Isolation: The Prisoner and the Yogi

In the most recent edition of The New Yorker, Atul Gawande has an absorbing article titled “Hellhole,” in which he reviews the effects of extreme isolation on the human mind. In particular, his article focuses on prisoners in America’s SuperMax facilities that spend upwards of 23 hours a day in solitary confinement. He also uses as examples, prisoners of war/hostages such as Terry Anderson and John McCain (who were isolated as a form of torture). American prisons purportedly use solitary confinement as a last ditch deterrent against the “worst of the worst”: that segment of the prison population which continues to commit crimes inside of the prison, gives the guards a hard time, or has successfully escaped previously. The problem is that the data shows that this approach simply doesn’t work. What’s more, it is as bad as any form of torture in that it irreversibly destroys the human brain:

Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, received rare permission to study a hundred randomly selected inmates at California’s Pelican Bay supermax, and noted a number of phenomena. First, after months or years of complete isolation, many prisoners “begin to lose the ability to initiate behavior of any kind–to organize their own lives around activity and purpose,” he writes. “Chronic apathy, lethargy, depression, and despair often result. . . . In extreme cases, prisoners may literally stop behaving,” becoming essentially catatonic.

Second, almost ninety per cent of these prisoners had difficulties with “irrational anger,” compared with just three per cent of prisoners in the general population. Haney attributed this to the extreme restriction, the totality of control, and the extended absence of any opportunity for happiness or joy. Many prisoners in solitary become consumed with revenge fantasies.

…EEG studies going back to the nineteen-sixties have shown diffuse slowing of brain waves in prisoners after a week or more of solitary confinement. In 1992, fifty-seven prisoners of war, released after an average of six months in detention camps in the former Yugoslavia, were examined using EEG-like tests. The recordings revealed brain abnormalities months afterward; the most severe were found in prisoners who had endured either head trauma sufficient to render them unconscious or, yes, solitary confinement. Without sustained social interaction, the human brain may become as impaired as one that has incurred a traumatic injury. [Link]

I find that last sentence particularly important given our modern culture of incessant Twittering and Facebook updates. If you think the reaction of the brain to social deprivation is bad now, just wait until you see the next generation of prisoners who not only have their friends and family but also their Twitter circle stripped from them. The most disturbing observation that Gawande makes is that none of this is a revelation. On the scientific front, Harry Harlow and his cruel experiments proved in the 1950s what harm isolation causes in monkeys. On the legal front, the U.S. Supreme Court opined in 1890 that solitary was no way to re-habilitate a criminal mind:

Justice Samuel Miller noted… “serious objections” to solitary confinement:

A considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others, still, committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community. [Link]

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Dating advice from…Al Qaeda

An unintentionally hilarious (to me) story on NPR Monday morning. It seems that West Point researchers stumbled upon a terrorist recruitment “how-to” manual:

Researchers at West Point recently stumbled on the 51-page manual while they were visiting a jihadi chat room, called Ecles. It’s a Web site that allows members to have interactive discussions, post videos and download manuals. Ecles is the second most popular jihadi chat room on the Web, and al-Qaida often posts things there. Because of that, it is a place counterterrorism analysts track regularly.

So when the West Point analysts discovered a step-by-step primer called “The Art of Recruiting Mujahedeen,” it got their attention. On one level, the manual might be an early indication that al-Qaida is trying to identify new sleeper terrorists. On the other hand, the book is so basic it seems to suggest al-Qaida is getting desperate for new members. [Link]

What is it in the manual that suggests desperation to some? Well, if I were to slap a different, more pleasant cover on the book and then re-name it to, let’s say… “The Art of Seducing Desi Boys” I think I could make big money by marketing it to some SM readers. Behold the advice, straight from the manual [with my suggested modifications]:

Here’s how the manual, as translated by the CIA, suggests a recruiter build a rapport with a recruit:

“This stage lasts approximately three weeks [unless it overlaps with March Madness in which case it may take longer],” it says. “You must do something important at this stage [such as letting him go past first base]. You must identify his interests and relations with people [especially with his overprotective mother] and how he spends the whole 24 hours, meaning you study him secretly to be reassured about your choice [and make sure he does not talk about finance, medicine, or Battlestar Galactica too much…well definitely not finance or medicine].”

This section touches on such things as being nice to the recruit. It suggests the recruiter pretend to be his friend, perhaps even buy him small gifts [like the Wii]. It ends with a questionnaire to assess progress. “Is the recruit [more] anxious to see you [than Jamal was to see Latika]?” it asks. You get one point for “no” [because he probably doesn’t have many options anyways] and three points for “[hell] yes.” Does he accept your advice and respect your opinion [about how he should smile like Sanjay Gupta more often]?… “If you have received less than 10 points, you are on the wrong path [and need to try again on, or a speed dating event], repeat the stages from the beginning. From 10 to 18, you are on your way [to achieving your Bollywood Dreams].” [Link]

I’m telling you. There is money to be made in this book idea of mine.

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Desis Can Save Us… Part II

A few months ago, I mentioned a unique proposal from Alan Greenspan for addressing our housing-led recession – basically, import desis to shore up the buyer side of the market –

Here We Come to Save the Day… Again.

“The most effective initiative, though politically difficult, would be a major expansion in quotas for skilled immigrants,” he said. The only sustainable way to increase demand for vacant houses is to spur the formation of new households. Admitting more skilled immigrants, who tend to earn enough to buy homes, would accomplish that while paying other dividends to the U.S. economy.

He estimates the number of new households in the U.S. currently is increasing at an annual rate of about 800,000, of whom about one third are immigrants. “Perhaps 150,000 of those are loosely classified as skilled,” he said. “A double or tripling of this number would markedly accelerate the absorption of unsold housing inventory for sale — and hence help stabilize prices.”

In the meantime, several other pundits have come forth with similar proposals including Thomas Friedman

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Sonny Spreads for GQ

Sonny GQ.jpg

Remember Sonny from the Kenneth Cole ads? Our favorite sexy Sikh man is back, this time with a full spread out in GQ Spring/Summer ’09.

Sonny GQ 2.jpg

It’s great that the image of the sardar is receiving positive attention. Perhaps it will encourage those who aren’t familiar with Sikhs to learn more. I said perhaps. More realistically, the page will be turned (no, not all Sikh men dress…like that) and Sikhs will still be unknown. It’s in our human nature to see something unfamiliar, and then go back to our dinner and never think of it again. [LangarHall]

Why so skeptical, Sundari? I’m sure many a folks will be turning the pages on this entry virtually, repeatedly. More pictures after the jump… Continue reading

Monday Morning Music

Good morning, Monday…Play this loud in your office and have your cubicle be this morning’s water cooler.

I’ve always been fascinated with how desi music is spread worldwide and fuses with local sounds. Though this video is from last year, I think this may be one of the best I’ve seen as far as Desi Reggaetone music. Turns out homeboy is a brother from our Canadian mother…

Sunil aka ishQ Bector from Winnipeg’s legendary hip hop group Frek Sho moved to India a few years ago, signed to a major label, and became a star…Born & raised in Winnipeg, Canada, Sunil aka IshQ has made Mumbai his second home. Certified in Chinese Medicine with his forte in Acupuncture, this multi-talented Gemini followed his first passion in life, music. He has studied acting at the famous Roshan Taneja film studio in Mumbai then went on to VJ & host shows on MTV, B4U & Channel V… Since then he has shared the stage with artists like Sean Paul, Mobb Deep, Chamillionaire, John Cena (WWE), & Rishi Rich raising the temperature a couple of notches with his skillz on the mic and as a performer.[IshQisDead]

Desi Canadian Chinese Medicine schooled Reggatone singing hip hip performer in India. Now that is international fusion right there…

And another fusion video, just for giggles, this one Chutney flavored

I’m hopping on the next flight to Trinidad to find me some sparkle vest wearing man…Tell me these videos weren’t the wake-up call you needed this morning. 😉 Continue reading

Shashi Tharoor Enters the Political Fray in Kerala

Earlier today in my Google News feed, I was surprised to note a story in the Indian news about Shashi Tharoor’s campaign for a Lok Sabha seat in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. Tharoor, whom we’ve written about relatively often at Sepia Mutiny, was until 2007 the Under-Secretary General of the United Nations. He is currently 53, which makes him practically a baby in Indian Political Years; he could certainly have a significant political career ahead of him in India if things work out. The nation-wide Parliamentary elections start in India next month.

Tharoor is running as a Congress Party/UPA member. He has started a bilingual website to articulate his campaign platform. Here is his recent announcement at the Huffington Post, explaining roughly what he’s trying to do:

On Thursday night, 19 March 2009, the Indian National Congress party announced my nomination as its candidate for the Lok Sabha (the Lower House of Parliament) at the forthcoming General Elections. I will contest from the capital of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram (known more familiarly as Trivandrum).

It’s a huge turn in my life and involves a further “reboot” two years after leaving the UN. The seat is currently held by the Communist Party of India, which has nominated its general secretary. There are also candidates from the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), a former Congress Member of Parliament, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), as well an independent candidate who has already outspent the rest of us and whose posters have been plastered across the city. Rumours are circulating of a sixth possible entrant into the fray. Psephologists would have about as much accuracy as astrologers in predicting the outcome of such a complex contest.

Thiruvananthapuram is only about 40% urban Рthe rest of the constituency, stretching to the southernmost tip of the country, is rural, and includes a large coastal community dependent largely upon fishing. As I embark on this voyage, every clich̩ about sailing into uncharted waters and choppy seas applies to me. (link)

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Aristotle as Kerala’s Suicide Cure?


p>I came across a brief blogpost about the correlation between literacy, GNP and suicide rates in Europe and it spawned some rambling thoughts Perhaps this is exactly what blogging’s meant for –




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Does He Have An Answer?

Dr Andrej Maruai, a Slovene psychiatrist involved in organizing the conference, presented a paper called “Suicide in Europe: Genetics, Literacy and Poverty” which convincingly shows the links between the social factors of literacy and poverty, and suicidal behavior. . . .

According to Maruai’s theory, the higher any given country’s literacy rate and the lower that country’s GNP, the more likely the country is to have a high suicide rate. The theory can be convincingly applied to the countries with the highest suicide rates in Europe, namely the three Baltic states, Hungary and Slovenia, where literacy is at almost 100 percent and where the GNP and standard of living have been adversely affected by the transition process.

Maruai’s hypothesis certainly fits one of the oft-cited downsides of “the Kerala model”

…among other states of India Kerala has highest suicidal rate. This is in spite of the fact that Kerala is having the highest rate of literacy and Kerala is having an accepted model for Health Care Delivery System. In this context it is also important to note that Kerala is the largest market of psychiatric drugs in South India and our state is having the highest rate of unemployment and the highest per capita alcoholic consumption.

Why is this so?

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Wajiha Ahmed: A Second Take on Last Week’s “Long March” in Pakistan

In addition to regular comments to blog posts, I often get emails from readers expressing all manner of opinions. This week, following my recent post on the protests in Pakistan, I received a note from a graduate student in Boston named Wajiha Ahmed that was intelligent enough to provoke me to spend a little time replying. Wajiha had also, a few days earlier, published an Op-Ed in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (it was written while the protests were just beginning). Wajiha’s response to my response was essentially a full-fledged essay. I asked her if she would slightly revise her comments in defense of the Long March protests into something for Sepia Mutiny, as a sort of one-off guest post. She agreed, and the following is a one-time guest post by Wajiha Ahmed.

The comment Wajiha most objected to was actually made by me in the comments of the original post. I said, “I think there are some people looking at this that are thinking that what is happening is not simply the expression of free speech, but a rather naked attempt at a power-grab by Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif. Given the security crisis in the country, a protest movement like this could be seen as irresponsible.” In my first email to Wajiha, I also wrote:

What prompted me to suggest that Sharif was acting irresponsibly was a personal conversation with a friend here in Pennsylvania named [KC], who comes originally from Lahore. [KC] said to me last week that the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in particular left him feeling extremely depressed, since it’s beginning to seem that the militants are increasingly coming down out of the hills, and their kind of Islam is increasingly driving the agenda of the country. Given what has happened in Swat and NWFP in the past few months, it may be that the real cultural-political undercurrent that needs to be addressed is the growth of that militancy. Not because of *America’s* war on terror, but actually for Pakistan’s own internal security and stability.

Below is Wajiha’s response to those points.

Guest Post by Wajiha Ahmed

I’m writing this post in response to Sepia Mutiny’s reporting on the second Pakistani Long March to restore a deposed independent judiciary and Chief Justice. The sentiment has been that a) it was irresponsible and could have possibly destabilized Pakistan, and b) energy should have instead focused on the ‘real’ problem Pakistan faces: growing ‘sympathy’ for militants. As I see it, however, we just witnessed one of the largest broad-based, secular, non-violent movements for the rule of law and democracy in Pakistan’s history. Of course, one event is not going to change everything. But democracy is not an event, it is a process. Therefore, rather than being reported with cynicism, this important civil disobedience movement should instead have been encouraged and celebrated. In the past year, Pakistanis have successfully forced out a military dictator (Musharraf) AND compelled an authoritarian leader (Zardari) to listen to their voices – a rare, uplifting story in these trying days.

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Gobi is brain food

We regularly get news tips about freakishly smart desi kids, like six year old Pranav Veera:

Pranav Veera can recite the names of the U.S. presidents in the order they served in office. He can say the alphabet backward. Give him a date back to 2000, and he’ll tell you the day of the week. He’s only 6 years old… Pranav has an IQ of 176… Albert Einstein’s IQ was believed to be about 160. The average IQ is 100. [link]

Yawn. Another desi Doogie in diapers. I mean, the kid is cute:

But he’s not really that smart:

What does Pranav want to be when he grows up? “An astronaut,” he said without hesitation. [link]

Besides which, I know the secret of our racial success. No, it’s not secret pooja, genetic superiority or even sheer numbers (if one person in a million has an IQ of 176 or above, and there are over a million desis in America … ), it’s parents:

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Happy Nuclear Bomb Diwali!

There’s a fascinating set of Hindu Nationalist Greeting Cards from the 1990s over at Tasveer Ghar, with an accompanying essay. All of the cards were made for New Years, and intended to be used used on Diwali and Vikram Samvath. My favorite two are below.

The card on the left is a Diwali card celebrating the first Indian nuclear bomb explosion, and yes, that is a lingam in the center of the explosion.

The poem at the back of the card tells the reader that “Today, the nation’s sleeping pride has woken up …. Shiva’s third eye has opened, and the World-destroyer has woken. … The nation’s sleeping pride has woken up.” [link]

The card on the right depicts “Mother India calling her sons to fight against capitalism, Islam and Christian missionary activities” [link]:

The primary dangers represented in this New Year card are cultural domination (Westernisation); the alleged threat to Indianness from ‘alien’ religious practices of Christianity and Islam (conversion and separatism), and the politics of economic globalisation (capitalism as colonising practice) [link]


p>You can imagine what they must think of Bobby Jindal.

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