A Crisis for the Faithful

The Parsi bodies are piling up in India. Parsis are modern adherents of the ancient Zoroastrian faith that emerged in the 6th century B.C. in Persia, predating Christianity and Islam. According to many scholars, Zoroastrianism influenced these religions and Judaism with its fundamental concept of a dualistic world of light versus darkness, with a good God pitted against the forces of evil.

In the earthly realm of humans, Parsis also believe in the ritual purity of fire, soil and water, elements that shouldn’t be sullied by pollution from a defiling corpse. So while virtually all other cultures dispose of their dead by burial or cremation, Parsis have followed a more unusual method. Yet after millennia, that method now has been called into question, forcing a crisis of faith whose only answer is adaptation.

In a ritual so old it was described by Herodotus, Zoroastrians have laid out their dead atop Towers of Silence to be exposed to sun, sky and—most importantly—vultures. These massive harbingers of death with eight-foot wingspans once numbered in the millions across South Asia and could strip a corpse to the bone in hours. Yet their service has come to an abrupt end in the past decade as the vulture population plummeted due to a fatal reaction to a common painkiller given to the livestock and humans that the birds eventually feed upon. Ongoing habitat shrinkage has exacerbated the decline. With vultures virtually extinct, the Parsis are left struggling with the question of how to preserve traditions when modern forces conspire against them.

This threatened custom is just one more blow to a religion already perched on the edge of annihilation. Though tens of millions of Parsis once lived across Asia, now there are only an estimated 140,000 world-wide, with the majority in India and the next-largest group in the U.S. Most are based in Mumbai, where they own 155 pristine, park-like acres that shelter the squat stone Towers of Silence amid a dappled sunlit forest.

Vultures haven’t been seen in Mumbai for years. The Parsis have attempted to replace the service that the birds provided so seamlessly, for so long, with a series of failed technologies, including ozone machines and chemicals to accelerate decomposition. They’ve settled on solar reflectors directed at the bodies to speed up the process of decay without violating the fundamental tenet of their religion to avoid fire. The most orthodox of priests disapprove even of this, claiming that it’s tantamount to cremation.

Priests aren’t the only ones holding the line against modernization. “People say the Towers of Silence are antiquated, that we should move on to cremation and forget our tradition,” says Khojeste Mistree, an Oxford-educated Parsi scholar. “I’m totally opposed.” Prof. Mistree and others in the Parsi governing body insist that the solar collectors are working.

Not so, according to Ms. Dhan Baria, a 70-year-old Parsi. After her mother’s death in 2006, and following the leads of rumors about accumulating bodies, she hired a photographer to sneak into the towers. Gruesome photos confirmed the gossip. Now an active reformer, Ms. Baria believes that Parsis should have access to burial or cremation, with full rites permitted on the sacred grounds, in order to avoid the fate of her mother’s body, which remained on the towers long after her death, exposed through the treetops to some high-rise apartments of upscale Malabar Hill. In December, I walked through the grounds surrounding the towers with Ms. Baria. She pointed into the forest, where peacocks strutted about, and lamented repeatedly, “Why can’t this space be used as a cemetery?”

Ms. Baria is typical of a growing group of Parsis who believe their faith must adapt in order to survive. Her photographs of decaying bodies heightened the divide within a dwindling community already fractured over other matters of tradition, including conversion and intermarriage, that vex various religious communities, including American Jews, in the face of modernity.

With the conventional Parsi priests offering what are, in effect, one-stop funeral services at the Towers of Silence, reformers feel unable to effect change within their religious community. Instead, some are turning to the Indian legal system. In a discrimination case now before the Gujarat state high court, a Parsi woman who married a non-Parsi is suing for the right to enter fire temples and to participate in last rites for her parents—practices that have traditionally been forbidden to non-Parsis or to those whose faith is questioned because of intermarriage.

“This powerful, vociferous minority of reformists doesn’t know the religion,” responds the Oxford scholar Mr. Mistree.

But what is “the religion”? To persist for millennia, Parsis have adapted many times over, emigrating from their native Persia in the 10th century and adjusting to India. They then spread out in a global diaspora to places where they have adopted burial and cremation because there simply are no Towers of Silence or circling vultures. Tradition is the bedrock of faith, observances and ritual the fundamental and physical manifestation of belief. Yet there are circumstances where, in order to uphold convention, it is necessary to reshape the foundation, carve here and add there, so that “the religion” might endure for millennia to come.

Ms. Subramanian is a free-lance writer and senior editor of KillingTheBuddha.com, an online literary magazine about religion.

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Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304017404575165732562175068.html

Hurry Up and Wait

Seeing life as a pattern of furious blasts surrounded by oceans of inactivity.

Like most white-collar workers, I often feel as if I write email nonstop. Every minute at my desk brings another message to deal with: an editor wondering about a deadline, a friend asking about lunch, weird quasi-spam from Facebook or Twitter.

But the truth is that email doesn’t actually dominate my life. When I look closely at my outbox, I can see that I write in sudden spurts—big blasts of messages followed by silence for hours and sometimes days. Yesterday, for example, I had a busy morning, cranking out 15 messages at around 10 and another 20 an hour later. But then all was quiet until late afternoon, when I suddenly cranked out an additional 16.

It turns out that this pattern—explosions of activity, followed by quiet—are not just a personal quirk of mine. Odds are, you deal with your email in much the same way. According to Albert-László Barabási’s “Bursts,” this “bursty” pattern governs almost everything we do and even much of what happens in the natural world.

By now the promise of unveiling a “hidden side” behind everyday life—economics, career development, child-rearing, cooking, you name it—is a numbingly familiar trope. (What mystic subcurrent in contemporary American intellectual culture is so routinely thrilled with the concept that everything we do— everything!—conceals a secret, hidden side?) Nonetheless, Mr. Barabási, a pioneering scientist in the field of network theory, comes by the trope honestly. His research has genuinely exposed invisible trendlines that shape our world.

In his first book, “Linked,” Mr. Barabási offered a lucid theory of how the shape of networks can produce unexpected results, such as the “rich get richer” cascades of popularity we see on the Web. If a Web site becomes moderately popular, visitors will post a lot of links pointing toward it, which brings in new visitors who post their own links to the site, and so on . . . until eventually the shape of the network guarantees a big, entrenched daily audience. By contrast, a site that never attracts much attention in the first place is likely to stay that way. These self-reinforcing dynamics help explain why popularity on the Web often follows a “power law”: There are a tiny number of sites with massive traffic and a vast majority that have few visitors at all. The power law governs the shape of the Web and many other networked structures.

Now it turns out that power laws might govern the timing of our real-world activities, too. In “Bursts,” Mr. Barabási argues that bursty patterns are wired into human behavior, because we’re task-rich but time-poor. When we’re faced with having too much to do and not enough time—a category under which you could safely file “all modern white-collar work”—we prioritize. We pick the most urgent things, focus on them and forget the rest. Once forgotten, a task often stays forgotten, ignored for hours, days, months or even years. The act of prioritizing inherently produces power laws that dictate what we do on a minute-by-minute basis.

As Mr. Barabási’s research finds, the prioritizing reflex is why we send email in furious blasts surrounded by oceans of inactivity. We make phone calls and check out books from libraries in a similar pattern, and burstiness shapes our patterns of travel: We take many short hops, interspersed with the occasional superlong hop (which helps explain how diseases spread). We even attend to our health in bursty patterns, ignoring symptoms when other things are more important until—bam—a health problem suddenly becomes unignorable, producing a flurry of medical visits in a short time.

“Time is our most valuable nonrenewable resource, and if we want to treat it with respect, we need to set priorities,” Mr. Barabási writes. “Once we do that, power laws and burstiness become unavoidable.” Normally, I’d have thought that our penchant for bursts of activity would make life more erratic, as one person’s burst collides with another’s stasis. (If you’ve ever drummed your fingers for minutes that feel like hours while waiting for a reply to your “urgent” email, you’ll know what I mean.) But Mr. Barabási argues that the effect is precisely the opposite: If we know that burstiness is common, predicting human behavior becomes easier.

For example, Japanese doctors discovered that they could predict the impending onset of depression in at-risk patients by monitoring their physical movements with motion-sensitive watches. Even our daily physical movements, it turns out, are bursty—we spend a lot of time at rest, punctuated by spasms of activity. When the Japanese doctors detected a change in their patients’ normally bursty physical activity, it signaled the onset of a depressive incident. (Depressed people often report feeling physically sluggish.) Yet this predictive power can also be used for ill. Mr. Barabási worries that burstiness makes us trackable online by corporations and government, particularly as digital tools like mobile phones produce records of our goings and doings.

This is genuinely fascinating stuff, and when he focuses on the science, Mr. Barabási is a superbly clear writer. But science constitutes a surprisingly small fraction of “Bursts.” Mr. Barabási spends much of the book delivering real-life stories that are supposed to illustrate his principles. Some, like an account of Albert Einstein’s correspondence in 1919 with a little-known scientist, neatly illustrate how bursts govern our lives. But other stories aren’t so successful— particularly Mr. Barabási’s elaborate account of how a Crusade in 16th-century Hungary turned into a gore-splattered civil war. On its own, the Hungarian conflict makes a riveting story, but Mr. Barabási devotes more than a quarter of the book to its telling—yet never convincingly connects the tale to his theme. It became, for me, a maddening distraction. In the end, Mr. Barabási has written a thought-provoking book. But the most rewarding passages appear only, as it were, in bursts.

Mr. Thompson is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and Wired.

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704302304575214081160026018.html

Have Gun, Must Flaunt It?

Like a fly on a birthday cake, the subject of open carry—legally wearing a gun in public—keeps landing in the news and nobody can swat it down. Those who would like to be rid of it range from some of the most ardent gun-controllers to some of the fiercest believers in the Second Amendment right to bear arms. Many of the latter live in the 43 states where it already is legal to openly wear a handgun (although rules vary about whether it can be loaded, etc.). That the majority of people who could walk around outfitted for the OK Corral choose not to do so ought to be a hint that the minority who are most eager to force open carry on the rest of us might belong in a special category of bozos.

Consider the case of James Goldberg, who walked up to the counter of a Glastonbury, Conn. Chili’s restaurant in 2007 costumed in camouflage and wearing a pistol. Police were called and Mr. Goldberg was arrested, only to be cleared after it was determined that since he had a permit for the weapon he was not breaking a law.

While news reports in 2007 described Mr. Goldberg as the night manager at a liquor store, he told the Hartford Courant this month that he is a “trained firearms instructor, sells guns at a Newington gun retailer and runs a business that provides security for business executives and entertainment industry celebrities.” Whatever else Mr. Goldberg is, he’s a thoroughly modern Millie. Back in the day, authentic cowboys didn’t sue when the going got tough, especially not for “emotional distress.”

Equally unimpressive were the armed types who gathered in a Virginia Park this month to demonstrate support for open carry and their opposition to government in general and the Obama administration in particular. Like the characters who now make a practice of wearing handguns into Starbucks and other places of business, such demonstrators may yet turn out to be a godsend for the antigun crowd.

The latter can be so annoying that at some demented level it is possible to imagine the appeal of strolling the aisles at, say, a Whole Foods store, squeezing free-range chicken and bagging edamame with a Hammerli 208S target pistol on display. Yet a firearms dealer suggested to me this week that if open carrying were to become more common, even those of us who are uneasy now in the presence of public firearms would get used to seeing them around. After all, he said, a man “in the 1870s who left Philadelphia and went to Wyoming . . . was probably nervous as hell because everyone was toting a six-gun.”

Which is why they called it the Wild West and we are lucky not to have been born then. Knowing Americans, however, if the open carry fad gathers steam in this century, at some point the urge to trump the Joneses might well extend to guns. They could even become fashion must-haves. A recent article in Women & Guns magazine noted that a number of firearms and shooting accessories now come in colors meant to appeal to female tastes. As the article’s headline asked, “Is Pink the New Black?”

Surveys suggest that serious shooters are not particularly drawn to girlie colors. But what about the rest of the female population? The same forces that compel women to change pocketbooks and fingernail colors may add a vexing new list of daily dressing decisions, like “What color pistol grip goes with this outfit?” Next thing you know, women could be trading tips on the Web about the best way to attract men in a world where every girl can have a gun. Should she try to stand out from the crowd with a piece of rustic exotica that reminds him of the safari dolls in 1953’s “Mogambo,” like a .416 Rigby? Or go with something more crudely flashy, like one of the pretend AK-47s?

Speaking of serious shooters, I don’t know a soul among gun owners who is itching to prance around showing everybody what is in their holster. Most of the time, citizens who carry weapons in public places are doing it for protection, and that means concealment. They don’t want their handgun easily grabbed by some idiot in a checkout line, and they don’t want a potential aggressor to know what they have on them or where it is. If flashing an armory were anything but a stunt, our air marshals would be strapped like Pancho Villa.

Ms. Smith is a member of the Journal’s editorial board and a TV critic.

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Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704471204575210742190085972.html

The North Korea Endgame

However difficult, unification must be the ultimate objective.

As the U.S. and its allies frame plans for dealing with North Korea in the aftermath of the recent sinking of a South Korean warship, political leaders must recognize that security will depend not just upon deterring Kim Jong Il today. Northeast Asia’s future security—and America’s—will be profoundly affected by the government presiding over the northern half of Korea in the long run.

For this reason, Korean unification—under a democratic, market-oriented Republic of Korea that remains allied with the U.S.—must be the ultimate objective. Today that looks like a daunting and risky prospect. But to paraphrase Churchill: Unification would be the worst possible outcome for Korea—except for all the other alternatives.

Consider first an indefinite continuation of the Kim Jong Il regime. This means on the one hand terror and grinding immiseration for its people. But on the other, it means a regime that poses a continual threat to its neighbors and to the world.

North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is integral to the international military extortion racket by which Pyongyang has been financing its state accounts since the end of the Cold War. More atomic bombs, better missiles by which to deliver them abroad, and a permanently warlike posture are indispensable to the regime’s own formula for long-term security. This is why a voluntary denuclearization by Kim Jong Il’s North Korea is fantasy—no matter what bribes outsiders including the U.S. offer—and true détente with the Dear Leader’s regime can never be in the cards.

North Korea’s present leadership will surely wish to ratchet up its threat to America and the Western alliance in the years ahead. It is entirely reasonable to anticipate Pyongyang’s eventual sale of nukes to hostile powers or international terror networks. The regime has already marketed abroad practically everything in its nuclear warehouse short of user-ready bombs. Even worse, there are troubling signs—repeated nuclear tests, continuing missile tests, and attempts at cyberwarfare probing American and South Korean defenses—that the regime is methodically preparing to fight, bizarre as it sounds, a limited nuclear engagement against the U.S.

What about an independent, post-Kim Jong Il North Korea? A number of scenarios can be envisioned—none of them pleasant. If succession proceeds on the lines apparently envisioned, the state’s existing “military-first politics” game-plan will continue on its current trajectory, with nuclear proliferation and nuclear war front and center in state strategy.

Another future for an independent North Korea could be internal instability, with vicious infighting between rival, heavily armed factions. Under such conditions, a civil war—with nuclear weapons—is by no means out of the question. A national elite that had no qualms about the hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths from famine in the 1990s is unlikely to be troubled by the prospect of mass domestic death from atomic radiation. Such a civil war could all too easily spill into adjoining territories—necessitating intervention by outside powers, and possibly prompting military confrontation.

Then there is the potential for Chinese suzerainty. This notion has been floated by Chinese authors in recent years, in the form of “academic” but officially sanctioned studies that depict an ancient kingdom—conveniently stretching from Manchuria to the current-day Korean DMZ—which was once historically part of greater China. In February, Beijing reportedly offered Pyongyang a massive investment program, valued at $10 billion by sources for Seoul’s Yonhap news agency. But China is apparently interested in North Korea’s natural resources—mines, mineral extraction, and the transport systems to ship these commodities home—not its human resources. Uplifting the beleaguered North Korean population does not appear to figure in these plans.

Chinese suzerainty might put an end to the North Korean nuclear threat. But it would change the security environment in East Asia—perhaps radically.

Immense pressures would build in South Korea for accommodating Beijing’s interests. Depending on China’s preferences (and how these were parlayed), accommodation could mean an end to the U.S.-South Korea alliance. Japan would find its space for international maneuver correspondingly constricted; continuation of the U.S.-Japan alliance could even look risky. Much would depend upon Beijing’s own conduct—but a Chinese hold over northern Korea would have devastating implications for the current U.S. security architecture in East Asia.

It is in the context of the alternatives—not in the abstract—that the pros and cons of an eventual Korean unification must be weighed. Even under the best of circumstances, a full reintegration of the long-divided peninsula should be regarded as a painful, wrenching and (at least initially) tremendously expensive proposition. That much is plainly clear—and helps to explain why a growing fraction of the South Korean public is unwilling to think about reunification at all. But a successful Korean reunification, in conjunction with a robust alliance with the U.S. security alliance, affords a whole array of potential benefits that no alternative future for North Korea can possibly provide.

Apart from the nontrivial question of human rights and living standards for the North Korean people, these include the promotion of regional and international security through a voluntary partnership with shared core principles and values. Furthermore, unification over the long haul can enhance security throughout Northeast Asia, generating dividends for this dynamic region and the world.

Western political leaders—in America, South Korea, Japan and elsewhere—can have no idea when or how opportunities for Korean reunification will present themselves. Much the same was true a generation ago in Europe, on the eve of German unification. It is therefore of the essence that policy makers and statesmen in these allied countries devote themselves to the rigorous thinking and preparations that will help to improve the odds of a successful Korean reunification. This will require “contingency planning,” to be sure—but much more than this as well.

Not least will be the need for leaders of vision in the countries concerned to make the public case as to how and why a Korean unification serves their national interests. Compelling arguments to this effect already exist. What they lack are their national champions.

Two decades after the collapse of Soviet Communism, political leaders throughout the West all too generally seem in thrall to the hope that we can temporize our way through the North Korean problem. In one possible version of future events, historians might look back on such thinking as an interwar illusion—a reverie maintained at mounting cost until a final hour of reckoning.

Mr. Eberstadt is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His latest book is “Policy and Economic Performance in Divided Korea during the Cold War Era” (AEI Press, 2010).

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704627704575204200080708816.html

The Big Alienation

Uncontrolled borders and Washington’s lack of self-control

We are at a remarkable moment. We have an open, 2,000-mile border to our south, and the entity with the power to enforce the law and impose safety and order will not do it. Wall Street collapsed, taking Main Street’s money with it, and the government can’t really figure out what to do about it because the government itself was deeply implicated in the crash, and both political parties are full of people whose political careers have been made possible by Wall Street contributions. Meanwhile we pass huge laws, bills so comprehensive, omnibus and transformative that no one knows what’s in them and no one—literally, no one—knows how exactly they will be executed or interpreted. Citizens search for new laws online, pore over them at night, and come away knowing no more than they did before they typed “dot-gov.”

It is not that no one’s in control. Washington is full of people who insist they’re in control and who go to great lengths to display their power. It’s that no one takes responsibility and authority. Washington daily delivers to the people two stark and utterly conflicting messages: “We control everything” and “You’re on your own.”

People protesting Arizona’s immigration bill.

All this contributes to a deep and growing alienation between the people of America and the government of America in Washington.

This is not the old, conservative and long-lampooned “I don’t trust gummint” attitude of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. It’s something new, or rather something so much more broadly and fully evolved that it constitutes something new. The right never trusted the government, but now the middle doesn’t. I asked a campaigner for Hillary Clinton recently where her sturdy, pantsuited supporters had gone. They didn’t seem part of the Obama brigades. “Some of them are at the tea party,” she said.

None of this happened overnight. It is, most recently, the result of two wars that were supposed to be cakewalks, Katrina, the crash, and the phenomenon of a federal government that seemed less and less competent attempting to do more and more by passing bigger and bigger laws.

Add to this states on the verge of bankruptcy, the looming debt crisis of the federal government, the likelihood of ever-rising taxes. Shake it all together, and you have the makings of the big alienation. Alienation is often followed by full-blown antagonism, and antagonism by breakage.

Which brings us to Arizona and its much-criticized attempt to institute a law aimed at controlling its own border with Mexico. It is doing this because the federal government won’t, and because Arizonans have a crisis on their hands, areas on the border where criminal behavior flourishes, where there have been kidnappings, murders and gang violence. If the law is abusive, it will be determined quickly enough, in the courts. In keeping with recent tradition, they were reading parts of the law aloud on cable the other night, with bright and sincere people completely disagreeing on the meaning of the words they were reading. No one knows how the law will be executed or interpreted.

Every state and region has its own facts and experience. In New York, legal and illegal immigrants keep the city running: They work hard jobs with brutal hours, rip off no one on Wall Street, and do not crash the economy. They are generally considered among the good guys. I’m not sure New Yorkers can fairly judge the situation in Arizona, nor Arizonans the situation in New York.

But the larger point is that Arizona is moving forward because the government in Washington has completely abdicated its responsibility. For 10 years—at least—through two administrations, Washington deliberately did nothing to ease the crisis on the borders because politicians calculated that an air of mounting crisis would spur mounting support for what Washington thought was appropriate reform—i.e., reform that would help the Democratic and Republican parties.

Both parties resemble Gordon Brown, who is about to lose the prime ministership of Britain. On the campaign trail this week, he was famously questioned by a party voter about his stand on immigration. He gave her the verbal runaround, all boilerplate and shrugs, and later complained to an aide, on an open mic, that he’d been forced into conversation with that “bigoted woman.”

He really thought she was a bigot. Because she asked about immigration. Which is, to him, a sign of at least latent racism.

The establishments of the American political parties, and the media, are full of people who think concern about illegal immigration is a mark of racism. If you were Freud you might say, “How odd that’s where their minds so quickly go, how strange they’re so eager to point an accusing finger. Could they be projecting onto others their own, heavily defended-against inner emotions?” But let’s not do Freud, he’s too interesting. Maybe they’re just smug and sanctimonious.

The American president has the power to control America’s borders if he wants to, but George W. Bush and Barack Obama did not and do not want to, and for the same reason, and we all know what it is. The fastest-growing demographic in America is the Hispanic vote, and if either party cracks down on illegal immigration, it risks losing that vote for generations.

But while the Democrats worry about the prospects of the Democrats and the Republicans about the well-being of the Republicans, who worries about America?

No one. Which the American people have noticed, and which adds to the dangerous alienation—actually it’s at the heart of the alienation—of the age.

In the past four years, I have argued in this space that nothing can or should be done, no new federal law passed, until the border itself is secure. That is the predicate, the commonsense first step. Once existing laws are enforced and the border made peaceful, everyone in the country will be able to breathe easier and consider, without an air of clamor and crisis, what should be done next. What might that be? How about relax, see where we are, and absorb. Pass a small, clear law—say, one granting citizenship to all who serve two years in the armed forces—and then go have a Coke. Not everything has to be settled right away. Only controlling the border has to be settled right away.

Instead, our national establishments deliberately allow the crisis to grow and fester, ignoring public unrest and amusing themselves by damning anyone’s attempt to deal with the problem they fear to address.

Why does the federal government do this? Because so many within it are stupid and unimaginative and don’t trust the American people. Which of course the American people have noticed.

If the federal government and our political parties were imaginative, they would understand that it is actually in their interests to restore peace and order to the border. It would be a way of demonstrating that our government is still capable of functioning, that it is still to some degree connected to the people’s will, that it has the broader interests of the country in mind.

The American people fear they are losing their place and authority in the daily, unwinding drama of American history. They feel increasingly alienated from their government. And alienation, again, is often followed by deep animosity, and animosity by the breaking up of things. If our leaders were farsighted not only for themselves but for the country, they would fix the border.

Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704302304575214613784530750.html

Listening to (and Saving) the World’s Languages

Valnea Smilovic, 59, left, with her mother, 92, in Queens. They still speak Vlashki, a language spoken by the Istrians.

The chances of overhearing a conversation in Vlashki, a variant of Istro-Romanian, are greater in Queens than in the remote mountain villages in Croatia that immigrants now living in New York left years ago.

At a Roman Catholic church in the Morrisania section of the Bronx, Mass is said once a month in Garifuna, an Arawakan language that originated with descendants of African slaves shipwrecked near St. Vincent in the Caribbean and later exiled to Central America. Today, Garifuna is virtually as common in the Bronx and in Brooklyn as in Honduras and Belize.

And Rego Park, Queens, is home to Husni Husain, who, as far as he knows, is the only person in New York who speaks Mamuju, the Austronesian language he learned growing up in the Indonesian province of West Sulawesi. Mr. Husain, 67, has nobody to talk to, not even his wife or children.

“My wife is from Java, and my children were born in Jakarta — they don’t associate with the Mamuju,” he said. “I don’t read books in Mamuju. They don’t publish any. I only speak Mamuju when I go back or when I talk to my brother on the telephone.”

These are not just some of the languages that make New York the most linguistically diverse city in the world. They are part of a remarkable trove of endangered tongues that have taken root in New York — languages born in every corner of the globe and now more commonly heard in various corners of New York than anywhere else.

While there is no precise count, some experts believe New York is home to as many as 800 languages — far more than the 176 spoken by students in the city’s public schools or the 138 that residents of Queens, New York’s most diverse borough, listed on their 2000 census forms.

“It is the capital of language density in the world,” said Daniel Kaufman, an adjunct professor of linguistics at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. “We’re sitting in an endangerment hot spot where we are surrounded by languages that are not going to be around even in 20 or 30 years.”

In an effort to keep those voices alive, Professor Kaufman has helped start a project, the Endangered Language Alliance, to identify and record dying languages, many of which have no written alphabet, and encourage native speakers to teach them to compatriots.

“It’s hard to use a word like preserve with a language,” said Robert Holman, who teaches at Columbia and New York Universities and is working with Professor Kaufman on the alliance. “It’s not like putting jelly in a jar. A language is used. Language is consciousness. Everybody wants to speak English, but those lullabies that allow you to go to sleep at night and dream — that’s what we’re talking about.”

With national languages and English encroaching on the linguistic isolation of remote islands and villages, New York has become a Babel in reverse — a magnet for immigrants and their languages.

New York is such a rich laboratory for languages on the decline that the City University Graduate Center is organizing an endangered-languages program. “The quickening pace of language endangerment and extinction is viewed by many linguists as a direct consequence of globalization,” said Juliette Blevins, a linguist hired by City University to start the program.

In addition to dozens of Native American languages, vulnerable foreign languages that researchers say are spoken in New York include Aramaic, Chaldic and Mandaic from the Semitic family; Bukhari (a Bukharian Jewish language, which has more speakers in Queens than in Uzbekistan or Tajikistan); Chamorro (from the Mariana Islands); Irish Gaelic; Kashubian (from Poland); indigenous Mexican languages; Pennsylvania Dutch; Rhaeto-Romanic (spoken in Switzerland); Romany (from the Balkans); and Yiddish.

Researchers plan to canvass a tiny Afghan neighborhood in Flushing, Queens, for Ormuri, which is believed to be spoken by a small number of people in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The Endangered Language Alliance will apply field techniques usually employed in exotic and remote foreign locales as it starts its research in the city’s vibrant ethnic enclaves.

“Nobody had gone from area to area looking for endangered languages in New York City spoken by immigrant populations,” Professor Kaufman said.

The United Nations keeps an atlas of languages facing extinction, and experts there as well as linguists generally agree that a language will probably disappear in a generation or two when the population of native speakers is both too small and in decline. Language attrition has also been hastened by war, ethnic cleansing and compulsory schooling in a national tongue.

Over the decades in the secluded northeastern Istrian Peninsula along the Adriatic Sea, Croatian began to replace Vlashki, spoken by the Istrians, what is described as Europe’s smallest surviving ethnic group. But after Istrians began immigrating to Queens, many to escape grinding poverty, they largely abandoned Croatian and returned to speaking Vlashki.

“Whole villages were emptied,” said Valnea Smilovic, 59, who came to the United States in the 1960s with her parents and her brother and sister. “Most of us are here now in this country.”

Mrs. Smilovic still speaks in Vlashki with her mother, 92, who knows little English, as well as her siblings. “Not too much, though,” Mrs. Smilovic said, because her husband speaks only Croatian and her son, who was born in the United States, speaks English and a smattering of Croatian.

“Do I worry that our culture is getting lost?” Mrs. Smilovic asked. “As I get older, I’m thinking more about stuff like that. Most of the older people die away and the language dies with them.”

Several years ago, one of her cousins, Zvjezdana Vrzic, an Istrian-born adjunct professor of linguistics at New York University, organized a meeting in Queens about preserving Vlashki. She was stunned by the turnout of about 100 people.

“A language reflects a singular nature of a people speaking it,” said Professor Vrzic, who recently published an audio Vlashki phrasebook and is working on an online Vlashki-Croatian-English dictionary.

Istro-Romanian is classified by Unesco as severely endangered, and Professor Vrzic said she believed that the several hundred native speakers who live in Queens outnumbered those in Istria. “Nobody tried to teach it to me,” she said. “It was not thought of as something valuable, something you wanted to carry on to another generation.”

A few fading foreign languages have also found niches in New York and the country. In northern New Jersey, Neo-Aramaic, rooted in the language of Jesus and the Talmud, is still spoken by Syrian immigrants and is taught at Syriac Orthodox churches in Paramus and Teaneck.

The Rev. Eli Shabo speaks Neo-Aramaic at home, and his children do, too, but only “because I’m their teacher,” he said.

Will their children carry on the language? “If they marry another person of Syriac background, they may,” Father Shabo said. “If they marry an American, I’d say no.”

And on Long Island, researchers have found several people fluent in Mandaic, a Persian variation of Aramaic spoken by a few hundred people around the world. One of them, Dakhil Shooshtary, 76, a retired jeweler who settled on Long Island from Iran 45 years ago, is compiling a Mandaic dictionary.

For Professor Kaufman, the quest for speakers of disappearing languages has sometimes involved serendipity. After making a fruitless trip in 2006 to Indonesia to find speakers of Mamuju, he attended a family wedding two years ago in Queens. Mr. Husain happened to be sitting next to him. Wasting no time, he has videotaped Mr. Husain speaking in his native tongue.

“This is maybe the first time that anyone has recorded a video of the language being spoken,” said Professor Kaufman, who founded a Manhattan research center, the Urban Field Station for Linguistic Research, two years ago.

He has also recruited Daowd I. Salih, 45, a refugee from Darfur who lives in New Jersey and is a personal care assistant at a home for the elderly, to teach Massalit, a tribal language, to a linguistic class at New York University. They are meticulously creating a Massalit lexicography to codify grammar, definitions and pronunciations.

“Language is identity,” said Mr. Salih, who has been in the United States for a decade. “So many African tribes in Darfur lost their languages. This is the land of opportunity, so these students can help us write this language instead of losing it.”

Speakers of Garifuna, which is being displaced in Central America by Spanish and English, are striving to keep it alive in their New York neighborhoods. Regular classes have sprouted at the Yurumein House Cultural Center in the Bronx, and also in Brooklyn, where James Lovell, a public school music teacher, leads a small Garifuna class at the Biko Transformation Center in East Bushwick.

Mr. Lovell, who came to New York from Belize in 1990, said his oldest children, 21-year-old twin boys, do not speak Garifuna. “They can get along speaking Spanish or English, so there’s no need to as far as they’re concerned,” he said, adding that many compatriots feel “they will get nowhere with their Garifuna culture, so they decide to assimilate.”

But as he witnessed his language fading among his friends and his family, Mr. Lovell decided to expose his younger children to their native culture. Mostly through simple bilingual songs that he accompanies with gusto on his guitar, he is teaching his two younger daughters, Jamie, 11, and Jazelle, 7, and their friends.

“Whenever they leave the house or go to school, they’re speaking English,” Mr. Lovell said. “Here, I teach them their history, Garifuna history. I teach them the songs, and through the songs, I explain to them what it’s saying. It’s going to give them a sense of self, to know themselves. The fact that they’re speaking the language is empowerment in itself.”

Sam Roberts, New York Times

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/29/nyregion/29lost.html

Art Dealer Admits Lying to FBI Over Faked $2 Million Picasso

A West Hollywood art dealer pleaded guilty today to selling a fake Pablo Picasso drawing of a woman in a blue hat for $2 million, according to the U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles.

[fakepicasso]

This fake Pablo Picasso drawing of a woman in a blue hat was for sale for $2 million.

The dealer, Tatiana Khan, said she paid an art restorer $1,000 to recreate Picasso’s 1902 pastel, “La Femme au Chapeau Bleu,” which she passed off as being part of the family collection of the late publisher Malcolm Forbes, according to her plea agreement filed earlier today in U.S. District Court.

An anonymous buyer of the fake drawing grew suspicious about the work’s authenticity two years ago and reached out to a Picasso expert, who later contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Ms. Khan told the FBI she had acquired the drawing of a prim woman wearing an indigo-plumed hat from an acquaintance, according to her plea agreement. She later confessed to the FBI that she had asked the restorer to lie about copying the work. (The original work belongs to a private collector, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Ranee Katzenstein.)

Ms. Khan, 70 years old, will appear in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles early next month to enter a guilty plea on two felony counts: making false statements to the FBI and witness tampering. As part of her plea deal, she has agreed to pay back the $2 million and give up a Willem de Kooning abstract work she bought with a portion of the sale proceeds. She faces a federal prison sentence of anywhere from 21 months to 25 years.

Ms. Kahn’s attorney, James W. Spertus, said that his client has had a 45-year career as an art dealer and hopes to continue her profession after “accepting responsibility for making a false statement to the FBI.”

Kelly Crow, Wall Street Journal

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704471204575210674060942894.html