Sunday, May 31, 2009

I lost my self!

I'm sorry I lost myself

you knew you needed more time time spent alone with no distraction
you felt you needed to fly solo and high to define what you wanted

at that particular moment I knew staying with you meant deserting us
that particular month was harder than you'd believe but I still left
at that particular time

Friday, May 29, 2009

OPEC Decides Against Cutting Oil Production

OPEC oil ministers on Thursday avoided the temptation to cut crude production and trample on the seedlings of economic recovery. Instead, they bet on prices floating higher as the recession eases and demand for oil picks up.

With the world oversupplied with oil, Thursday's meeting of the 12-nation oil producing cartel — held in Vienna — could have ended with a move to tighten the spigots — an option OPEC has often exercised to raise prices in past times of anemic demand.

An OPEC statement announcing the decision to keep production quotas at present levels noted that worldwide oil inventories at the end of last month were at a 20-year high.

But with the world still in the grip of recession, cutting back production could have backfired by spiking prices and prolonging any economic uptick. That, in turn, could have directly hurt OPEC by further reducing the world's capacity to pay for costly crude and leading to an even greater overhang in supplies.

The oil ministers instead opted to sit back and wait, in a decision driven by the belief that the U.S. — the world's largest oil consumer — is gradually emerging from a severe recession and that demand there will support oil prices.

"We think that the economy, especially the American economy, is going to pick up," said Shokri Ghanem, Libya's top oil official, while OPEC Secretary General Abdalla Salem El Badri spoke of "a light in the end of the tunnel."

"We don't want to give a wrong signal to the market," El Badri said, when asked why the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries decided against cutting production despite their concerns about significant oversupply and weak demand from the U.S. and other major consumers hobbled by the recession.

OPEC President Jose Maria Bothelo de Vasconcelos — who is also oil minister of Angola — voiced the same message. He said the decision to maintain targets "sends a signal of the optimism that all members of the organization are currently feeling" about the chances of an approaching economic upturn.

A barrel of crude already fetches more than $60 compared to levels near $30 just four months ago. And that spike has come despite continued weak world appetite for crude.

Market reaction appeared to support Thursday's decision.

Benchmark crude for July delivery was up 26 cents to $63.71 a barrel by early afternoon in Europe in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Prices have not been at that high level since early November.

An OPEC statement said the that members "decided to maintain current production levels unchanged for the time being," while restating their "firm commitment" to their existing quotas, in an effort to trim oversupply.

Most organization members are supposed to honor individual production targets. But the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries is still pumping more than 800,000 barrels a day above its overall target level of just under 25 million barrels.

While 100 percent compliance with quotas is unlikely, even an additional 10 percent compliance would take more than 400,000 barrels a day off markets, slicing into stocks in storage while reducing the price shock that an outright cut in production could cause.

Still, Thursday's decision did not signal that OPEC was happy with present prices. Oil ministers have repeatedly said they would like to see crude rise to around $80 a barrel, even while being content to let economic factors do their work for them.

"OPEC is trying to get the world more conformable with the idea of $75-80 oil," said Jonathan Kornafel, Asia director for market maker Hudson Capital Energy in Singapore.

Some investors have been pushing up the price of oil by buying it as a hedge against a weaker U.S. dollar, and Kornafel said that "as long as money is being printed left and right you're going to see it flow into the commodity markets and crude keep going higher."

But recent oil price hikes have been tied even more to rising international stock markets, taken as a signal of recovery.

About 74 percent of the forecasters in a survey by the National Association for Business Economics in the U.S. expect the recession, which started in December 2007, to end in the third quarter. Another 19 percent predict the turning point will come in the final three months of this year and the remaining 7 percent believe the recession will end in the first quarter of 2010.

Weighing China's Role In The Global Recession

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner heads for China for talks with officials there early next week. In January, Geithner angered the Chinese government by accusing China of manipulating its currency and undermining free trade. China shot back, blaming the U.S. for sparking the financial crisis.

Certainly, the U.S. bears a large share of the blame for the meltdown, but many economists believe China's currency policy paved the way for the worldwide crisis.

Here's the short argument that China is partly to blame for the crisis: In its rush to industrialize, China ran up huge trade surpluses. It saved too much of the money it made selling its products. Then, it lent too much of that money to America, says Peter Morici, an economics professor at the University of Maryland.

"They accumulated dollars and they invested those dollars in the New York bond market," he says. "That made it inexpensive for banks to lend us money through our homes on mortgages and second mortgages and to loan us money on credit cards and to buy cars."

China, along with some other Asian nations and oil producers, flooded the U.S. financial markets with so much excess cash that it drove interest rates down, providing an irresistible temptation for Americans to take on more debt, Morici says.

"And it meant that the Federal Reserve couldn't pull in the mortgage frenzy when it wanted to," he says. "There was not much the Fed could do. It raised short-term rates, but long-term rates didn't go up with them. Mortgage rates didn't go up. And the terms got easier and easier and people borrowed more and more."

Economist and China expert Nicholas Lardy agrees that Chinese money provided the fuel for the financial crisis.

"The Chinese gave us the rope, but we didn't have to hang ourselves," he says. "If we had had tougher regulation, the inflow of capital from China would not have led to the crisis that emerged over the last year or so."

Lardy says the lack of regulation allowed U.S. investment firms to develop riskier financial products. And they did so with abandon as they tried to boost profits in the low interest rate environment created by the flood of cash from China.

So why did China build up such large and destabilizing surpluses? Lardy and Morici disagree on China's motives. Morici thinks China made a deliberate decision to build its economy and its global power through exports.

"Quite simply, China wants to have a very large trade surplus with the United States as a development tool to employ [people from rural China] in the cities making things to sell here," Morici says. "So what it does is, it keeps its currency cheap."

But Lardy, a fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, says China sort of stumbled into the situation.

Back in the 1990s, China decided to peg its currency to the dollar, a move that was viewed as positive back then. For a while it worked fine. The dollar appreciated and so did China's currency, the yuan. That meant Chinese exports were more expensive. So, despite its increasing productivity, China's trade surplus was manageable.

But early in this decade, the dollar began to fall, and with its currency still pegged to the dollar, China's exports became cheaper. China sold mountains of goods, and its trade surplus soared, Lardy says.

"Their goods became massively more competitive on international markets and they developed large trade surpluses without any precedent in recorded history," he says.

Lardy says some Chinese leaders want a more balanced economy. But he says others, with economic interests in export production, have gotten addicted to the huge profits that exports generate. They're resisting the calls from the U.S. government and others to allow the value of the yuan to rise.

Geithner will raise the issue during his talks next week, but Lardy says that with China holding $1.5 trillion in U.S. debt, the U.S. doesn't have a lot of leverage. Just last month, the Treasury blinked when it declined to officially call out China for manipulating its currency.

"Certainly one of the reasons they probably didn't raise it to that threshold is the very commonsense idea that maybe you shouldn't pick a fight with your banker," Lardy says. "If you need to borrow a lot of money from somebody, you have to treat them, perhaps, with greater deference than you would if you didn't have that dependency."

Morici argues it's the other way around. The fact that China has lent the U.S. so much money actually gives the U.S. leverage. That's because China needs a strong U.S. economy if it wants to be paid back in full.

And, of course, China is still dependent on the U.S. consumer. A Treasury official says Geithner will urge China to seek more balanced growth by boosting domestic consumption and depending less on exports.

Pizza Man Alerts Police To Kidnap Victim

An alert deliveryman spotted a woman tied up inside a remote cabin in Tennessee's Smoky Mountains while dropping off a pizza, and police said his call to police helped rescue the kidnapping and rape victim.

Sevier County deputies freed the 24-year-old woman Tuesday evening after getting an emergency call from deliveryman Chris Turner. They arrested David J. Jansen, 46, of Snellville, Ga., on charges of aggravated kidnapping and rape, Sheriff Ron Seals said.

The woman told authorities she was jogging near her home about 11:50 a.m. Tuesday when Jansen, whom she knew, asked her to see his new car. She got into the vehicle, which turned out to be a rental.

She told police she was tied up, driven more than 200 miles to the cabin in Tennessee and raped. Later, the suspect ordered takeout. The Associated Press does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault.

Turner said he pulled up to the cabin with the pizza around 8 p.m.

"When I knocked on the door and handed the guy my credit card slip to get him to sign it, there happened to be a young lady [who] popped over the back of the couch and showed me that her hands were bound together," Turner told WBIR-TV. "[She] was mouthing to me, 'Please call 911.' "

The deliveryman returned to his van, wrote down the suspect's tag number and called police from a neighbor's house.

Deputies arrived, found the victim tied up on the couch and arrested Jansen. They took the woman to a hospital.

"We feel like she was in very imminent danger based on what investigators saw and evidence found at the scene," Capt. Jeff McCarter told The Mountain Press newspaper. McCarter didn't immediately return calls from The Associated Press.

Jansen was being held on $800,000 bond. Phone calls to a listing for a 46-year-old David J. Jansen in Snellville were not returned Friday.

Turner said the victim and her husband came by the pizza shop the day after the abduction. "She just wanted me to know she was OK and everything," he said. "And that they were thankful for what I did and all that."

Law Firms Search For Creative Ways To Downsize

As the economic decline continues, major law firms across the country have been struggling with a decreased demand for lawyers. Some firms are realizing they may have offered jobs to more lawyers then they can pay. Some are trying new ways to shave their payroll costs.

Major law firms benefited from strong business growth this past decade, and many increased hiring each year to keep up with demand amid soaring profits. But when the economy crashed and demand for legal services declined drastically in the fall, some firms with already bloated staff sizes were hit hard.

The scenario was "too many lawyers chasing too little business," says Dan DiPietro, an analyst for Citigroup. He says many firms now are looking for ways to decrease their employee expenses. Some of the most profitable law firms are addressing the problem through job cuts. "I would say it's the minority of firms that have not laid off associates and staff," DiPietro says.

Several firms have announced salary cuts. But some are nervous about losing valuable employees.

"Every law firm strives to find the best and the brightest who they want to bring in and develop as associates at their firms," says Owen Pell, a partner at the Manhattan office of the law firm White & Case.

Temporary Financial Fixes

Some firms have implemented creative ways to lessen the burden on their payrolls temporarily. Many have pushed back the start dates for their incoming first-year associates. Laura Garr, who is finishing her law degree at Fordham University in New York, planned to start with White & Case this fall. Then she received an e-mail concerning her start date.

"In an economy such as this one, we have determined that it is within your and our best interest to defer a portion of the entering class from our New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Palo Alto offices to start with us in the fall of 2010," it reads.

White & Case — and a few other firms — are giving their deferred hires a stipend that ranges from $10,000 to $75,000 for taking three months to a little over a year off. But with entry-level corporate lawyer salaries starting around $160,000, even many of those deferred with stipends have not been thrilled with the situation.

"For those that always had their heart set on [a] corporate law firm when they graduated, I know this is a really difficult time, and there are a lot of very unhappy, upset people," Garr says.

Deferral Concerns

Looming student loan bills are a big concern. But Garr says many of her colleagues are also nervous about losing valuable face time at their firms. They also worry about having a blank year on their resumes right after law school, instead of the on-the-job training and experience they expected. It seems some firms have this same concern in mind. White & Case is one of a handful of firms to offer deferred associates more money if they do legal work for a nonprofit organization during their deferment period.

"The idea is to put the year to some use, a positive use, not only for society in general because pro bono organizations need help, but also in terms of training and developing these young people as lawyers," says Pell, the partner at White & Case.

Garr has signed up to spend a year working for an international environmental and human rights group on a class-action lawsuit in Ecuador.

GDP's Plunge Shallower Than Previous Estimate

The U.S. economy contracted at an annual rate of 5.7 percent in the first three months of 2009, slightly less than previously estimated, the Commerce Department said Friday. An earlier report said gross domestic product fell at a 6.1 percent pace in the first quarter.

The new reading was a bit worse than the 5.5 percent annualized drop economists were forecasting.

Weakness in the first quarter mostly reflected massive cuts in spending by businesses on homebuilding, equipment and many other things. U.S. exports plunged, so did spending on commercial construction and inventories. But those cuts — while huge — were a bit less than first estimated, contributing to the tiny upgrade in overall first quarter GDP.

All of those reductions — as well cutbacks in government spending — more than swamped a rebound in consumer spending. However, consumers weren't nearly as energetic as the government first estimated. They boosted spending at a 1.5 percent pace, according to the revised figures. That was less than the 2.2 percent growth rate estimated a month ago.

The government makes three estimates of the economy's performance for any given quarter. Each estimate of gross domestic product is based on more complete information. The third one will be released in late June. GDP, which measures the value of all goods and services produced in the United States, is the best gauge of the nation's economic health.

Economists are hopeful that the economy isn't shrinking nearly as much in the April-to-June quarter as the recession eases its grip. Forecasters at the National Association for Business Economics, or NABE, predict the economy will contract at a 1.8 percent pace.

Other analysts say the economy will decline at a pace of between 1 percent and 3 percent.

Less dramatic cuts by businesses factor into the expected improvement. Consumers, however, are likely to be cautious. There's been encouraging signs recently with gains in orders for big-ticket manufactured goods, some firming in home sales and a slowing in the pace of layoffs.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and NABE forecasters say the recession will end later this year, barring any fresh shocks to the economy. NABE forecasters predict the economy could start growing again in the third or fourth quarter.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Human rights bear brunt of the crisis

The global crisis makes the world a different place where human rights are in the back seat. That's the main message of Amnesty International in its World Human Right Report 2009. Within the G20, supposed to take the lead in the economic recovery, many countries have a bad track record on human rights.

The world is sitting on a "powder keg of injustice, inequality and insecurity" according to an Amnesty International report issued Thursday. And the global financial crisis is only making things worse.

The impact of the crisis om human rights is the leading principle of Amnesty's State of the World's Human Rights 2009 report. Amnesty spokesperson Judith Arenas explains:

"We have to realize that the economic crisis makes the world a very different place and it's had a deep impact on human rights. The economic downturn has aggravated pre-existing human rights problems, for instance discrimination and migration."Repression of social unrest
The crisis has also created new human rights problems, according to AI. Look at the World Bank estimates that 53 million people will be thrown into poverty as a result of the crisis. In addition to that, new problems arise like repression of people who are demonstrating against their economic situation.
Amnesty International demonstration
As leaders look for ways of dealing with the world's economic problems, the London based human rights watchdog is appealing to them to rethink international financial structures, "in terms of respecting, protecting and fulfilling human rights, including economic and social rights."

The Amnesty report singles out G20 countries for additional scrutiny. As the G20 takes on the mantle of world leadership, AI spokeswomen Arenas says, its members have a responsibility to protect human rights in their own countries.

Bad track record G20
"We've seen the G20 come to the international limelight as the ones who are trying to solve the economic agenda. However, what is worrying is that the G20 countries don't share a vision for human rights. A lot of human rights abuses are now occurring within the new leaders of the world. 15 of the G20 countries torture. That is an outstandingly high number."

According to the report, 78% of executions worldwide took place in G20 countries and some 74% of G20 countries were found to have detained people without charge or trial.

The new American administration also comes in for criticism, with the report calling President Obama's record on counter-terrorism "mixed". "Early promise and initial important steps to redress violations have been followed by limited action", the report says. The report did note that the US has joined the UN Human Rights Council for the first time.

Above all, says Judith Arenas, the global human rights situation must be kept in the spotlight, despite the world's preoccupation with the economic meltdown. Unless attention is given to it, there is a risk that things will continue to go wrong.

"Sudan and the conflict in Darfur has slipped off the international agenda. Somalia, we hear about the pirates but we don't hear about the people suffering in that country. Around the world, people are still thrown into prison for writing on blogs or posting things on the internet. Overall, it is a grim picture and there is an underlying human rights crisis underneath the economic crisis that is in the news."

Amnesty World Report on the Netherlands

AI is concerned about Dutch policy towards refugees and asylum seekers. It says a proposed procedure for asylum application might lead to inadequate scrutiny of requests and rejection of well-founded claims for protection.

Some refugee groups have lost their special status. Central and southern Iraqi's, who had been enjoying automatic protection, were forcibly returned to Iraq. Many face real risks of human rights violations there.

The rights organisation once more criticizes the Dutch government of detaining irregular migrants and asylum-seekers in prisons, including families with children.. Some were detained for more than a year and allegations of ill-treatment were not always investigated.

Poverty's magic bullet

Are legal rights the answer to tackling world poverty? Leading thinkers from around the world say a new approach is needed and that the rule of law is key. Two thirds of the world's population have limited or no access to legal rights. That's a staggering four billion people, according to the first global initiative to focus on the link between exclusion, poverty and the law. Many of these people do not even officially exist, never having been registered in the countries where they live. These 'nobodies' are at the bottom of the economic pile, surviving on less than a couple of euros a day.

Madeleine Albright addresses the conferenceBut is access to legal rights the magic bullet to solve the world poverty problem? A group of leading experts in foreign policy and development argue this is new territory in the fight against poverty and they feel it will have a huge impact.

This week saw the European launch of the report from the Commission on the Legal Empowerment of the Poor in The Hague. The commission's work is based on that of Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto. He argues that a crucial step in fighting world poverty is to increase poor people's legal rights - especially when it comes to property rights.

By doing this the disenfranchised poor will be able to stand up for themselves, the argument goes, take out loans against their newly owned property and lift themselves out of poverty.

Being registered and having personal legal documentation is also crucial in this - as once people legally exist they can take part in society, have redress to law, vote and engage in commercial activity. They then have citizenship, and the informal systems under which many of the world's poor live can slowly be merged with the formal legal world.

This is the crux of the argument underlying the work of the commission whose report, "Making the Law Work for Everyone," had its European launch this week.

Former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright is co-chair of the commission and she was in The Hague for the launch.

"The law can be an extremely powerful asset in fighting poverty but it has been chronically underused and that must change,"

she said. Her sentiments were echoed by former Canadian foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy at the launch.

"I'm struck by the fact that how, in some ways, very simple it is to register people and give them citizenship, except it is very low on the priorities of most governments and most aid agencies. It simply does not register as one of those items that should stand out as a key element, I don't think anyone can articulate yet how crucial that sense of involvement can be."

Madeleine Albright went on to say:

"The pervasiveness of extreme poverty is not an inevitable part of the human condition, we have the knowledge and the resources to make rapid progress if the political will is there. "Reducing poverty is not only a moral imperative, it is also an economic and security necessity. A more inclusive and broadly prosperous world will also be a more peaceful and secure world and that is a goal well worth pursuing."

The idea behind the commission's report is make the idea of legal empowerment a central theme in the debate in tackling poverty in the future.

"I don't think anyone on the commission thinks this is easy, this is a new concept,"

said Madeleine Albright.

"We now have to translate this into a series of actions,"

added Lloyd Axworthy.

The Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor was launched by a group of developed and developing countries including Canada, Denmark, Egypt, Finland, Guatemala, Norway, Sweden, South Africa, Tanzania and the United Kingdom - it was hosted by the United Nations Development Programme, the UNDP, in New York.

The European launch of the commission's report "Making the Law Work for Everyone" was held at the Peace Palace in the Hague this week. It was organised by The Hague Academic Coalition and the City of The Hague.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

To Do: Get A Job

My job search began nearly four months ago. I've sent out dozens of cover letters and applications, mainly for jobs without pre-requisites. A history major like me doesn't come with many specialized skills besides research. These days, it's difficult to convince people to take a chance on an entry-level hire.

I've landed a handful of interviews, but still no job. There was one week when I got three rejections. It felt like I'd hit a brick wall. I'm scared of having nothing to do after working non-stop for four years. I'm not questioning my abilities, but I have been questioning my choices, knowing students with engineering degrees are still finding jobs. And many of the positions I am equipped to fill are disappearing.

Alex Kaz is another new graduate without a job. He majored in physics and has been applying for teaching jobs like Teach for America which usually hires recent graduates. Not this year.

"We had the one day interviews and that's when everyone comes in," Kaz says. "A lot of people were former bankers, lawyers, attorneys, etc. You could see that clearly this was not their first career choice. And many worked on Wall Street for x number of years, or worked at a law firm, marketing or whatever. And they were sitting amongst us in a program originally geared towards people leaving college and trying to get them to get into the classroom."

Now Kaz is feeling a bit lost. So am I. After all our hard work, it's difficult to face the reality of a big blank space now that we've finally graduated. I'm not devastated but I'm exhausted. Before graduation, my father kept asking if he should bring the car to take my things back to Boston. I wasn't sure how to answer. If I found a job, I wouldn't have to move home. So I just said, I don't know.

At least I can commiserate with my friend Avigail Oren about our job searches. We give each other pep talks. At this stage of the game, it's all about shifting our expectations.

"I would hate to say that I would take any job," Oren says. "I've definitely had to rethink. I started out looking for jobs that paid $30,000 to $40,000 and now I'm looking definitely from 20 to 30 (thousand). And I would say it's been difficult hurry up and waiting. 'Oh! We want to get you in for an interview right away! Right away!' You hustle in. Two weeks later, you're sending a follow up email saying: 'Are you still alive? Hello?'"

I've been there. At one small nonprofit, the hiring manager told me up front that other applicants had master's degrees and years of work experience.

"Ultimately I am a new entry into the job market," Oren says. "Despite all my unpaid internship experience, despite all of my volunteer work and activities. I've never gone into an office at 9 o'clock and walked out at 5."

And for us, it may be a while longer until the 9 to 5 job materializes. I finally decided to take another unpaid internship and stay in New York for as long as I can afford it. I'll have to get temp jobs to pay the rent. But at least when my father asks about my plans, I can tell him not to bring the car.

Emma Jacobs graduated from Columbia University last week with a degree in History. Her story was produced by Youth Radio.

Chinese Author Sees Breakdown Of Values

As the People's Republic of China prepares to celebrate its 60th birthday, what is the state of the world's most populous nation? We posed the question to three bestselling Chinese authors from different generations and look at their country through their works.

Author Yu Hua says that for his 40-something generation in China, life can be divided into two periods. So perhaps it is not surprising that his bestselling novel Brothers was published in two volumes. The first laid bare the political excesses of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s and '70s; the second was dedicated to the capitalist excesses of the past 30 years.

"The Cultural Revolution was a craziness for revolution, then we had a craziness to earn money," Yu says. "It's like a pendulum that's swung from one extreme to another. It's gone from being an extremely oppressive society to being an extremely free one with no moderation."

Brothers, a lewd, rambunctious, heartbreaking epic of modern China, has sold 1.3 million copies. It is wildly popular — and widely criticized — at home.

Yu was inspired to write the novel after witnessing an explosion in the popularity of beauty pageants in small-town China in the 1990s. He added a subversive twist: He writes of a government-backed beauty pageant for virgins, which creates a booming market in artificial hymens as the fake virgins busily bed the competition judges.

400 Years Of Change In 40 Years

Yu charted such political madness in an earlier book, To Live, which was made into a film by Zhang Yimou. Yu compares the abrupt changes in China to the difference between Europe in the Middle Ages and Europe today. But in China's case, he says, 400 years of change was crammed into just 40 years.

He blames capitalism, rather than communism, for the frenetic pace of change that led to a breakdown in traditional values.

"In the late '60s, people were often beaten to death on the street, but children were safe. But today, who would let their children out on the street? They could be kidnapped by child traffickers, who are of course driven by capitalism," he says.

In Brothers, the epitome of this economic madness is small-town tycoon Baldy Li, who sits atop his gold-plated toilet, dreaming of buying a ride into space on a Russian rocket. This tragedy of the absurd also focuses on his stepbrother Song Gang, an honest and hardworking man going nowhere who, out of desperation, has breast implants in order to sell breast enlargement potions.

Yu says their differing fates sum up the divisions created by China's go-go capitalism.

"If you're rich, you've succeeded. Otherwise, you've failed. There's no other criterion. Honest people are obsolete in today's China. Chinese critics say I shouldn't write like this, I should write from a positive, healthy perspective, conducting an autopsy on our sick society. But I say in this society, there are no doctors — we are all sick," he says.

'One Of The Worst Sights In The World'

Yu, 49, began his working life as a dentist after being assigned to the job without any choice. He loathed the work, but it now gives him a reliable laugh line when speaking to audiences. He recalls his five years peering at the inside of the human mouth, or, as he puts it, "one of the worst sights in the world."

He says he was driven to write by jealousy over the easy lives of the culture bureau writers, who loafed around the streets aimlessly yet still collected a government salary. Nowadays, as a bestselling author, he relishes pushing boundaries; he forced his publisher to sign a contract agreeing not to change a single word of Brothers.

"The contract was quite totalitarian," he says. "But in order to pursue their economic interests, the publishers had to shoulder some political risks."

A play based on Brothers was staged in Shanghai last year, adapted by local playwright Li Rong. The playwright believes the story's power is in its depiction of China's morality vacuum and local government corruption.

The tycoon character Baldy Li "holds a lot of political power," Li Rong says. "He controls all the industry in the county. And this actually happens in local politics here. It's government by the strong for the strong. It's the politics of dirty money."

A Bestselling Author, But Controversial At Home

These unvarnished depictions of modern China's failings and excess make Yu controversial at home. Four different literature professors refused to be interviewed about the author, citing the sensitivity of the topic. He is also unpopular among young Chinese. He, in turn, criticizes those born in the 1980s for being too nationalistic.

"They live in a world where every day is better than the last. They don't believe China has bad things, too. I have a problem understanding those new patriots, their blind feelings of happiness and glory. They don't care about other people," Yu says.

But Yu believes that the global financial crisis being felt in China may change the way Chinese view their country. It is time to look at the spiritual, moral and environmental costs of the so-called economic miracle, he says.

"Over the past few years we've been too optimistic. The speed of growth has been seen as a miracle, but it's also masked a huge number of social problems. As the economy slows, those problems will emerge all at once," Yu says.

He says he doesn't worry about social stability. "I've never doubted the Communist Party's ability to control the country," he says grinning.

But he now sees Brothers in a different light: as an epitaph in novel form to China's dog-eat-dog years of early capitalism. "Things will never be quite so crazy again," he says, with the rueful smile of one who reveled in chronicling the madness.

Excerpt: 'Brothers'

by Yu Hua

By Yu Hu
Translated from the Chinese by Eileen Cheng-yin Chow and Carlos Rojas
Hardcover, 656 pages
List price: $29.95


Baldy li, our Liu Town's premier tycoon, had a fantastic plan of spending twenty million U.S. dollars to purchase a ride on a Russian Federation space shuttle for a tour of outer space. Perched atop his famously gold-plated toilet seat, he would close his eyes and imagine himself already floating in orbit, surrounded by the unfathomably frigid depths of space. He would look down at the glorious planet stretched out beneath him, only to choke up on realizing that he had no family left down on Earth.

Baldy Li used to have a brother named Song Gang, who was a year older and a whole head taller and with whom he shared everything. Loyal, stubborn Song Gang had died three years earlier, reduced to a pile of ashes. When Baldy Li remembered the small wooden urn containing his brother's remains, he had a million mixed emotions. The ashes from even a sapling, he thought, would outweigh those from Song Gang's bones.

Back when Baldy Li's mother was still alive, she always liked to speak to him about Song Gang as being a chip off the old block. She would emphasize how honest and kind he was, just like his father, and remark that father and son were like two melons from the same vine. When she talked about Baldy Li, she didn't say this sort of thing but would emphatically shake her head. She said that Baldy Li and his father were completely different sorts of people, on completely different paths. It was not until Baldy Li's fourteenth year, when he was nabbed for peeping at five women's bottoms in a public pit toilet, that his mother drastically reversed her earlier opinion of her son. Only then did she finally understand that Baldy Li and his father were in fact two melons from the same vine after all. Baldy Li remembered clearly how his mother had averted her eyes and turned away from him, muttering bitterly as she wiped away her tears, "A chip off the old block."

Baldy Li had never met his birth father, since on the day he was born his father left this earth in a fit of stink. His mother told him that his father had drowned, but Baldy Li asked, "How? Did he drown in the stream, in the pond, or in a well?" His mother didn't respond. It was only later, after Baldy Li had been caught peeping and had become stinkingly notorious throughout Liu Town — only then did he learn that he really was another rotten melon off the same damn vine as his father. And it was only then that he learned that his father had also been peeping at women's butts in a latrine when he accidentally fell into the cesspool and drowned. Everyone in Liu Town — men and women, young and old-laughed when they heard about Baldy Li and couldn't stop repeating, "A chip off the old block." As sure as a tree grows leaves, if you were from Liu Town, you would have the phrase on your lips; even toddlers who had just learned to speak were gurgling it. People pointed at Baldy Li, whispering to each other and covering their mouths and snickering, but Baldy Li would maintain an innocent expression as he continued on his way. Inside, however, he would be chuckling because now — at that time he was almost fifteen — he finally knew what it was to be a man.

Nowadays the world is filled with women's bare butts shaking hither and thither, on television and in the movies, on VCRs and DVDs, in advertisements and magazines, on the sides of ballpoint pens and cigarette lighters. These include all sorts of butts: imported butts, domestic butts; white, yellow, black, and brown; big, small, fat, and thin; smooth and coarse, young and old, fake and real — every shape and size in a bedazzling variety. Nowadays women's bare butts aren't worth much, since they can be found virtually everywhere. But back then things were different. It used to be that women's bottoms were considered a rare and precious commodity that you couldn't trade for gold or silver or pearls. To see one, you had to go peeping in the public toilet — which is why you had a little hoodlum like Baldy Li being caught in the act, and a big hoodlum like his father losing his life for the sake of a glimpse.

Public toilets back then were different from today. Nowadays you wouldn't be able to spy on a woman's butt in a toilet even if you had a periscope, but back then there was only a flimsy partition between the men's and women's sections, below which there was a shared cesspool. On the other side of the partition the sounds of women peeing and shitting seemed disconcertingly close. So instead of squatting down where you should, you could poke your head under the partition, suspending yourself above the muck below by tightly gripping the boards with your hands and your legs. With the nauseating stench bringing tears to your eyes and maggots crawling all around, you could bend over like a competitive swimmer at the starting block about to dive into the pool, and the deeper you bent over, the more butt you would be able to see.

That time Baldy Li snared five butts with a single glance: a puny one, a fat one, two bony ones, and a just-right one, all lined up in a neat row, like slabs of meat in a butcher shop. The fat butt was like a fresh rump of pork, the two bony ones were like beef jerky, while the puny butt wasn't even worth mentioning. The butt that Baldy Li fancied was the just-right one, which lay directly in his line of sight. It was the roundest of the five, so round it seemed to curl up, with taut skin revealing the faint outlines of a tailbone. His heart pounding, he wanted to glimpse the pubic area on the other side of the tailbone, so he continued to lean down, his head burrowing deeper under the partition. But just as he was about to catch a glimpse of her pubic region, he was suddenly nabbed.

A man named Victory Zhao, one of the two Men of Talent in Liu Town, happened to enter the latrine at that very moment. He spotted someone's head and torso burrowing under the partition and immediately understood what was going on. He therefore grabbed Baldy Li by the scruff of his neck, plucking him up as one would a carrot. At that time Victory Zhao was in his twenties and had published a four-line poem in our provincial culture center's mimeographed magazine, thereby earning himself the moniker Poet Zhao. After seizing Baldy Li, Zhao flushed bright red. He dragged the fourteen-year-old outside and started lecturing him nonstop, without, however, failing to be poetic: "So, rather than gazing at the glittering sea of sprouted greens in the fields or the fishes cavorting in the lake or the beautiful tufts of clouds in the blue sky, you choose instead to go snooping around in the toilet. . . ."

Poet Zhao went on in this vein for more than ten minutes, and yet there was still no movement from the women's side of the latrine. Eventually Zhao became anxious, ran to the door, and yelled for the women to come out. Forgetting that he was an elegant man of letters, he shouted rather crudely, "Stop your pissing and shitting. You've been spied upon, and you don't even realize it. Get your butts out here."

The owners of the five butts finally dashed out, shrieking and weeping. The weeper was the puny butt not worth mentioning. A little girl eleven or twelve years old, she covered her face with her hands and was crying so hard she trembled, as if Baldy Li hadn't peeped at her but, rather, had raped her. Baldy Li, still standing there in Poet Zhao's grip, watched the weeping little butt and thought, What's all this crying over your underdeveloped little butt? I only took a look because there wasn't much else I could do.

A pretty seventeen-year-old was the last to emerge. Blushing furiously, she took a quick look at Baldy Li and hurried away. Poet Zhao cried out for her not to leave, to come back and demand justice. Instead, she simply hurried away even faster. Baldy Li watched the swaying of her rear end as she walked, and knew that the butt so round it curled up had to be hers.

Once the round butt disappeared into the distance and the weeping little butt also left, one of the bony butts started screeching at Baldy Li, spraying his face with spittle. Then she wiped her mouth and walked off as well. Baldy Li watched her walk away and noticed that her butt was so flat that, now that she had her pants on, you couldn't even make it out.

The remaining three — an animated Poet Zhao, a pork-rump butt, and the other jerky-flat butt-then grabbed Baldy Li and hauled him to the police station. They marched him through the little town of less than fifty thousand, and along the way the town's other Man of Talent, Success Liu, joined their ranks. Like Poet Zhao, Success Liu was in his twenties and had had something published in the culture center's magazine. His publication was a story, its words crammed onto two pages. Compared with Zhao's four lines of verse, Success Liu's two pages were far more impressive, thereby earning him the nickname Writer Liu. Liu didn't lose out to Poet Zhao in terms of monikers, and he certainly couldn't lose out to him in other areas either. Writer Liu was on his way to buy rice when he saw Poet Zhao strutting toward him with a captive Baldy Li, and Liu immediately decided that he couldn't let Poet Zhao have all the glory to himself. Writer Liu hollered to Poet Zhao as he approached, "I'm here to help you!"

Poet Zhao and Writer Liu were close writing comrades, and Writer Liu had once searched high and low for the perfect encomia for Poet Zhao's four lines of poetry. Poet Zhao of course had responded in kind and found even more flowery praise for Writer Liu's two pages of text. Poet Zhao was originally walking behind Baldy Li, with the miscreant in his grip, but now that Writer Liu hustled up to them, Poet Zhao shifted to the left and offered Writer Liu the position to the right. Liu Town's two Men of Talent flanked Baldy Li, proclaiming that they were taking him to the police station. There was actually a station just around the corner, but they didn't want to take him there; instead, they marched him to one much farther away. On their way, they paraded down the main streets, trying to maximize their moment of glory. As they escorted Baldy Li through the streets they remarked enviously, "Just look at you, with two important men like us escorting you. You really are a lucky guy." Poet Zhao added, "It's as if you were being escorted by Li Bai and Du Fu. . . ."

It seemed to Writer Liu that Poet Zhao's analogy was not quite apt, since Li Bai and Du Fu were, of course, both poets, while Liu himself wrote fiction. So he corrected Zhao, saying, "It's as if Li Bai and Cao Xueqin were escorting you. . . ."

Baldy Li had initially ignored their banter, but when he heard Liu Town's two Men of Talent compare themselves to Li Bai and Cao Xueqin, he couldn't help but laugh. "Hey, even I know that Li Bai was from the Tang dynasty while Cao was from the Qing dynasty," he said. "So how can a Tang guy be hanging out with a Qing guy?" The crowds that had gathered alongside the street burst into loud guffaws. They said that Baldy Li was absolutely correct, that Liu Town's two Men of Talent might indeed be full of talent, but their knowledge of history wasn't a match even for this little Peeping Tom. The two Men of Talent blushed furiously, and Poet Zhao, straightening his neck, added, "It's just an analogy."

"Or we could use another analogy," offered Writer Liu. "Given that it's a poet and a novelist escorting you, we should say we are Guo Moruo and Lu Xun." The crowd expressed their approval. Even Baldy Li nodded and said, "That's more like it."

Poet Zhao and Writer Liu didn't dare say any more on the subject of literature. Instead, they grabbed Baldy Li's collar and denounced his hooligan behavior to one and all while continuing to march sternly ahead. Along the way, Baldy Li saw a great many people tittering at him, including some he knew and others he didn't. Poet Zhao and Writer Liu took time to explain to everyone they met what had happened, appearing even more polished than talk-show hosts. And those two women who had had their butts peeped at by Baldy Li were like the special guests on their talk shows, looking alternately furious and aggrieved as they responded to Poet Zhao and Writer Liu's recounting of events. As the women walked along, the one with a fat butt suddenly screeched, having noticed her own husband among the spectators, and started sobbing as she complained loudly, "He saw my bottom and god knows what else! Whip him!"

Excerpted from Brothers byYu Hua Copyright © 2009 by Yu Hua. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Features Abound For New Smart Phones

The fanciest phones — known as smart phones — will get even more new features this summer. Apple is expected to announce a new iPhone, T-Mobile's Google Android is getting a face-lift, and there's a lot of buzz about the soon-to-be-released Palm Pre.

Soon your phone may be smarter than you are. Well, not quite, but phones are getting fancier. They have music, e-mail, video and countless other features. Then there are application stores that let you download everything from games to financial planners.

Go into the store of any carrier, and the number of features and phones can be overwhelming. I visited a Verizon store on Market Street in San Francisco and pretended to be a soccer mom in need of a new phone with personalized features.

"Where do you plan on using the phone?" asked salesperson Muki Lok. "Take me through a day of how a cell phone might benefit you."

I tell him I want to be able to text-message my kids and e-mail my friends.

"Do you want to be able to open attachments for e-mails?" Lok asked.

If I had said yes, he would have directed me to one set of phones. If I had said no, he would have suggested a different set.

The number of fancy mobile phones sold in the U.S. has exploded in the past two years. Ramon Llamas, an analyst with research firm IDC, says the release of the iPhone two years ago was the catalyst. Its high-end features and sleek design helped change the way people thought about a phone.

Llamas says the revolutionary touch-screen technology spawned dozens of imitators. "A lot of people said I like that touch screen," he says. He points out that there are now dozens of other phones with touch screens that are capturing the hearts and imaginations of a lot of phone users.

Palm, which hasn't been on top of the game since its Pilot dominated the market 10 years ago, is hoping its new Pre is going to be as revolutionary as the iPhone. Matt Crowley, a product line manager at Palm, showed off the compact-sized device at the company's headquarters in Sunnyvale, Calif.

"The overall design of the Palm Pre was really based on a polished river stone," Crowly says. He holds it out and turns it over as if it is a gemstone.

The Pre takes into account one of the biggest criticisms of the iPhone: its touch-screen keyboard. Crowley slides open the device to reveal a keyboard with tactile buttons.

Among the Pre's other nice features is that several programs can be open at once. So, it's possible to type an e-mail while looking at your calendar.

The Pre is getting praise. "It's so slick and so intuitive that people can say, 'You know what? That's kind of what I really want my device to do,' " Llamas says.

Although the market for smart phones is getting crowded, Palm does have a shot at toppling both market leaders Apple and BlackBerry if an informal survey of customers at Coffee Bar, a cafe in San Francisco, is any indication.

"I don't really like it," Jasper Gregory says of his iPhone. "It seems too breakable. I keep it tucked away so it won't be stolen. I never hear it, so I'm not as connected anymore."

Another customer, Sara Skikney, says her BlackBerry isn't very user-friendly. "I can't figure out how to set up certain things that I think should be more accessible," Skikney says. "Like, you have to dig through several lists to find different functionalities."

The attitude of the people in this cafe is nothing like the way people in Europe and Asia feel about their phones, Llamas says. He says there, a phone is a personal statement.

"I kind of liken it to people bringing home a puppy or a cat," Llamas says. "Oh, look at my new device. It's so cute. Check it out. Do you want to hold it? You want to pet it?"

One thing is certain: There is a huge potential market for fancier phones in the U.S. Last year, fewer than 14 percent of people who purchased phones got a smart phone.

Glowing Monkeys Pass On Gene To Babies

For the first time, scientists in Japan have shown that a gene that makes monkeys glow green can be passed on to their offspring. Scientists say this shows that they can breed monkeys with genetic modifications, which could be useful in studying human diseases.

The research team used a virus to carry a gene for a green glowing protein into 80 marmoset embryos, says Hideyuki Okano of Keio University School of Medicine, one of the researchers on the team.

"When these embryos are returned to the uterus from the surrogate mother marmoset, the pregnancy was established," says Okano.

Five babies were born, and four had the gene in their body. But the real triumph is that when they reproduced, their offspring had the gene, too. The results are described in the journal Nature.

For years, scientists have been able to routinely create mice that have human disease genes. But for many diseases, mice are too different from humans to be a useful model. Monkeys are biologically closer to humans, but it's been a lot harder to change their genetic makeup.

Searching For A Model For Human Disease Genes

The glowing gene in and of itself doesn't do anything. But the new research in monkeys shows that an added gene can be inherited, something that has never been shown in primates before. Now it should be easier to generate groups of monkeys with genes for diseases like Parkinson's.

Gerald Schatten, at the University of Pittsburgh, was part of a team that made the first genetically altered primate about a decade ago, a rhesus monkey named ANDi. But, he says, ANDi has never been interested in mating.

Another research group created monkeys with the Huntington's disease gene, but those monkeys haven't reproduced either. Schatten says the work in Japan is a stunning milestone in the development of monkey models of human disease.

"It suggests that the nonhuman primate world might be able to follow in the footsteps, or maybe the paw prints, of the mouse world," he says, in terms of being able to create useful laboratory models of human diseases.

Schatten says some people may fear this will increase the number of monkeys used in medical research. But he thinks it might allow scientists to work with fewer monkeys because they will more precisely mimic human diseases.

Another concern often raised is whether similar genetic techniques could be used on human embryos to make designer babies. Schatten says scientists generally see that as a line they won't cross.

"We don't support doing any genetic modification in human embryos," he says.

Chicken Skewers Marinated In Paprika-Mint Yogurt

I almost always prefer grilling dark chicken meat to breast meat, which dries out the second you look at it. This yogurt marinade has an enviable moistening and tenderizing effect — and the longer you can leave the chicken in, the better it will be. You will need about 20 wooden skewers.

Makes 4 to 6 servings

4 cloves garlic

Salt to taste

1-1/2 cups yogurt (full fat or low-fat)

2 tablespoons dried mint

1-1/2 tablespoons sweet paprika

Juice of 1 lemon

3 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs

Crush the garlic with a bit of salt in a mortar and pestle until it forms a paste (alternatively, you can use a garlic press). Combine with the remaining marinade ingredients in a heavy-duty plastic freezer bag. Set aside while you prepare the chicken.

Lay the thighs on a cutting board; unfold each boneless thigh to its full length. Cut crosswise into strips about 1 1/2- inches wide — you'll get 2 or 3 from each thigh. Drop the strips into the marinade bag and massage the marinade into the chicken. Refrigerate for 6 hours or overnight.

Meanwhile, soak the wooden skewers in water for an hour or more (this prevents them from burning on the grill).

Preheat a gas grill or start the coals for a charcoal grill. While the grill is heating, carefully thread the chicken onto the skewers. Grill over high heat, turning once, until just cooked through, 5 to 7 minutes. Serve immediately.

Manti In Yogurt With Sizzling Paprika Butter

I have found that two-thirds of the recipe of manti dough is sufficient to wrap the lamb, but you may enjoy cutting up the excess into rough shreds of pasta, which are delectable eaten with the yogurt and butter. You don't have to make dumplings so tiny; it's a time-consuming task, and you're going to gobble them up in 5 minutes anyway. If you use a 2- or 3-inch wrapper instead of a 1-1/2 inch, it's unlikely anyone will cry foul. This recipe is adapted from Turquoise by Greg and Lucy Malouf (Chronicle 2008).

Makes 4 servings

Manti Dough

2 to 3 large eggs

14 ounces bread flour

1 teaspoon sea salt


7 ounces minced or ground lamb

1 small onion, grated

Sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Garlic-Yogurt Sauce

3 cloves garlic

1 teaspoon salt

14 ounces Greek-style yogurt

Mint-Paprika Butter

2 ounces unsalted butter

1/2 teaspoon hot paprika

1/2 teaspoon dried mint

To make the manti dough, lightly beat two of the eggs, and put these into the bowl of an electric mixer with the flour and salt. Use the dough hook to work it to a stiff dough. If the dough is too stiff, add the remaining egg, lightly beaten. Knead for about 5 minutes, then put the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead by hand for another 5 minutes or so, until smooth and elastic. Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, then cover with plastic wrap and leave to rest for about 1 hour.

Separate dough into pieces the size of a golf ball. Working with one piece at a time, roll the dough on a lightly floured work surface to form a large, paper-thin rectangle. Cut into strips around 1-1/2 inches wide, Repeat with the remaining dough. Stack the strips on top of each other and cut into 1-1/2-inch (or 2- to 3-inch) squares. (If you have a pasta machine, roll the dough through the settings, then trim the sheets to end up with 1-1/2-inch squares.)

Combine the lamb and onion in a bowl, then season with salt and pepper. Place a chickpea-sized amount of filling (or more, if using larger squares) in the center of each manti square. If you're brave enough to attempt the traditional shape, bring two opposite corners together over the filling and press to join at the top. Repeat with the other two corners, carefully moistening and pinching the side "seams" as you go to seal them. You should aim to end up with a four-cornered starlike shape. For an easier option, simply moisten the edges with a little water and fold the pastry over the filling to create little triangles, then squeeze to seal. Whichever shape you decide to make, ensure that the edges are sealed well so the filling doesn't come out as the manti cook. Place the manti on a lightly floured tray as you complete them and repeat until all the dough and filling have been used.

Crush the garlic with 1 teaspoon salt, then beat into the yogurt until well-combined.

Bring a large saucepan of salted water to the boil. Drop in some of the manti — they will rise to the surface within 1-1/2 to 2 minutes as they are cooked. Use a large slotted spoon to transfer the cooked manti to four warmed serving bowls. Repeat with the remaining manti.

Spoon the garlic yogurt sauce over the warm manti. Quickly sizzle the butter in a small frying pan, then add the paprika and mint and heat until foaming. Swirl the sizzling butter over the manti and serve immediately.

Mint And Paprika Make A Lovely Couple

We all get into habits of taste, whether because of culture, personal preference or the idiosyncrasies of whoever taught us to cook. Why do we put lemon or milk in our tea, but never both? Why is it always mustard or mayo? These are the sort of thoughts I was having the first time I used mint and paprika in the same dish.

For me, mint had always been the cool bachelor uncle of the herb family — the one that lent its icy wit to mint chip ice cream, whose lofty aroma could turn a bourbon into a julep or give fruit salads a sweet and lively bite. As spearmint, I found it bracing and wintry, as peppermint, nimble and teasing. Dried, it made a soothing tea, the nip of menthol tamed to a numbing tingle that worked equally well served hot or cold.

Paprika was the inscrutable maiden aunt, that dusty red powder derived — who knows how? — from a bell pepper. For years, my only use for paprika was to dust it over a roast chicken, which, like a rouge or bronzer, I felt, gave it a lovely color. As far as taste, it might as well have been a cosmetic, because I couldn't have told you what difference it made. Later I used it in salad dressings, but still more as a color than a flavor. Like the mysterious "red matter" in the new Star Trek movie, the paprika I knew was enigmatic, unexamined and served mostly to advance the plot.

Eventually, I got hold of some real sweet paprika rather than the faded red dust of my youth, and I learned to love its gentle, earthy warmth for its own sake. Along with its hot and smoked siblings, I found I liked it on roast vegetables and in chili.

But never in my long, slow, spice-cabinet learning curve did I dream that mint and paprika might go together. One might be a sweet herb, the other a sweet vegetable, but there the kinship ended. If the sweetness of mint was crisp and cool, the sweetness of paprika was a soft glow of heat — their existence, diametrically opposed. Somewhere far beneath the Earth, I liked to muse, paprika and mint could be locked in eternal combat, determining whether the universe belongs to the forces of cool or warm.

It would have been different if I'd had even the most basic familiarity with Turkish cuisine, where paprika and mint join in a dance at least 300 years old. Mint is a Mediterranean native, weedy and ubiquitous; the chili peppers used to make paprika showed up after Columbus and made themselves right at home. As was the case with that more famous Old World-New World pair, basil and tomatoes, it was a match just waiting to happen.

And if it was to happen anywhere, it was bound to happen in Turkey, whose strategic position as a terminus of the Silk Road made it an inevitable, tumultuous melting pot for the flavors of many empires.

Alone, mint is piercing and paprika rounded. Together, their sweetness converges into something completely different from either — an herbal, fruity wake-up call, confused and aromatic; cool on the sides of the tongue and warm at the tip. It's a strangely addicting hybrid that tastes equally of the pasture and the garden.

You can sample that constellation of taste in many versions of the traditional Turkish red lentil soup (ezo gelin corbasi or mercimek corbasi). The paprika and the mint (dried and flaky) get swirled together in butter, their blended flavor lifting and brightening the rustic soup. It's the dried mint, with its intense, herbal zing, rather than the fresh mint, that you want here. McCormick markets it as "mint flakes," but you can find it in bulk at natural food stores. I suspect you could even just tear open a packet of mint tea.

I fell hard for the same seasoned butter draped over manti, the Turkish lamb dumplings with garlicky yogurt. In fact, once the dumplings were gone, I just kept on going — spooning buttered, herbed, spiced yogurt into my mouth without even the dieter's pretense of remorse.

Along the same lines, a yogurt marinade is good for conveying mint and paprika deep into chicken, there to await the fiery blast of the grill. Or you can sprinkle the two together onto sauteed potatoes, or mix them into a skillet of wilted greens and ground beef or lamb.

The whole experience has caused me to cast a probing, evaluative eye on the wooden cabinet in the corner of the kitchen. What other couples have come to a secret understanding in that dark, aromatic niche? Could the oregano be having a fling with the Aleppo pepper? The thyme and the mace? Is the fennel consorting with the sumac?

I'd like to demonstrate the kind of abandon my son does when he makes salad dressing (his last one included cinnamon and grains of paradise, a medieval spice), but I usually end up doing the same old sums on the spice abacus: nutmeg plus allspice, cumin plus coriander. It will probably take more than one ancient civilization to bring about real change in my herbal calculus. Until then, I'll remain just one more traveler on the spice road.

Streets of philadelphia!

Strets of Philadelphia (Bruce Springnsteen)

I was bruised and battered and I couldnt tell
What I felt
I was unrecognizable to myself
I saw my reflection in a window I didnt know
My own face
Oh brother are you gonna leave me
On the streets of philadelphia

I walked the avenue till my legs felt like stone
I heard the voices of friends vanished and gone
At night I could hear the blood in my veins
Black and whispering as the rain
On the streets of philadelphia

Aint no angel gonna greet me
Its just you and I my friend
My clothes dont fit me no more
I walked a thousand miles
Just to slip the skin

The night has fallen, Im lying awake
I can feel myself fading away
So receive me brother with your faithless kiss
Or will we leave each other alone like this
On the streets of philadelphia

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The origins of religion

Karen Armstrong is the author of nearly 20 books on religion. When her breakthrough book, "A History of God" appeared in 1993, she quickly became one of the world's leading historians of spiritual matters.

Her work displays a wide-ranging knowledge of religious traditions -- from monotheistic religions to Buddhism. That expertise is on full display in her latest book, "The Great Transformation," which charts the origins of many of the world's religions, including Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism. What's remarkable is that all these spiritual traditions emerged in the same historical era -- the "Axial Age" -- from 900 to 200 B.C.

Armstrong tells "To the Best of Our Knowledge's" Steve Paulson that these traditions emerged as responses to the rampant violence of their time. And she says our own time has a lot in common with that age:

"It was one of the great, interesting discoveries to me. I couldn't believe it when I was researching this against the backdrop of our own time, when religion is often used to justify atrocious acts. But in every case the catalyst for religious change had been a revulsion, a disciplined turning away from violence."

The spiritual message that rejected violence: "First of all they all insisted in very different ways, but they came to the same conclusion, that you must give up and abandon your ego. That the cause of violence, hatred and human evil is very largely rooted in desperation about the ego. We are egocentric creatures, and so the sages said that the root cause of suffering lay in our desperate concern with self, which often needs to destroy others in order to preserve itself. And so they insisted that if we stepped outside the ego, then we would encounter what we call ... God, Nirvana or the Tao."

According to Armstrong, this common message is what we now call the "Golden Rule."

Armstrong says that we should really think about how we define God and religion: "Religion is a search for transcendence, but transcendence isn't necessarily sighted in an external God, which can be a very unspiritual, unreligious concept. The sages were all extremely concerned with transcendence, with going beyond the self and discovering a realm, a reality that could not be defined in words.

"And the trouble is that we define our God too closely, we say God is the Supreme Being. Well in my book ... "A History of God," I pointed out that the most eminent Jewish, Christian and Muslim theologians all said that you couldn't think about God as a simple personality, an external being. It was better to say that God did not exist, because our notion of existence was far too limited to apply to God."

"I think sometimes the way monotheists talk about God is unreligious ... because people very often talk about Him as if He's some kind of acquaintance whom they can second-guess. People will say, 'God loves that, God wills that and God despises the other,' and very often the opinions of the deity are made to coincide exactly with that of the speaker."

As for the assertion by some that Islam encourages violence, Armstrong says "That' simply not true ... this kind of inflammatory talk ... about Islam is convincing Muslims all over the world who are not extremists that the West is incurably Islam-phobic, and will never respect their traditions.

"I would say there are more passages in the Bible than in the Koran that are dedicated to violence. And I think what we all ought to do, religious people in this day and age, is to look at our own sacred traditions -- our own -- not just pointing a finger at somebody else's, but our own. Christians should look hard and long at the Book of Revelations, and they should look at those passages ... that speak of the destruction of the enemy. It is not enough to point an accusing finger at another faith ...".

For Armstrong, the proper practice of religion requires some work: "Basically religion is hard work, it's an art form, it's a way of finding meaning -- like painting, like music, like poetry -- in a world that's violent and cruel and often seems meaningless."

Closing the health food gap

Many low-income neighborhoods in the United States lack access to fresh and affordable fruits and vegetables. Residents in these so-called "food deserts" rely on neighborhood corner stores and fast food chains as their main sources of food. But, as "Living on Earth's" Jessica Ilyse Smith reports from New York City, a number of programs are working to close the food gap by bringing healthy foods close to home.

When Michelle Obama rolled up her sleeves and started digging a garden on the White House lawn, advocates for healthy local food cheered. The First Lady set a powerful example by inviting Washington, DC schoolchildren to garden along with her.

The message: the inner city, too, can have access to fresh, organic food. And in these tough times this is especially important. Government figures show that some 36 million people live in households that have trouble just putting food on the table.

It's Saturday morning at the Cemalyn Grocery in Brooklyn. Cesar Rodriguez tends to his customers. Soda, cookies, chips and canned foods line the walls of Rodriguez's bodega. But, among the sea of processed foods and packaged goods, stands a small outpost of fresh fruits and green leafy vegetables.

Rodriguez recently added these fresh foods to his store. He's one of almost 1,000 bodega owners taking part in New York City's Healthy Bodegas Initiative.

Rodriguez through translator: "Through the program, we're trying to improve people's health and the health of the neighborhood, have people eat healthier products, and lose weight because obesity is a sickness here in our community."

Low-income neighborhoods like Rodriguez's have few supermarkets or other options for fresh fruits and vegetables. Yet there are many places to buy fast food, candy and alcohol.

Sabrina Baronberg of the City's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene wanted to find ways to address the many health problems like obesity, diabetes and heart disease found in poorer areas. She found that 80% of the food markets in these neighborhoods were small corner stores.

Baronberg: "These areas have many more bodegas than supermarkets and very few supermarkets in fact. That really inspired me to work to make these large environmental changes to make it easier for people to eat healthier."

So, in 2006 Baronberg began to work with bodega owners and kicked-off the Healthy Bodegas Initiative. She saw that residents wanted to change what they ate but needed help: "Nobody wants to live a life of chronic disease. So people would say to me I really want to make these changes, I want to switch to 1% milk, I want to eat more fruits and vegetables, I want to be healthier but I can't. My bodega only sells junk food and there aren't any supermarkets. So what am I supposed to do? And, you know, there is nothing more frustrating than that."

New York City's neighborhoods are not the only areas with limited access to healthy food. These so-called food deserts are found across the country in rural and urban locations.

Mark Winne has looked at food deserts for years: "It's relative based on how far somebody has to go to get to any kind of decent, affordable food store, and the means that they have to get there. And do they in fact have the means?"

Winne is the author of "Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty." In the book, he chronicles the rise of food deserts in the 1960's, alongside the growth of the American suburb. With scores of people leaving downtown areas, inner cities were drained of wealth. Supermarket chains followed the wealthier client base and moved to the suburbs.

Winne: "They simply began to walk away from urban America. And these were communities that needed those stores more than others. They were communities that were being challenged by poverty, and challenged by some of the worst socioeconomic conditions that we've had perhaps in the 20th century."

It wasn't just the lack of supermarkets that led to the growth of food deserts, but also the lack of public transportation to bring urban residents to suburban grocery stores. Winne says nearly 70% of the households in low-income neighborhoods do not own a car.

As an example he highlights the 8th ward of Washington D.C., which is close to the U.S. Capitol building. In this area, nearly 70,000 residents live with slim access to grocery stores.

Winne: "About 38% of those people are considered poor using U.S. poverty standards. If you look at the landscape we see almost no supermarkets and we also see another characteristic of a food desert, which is a tremendous number of fast food joints. And that's what people have to choose from for food. And as a result we see very high levels of obesity."

Costs from obesity and related chronic diseases are increasing. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. spends over 117 billion dollars a year on healthcare related to obesity. And in low-income neighborhoods with lots of fast food and few healthy options, the obesity rate is rising.

Over in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, Eugene rakes leaves that he'll add to one of the compost piles lining the side of an urban farm: "We have our compost beds over here that we've been processing for a long time. We have one that was built two months ago, and it's almost done but it's not all the way done. It's almost broken itself down, all of the nutrients and stuff like almost broken down and created our soil that we use."

Eugene is one of about ten neighborhood teens who work at the Red Hook Community Farm. The farm - run by the non-profit group Added Value - was built literally from the ground up. Soil was brought in to cover an old abandoned ball field. If you look closely on the outskirts of the rows of onions, lettuce and beets you can still see home plate and the faint white lines that mark the field's boundaries.

This farm has not only increased the community's access to fresh and affordable fruits and vegetables, but also has helped change the neighborhood.

Eugene: "Before the farm I'd say it was pretty much a little badder, because there was still a lot of gang violence and stuff like that going around here. I'm just basically proud of being here and helping out and being able to bring healthy food to my neighborhood that I live in."

Eugene and other teens plant seeds, harvest crops and sell their bounty at a farmer's market in the neighborhood. Before the farm started, residents went through a lot to get fresh food.

Kate and many other Red Hook residents who buy their produce from the farm understand that fresh fruit and vegetables are important for their health: "I took two buses or a car service to get food back to Red Hook. I mean you couldn't even get a quart of milk, or vegetables."

William Lewis is a longtime resident who didn't like what he found in the neighborhood before the farm: "Well, it was dull, there was nothing you could buy. Not fresh anyway – just regular stores, you know. When the farm came, I just started coming here because I know it's fresh food, and I like fresh, it's better for me—it's better for everyone as a matter of fact, you know?"

The farmer's market has become a neighborhood gathering place, and teens at the farm not only earn money and learn how to grow food, they also learn how to be stewards of their community...a community that is focusing on changing the circumstances of its health.

Efforts like this inspire author Mark Winne: "So it's the human innovation, creativity, willingness as a community in some sort of organized social way, and political way of trying to change the circumstances that they live in—and that really inspires me."

Programs like the Added Value farm and the Healthy Bodegas Initiative operate from the ground up to improve the health of people living in food deserts. They also help to close what Winne calls the food gap that severely divides Americans.

Prayer May Reshape Your Brain ... And Your Reality

Scientists are making the first attempts to understand spiritual experience — and what happens in the brains and bodies of people who believe they connect with the divine.

The field is called "neurotheology," and although it is new, it's drawing prominent researchers in the U.S. and Canada. Scientists have found that the brains of people who spend untold hours in prayer and meditation are different.

I met Scott McDermott five years ago, while covering a Pentecostal revival meeting in Toronto. It was pandemonium. People were speaking in tongues and barking like dogs. I thought, "What is a United Methodist minister, with a Ph.D. in New Testament theology, doing here?"

Then McDermott told me about a vision he had had years earlier.

"I saw fire dancing on my eyelids," he recalled, staring into the middle distance. "I felt God say to me, 'You be the oil, and I'll be the flame.' Then [I] began to feel waves of the Spirit flow through my body."

I never forgot McDermott. When I heard that scientists were studying the brains of people who spent countless hours in prayer and meditation, I thought, "I've got to see what's going on in Scott McDermott's head."

Focusing Affects Reality

A few years later, Andrew Newberg made that possible. Newberg is a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania and author of several books, including How God Changes Your Brain. He has been scanning the brains of religious people like McDermott for more than a decade.

On a spring day in Newberg's laboratory, the neuroscientist settles McDermott in a darkened examination room and asks the pastor to pray for someone else — that is, intercessory prayer. A few minutes later, at the moment Newberg believes McDermott has reached the peak of his prayer, the researcher injects the minister with a dye that shows the blood flow in his brain.

Twenty minutes later, McDermott emerges beaming. He has enjoyed intense spiritual moments like this ever since he was in his 20s.

"The first thing that got me was I could hear God's voice," the pastor said. "And it so enamored me — I mean, it changed me dramatically. I couldn't wait to pray!"

McDermott has prayed at least two hours a day for the past 25 years.

I ask Newberg what kind of impact that would that have on the pastor's brain.

"The more you focus on something — whether that's math or auto racing or football or God — the more that becomes your reality, the more it becomes written into the neural connections of your brain," Newberg says.

'I Think We're Wired For The Supernatural'

Now it's time for Newberg to take a peek at McDermott's neural connections, sliding him into a SPECT scanner, which will create an image of which parts of McDermott's brain lit up and which went dark while he prayed.

A few minutes later, Newberg has preliminary results on his computer screen. He notes some areas of increased activity in the frontal lobes, which handle focused attention — precisely what Newberg would expect from a person praying intently. But he adds that this needs further analysis — and he'll need to find more volunteers to do this kind of interpersonal prayer before he can come to any conclusions.

Afterward, I ask McDermott if any of this challenges his beliefs. Not at all, he says.

"I think we're wired for the supernatural," he says. "I think we're meant to sense a world beyond our five senses. Come on! Taste and see that God really is good."

Newberg says he can't prove that McDermott or anyone else is communing with God, but he can look for circumstantial evidence.

"What we need to do is study those moments where people feel that they're getting beyond their brain, and understanding what's happening in the brain from a scientific perspective, what's happening in the brain from their spiritual perspective," he says.

Then he'll compare the mystical feelings with the brain physiology.

A Sense Of Oneness With The Universe

Newberg did that with Michael Baime. Baime is a doctor at the University of Pennsylvania and a Tibetan Buddhist who has meditated at least an hour a day for the past 40 years. During a peak meditative experience, Baime says, he feels oneness with the universe, and time slips away.

"It's as if the present moment expands to fill all of eternity," he explains, "that there has never been anything but this eternal now."

When Baime meditated in Newberg's brain scanner, his brain mirrored those feelings. As expected, his frontal lobes lit up on the screen: Meditation is sheer concentration, after all. But what fascinated Newberg was that Baime's parietal lobes went dark.

"This is an area that normally takes our sensory information, tries to create for us a sense of ourselves and orient that self in the world," he explains. "When people lose their sense of self, feel a sense of oneness, a blurring of the boundary between self and other, we have found decreases in activity in that area."

Newberg found that result not only with Baime, but also with other monks he scanned. It was the same when he imaged the brains of Franciscan nuns praying and Sikhs chanting. They all felt the same oneness with the universe. When it comes to the brain, Newberg says, spiritual experience is spiritual experience.

"There is no Christian, there is no Jewish, there is no Muslim, it's just all one," Newberg says.

A little theological dynamite there — but, remember, the research is just beginning.

'You Can Sculpt Your Brain'

So far, scientists have focused on people who pray or meditate for one, two or more hours a day. They think that studying spiritual virtuosos will offer clues to the brain workings of more typical believers. But now Newberg and others are turning their attention to people who want to enrich their spiritual lives, but don't have that kind of time.

And there's hope for people with jobs and kids.

Neuroscientist Richard Davidson says you can change your brain with experience and training.

"You can sculpt your brain just as you'd sculpt your muscles if you went to the gym," he says. "Our brains are continuously being sculpted, whether you like it or not, wittingly or unwittingly."

It's called neuroplasticity. For years Davidson, who is at the University of Wisconsin, has scanned the brains of Buddhist monks who have logged years of meditation. When it comes to things like attention and compassion, their brains are as finely tuned as a late-model Porsche. Davidson wondered: Could ordinary people achieve the same kind of connection with the spiritual that the monks do — without so much effort?

I wondered that, too. And when I heard his lab was launching a study lasting two weeks, I said, "Sign me up."

It turned out I was too old for the study. But they let me see what it was about. For 30 minutes every morning, I settled into my chair to the soothing tones of a meditation CD. The voice of a University of Wisconsin graduate student urged me to shower compassion on a loved one, a stranger, myself.

The trouble came when I was asked to visualize someone I had difficulty with in life. I became surly, as I reflected on the minor tragedies in my life and the people who caused them. When I saw Richard Davidson, I didn't mention how ill-tempered I had grown.

"Is there a capacity to change my brain if I continue with this?" I asked.

"Absolutely," he responded enthusiastically. "I would say the likelihood is that you are already changing your brain."

I hope not. Others, however, were far more successful in cultivating a spiritual mind-set. Davidson couldn't tell me about the results of my study, which have yet to be published. But he could say there were detectable changes in the subjects' brains within two weeks. Another similar study, where employees at a high-tech firm meditated a few minutes a day over a few weeks, produced more dramatic results.

"Just two months' practice among rank amateurs led to a systematic change in both the brain as well as the immune system in more positive directions," he said.

For example, they developed more antibodies to a flu virus than did their colleagues who did not meditate.

Can Positive Thoughts Help Heal Another Person?

Ninety percent of Americans say they pray — for their health, or their love life or their final exams. But does prayer do any good?

For decades, scientists have tried to test the power of prayer and positive thinking, with mixed results. Now some scientists are fording new — and controversial — territory.

Mind Over Body

When I first meet Sheri Kaplan, she is perched on a plastic chair at a Miami clinic, holding out her arm as a researcher draws several vials of blood.

"I'm quite excited about my blood work this time," she says. "I've got no stress and I'm proud of it."

Kaplan is tanned and freckled, with wavy red hair and a cocky laugh. She is defiantly healthy for a person who has lived with HIV for the past 15 years.

"God didn't want me to die or even get sick," she asserts. "I've never had any opportunistic infections, because I had no time to be down."

Kaplan's faith is unorthodox, but it's central to her life. She was raised Jewish, and although she claims no formal religion now, she prays and meditates every day. She believes God is keeping the virus at bay and that her faith is the reason she's alive today.

"Everything starts from a thought, and then the thought creates a reaction," she says. "And I have the power to control my mind, before it gets to a physical level or an emotional level."

For the past decade, Kaplan has been coming every few months to see Gail Ironson, a professor at the University of Miami. Ironson, an AIDS researcher, runs down a battery of questions.

"During this time have you had any HIV- or AIDS-related symptoms?" Ironson asks.

"Nope," Kaplan says. "Nothing."

"What percent of your well-being do you think is due to your own attitudes and behaviors versus medical care?" Ironson continues.

Kaplan laughs: "110 percent."

Kaplan has never taken medicine, yet the disease has not progressed to AIDS (and she is not part of the population that has a mutation in the CCR5 gene that prevents progression of HIV to AIDS). In the mid-1990s, when having HIV was akin to a death sentence, Ironson noticed that a number of patients like Kaplan never got sick. Ironson wanted to know why. And she found something surprising.

"If you ask people what's kept you going so long, what keeps you healthy, often people would say spirituality," she says. "It was something that just kept coming up in the interviews, and that's why I decided to look at it."

Spirituality And Health

Ironson began to zero in on a patient's relationship with God in an attempt to predict how fast the disease would progress.

She focused on two key indicators. She measured viral load, which tells how much of the virus is present in a person's body, and immune cells called CD-4 cells, which help fight off the AIDS virus.

Ironson says over time, those who turned to God after their diagnosis had a much lower viral load and maintained those powerful immune cells at a much higher rate than those who turned away from God.

"In fact, people who felt abandoned by God and who decreased in spirituality lost their CD4 cells 4.5 times faster than people who increased in spirituality," Ironson says. "That was actually our most powerful psychological predictor to date."

"Just so I understand it," I confirm, "if someone weren't taking their meds and were depressed, they would still fare better if they increased in spirituality?"

"Yes," she says. "Now, I'm not in any way suggesting that people don't take their meds," she adds quickly, laughing. "This is really an important point. However, the effects of spirituality are over and above."

Can My Prayers Affect Your Body?

Ironson calls the finding extraordinary. She was one of the first researchers to connect a patient's approach to God to specific chemical changes in the body.

Of course, mind-body medicine — the idea that my thoughts and emotions can affect my own health — has been standard teaching at many medical schools for years. But does that mean my thoughts can affect another person's body?

"The answer is pretty unequivocally no," says Richard Sloan, professor of Behavioral Medicine at Columbia University Medical Center.

Sloan notes that studies in the 1980s and '90s seemed to show that praying for a patient in a hospital sped up his recovery. But he says those studies were flawed. More recent, more rigorous studies, he argues, showed prayer either had no effect, or the patients actually grew worse.

Sloan says science understands how a person's thoughts can influence his own body — for example, through chemical changes in the brain that affect the immune system.

"There are no plausible mechanisms that account for how somebody's thoughts or prayers can influence the health of another person," Sloan says. "None. We know of nothing."

A few renegade scientists aren't satisfied with that. For years, they say, no one knew how morphine or aspirin worked. They just knew it worked. These researchers say typical prayer studies, in which a stranger prays for a stranger from a script, miss the critical element: a personal connection. So they're asking a different sort of question. Can a husband's love for his wife affect her body?

Or, as Marilyn Schlitz puts it: "Does our consciousness have the capacity to reach out and connect to someone else in a way that's health-promoting?"

The Love Study

On a bright spring day, Schlitz is leading Teena and J.D. Miller down a path to the laboratory at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, north of San Francisco. Schlitz is the president of the institute, which conducts research on consciousness and spirituality. The Millers have been married a decade and their affection is palpable — making them perfect for the so-called Love Study.

Schlitz takes Teena into an isolated room, where no sound can come in or go out. Teena settles into a deep armchair as Schlitz attaches electrodes to her right hand.

"This is measuring blood flow in your thumb, and this is your skin conductance activity," the researcher explains. "So basically both of these are measures of your unconscious nervous system."

Schlitz locks Teena into the electromagnetically shielded chamber, then ushers J.D. into another isolated room with a closed-circuit television. She explains that the screen will go on and off. And at random intervals, Teena's image will appear on the screen for 10 seconds.

"And so during the times when you see her," she instructs, "it's your opportunity to think about sending loving, compassionate intention."

As the session begins, Dean Radin, a senior scientist here, watches as a computer shows changes in J.D.'s blood pressure and perspiration. When J.D. sees the image of his wife, the steady lines suddenly jump and become ragged. The question is: Will Teena's nervous system follow suit?

"Notice how here … see, there's a change in the blood volume," says Radin, pointing to a screen charting Teena's measurements. "A sudden change like that is sometimes associated with an orienting response. If you suddenly hear somebody whispering in your ear, and there's nobody around, you have this sense of what? What was that? That's more or less what we're seeing in the physiology."

An hour later, Radin displays Teena's graph, which shows a flat line during the times her husband was not staring at her image, but when her husband began to stare at her, she stopped relaxing and became "aroused" within about two seconds.

After running 36 couples through this test, the researchers found that when one person focused his thoughts on his partner, the partner's blood flow and perspiration dramatically changed within two seconds. The odds of this happening by chance were 1 in 11,000. Three dozen double blind, randomized studies by such institutions as the University of Washington and the University of Edinburgh have reported similar results.

The 'Quantum Entanglement' Of Love

So how do you explain this? No one really knows. But Radin and a few others think that a theory known as "quantum entanglement" may offer some clues.

Here's how it works. Once two particles have interacted, if you separate them, even by miles, they behave as if they're still connected. So far, this has only been demonstrated on the subatomic level.

But Radin wonders: Could people in close relationships — couples, siblings, parent and child — also be "entangled"? Not just emotionally, and psychologically — but also physically?

"If it is true that entanglement actually persists, by means of which we don't understand," he says, "if they are physically entangled, you should be able to separate them, poke one, and see the other one flinch."

This idea — that we may be connected at some molecular level — echoes the words of mystics down the ages. And it appeals to some scientists.

But it infuriates others — like Columbia University's Sloan. The underlying idea is wrong, he says. Entanglement just doesn't work this way.

"Physicists are very clear that the relationship is purely correlational and not causal," Sloan says. "There is nothing causal about quantum entanglement. It's good to be open-minded, but not so open-minded that your brains fall out."

Radin and others agree that that's what science says right now. But they say these findings eventually have to be explained somehow.

Decoding The Mystery Of Near-Death Experiences !

We've all heard the stories about near-death experiences: the tunnel, the white light, the encounter with long-dead relatives now looking very much alive.

Scientists have cast a skeptical eye on these accounts. They say that these feelings and visions are simply the result of a brain shutting down.

But now some researchers are giving a closer neurological look at near-death experiences and asking: Can your mind operate when your brain has stopped?

'I Popped Up Out The Top Of My Head'

I met Pam Reynolds in her tour bus. She's a big deal in the music world — her company, Southern Tracks, has recorded music by everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Pearl Jam to REM. But you've probably never heard her favorite song. It's the one Reynolds wrote about the time she traveled to death's door and back. The experience has made her something of a rock star in the near-death world. Believers say she is proof positive that the mind can operate when the brain is stilled. Nonbelievers say she's nothing of the sort.

Reynolds' journey began one hot August day in 1991.

"I was in Virginia Beach, Va., with my husband," she recalls. "We were promoting a new record. And I inexplicably forgot how to talk. I've got a big mouth. I never forget how to talk."

An MRI revealed an aneurysm on her brain stem. It was already leaking, a ticking time bomb. Her doctor in Atlanta said her best hope was a young brain surgeon at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Arizona named Robert Spetzler.

"The aneurysm was very large, which meant the risk of rupture was also very large," Spetzler says. "And it was in a location where the only way to really give her the very best odds of fixing it required what we call 'cardiac standstill.' "

It was a daring operation: Chilling her body, draining the blood out of her head like oil from a car engine, snipping the aneurysm and then bringing her back from the edge of death.

"She is as deeply comatose as you can be and still be alive," Spetzler observes.

When the operation began, the surgeons taped shut Reynolds' eyes and put molded speakers in her ears. The ear speakers, which made clicking sounds as loud as a jet plane taking off, allowed the surgeons to measure her brain stem activity and let them know when they could drain her blood.

"I was lying there on the gurney minding my own business, seriously unconscious, when I started to hear a noise," Reynolds recalls. "It was a natural D, and as the sound continued — I don't know how to explain this, other than to go ahead and say it — I popped up out the top of my head."

A Tunnel And Bright Light

She says she found herself looking down at the operating table. She says she could see 20 people around the table and hear what sounded like a dentist's drill. She looked at the instrument in the surgeon's hand.

"It was an odd-looking thing," she says. "It looked like the handle on my electric toothbrush."

Reynolds observed the Midas Rex bone saw the surgeons used to cut open her head, the drill bits, and the case, which looked like the one where her father kept his socket wrenches. Then she noticed a surgeon at her left groin.

"I heard a female voice say, 'Her arteries are too small.' And Dr. Spetzler — I think it was him — said, 'Use the other side,' " Reynolds says.

Soon after, the surgeons began to lower her body temperature to 60 degrees. It was about that time that Reynolds believes she noticed a tunnel and bright light. She eventually flat-lined completely, and the surgeons drained the blood out of her head.

During her near-death experience, she says she chatted with her dead grandmother and uncle, who escorted her back to the operating room. She says as they looked down on her body, she could hear the Eagles' song "Hotel California" playing in the operating room as the doctors restarted her heart. She says her body looked like a train wreck, and she said she didn't want to return.

"My uncle pushed me," she says, laughing. "And when I hit the body, the line in the song was, 'You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.' And I opened my eyes and I said, 'You know, that is really insensitive!' "

A Vision That Matches The Record

Afterwards, Reynolds assumed she had been hallucinating. But a year later, she mentioned the details to her neurosurgeon. Spetzler says her account matched his memory.

"From a scientific perspective," he says, "I have absolutely no explanation about how it could have happened."

Spetzler did not check out all the details, but Michael Sabom did. Sabom is a cardiologist in Atlanta who was researching near-death experiences.

"With Pam's permission, they sent me her records from the surgery," he says. "And long story short, what she said happened to her is actually what Spetzler did with her out in Arizona."

According to the records, there were 20 doctors in the room. There was a conversation about the veins in her left leg. She was defibrillated. They were playing "Hotel California." How about that bone saw? Sabom got a photo from the manufacturer — and it does look like an electric toothbrush.

How, Sabom wonders, could she know these things?

"She could not have heard [it], because of what they did to her ears," he says. "In addition, both of her eyes were taped shut, so she couldn't open her eyes and see what was going on. So her physical sensory perception was off the table."

An Alternative Explanation?

That's preposterous, says anesthesiologist Gerald Woerlee.

"This report provides absolutely no evidence for survival of any sort of consciousness outside the body during near-death experiences or any other such experiences," he says.

Woerlee, an Australian researcher and near-death experience debunker who has investigated Reynolds' case, says what happened to her is easy to explain. He says when they cut into her head, she was jolted into consciousness. At that point, they had not yet drained blood from her brain. He believes she could hear — despite the clicking earplugs.

"There are various explanations," Woerlee says. "One: that the earphones or plugs were not that tightly fitting. Two: It could have been that it was due to sound transmission through the operating table itself."

So Reynolds could have heard conversations. As for seeing the Midas Rex bone saw, he says, she recognized a sound from her childhood.

"She made a picture in her mind of a machine or a device which was very similar to what she was familiar with — a dental drill," Woerlee says.

Woerlee says Reynolds experienced anesthesia awareness, in which a person is conscious but can't move. He figures back in 1991, that happened in 1 out of every 2,000 operations.

That doesn't convince cardiologist Sabom or neurosurgeon Spetzler. They believe the combination of anesthesia and the sluggish brain activity caused by hypothermia meant that Reynolds could not form or retain memories for a significant part of the operation. At the very least, Sabom says, Reynolds' story raises the possibility that consciousness can function even when the brain is offline.

"Is there some type of awareness that occurs from a nonfunctional, physical brain?" Sabom asks. "And if there is, does that mean that there's a soul or spirit?"

Re-Creating Near-Death Experiences

In the end, Reynolds' story is just an anecdote. And in fact, that's the problem with all the studies of near-death experiences. After all, you can't do clinical trials where you kill Mrs. Smith and tag along as she passes through the tunnel to the light, just to verify her story.

Except in Hollywood, of course. In the 1990 movie Flatliners (starring Julia Roberts and Kiefer Sutherland), five medical students try to peer into the next world by stopping their hearts and returning to tell the tale.

The movie inspired Mario Beauregard, a neuroscientist at the University of Montreal. What if he could do the next best thing? Since stopping people's hearts is a research no-no, he is asking people who have had near-death experiences to relive them while he looks to see what's happening in their head.

"And it seems that these people have a different sort of brain," Beauregard says in his soft French accent. "It's like there's a shift in their brain, and this shift will allow these people to stay in touch with the spiritual world more easily, on a daily basis."

Beauregard recruited 15 people who had a near-death experience. One of those was Gilles Bedard. In 1973, Bedard's heart stopped, and in the moments before he was resuscitated, he was greeted by what he describes as 12 beings of light.

"And I felt it was like the breath of the universe. Because it was like …" he says as he blows out his breath, slowly, like a low wind, "very, very peaceful."

Since then, Bedard has meditated every day, and he says he often reconnects with the light. The research question is, how will his brain respond when he does?

A Permanent Change In Brain Activity?

For the experiment, Bedard is shut into an isolation chamber at Beauregard's Montreal lab. Bedard's head sprouts 32 electrodes, which will record his brain wave activity. He's told to relax for a few moments. Then he'll be instructed to imagine his near-death experience.

A few minutes later, Beauregard and his research assistant are peering at a computer screen recording Bedard's brain waves. They cluck happily at the slow, large-amplitude Delta waves undulating across the screen — typical of a person in deep meditation or deep sleep.

Afterward, the researcher asks Bedard if he was able to connect with the light.

"Yeah, it was coming from within," he says. "It was loving, intelligent … very powerful."

It would take Beauregard a year to complete his research on near-death experiences. A few weeks ago, I called to ask him what he had found.

"It's like the near-death experience triggered something at a neural level in the brain," he said. "And perhaps this change, in terms of brain activity, is sort of permanent."

Beauregard says it's as if touching death jump-started the spiritual lives of these people. Their brains in the spiritual state look a lot like those of Catholic nuns and Buddhist monks who have spent tens of thousands of hours in prayer and meditation. Both groups showed extremely slow brain wave activity.

The researchers also saw significant changes in brain regions associated with positive emotions, attention and personal boundaries, as subjects who had had near-death experiences lost their sense of their physical bodies and merged with God or the "light."

Brain Chemistry Or A Trip To Heaven?

Skeptic Woerlee says there's nothing remarkable — and certainly nothing spiritual — about these findings.

"The brain function of many of these people who have undergone a near-death experience is altered," Woerlee says. "That's correct. It is altered. Extreme oxygen starvation does change brain function — because it causes brain damage to the larger cells in the brain."

It's brain chemistry, he says, not a trip to heaven.

In other words, Woerlee and Beauregard looked at the same images and came to opposite conclusions.

I found that dichotomy everywhere as I interviewed experts about the emerging science of spirituality. It's kind of like a Rorschach test: Some researchers look at the data and say spiritual experience is only an electrical storm in the temporal lobe, or a brain gasping for oxygen — all fully explainable by science. Others say our brains are reflecting an encounter with the divine.

And almost invariably, where a scientist stands on that issue has little to do with the clinical findings of any study. It has almost everything to do with the scientist's personal beliefs.