before—and biochar—improving the soil by burying a layer of dense charcoal.

Between now and 2050, trees and charcoal are the “most promising” technologies out there, it said.

Charcoal refers specifically to the production of biochar,  an ancient practice whereby agricultural waste (such as food scraps, decaying leaves, etc.) is smoldered and then covered by dirt. This not only makes the soil richer, but it helps dispose of a major source of CO2 while also eliminating the need to clear forest for more arable farmland.

As the article notes, these low-cost methods have a long and proven track record:

Forest management is one of the oldest ways that humans have shaped their environment. Before the arrival of Europeans, Native communities in the Americas had been burning forest fires for millenniato support the growth of desirable plants like blueberries and to manage ecosystems. British communities have long practiced coppicing, a tree-cutting technique that keeps forests full of younger trees.

In other words, humanity has been “geoengineering” with trees for a very long time. The authors of the Oxford report add that afforestation will need global support in order to be successful.

“It is clear that attaining negative emissions is in no sense an easier option than reducing current emissions,” it says (emphasis mine). “To remove CO2 on a comparable scale to the rate it is being emitted inevitably requires effort and infrastructure on a comparable scale to global energy or agricultural systems.”

It is interesting that the authors also cautioned against viewing NETs as a”deus ex machina that will ‘save the day,'” viewing them instead as just some of the many ways to avoid the worst of climate change still yet to come. That said, reforestation and soil enrichment alone will not solve the problem either; reducing emissions in the first place, in conjunction with these and other methods, is still our best bet.

This is confirmed by two recent reports by the National Research Council, an arm of the United States National Academies. As National Geographic reports:

An NRC committee of experts from across disciplines was asked by several U.S. government science and intelligence agencies to evaluate geoengineering proposals. The ideas range from anodyne (planting trees to capture CO₂) to potentially alarming (injecting sulfate particles or other aerosols into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight and cool the planet).

Committee members were blunt in their first recommendation: The world should focus first and foremost on curbing fossil fuel emissions rather than on any kind of geoengineering.

“I think it’s going to be easier and cheaper to avoid making a mess than it will be to make a mess and then try to clean it up later,” said committee member Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist at Stanford University’s Carnegie Institution for Science. “If we end up having to build a fix that’s on the scale of our energy system, why not just retool our energy system?

….

The first, CO₂ removal, the committee characterized as worthy and “almost inevitable.” The second, using aerosols or other means to reflect solar radiation, would be “irrational and irresponsible” if done as anything but a last-ditch effort to prevent a global famine or other emergency.

The Royal Society of the United Kingdom and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have similarly put an emphasis on reducing emissions first and foremost, with other strategies being auxiliary or complementary.

We know the solutions, and have ample resources and capital to draw upon — we just need the political and public will to make it all happen. If merely planting trees, enriching soil, and cutting back on carbon usage are enough to largely avert an existential threat to humanity, then the worsening of climate change is a damning condemnation of our species’ foolishness and shortsightedness.

101 Great Zen Sayings and Proverbs

You do not have to subscribe to Zen Buddhism, or indeed be religious, to appreciate the wisdom of these sayings (many of which are not, in any case, explicitly spiritual or Buddhist in origin or application). I know quotes can seem trite and vacuous, but a lot of these are worth reflecting on.

My personal favorite is the following by B. D. Schiers (whom I oddly cannot find much information on).

If you want to change the world, start with the next person who comes to you in need.

This goes back to one of the first lessons I ever learned on the path to better moral living: that no good deed is too small, and that change on any level, even just the way we treat a stranger on the street, can be the start of a better world in the aggregate.

While the bigger picture is of course important and should not be overlooked, but you have to start somewhere, so why not during the routine interactions and moral decisions we encounter every day?

Feel free to share your favorite quotes from this list and what you take away from them — or offer your own if not mentioned.

Hat tip to Buddaimonia.com for the list.

Happy Languages

It seems that most humans are inclined towards pessimism and negativity: look at how we enrapt by the awful occurrences we encounter day to day (from gossip to car accidents), or how sordid and scandalous news spreads like wildfire (especially when compared to more positive developments, which are more likely to get no reporting in the first place).

But a recent study suggests that contrary to popular belief, or indeed to our frequent reactions to negativity, our fundamental means of communication is rife with a “universal positivity bias”. As The Atlantic reports:

This bias was first posited in 1969, when a pair of psychologists wrote a paper called “The Pollyanna Hypothesis,” named for the fictional orphan girlwith a propensity to look on the bright side. The original study had high school boys, who belonged to different cultures and spoke different languages, do word association tasks, and then ranked whether the pairs were positive or negative. More often, they were positive.

In the new PNAS study, researchers analyzed texts from Google Books, Twitter, the New York Times, a Google Web Crawl, subtitles from movies and TV shows, and music lyrics. They measured how frequently words were used in each language (English, German, Chinese, Korean, French, Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, Arabic, Russian, and Indonesian), and had native speakers rate how negative or positive they felt upon hearing those words.

In every language, on every platform, the median happiness score was higher than five—five being a totally neutral word—as seen in the chart below. The yellow is the “above-neutral” portion, and the blue is the “below-neutral.”

Below is the aforementioned chart. In total, over 100,000 words spanning ten languages were examined.

Given that these languages cover a large proportion of the world’s population (especially when you count non-native speakers), it is safe to say that most humans communicate in a language that leans towards positivity. Moreover, there are some nuances between languages:

Spanish and Portuguese were the most happy, in this study. For some languages, it really depended what kind of text the researchers were looking at—in English, music lyrics were significantly less positive than books, the New York Times, or even Twitter.

So all the languages studied tended to use happy words more often, but overall, languages also contained more happy than unhappy words. The researchers also measured “average word happiness” and found it to be high, regardless of how frequently those words were used in the text. So even lesser-used words were more often positive than negative.

As someone who is not a scientist, let alone linguist, I am not sure what to make of these results or their implications. The responses to the article seem skeptical or at least neutral, with one commentator pointing out something that also came to my mind:

The study does not cover words used in everyday interpersonal speech by everyday people, only the mere existence of the word types and writing, which is done by professional and political individuals to show off in one way or another. Maybe the study proves language bias accurately, but not the bias of language users in everyday life.

I would be curious to know how positive languages are when used in an everyday, colloquial context among average people. Were such a study possible, it would yield more comprehensive results. But given the recentness of this study, perhaps we can expect that in the future. For now, I am inclined to agree with the article’s conclusion:

“Words, which are the atoms of human language, present an emotional spectrum with a universal, self-similar positive bias,” the researchers write. While individual texts—books, songs, tweets—may skew negative, all in all, it looks like language is a positive tool.

What are your thoughts on this?