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Sunday, June 10, 2007Tragedy Of Young Osama
After years of being taunted as "bin Laden" and "terrorist" at school, Osama Al-Najjar attempted suicide last July at the age of 15.
Now 16, he is an extreme example of the difficulties facing some Arabs in New York, the city hit hardest by the attacks of September 11, 2001.
"They destroyed everything nice in our life with what they did to him," said Suad Abuhasna, Osama's mother, referring to racist abuse she said was heaped on her son while he was a student at Tottenville High School in Staten Island.
Osama is now officially known as Sammy. He changed his name in December to escape the stigma attached to the name he shares with al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
"I just wanted to make his life easier," said Suad, who immigrated from Jordan with her husband and four children in December 1999. Her eldest son has served in the U.S. Navy in the Iraq war.
Leaders of the Muslim community -- which numbers about 600,000 in New York City and is among the fastest growing groups in the city, according to a Columbia University study -- say Osama's case highlights an increasing distrust and fear of Islam among Americans since 9/11.
"There's become this culture of Islamophobia in American society," said Arsalan Iftikhar, national legal director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
"Unfortunately, kids are not immune."
Researchers at Tel Aviv University in Israel have demonstrated that neurons cultured outside the brain can be imprinted with multiple rudimentary memories that persist for days without interfering with or wiping out others.
"The main achievement was the fact that we used the inhibition of the inhibitory neurons" to stimulate the memory patterns, says physicist Eshel Ben-Jacob, senior author of a paper on the findings published in the May issue of Physical Review E. "We probably made [the cell culture] trigger the collective mode of activity that … [is] … possible."
The results, Ben-Jacob says, set the stage for the creation of a neuromemory chip that could be paired with computer hardware to create cyborglike machines capable of such tasks as detecting dangerous toxins in the air, allowing the blind to see or helping someone who is paralyzed regain some if not all muscle use.
Ben-Jacob points out that previous attempts to develop memories on brain cell cultures (neurons along with their supporting and insulating glial cells) have often involved stimulating the synapses (nerve cell connections). So-called excitatory neurons, which amplify brain activity, account for nearly 80 percent of the neurons in the brain; inhibitory neurons, which dampen activity, make up the remaining 20 percent. Stimulating excitatory cells with chemicals or electric pulses causes them to fire, or send electrical signals of their own to neighboring neurons.
According to Ben-Jacob, previous attempts to trigger the cells to create a repeating pattern of signals sent from neuron to neuron in a population—which neuroscientists believe constitutes the formation of a memory in the context of performing a task—focused on excitatory neurons. These experiments were flawed because they resulted in randomly escalated activity that does not mimic what occurs when new information is learned.
This time, Ben-Jacob and graduate student Itay Baruchi, who led the study, targeted inhibitory neurons to try to bring some order to their neural network. They mounted the cell culture on a polymer panel studded with electrodes, which enabled Ben-Jacob and Baruchi to monitor the patterns created by firing neurons. All of the cells on the electrode array came from the cortex, the outermost layer of the brain known for its role in memory formation.
In Japan, Buddhist monks wear black. Dead people wear white.
For more than seven years, Genshin Fujinami dressed in white from head to toe while covering the backwoods trails of this sacred mountain in one of the world's most grueling feats - a punishing quest that combined starvation, isolation and the equivalent of a lap around the equator.
For 1,000 days, rising well before dawn, Fujinami embarked alone, rain or shine, on his journey, running or briskly walking more than 50 miles - that's almost two marathons - each day as the trial neared its climax. Along with his white robes, his only gear was a pair of straw sandals, a long straw hat, candles, a shovel, a length of rope and a short sword.
The rope and sword weren't for survival - if for some reason he could not complete his daily trek, he was to use them to kill himself.
"I would have chosen the rope over the knife because it's faster and cleaner. But, fortunately, it rarely comes to that,'' Fujinami, a stout man with a shaven head, said at a small temple deep in the mountains where he is now an abbot. On the wall behind him was a scroll with a painting of Fudo Myo-o, his guardian god, who normally is portrayed with a fearsome scowl, a raised sword and a backdrop of leaping flames.
Since 1885, only 48 "marathon monks'' of Buddhism's Tendai sect have accomplished the ritual. Those who do earn the title of "dai-ajari,'' or living saint. At least one of the monks to attempt the trial is known to have killed himself in modern times, Fujinami said.
The quest dates to the eighth century and is believed to be a path to enlightenment. Monks carry a little book of prayers and incantations, which they offer at about 300 temples and sacred spots along the way. Other than that, they don't stop for breaks.
"You don't go on the trails to train, you go to offer prayers,'' he said. "Athletes do it for awards. We do it to grow spiritually.''
Fujinami's spiritual training began when he became a monk at 19.
"I had a regular job before that, but I decided I wanted to join a monastery and think about my life,'' he said. "I think I found something that fits me well.''
For many years, he lived a routine life, studying the sutras and teachings of Buddha. But at 34, he decided to undertake the most rigorous path his sect had to offer.
Two years later, he took his first steps.
"I didn't really train first,'' he said. "I just went out to learn the trails. Then I was off.''
A strict regimen dictates that in each of the journey's first three years, the pilgrim must rise at midnight for 100 consecutive days to pray and run along an 18-mile trail around Mount Hiei, on the outskirts of the ancient capital of Kyoto. Fujinami left his temple at 1 in the morning, and returned about nine hours later to spend the rest of the day praying, cleaning or doing other chores.
He slept three or four hours a night.
In the next two years, he had to extend his runs to 200 days. In the winter, the pilgrim runner gets to take a break.
Fujinami said the time spent on the trails is spread out over seven years not because of the rigors, but to allow for time to reflect.
"You learn how to see your real self,'' he said. "You learn to understand what is important and what isn't.''
Fujinami said his most difficult trial came during the fifth year, when he had to sit in the lotus position before a raging fire and chant mantras for nine days without food, water or sleep in an esoteric ritual called "doiri,'' or "entering the temple.''
After 330 prostrations, the monk repeats a mantra to Fudo Myo-o 100,000 times. Two attendants take turns being with him before the altar to keep watch, making sure he doesn't stop, fall asleep or pass out. On the fifth day, the monk is allowed to rinse out his mouth, but not to swallow the water.
"You can only do this after preparing,'' he said. "After about four days, you really start to lose your strength and your clarity. You stop caring about anything. But you have to keep sitting upright and repeating the mantras.''
In the sixth year, Fujinami covered 37 1/2 miles every day for 100 days. And in the seventh year, he went 52 1/2 miles for 100 days and then 18 miles for another 100 days.
"There are times when you fall into a slump and just don't want to go on,'' he said. "It's hardest in the summer. You wonder why you have to suffer like this.''
Fujinami ran his last circuit in 2003 - when he was 44.
The quest has earned Fujinami the respect of extreme athletes around the world.
One of them is Dave Ganci, who wrote about the monks in Trail Runner magazine and has trained special forces, including Navy SEALS, for the U.S. military.
"I have been out on the thin edge of heat, cold, fatigue, starvation and dehydration stress many times and to the point where I had to play mental games with my body to keep it moving,'' Ganci said in an e-mail from his home in Arizona, where he teaches survival skills.
"I still cannot identify with the marathon monks' regimen and how they accomplish their feats by any physical definition,'' he said.
There’s no doubt about it: right now, God is on the side of the atheists.
The apostles of unbelief are having their Pentecostal moment. The spirit is upon them, endowing them with the gift of tongues and commanding them to spread the Bad News. British contrarian and journalist Christopher Hitchens’s current smash God Is Not Great (Twelve) was preceded on the bestseller lists by Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin) and Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation (Knopf). Then there’s Tufts professor Daniel Dennett, whose Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Penguin) has also been doing quite well.
In pure publishing terms, this mini-boom in godlessness can be interpreted as a backlash against the mumbo-jumbo juggernaut of The Da Vinci Code and its ilk. More profoundly, it has provoked serious public discussion of the role of faith in our current politics, and in the prosecution of the so-called war on terror. And more profoundly still, it has given the average unreligious Seinfeld fan, well, something to believe in. Secularism is not glorious: it’s a dude in Starbucks tweaking his Blackberry. Now at last, with these champions going before him, this slumped figure can rise and partake of that cosmic gallantry on which the faithful, hitherto, have had a monopoly.
With the exception of Dennett’s work (he mildly researches “the belief in belief”), the manner of these books is urgent and intemperate: atheism, their authors insist, is an idea whose time has come, and the sooner this religion business gets knocked on the head, the better things will be for everyone. And since the antidote to piety is disrespect, the believer can count on few courtesies in their pages. Dawkins labels churchgoers “faith-heads”: a word to be pronounced, presumably, with the same asperity as “crackheads.” Hitchens returns again and again to the idea that religion belongs “to the infancy of mankind,” and scolds and chides the religious accordingly. Harris’s style is hoarse and didactic, fitted to what he sees as a state of global emergency: “You believe that Christianity is an unrivaled source of human goodness,” he writes. “You believe that the Bible is the most profound book ever written and that its contents have stood the test of time so well that it must have been divinely inspired. All of these beliefs are false.”
Even the genial Dennett, who is bearded like Santa Claus, proposes with a professorial twinkle that the God-free be called “brights,” and credits them with a significant moral edge: apparently, brights have the lowest divorce rate in the United States.
The atheists have also carried their crusade to the media, where, so far, their opponents have been brought low like something from Psalm 18 (“Yea, he sent out his arrows, and scattered them; and he shot out lightnings, and discomfited them.”) Consider, for example, the recent woes of Al Sharpton. On May 7, the Reverend Al debated Christopher Hitchens at the New York Public Library, on the notion “God Is Not Great.” The debate was a rhetorical mismatch, without particular interest until the moment when the Creator, in His wisdom, allowed Sharpton to open his mouth spectacularly wide and insert the entirety of his own foot.
Alluding to the Mormonism of Republican candidate Mitt Romney, Sharpton grandly told his audience not to worry, because Romney would be defeated by “those who really believe in God.” Lazy chuckles from the crowd. But within hours, the Romney war machine had mobilized: the candidate went before the cameras complaining of “religious bigotry,” appealingly casting himself in the role of maligned believer and forcing the reverend into a blustery self-defense.
Worse, the suitability of Mormonism in a presidential candidate — a tricky area for Mitt — was suddenly off the table as an issue: which of Romney’s conservative opponents would want to be on the same side, even for a second, as Al Sharpton? Score one for the Mormonator. Hitchens, meanwhile, preened in triumph. He glittered with delight: here, on the front page, was the sort of low-brow tribal god-squabble that gave meaning to the subtitle of his book: “How Religion Poisons Everything.”
Hounds of Hell
Next, consider the fate of Ted Haggard. In 2005, the then-pastor of the New Life Church and chairman of the National Association of Evangelicals was interviewed-slash-confronted by Dawkins for a documentary on religion called The Root of All Evil? Filmed at the New Life compound in Colorado Springs, it was a leering, lip-curling encounter, a showpiece of contempt, in which the atheist Dawkins accused the Biblical literalist Haggard (somewhat tautologically, perhaps) of knowing nothing about evolution, while Haggard suggested that Dawkins’s grandchildren might one day “laugh at him” for his belief in natural selection. “You wanna bet?” snarled Dawkins, his mad-scientist eyebrows standing quill-like in fury. The pastor then threw Dawkins and the camera crew off his land, uttering the classic creationist retort: “You called my children animals!”