May 23, 2011
Letter From Be’er Sheva
By Jenny White
I remain convinced, despite my anthropological training not to generalize, that every society has an aesthetic, a particular repetition of pattern, that informs its material manifestation. In contradiction to the anthropological view that you must delve under the surface to understand a place, I’m going to suggest that this aesthetic is most powerfully visible to the uninitiated. The observant tourist, for instance, who sees everything through a child’s indiscriminate and unfiltered gaze. Patterns pop out to the uninitiated. For locals, by contrast, patterns harbor familiarity, wholeness, comfort, rootedness. Patterns are woven into the everyday, felt, but no longer seen. On my first visit to Japan, I was struck by the layered rows of boxes I saw everywhere, in the arrangements of windows, proportions of houses, the way images were arrayed on fliers and ads, far beyond what I would expect by accident or convenience. I experienced the boxes as a powerful imprint on my surroundings wherever I went. Perhaps I was wrong. A friend who is a specialist on Japan doesn’t see it. Does the forest have a shape without its trees? Nonetheless, I will continue with my conceit, on the justification that I am also a writer and writers gleefully play with any patterns they see, even if an anthropologist would tell them that without context, there is no meaning. No writer believes that; her job is to create meaning, not analyze it.
I am now in Be’er Sheva in the Negev desert, teaching a three-week course at Ben Gurion University. A driver brought me from Tel Aviv airport to my residence in a ten-story building that towers over the neighborhood. The streets near the residence are little more than rows of cement rooms with walled-in tile forecourts. Behind them loom three- and four-story apartment buildings of unfinished cement without ornamentation or color. There is little attention to detail and the buildings are crumbling, festooned with wires and rusting grates. They remind me of bunkers with blank walls and slits for windows. That is the only pattern I see beyond the ubiquitous lack of ornament. But it is a pattern.
On the Sabbath I set off toward the high rises I could see in the distance. I had heard about a mall – the only one – that was open on Saturdays because the owner was Russian. I trudged for an hour and a half along wide utilitarian roads unrelieved by vegetation and then through a deserted industrial area until I reached the mall—a strip of boxy shops arrayed in a horseshoe around a parking lot and the Hillel Café, which to my great relief was open. After an invigorating pasta salad, I returned home by another route. Nothing I saw diminished my first impression. The buildings were higher and better built, but pale, bunker-like, with wide, narrow windows, and without detail.
There is little color in Be’er Sheva, even in people’s clothing. I am told that many eastern Jews live here who are observant. Some of the women wear long skirts or tunics and little caps over their hair. Others dress in shorts and t-shirts. Observant or not, it's a low-key, cheap-jersey world. Sidewalks are cracked, littered. Things are jury-rigged. In some ways the city reminds me of Turkey in the 1970s, but without the colors. In those days, even the poorest Turkish house was whitewashed or painted blue against the Evil Eye and flowers planted in recycled oil cans brightened balconies and doorways. In Israel it seems as if color might tempt the Evil Eye rather than ward it off.
The university is an oasis to which I gratefully return after each expedition. Its buildings are attractively modern, set like sculptures within artfully designed greenery through which snakes a gurgling stream. It is full of cafes, like a little Tel Aviv. The students on campus look like the students on any US campus. But the buildings also have something of the bunker about them, thick cement expanses, narrow windows, no color. I was told that if anything threatening happens, there were bunkers in the basement, but that simply stepping into an inner room would likely be safe enough. The common room in my residence also doubles as a bunker. There is a reason, of course, for bunkers. Not long ago, Grad rockets fired from Gaza reached Be’er Sheva and one landed on a university dormitory.
Jerusalem gave me the impression of monumental fortifications, by which I mean less the Ottoman city walls, but the vast settlements, enormous cliffs of structures rising from hilltops and extending into the distance like impregnable walled forts. I also visited Sderot last year, one of the towns that bears the brunt of Hamas-inflicted rockets. Sderot is nothing but a bunker. Even the bus stops are bunkers where the riders wind themselves into cement walls to wait. The city representatives met us in their underground command bunker and told us about their traumatized populace.
Tel Aviv boasts celebrated modernist structures in the cubic Bauhaus style. But when I visited Tel Aviv for the first time last year, I saw a city of square, unadorned cement buildings with balconies, their cladding peeling like bad sunburn, shots of color provided by the occasional orange trumpet vine. The boardwalk along the sea was bleak cement. Friends who live there see an entirely different city; they see cafes, the sociable homes of friends and family, intellectual and economic exchange, a vivid life projected onto these otherwise unremarkable surfaces like hot-pink bougainvillea. I didn’t think “bunker” in Tel Aviv, but I did think “impermanence.” This is a clue, I think: structures built not from a tradition or for posterity (except in a defensive sense), but also not built as a tradition in the making. The statement seems to be a practical “get on with it”, set in a no-nonsense present that eschews investment in an uncertain future.
Yesterday I asked one of my university colleagues here why there was so little color or ornamentation. He explained that early Israeli architects brought with them the Bauhaus style and that modernism remained the building norm. In the 1950s and ‘60s Israel’s population increased so rapidly that buildings were thrown up as quickly as possible with “no time for nonsense.” The modernist style and the lack of ornament and color, he added, were also a rejection of the East. It was a way for Israelis to say, “We are Western.” Indeed, houses in Bedouin towns on the outskirts of Be’er Sheva and in Palestinian Ramallah, which I visited last year, were notably more ornate with large arched windows and rooftop crenellations that looked less like battlements than crowns.
In Ritual and its Consequences, Adam Seligman et al. suggest that repetition of pattern in the world we construct around us is closely related to ritual, that is, stylized repetitive interactions that relate the self to the world. These exist in both religious and secular domains. Ritual isn’t an external expression of the world as it actually is, nor is it simply the expression of an internal state. Instead, it supersedes the individual by providing an “as if” world that makes it possible for very different groups of people to share a social world. Rituals, I would add, are acts by which we calm ourselves, rehearse who we are and who we would like to be as a society, despite our differences. Israel’s national pattern might be called the blast wall, a defensive structural skin that protects the family within. It shows little concern for structural details or exposed public space, but places all its emphasis on what is inside. My otherwise bleak walk to the mall, for instance, was relieved by a colorful head-high billboard as long as a city block that showed a series of ordinary faces of men, women, children, couples. People are displayed in bright hues, whereas structures and actual people on the street are wrapped in protective coloring.
There are, of course, instructive exceptions. In suburbs inhabited by professionals, houses are shaded by lush gardens. Tel Aviv is said to be a city of cafes – individuals practicing public simultaneity and open display. Contradicting the Israeli pattern with such alternate rituals cracks open the “as if” world of Israeli public identity and reveals the different groups within. Last year, the Zionist head of an illegal West Bank settlement told my visiting group with some disgust that “those people in Tel Aviv who sit around in cafes and drink cappuccinos” had forgotten their Zionist heritage. They had become soft, he complained, and would no longer be able to defend the nation.
The lens through which Israelis see the world is that they are a people under existential threat (it is common to hear people say, “they hate us because we’re Jews”). Patterns of material culture evince that fear with a repetition of defensive walls and an unwillingness to draw attention through ornament, color or public display. Instead, Israel as a nation emphasizes Jewishness and the physical presence of Jews and their families, the fertile yolk within a hard, white shell. There is little “Israeli” material culture. You won’t find tourist artifacts that represent Jewish Israel (rather than the many other cultures that reside here). Other than religious artifacts and Dead Sea bath salts, there is nothing “Israeli” to buy in the areas tourists frequent or the airport shops. Jewishness and Jews are the portable treasures.
There are signs of change, the confidence to tempt the Evil Eye. The newest building on campus has a vulnerable glass skin under a cement awning. A new housing complex has Moorish arches over its windows. Delicate nods to the future from a haunted present.
February 28, 2011
The don of Pérignon
A year ago (February 2010) I met, in Lagos, Nigeria, Pascal Pecriaux, “Ambassador” for French champagne brand Moët & Chandon. The profile below provides insight into Pecriaux’s life – in and out of wine-tasting – and the Nigerian obsession with champagne. Nigeria ‘discovered’ champagne in commercial quantities (by importation, of course) following the oil boom of the 1970s (starting in 1973/74 and lasting much of the decade). The love affair has continued to this day. Time Magazine reports that the coup-plotters who murdered Nigerian Head of State, Murtala Mohammed, on February 13, 1976, "apparently made their move after an all-night champagne party."
I wrote this piece not long after meeting Pecriaux:
By Tolu Ogunlesi
On a Friday afternoon at the Lagos Sheraton, a group of people are gathered in one of the banquet rooms. Most are Sheraton staff – waiters and waitresses. There are also a few journalists, like me. We are all waiting for Pascal Pecriaux.
Pecriaux is a “Wine Ambassador” who has flown all the way from the village of Champagne in France, to spread the gospel of Moët to a Nigerian audience. By the time he steps into the room, two hours behind schedule, we are not the only ones waiting for him. Rows of empty champagne flutes line the tables in front of us, and half a dozen or so bottles peek from ice-boxes at the far end of the room.
Moët is one of the most easily recognizable badges of honour flaunted by Nigeria’s elite, especially its young upwardly mobile class. If the frequency of its appearance in the lyrics of Nigerian hiphop songs and in music videos is anything to go by, Marc Wozniak, Deputy General Manager of the Lagos Sheraton, is absolutely right when he says that Moët is “the most common and most well-known champagne in Nigeria.” David Hourdry, Moët Hennessy’s Market Manager for Western Africa says that “Nigeria is today the biggest market for Moët & Chandon in all Africa.”
In his heavily accented English Pecriaux encourages us to ask questions. “I really can be boring,” he quips. But his job, which he describes as travelling around the world “to taste our champagne and to talk”, is certainly not boring. In the last decade he has visited 60 countries.
Pecriaux has worked with Moët & Chandon since 1978, when, over a one-month period, he “changed everything” – moved homes, got married and changed jobs (his old job was as an internal auditor at Unilever). Around that time he even started to grow a moustache as well (his wife took ill, and he settled on the idea of a moustache to amuse her). “But at the time the moustache was brown. Now it is white,” he quickly reminds me. Unlike the moustache, however, I doubt that the bald patch atop his head is a personal choice.
Travelling the world tasting and talking champagne has given him tremendous insight into patterns of human behaviour across the world. He is dismayed by consumers who, because of inexperience, “consider champagne [merely] as a drink of pleasure and of celebration, and [thus] pay less attention to the complexity of the wine and the fact that it is wine.” Such consumers, he says, are only interested in consuming champagne because it is “something fashionable and expensive, which can be replaced by any other fashionable thing.”
The Russians were like that at first, he says. On his first trip to that country (which, before his first trip there, hadn’t hosted a “champagne training” since the Russian revolution in 1917), he observed that “[they] were not really interested in quality, they were interested in brands, in spending as much money as possible on what they consumed.”
But things soon changed, the inexperience increasingly giving way to a sophisticated appreciation. On a return visit, two years later, “people were really asking questions… very precise and sometimes tricky questions.” He likens the Nigerian market to the Russian one, and foresees a similar transformation happening here. “I think that affluent Nigerians who enjoy Moët are also people who travel abroad, who meet foreigners, so are exposed to other experiences. Naturally they become more demanding and they try to understand the pleasure they have.”
If he hadn’t become a Moët Ambassador, what else would he have been? “[A] hermit,” he says, straight-faced. “The pleasure which I have with [Moët] probably cannot be replaced with something else.” Possibly not even his love for hot-air ballooning.
Pecriaux takes literature as seriously as his wines. “Mainly French classical literature,” he explains. “My best friend is a writer of the French renaissance of the 16th century, Michael du Montaigne, he wrote one big book which I’ve read maybe four times or five times.” His post-retirement reading list is intimidating: Balzac, Stendhal and Proust. “I made the choice a long time ago, with a few exceptions, to read dead authors, because then there’s a natural selection… [the] selection is made by time. If after two centuries a writer is still printed, he’s still talked about; maybe this means he’s worth reading.”
This trip is his first to Lagos, and he’s loved every bit of it. He says it reminds him of his year-long stay in Ivory Coast in the early 1970s, on French military service. “It was my first experience of another culture; I’m still marked by it. I still feel it, it was a great experience. It’s the Africa I love, and I found elements of it [in Lagos].”
When he retires, in a few months, it’ll be to “take care of my cellar, drink my wines instead of drinking my employer’s wines, read my books, take care of my garden, settle down and travel for my own pleasure.”
Moët is manufactured from three different varieties of grapes: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. “What really matters is the raw material,” says Pecriaux. He explains that the wine-making process can only “maintain / magnify” the innate qualities of the grapes.
The grapes must possess “very specific characteristics”, conferred by the weather – which varies from year to year. One important quality the grapes must possess to make the final cut is that they must be “just ripe”. Coming a close second to the quality and character of the grapes is the wine-making process (“Méthode Champenoise”).
At harvest, the grapes are picked by a band of 3,000 “pickers” employed by Moët & Chandon. Picking is done only by hand. The grapes are then taken in small baskets to processing centers (the company currently has six of those). Everything possible is done to avoid damage to the grapes. At the processing centers the grapes are crushed gently, so gently that only 2,500 litres of wine is taken from 4,000 kg of fruit; and each batch of wine is transferred into a giant stainless steel vat. (The company has 700 of those vats).
The choice of stainless steel is to help minimize the risk of oxidation of the wine. With the juice sitting in the vats, waiting patiently to be turned into wine, Moët’s secret practices are ready to commence. The wine house has its own secret strains of yeast (“yeast that respects the aromas coming from the grapes”) to facilitate the fermentation process.
Following this is the blending process, where batches (from different vats, and even different years) are combined by a team of 11 “winemakers”. The blending is done in a giant vat (6,000 hectolitre capacity). When full the vat will contain hundreds of thousands of bubbles.
The wine is then transferred into bottles. Special strains of yeast, as well as rock sugar, are added to the bottles, which are sealed with crown-corks. A second round of fermentation, which may last weeks, takes place in the bottles. The wine-making process is deemed completed only at the discretion of the “Master Blender”.
After the secondary fermentation, impurities are expelled from the bottles by a special freezing technique, sugar is added, and the bottles are corked, and labelled. The world’s leading champagne, and one of its finest luxury brands, is born.
'Pop Something' (below), by Nigerian dentist-turned-hiphop-musician, Dr. Sid, is one of the country's best known Champagne-Anthems. Yahoozee, another of those anthems, proclaims a manifesto of "Champagne Hennessy Moët for everybody." The Moët brand is a too-conspicuous feature in the song's video. Yahoozee, a shameless celebration of the art - and rewards - of email scamming, and the cash-suffused lives of its youthful practitioners, is the song which famously got former US Secretary of State, Colin Powell dancing, at the ThisDay Music and Fashion Festival in London in 2008. (None of the blame should go to Mr. Powell though; he could not have been expected to understand the lyrics, which are a mixture of Yoruba, pidgin English and urban Nigerian slang.)
April 13, 2009
New York, at the moment
Last Sunday, April 4, Spring came to New York City. Sixty-two degrees it was, and calm in the bright sun of a cloudless sky. The city had been waiting.
The winter seemed unusually brutal and long. As late as March we got mugged by the winds Chicago-style – sucker-punched from the northeast, a roundhouse kick to the southwest quadrant, then a blow to the kidneys and thrown into traffic. The winter was long. But the city was waiting.
Rites were given: the cruellest month, 1968. No, the City said, the greatest respect that can now be paid is called celebration, and forward. Miniskirts and boots, scarves sun-yellow and lollypop red, out the door on the long stroll and the City was again a New Thing.
In the East Village, across 3rd Avenue from the regal brown bulk of the Cooper Union on Astor Place (where Lincoln and Rushdie have spoken) a new extension of Arts and Sciences is rising: titanium cladding on the north, glass-frame on the south, and a delicious titanium wave cascading down four storeys: its form says, We'll surf this. It adds a dangerous excitement to the new skyline of the Bowery, where a white sail of a condo rises. Behind it, the textured white boxes of the New Museum totter like blocks stacked by Modernism's gargantuan infant.
At Lincoln Center, the new Alice Tully Hall is a clean, white, graceful dagger of 21st-century elegance, angling its excellence to a fine point: the classical performing arts yet have a home in this new era; "In this silicon world, art remains organic," the Alice Tully Hall says with its soaring wood interiors. Is it unfortunate, or symbolically meaningful, that its broad, 30-foot-tall windows look out upon, and reflect, ugly '70s tower blocks and bland '80s condos? What does it say about this Temple of the Performing Arts erected on a razed block of Puerto-Rican tenements where West Side Story was sourced?
Yes, the East Village as you've known it is almost all gone: Kim's Video AboveGround on St. Mark's – where it moved after being rent-wrested from its subterranean West Village haunt – is boarded up. The greatest pillar of eccentric, curatorially-defined, independent video/music emporia is no more. The Holiday Cocktail Lounge, one of New York's classic dive bars, is on its last legs, with owner Stefan Lutak in his 90s and suffering from health problems. I don't know how much longer I'll be able to nurse a beer in a darkened corner booth, on cushions held together with duct tape, while reading Walter Benjamin to the purple light of neon beer ads, overhearing a punk-rock guitarist debate politics with an art-history professor.
Love Saves the Day, on 2nd Avenue, known as the place where Madonna goes to trade in her jacket in "Desperately Seeking Susan," closed in January. It fills me with heartbreak. It was a happy bedlam of kitsch, pop culture, antique clothes and old Playboy magazines – a retail archive of American popular culture, and a total playground for anyone who was a kid between 1950 and 1995. Star Wars figurines and The Simpsons family, Barbies primping astride a herd of My Little Ponies and a starting-line of Matchbox and HotWheels cars – fake poop, Mexican finger traps, crenoline ballgowns from the '50s, leather jackets from the '70s, jester hats, fedoras, Garbage Pail Kids, and vintage copies of Penthouse all razzed each other from parts of the shambly scrum.
Even when the New York City winters were a-bleedin' me, I knew what to do: head down 2nd Avenue, overcoat collar turned up against the snow, and look ahead: right there, in Day-Glo '60s bubble-letters, was the sign beaming out in the dun sky, the sign you need to read, comforting you that yes, Love Saves the Day.
Hey, New York: fill 'er up, please, and check under the hood. While you're at it, can you you make sure the headlights are aimed properly? We need both high- and low-beams if we're going to drive this dark twisty wood of middle-life; the potholes are hell. I know that we're all lined up in the Self-Service lane, but buddy– can you spare a technician or two?
Prophets may be scrawling underground, but the visionaries are scattered from the lowest tunnels to the highest billboards. POST NO BILLS? What are we, Communists? Savvy New Yorkers know the City is a Language – its accents, dialects and mannerisms voiced not just from a billionaire Bloomberg and a bodega cashier but by the names of the stores and the advertisements everywhere. The ancients had tea leaves; we have construction sites, plywood walls and restaurant façades to tell our futures. But you have to know where to look.
In October and November, 2008, Microsoft bought up the entirety of the Grand Central subway corridor leading to the Times Square Shuttle, and plastered its walls and columns with Windows logos and a green gallery of unsung heroes all creating a chorus of "I'm a PC!" in a weird fanfare for the common man, voiced in the weary shuffles and trudges of the office-bound. But then you'd step in the Times Square Shuttle: and you were transported – back to a grand 1950's office lobby with marble floors, wood accents, and Modernist chandeliers with brass sconces – in an omnidirectional promotion for HBO's "Mad Men" that encompassed the complete interior of each subway car.
You could read something in that.
In deepest, darkest January, I shlepped that path again. This time – BAM! A sunburst of yellow, a tunnel of smiling light, advertising (of all things) Western Union. They'd called up the 411: gone was their legendary "crisis" advertising. Instead they concentrated on your sense of empowerment and relief when you got the money you wired for. Two-dozen sun-yellow poster-ads, half of them scoped from your right eye, half from your left, exclaiming YES! YES! YES! all the way to the train. Molly Bloom couldn't have thunk it better.
Inside the Shuttle car, Pepsi had taken over. That leaked (and faked?) PDF for Pepsi's redesigned logo, in its orgy of metaphysical and quantum-mechanical hokum, seemed designed to throw the wool-eyes over a simple headsmack fact: its circle was merely a funked-up volley off Obama's campaign logo, turning that frown upside down.
"Optimism," the candy-colored strips of blue, yellow, red, and orange sang out above your transiting head, "Yes you can!" "Together," "One for all," "Let's refresh America."
Now you and I, as savvy mental travelers in New York's neurons, will not get off at Times Square, where the great Maw of America threatens to devour us in a sea of Red Lobsters, a zone of ESPNs, an industrial farm of old McDonald's, an angry hive of Applebee's and an epileptic blizzard of LEDs. Sure, you may think you can read the news here, but the Zipper will leave you huddling naked with fear, only to be unctuously bling'd by big boxes that put you in small ones.
No, let's go to Union Square, where some smart slender boxes are going up on the western face. Here's where we fear, with Circuit City gone and the Virgin Megastore bailing in June, that all will head south if Wal-Mart's Great Eye is focused upon that block, as we suspect. But we're okay for the moment – cutting through the park I spy Mr. Wendel, grizzled and toothless, who's puttin' on the Ritz with a silver top-hat, mirror-shades, a yellow-and-gold sequined dress, and a black tuxedo vest with beer-tab brocade.
"I want money for that," he growls as I snap his photo.
"Well, I can give you fame," I say.
"To hell with fame," he says, "I want some money."
He's surprised I recognize his name. I tell him I'm three feet high and rising, too.
"Ev'rybody asks me why I dress like this," he says. "People got no sense of fashion any more. Th'girls're practically naked."
I tell him I'm all right with that.
"Trees are getting their clothes on," he says, looking up to the budding branches. I smile.
Down in the Union Square plaza, on the north end, a European-style café will soon occupy the arch where amblers rested and skateboards skipped. I suppose that isn't too bad, with the weekend green market creating a nice fluidity of purpose. On the southern end, the artists, man, they're getting down to some serious work. A year ago, nothing but commercial tat and tourist trophies. Now look.
There's even a guy making three-string guitars out of lacquered and polished cigarette boxes.
On the way across the street, we catch the conversation between two men in khakis and striped button-downs. "Yeah, he was saying that only poor people use debit cards." There it goes again: the black dog panting, the cymbal crash, the culture clash, the ripping threads.
"Oh Oracles of Madison Avenue," we genuflect northward, "Suns of the south have given us heatstroke. Bring us a breeze, o thou cool heads of Mad Men." We wander through the East Village. To
Oh yeah. We're grooving on the Matrix, jockeying that code. Yeah, we're thirsty for it. So we head down to the Lower East Side, and Clinton Street. First colonized by WD-50, that pod of molecular gastronomy, Clinton Street is now after a fashion. A lot of them, in fact. Japanese threads are lining the way, with Madame Killer, a terrific shop of Japanglish get-ups and deck-outs. In another, more upscale boutique, the managers apparently realized that their wares were so choice, their ambience so exquisite, that poorer-than-thine-pricetag sorts would want to embrace their brand too. So I bought this book at the counter.
That's an independently published book of poetry and collage (I note influences of Eliot, Ferlinghetti and e.e. cummings in the verse). Here are two important things that bring us passion right now: text || image; renewed language || mashed-up culture. It's a rare find, a limited edition, and all of $12. Less than half the cost of a glossy next-new-thing at Borders, and better, too, because it hasn't been hounded to death by editors and marketers. I'm broke, but there are some things you just can't resist.
On the corner of Clinton and Stanton, I was sad to note the departure of the scruffy coffee/bar Lotus, with its bookshelves and cheap Pabst. In its place, though, stands Donnybrook, a smart-looking pub that represents the new, modern Dublin: crisp slabs of marble for the bar top, lime-green leather accents upholstered with brass, rough-hewn wood tables – the ideal fusion of contemporary and traditional, without resorting to the clichés of the Irish Pub Company that have been boring our urban centers for 18 years now.
It's empty this afternoon, with a guy in the corner tapping on a laptop; on the t.v., Abruzzo quietly misses a goal. "We need a hangover cure," I say to the barmaid, "and not a Bloody Mary: something clear and light."
"I've got just the thing for you," she says with a brogue.
"What's in it?" I ask.
"Trade secret. All I can say is that it has bitters and soda."
It's fizzy and coral-colored, it's lightly sweet and slightly floral, like Spring. The hangover's gone in five sips. So we opt for some greater complexity at Schiller's Liquor Bar. This mural's across the street:
Yes, New York is of the moment. No, Pollyanna ain't my wife; I'm broke, folks, circling the drain. Shuysters, hucksters, flakes and fiends are curdling in the alleys. At a recent Midtown wedding, I learned that the bride had just been laid off. Back in my South Bronx 'hood, we pass by two Hispanic guys in their forties outside a bodega. One's saying to the other, "Seventeen theaters just closed. There's nothing out there, man, nothing." But then we walk down Alexander Avenue, where a few antique stores hold on by their fingernails. We stop at one, shyly named The Antique, and stare with amazement.
In the window, there's an antique map representing the very first days of New Amsterdam colony on Mannahatta. At that moment, the shutters roll up and a door is opened. Inside, it's like the Library of Alexandria's been rebuilt in a studio apartment. All the archaic centuries, from every corner of the globe, are represented. Infinite riches in a little room? Hey Dr. Faustus, try this on for size. The owner can't be stopped – he's purling out his entire catalogue in a fluid, rolling baritone. There's a vast, 18th-century lithograph imagining the Temple of Solomon, a Life of Wellington published in 1814, a coffee-table book on the Medicis the size of a coffee table, a Victorian compendium of Byron, African histories, a 1769 edition of Plutarch's Lives, a Life magazine with the March on Selma. "I've got a stall outside Columbia every Tuesday and Thursday," he says.
"You know," I remark, "I've walked down this street a dozen times. I never knew there was a bookstore here; 'The Antique' makes me think this is just furniture and bric-a-brac."
He says, "You're right. We're going to get someone in here to change the sign next week."
That was Sunday. On Monday, the weather turned round: gusty Novemberish, rainy, and a baROOM of thunder.
The thunder said: your sun day was my gift to you, o Visionaries. It is a vision of a future that does not yet exist. It is but to whet your appetite. Build it, and it will come. Give, sympathize, control.
This wasn't just another manic Monday. Yes, some lingered, grutching the theft of their robins. But for the rest, it was as if the entire city raised its voice, and in a hundred-fifty languages gave a rousing toast: "To work!" The spirit of the City is back, its relentless competitive drive aroused to experimentation, quality, distinctiveness. Get the customer, keep the customer. Even the sandwich-makers are making tastier sandwiches. Calls for marketers and writers streamed over CraigsList – the competition's Hobbesian brutal, no doubt, as veteran journalists outnumber each ad 10-to-1, but as the papers fold, businesses insist, "We need Information! Analysis! Someone please tell us what's going on!" Marvin Gaye can only ask the question, and the grapevine's fermenting piss and vinegar.
Doctored a press release. Jammed out for data entry and strategy session with a filmmaker. Stopped into a lush lounge called Simone for a white russian to calm my nerves. Overheard a PR girl talking manically to a filmmaking guy about collaborations. 6 Train home with the rustlings of the Doom Times, drop into the bodega looking beat, there's an immense thug with a full-on Mr. T mohawk, bling scarved around his linebacker neck, black Enyce jacket thrown over a chest as wide as a Mack Truck grille.
"Man, it's rough out there," I say, grabbing a Campbell's Chunky for dinner.
"What's your game?" the thug asks.
"I'm a writer," I say.
"Man, we gotta talk. I rap, I act, I'm a comedian. Here's my card." Long Run Entertainment, it reads. Stay Fresh Productions. Caviar Dreams, CEO.
Oh yeah, man.
"Damn, I like this place," Caviar says to the Iranian behind the counter, "You got a good shop here. Lots of good people in here."
I return home, to a postcard on my wall.
This is a sampler box of my Information. This is my gift to you, Gotham. But as Derrida wrote in Given Time: Counterfeit Money, the gift "is an impossibility" – any day now, the moral obligation or monetary bill will come due. O city city, unreal city, don't default on the credit I've given you. There's one Chairman of the Board who knew what he was talking about. He said, start spreading the news. And then he said,
It's up to you,
January 19, 2009
Landing in a clean, well-lighted place
“I have a thing with airports…”
“Be more specific, Kris.”
“Ok, let me start again.
“I first began to think about this after I saw the video of Robert Dziekanski getting killed in Vancouver… remember? He was the Polish guy who got Tasered by the police because he was acting all ‘agitated’ after hours and hours of being stuck in the international arrivals area where no one could tell him what to do.
“He was moving to Canada to be with his mother… he got on the plane, landed, but something went wrong. He got stuck in the no-man’s land between luggage and immigration, or immigration and luggage… you know how it goes. He did not speak enough English to get himself sorted out, so he was left to his own devices, he got frustrated, and eventually he got killed.”
“What did they shock him for?”
“Oh, who knows… they probably didn’t know any better… you have to understand, Canadian police… well, let’s just say that the best and brightest probably aren’t the ones patrolling airports at 1:30 in the morning. Someone gave them Tasers and they use them like toys. There were four of them, one of him, and rather than figuring out a way to talk to him or to put him down another way, they got their Tasers out and zapped the poor guy instead. I think they told him to put his hands down on a table, but he put his hands up instead. He didn’t speak a word of English, so… you know…
“I remember watching the news the next morning… the police were giving their own version of the story…. ‘he was agitated… public safety… officers acted as they were trained… will review…’ you know how they talk. I don’t think that this is different in any country—I remember watching the Brits try to explain themselves after they shot that poor Brazilian on the tube. Cops always say the same things after they screw up...
“Anyway, there were a few witnesses in Vancouver, and there was a tape too. They tried to argue with the witnesses for a while and to sanitize the thing a bit, but the tape quickly put the cops in their place. You could see it black on white—four cops surround him, and a few seconds later the guy is writhing on the ground and screaming. The cops cuffed him and then just stood around… they didn’t try to give him CPR or anything. When you watch the tape, you wonder whether you actually saw him die, or whether his heart stopped after the guy put his camera away.
“In any case, the media jumped on the story, the public was outraged, and the police were embarrassed for a few days. Hell, there were even protests—in Canada! Would you believe that? The government and the cops quickly began some ‘review process,’ the pace of everything slowed to a crawl, and the story faded from view, like they all do, once the initial anger went away.
“The poor man’s mother was crushed… she’s the one who talked him into coming to Canada in the first place, and I cannot imagine how terrible she must have felt knowing that her son died over something so stupid. Imagine coming to the airport, waiting for your kid, realizing that something went wrong and thinking that he never arrived, and then heading back home, on a long-haul bus no less, trying to piece together what had happened.”
“You think she thinks it’s her fault?”
“I really, really hope not… she just invited him to come, and then this happened. I guess that she was at the airport waiting for him for a few hours but no one could tell her where he was. You know when you sit there and wait for people to come out of the gate? Well, she waited for a long time, and no one came. For some reason, he got stuck in the airport void, and since he did not speak any English, he never stumbled out. She was looking for him and asking people for help, but no one bothered to go in and check… I don’t know, I couldn’t imagine her doing anything more, but I think that losing a son like that… it’s just such a shame, isn’t it?”
“What happened to the cops?”
“Commission after commission, inquiry after inquiry, and they got off. The Taser people keep insisting that it wasn’t the Taser that killed him… and the police don’t want to admit to doing anything wrong because they’ll get sued. It’s not their way to admit to anything anyway... did the Rodney King people ever apologize?
“I read that the cops are still working, reassigned now, but that one of them has another case pending against him. No charges, no suspensions, not even for the spokesman who tried to whitewash the whole thing. You’d think it was North Korea or something…”
“So why airports? You started saying something about airports…”
“Well yeah, because I’m scared that this is the future… that the airport rules and the airport mentality will seep into other areas of life. Think about it—all the rules at the airport… all the surveillance… checkpoints… customs… they can search you, pad you down, question you, hold you, lock you up, I can’t think of a place that I feel more helpless than a giant international airport. Have you ever been to Ben Gurion? I think that it’s the worst there… they even interrogate you as you enter and leave.”
“They’re scared of terrorism?”
“Spies too. But in the end, they end up harassing anyone and everyone who enters and leaves, holding people arbitrarily, trying to intimidate the hell out of everyone. I always wonder about governments—if they could pull the public safety card on anything and everything just as easily, where else would we have, you know, questions, metal detectors, pat-downs and so on…”
“Well, it’s already in government buildings… office towers… I see what you mean.”
“You forget hotels and nightclubs. And all of London seems to be under camera surveillance, and the technology keeps getting better and better…
“…Don’t look at me like that… I’m not trying to say that the government is out to get us and that we should all live off the grid or anything like that, but it’s frightening, you know? When they killed that poor guy in Vancouver, they all got away with it just because the rules allowed them to Taser him as they did. Morally, it’s repugnant, but legally… That’s where the divide is these days. The rules don’t reflect our morals, or our common sense—they make sense in their own logical way, but when something strange like the Vancouver thing happens, something that defies any simple categorization, they assume the worst and put the guy down...”
“So you’re worried that this will become normal everywhere else too? I can’t imagine that they’d ever treat you like that at a Seven-Eleven...”
“Well no, I don’t think that it will ever be quite that bad, but the thing is, the potential for this to spread is enormous. The more people talk themselves into the fact that the world is so dangerous, the more likely it is that this way of doing things will permeate beyond the airport or the government office.
“That’s why the Vancouver thing is so important—when you look at the poor guy getting Tasered on the ground, you begin to wonder… could that be my kid, could that be me? You may even think about those cops protecting you or killing him in your name for your safety, but even if you don’t delve into it too deeply, at least you begin to wonder what the heck they’d do to you in that situation. You speak English, so you’d understand them well enough to put your hands on that damned table instead of raising them up, but is that enough to avoid the electric shock? Or what if it’s a different country, and you don’t speak their language well enough to get by. What if you land in Warsaw, get confused, and Dziekanski’s countrymen hit you first, and then ask questions later?”
“Are you not making too much of this?”
“Maybe so. But just imagine what would happen if everywhere felt like a giant airport. Would you still feel free… would you believe that the cops, the clerks and the shopkeepers were actually on our side?”
“Well, at least it’d be clean and well lit…”
“That’s true, there’s always that.”
December 22, 2008
Gaza, Giza and the other CNN effect
My grandmother loves me very much. The feeling, of course, is mutual.
So, with that qualifier out of the way, please forgive the following anecdote. I am a good boy at heart, and my grandma’s English is poor enough that she will never read this.
In early June 2007, I flew to The Middle East (“The” has to be capitalized, for reasons that will become clear). I landed at Ben Gurion International Airport and made my way to Ra’anana, one of the satellite communities around Tel Aviv, where I presented an academic paper on a Polish journalist who interviewed the famous (and infamous) Avraham Stern shortly before his death.
My grandmother, who raised me in my youth and with whom I enjoy an Obama-ish relationship, was quite proud that I was presenting my research at an academic conference in a foreign country (“My grandson! Look at him!”). However, she was worried. A conference was great, she said, but why did it have to take place in what she still refers to as the Holy Land, which, in her mind, is a country of bombs, raids, irate settlers and marauding bulldozers, each liable to maim or kill her eldest grandson.
“Why don’t you present the paper in Canada?” she asked when I first told her about my trip. “Or come visit, and do it here?”
Although I had no answer for her at the time other than my customary “don’t worry,” I began to consider my grandmother’s anxieties.
She has never been to Israel, Palestine, Jordan or Egypt (my itinerary), and the last time she set foot in “The Middle East” was in the 1980s when she travelled to Libya to visit my grandfather who was among the Polish engineers helping the then-evil Gaddafi regime build highways in exchange for oil.
Since her very successful visit(she found Libyans to be kind and engaging, and she recalls the archeological ruins near Tripoli with a smile in her eyes) her only exposure to “The Middle East” came from the same source as for the rest of us, from the international press. And, with the Cold War in the rearview mirror, international reporting in Poland and the rest of the old Soviet bloc has come to be dominated by the same international news agencies, the BBC, and, of course, CNN, which has scrutinized the region with increasing frequency (and increasing anxiety) since its rise to prominence during the first Gulf War.
While the term "CNN effect" has been used by television pundits (sometimes on CNN) and by international scholars to denote the influence of the 24-hour news cycle on foreign policy formation, there is another, non-elite, CNN effect at play. While scholars (such as George Washington University’s Steven Livingston) tend to focus on the effect images of wars, natural catastrophes, terrorist attacks or man-made humanitarian disasters have on policy-makers, fewer studies look downstream, to the types of opinions and prejudices formed among the general population that outlast each particular crisis. What happens after the headlines change to the next earthquake, explosion or massacre? What is the residual CNN effect, and how long do the headlines echo, beyond the initial flashpoint that draws in and consumes the nomadic international press?
Because my grandmother devours the news (some of my first memories involve being told to be quiet as we listened to jammed Radio Free Europe broadcasts in her Warsaw apartment), her views on “The Middle East” are just as firm as her thoughts on her most beloved topic—Polish electoral politics. She wascertainthat Israel was a dangerous place to visit for her favourite Polish-Canadian academic/journalist, just as she iscertainthat the Kaczynski twins represent Poland’s best chance for maintaining sovereignty within the EU. (Needless to say, grandma and I do not always see eye-to-eye on the issues.)
Because she does not travel much anymore and because Middle Eastern geopolitics have never consumed her (she does, after all, have a compelling geopolitical chess match taking place in her own backyard), I am not certain that she can distinguish between the first intifada and the second, or between Ismail Haniyeh and Mohammed Dahlan. Yet, as far as the CNN effect is concerned, this does not matter. The emotional triggers that help to shape her views are fully formed, and she is not likely to be dissuaded.
Of particular pertinence is her view of Gaza, which, in her vocabulary, has become something of a four-letter word. Although she sympathizes with the Palestinian cause (and sympathizes very strongly, as one of an ever-diminishing number of Europeans who know firsthand what a military occupation looks like), the word “Gaza” evokes particular dread. When I first mentioned the conference in Ra’anana, she said that “at least it wasn’t Gaza.” This theme would continue throughout my visit.
Now, considering the timing of my trip, grandma was not entirely wrong to be worried. This was early June 2007, Hamas and Fatah were about to engage in a battle for Gaza, and the entire region was tense. The BBC’s Alan Johnson was in captivity for almost three months at that point and the almost-daily reports on his fate dominated the international coverage. When I told grandma that I was planning to do some minor freelance reporting once my academic duties were fulfilled, she became uneasy. When I told her that I was going to the Palestinian territories, I could hear her heart stop, and hesitate a little.
I wanted to visit Bethlehem and maybe Ramallah (both West Bank towns), partly because I wanted to write that it is a shame to form one’s opinion of the Palestinian people from CNN alone, and partly because some of my Israeli hosts kept insisting that I not go for reasons of ideology.
Now, my grandmother’s only ideology is that her eldest grandson stay safe, so when I phoned to say that I was off to Palestine, I took an earful. I tried to explain away Bethlehem saying that I wanted to visit for biblical reasons, but grandma wasn’t sold on such a flimsy explanation.
“You don’t even go to church,” she said wearily. “Please stay safe, and please stay away from Gaza.”
Of course, my visit to the West Bank was quite pleasant, and, although it should go without saying (but sadly it does not), the Palestinian people were quite unlike the angry masses one occasionally sees on the evening news. I could happily report to my Ra’anana hosts that the Israeli portrait of the average Palestinian seems just as off base as the Palestinian portrait of the average Israeli, and that despite the obvious tensions, people remain people, even when politics can make daily life incredibly difficult.
After making my way back through the structure that some Israelis insist on calling a fence (it sometimes is a fence, but where I crossed it looked like a ten-meter concrete wall with a Berlin-esque watchtower), I called from the safety of Jerusalem saying that with my conference finished, I was off to Egypt.
“You’re not going to go to Gaza, are you?” my grandma asked in a nervous tone.
“No, grandma. Just the Sinai and Cairo.”
Just as I crossed the border into Egypt, the nervous situation momentarily erupted into something much more violent. As I struggled against the heat on an Egyptian bus completely unaware of the world around me, Hamas drove Fatah from the Gaza Strip leading to the current equilibrium (or stalemate) in Palestinian politics.
Before I knew that anything had happened, I was in the Sinai backpacker haven of Dahab, many many miles away, watching the images, like my grandmother, courtesy of CNN International and the BBC.
I sent grandma a brief note telling her that I was safe, and a week later, after I made it to Cairo and after I took the metro to see the pyramids (that still sounds a bit surreal), I called grandma to let her know that I was ok.
“Grandma, I went to Giza today!”
“No, no! Giza! G-i-z-a!”
“No, the pyramids, the Sphinx!”
At this point, my innkeeper, by then fully briefed on my grandmother’s fears, almost doubled over from his chair laughing.
“My friend,” he said, “sometimes, you just don’t think.”
“But I cannot lie to my grandmother,” I protested.
“And besides, it’s just the CNN effect.”
July 21, 2005
Google has introduced Moon maps :
"On July 20, 1969, man first landed on the Moon. A few decades later, we're pleased to cut you in on the action. Google Moon is an extension of Google Maps and Google Earth that, courtesy of NASA imagery (thanks, guys!), enables you to surf the Moon's surface and check out the exact spots that the Apollo astronauts made their landings."
but what's more interesting is their future plans, and what they think will happen on the moon in the following decades:
"We usually don't announce future products in advance, but in this case, yes, we can confirm that on July 20th, 2069, in honor of the 100th anniversary of mankind's first manned lunar landing, Google will fully integrate Google Local search capabilities into Google Moon, which will allow our users to quickly find lunar business addresses, numbers and hours of operation, among other valuable forms of Moon-oriented local information."
June 19, 2005
Critical Digressions: Dispatch from Karachi
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,
We have touched down in Karachi and are reacquainting ourselves with the city through rituals that we religiously repeat every six months: in the afternoon, we get into our ‘97 Corolla, turn up the AC, turn on FM 89 (that plays Duran Duran's "Wild Boys" and "Taste of Summer" back to back with Nazia Hassan and our new generations of rockers, Noori, EP and Jal), pick up a copy of the Friday Times from our man at PIDC (who asks us how we've been and inquires about the political climate in the US), drop our dry-cleaning at the Pearl, get a shave and olive oil massage at Clippers (where we are informed of the reflexology treatment that they have recently introduced), get a beer for the road at the Korean restaurant (which nestles between our legs), and then by the evening, meander through Saddar, passed paan-wallahs, underwear-wallahs, open-air gyms, tea houses, Empress Market, the Karachi Goan Association building, to get a shirt altered, buy some DVDs (Carlito’s Way, Aurat Raj and Disco Dancer), and have fresh falsa juice as the sun warms our back and the sea breeze wafts through the city, portending the monsoon. On Thursday nights we will attend qawwalis at moonlit tombs of saints, on Friday nights we will attend the rollicking Fez disco at the Sind Club, on Saturdays, head to Burns Road for a plate of killer nihari (a hot, soupy dish prepared with calves' calves), and on Sunday, chat with old friends over Famous Grouse and Dunhills about the way things are and will be. Here, we are ourselves and we are alive.
William Dalrymple, however, an insightful commentator on India, writes, "Karachi is the saddest of cities...a South Asian Beirut." The analogy, of course, is incorrect. Looking at a map of Karachi he writes, "The pink zone in the east is dominated by the Karachi drug mafia; the red zone to the west indicates the area noted for the sophistication of its kidnapping and extortion rackets; the green zone to the south is the preserve of those specializing in sectarian violence." Ladies and gentlemen, we have lived in Karachi and can tell you with great certainty that this take on Karachi is facile. It is as if we were passing through New York in the early '90s and were to comment: New York is today’s Sodom. Down Atlantic Avenue, across Brooklyn, in areas such as Bedford-Stuyvesant, Bushwick, and Brownsville, gang warfare and the crack epidemic have transformed traditionally middle-class cantons into a no-man’s land. Bullet holes and crushed needles mark and mar desolate facades and streets. But urban decay is not simply a peripheral phenomenon. In Manhattan, whether north or south, Harlem and Manhattan Alley or Hell’s Kitchen and the Bowery, ethnic warfare plays out on the streets: Blacks, Hispanics, Irishmen, Italians, Chinese pitted against each other, daggers drawn.
Dalrymple has written a number of brilliant books on India (and lives there) but neither his view on Karachi nor ours of New York is complete and consequently, is inaccurate. There is more to New York than bullets and needles. But Karachi gets short shrift: outside observers are able to reduce Karachi to a few facts and artifacts. Since we don’t control our own discourse, others are able define, in fact, redefine the city, see what they want to see. Take Tim McGirk’s ludicrous article in Time in which he perceived Karachi through the eyes of a “hit-man.” That’s like perceiving Los Angeles through the eyes of a 7th Street Crip! This variety of analysis is not only poor but wrong. Karachi’s murder rate, in fact, is at par with Delhi’s (and DC's). And in Bombay, mobsters not only run the movie industry but become politicians and politicians stir murder and champion rape! Of course, Bombay is not merely the sum of squalid facts. Neither are other megacities like Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Lagos and Jakarta (even Lahore), although they share many similar problems.
The problem with reportage is not simply one of dominant discourse but of the news infrastructure in this part of the world. Unlike other cities, Karachi (and indeed all of Pakistan), is typically covered from another country: the South Asian bureaus of major newspapers are based in Delhi. Naturally, then, the worldview of reporters like Barry Bearak, Celia Dugger, David Rhode and Amy Waldman (all of whom, incidentally, can't hold a candle to the knoweldgeable Dalrymple) are colored by local prejudice. On the other hand, former US Consul General John Bauman, an insider – somebody who has lived in Karachi for many years, not just passing through on a ten day junket – says “there are so many good things being done in this city. The city is a lot more complex than the single image people get in the United States.”
Take our word for it: Karachi is wonderfully vibrant. There are dimensions of Karachi not often appreciated by outside observers (foreign reporters and disgruntled expatriates alike): Karachi's vibrant cultural life comprises open-air pop concerts, classical dance shows, art exhibits, independent film festivals and coffee houses; there is great dining, street-side or indoors, and a throbbing nightlife. Karachi is very similar to New York; the same frenetic rhythms beat under our feet.
the invisible city
The opening of the Venice Biennale was the launch date for a new service in the city of venice. the service, develpoed as a collaboration between the Department of Urban Studies at MIT and the University of Architecture Venice (IUAV), takes the Venice's visitors through a discovery path to the hidden layers of Venitian lives and events with the help of video phones.
"Michael Epstein, a researcher for the project, is aware that Wi-Fi walking tours may seem strange for Venice, a place behind the curve when it comes to modernization. “The entire course has a bit of a satiric quality to it,” he says, “in the sense that you’re using the latest technology to explore a city that’s still medieval in many ways.”
June 07, 2005
Chianti & History
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,
Come summer, we escape Cambridge for points East and despite our poverty, find ourselves in Italy. Here, we do as the Romans do: during the day, we sprawl at piazzas in the shadows of mighty edifices, and at night, prowl the streets, like the progeny of the wolf-suckled. And soon, we will meander through the undulating gold and olive hued Tuscan countryside, drunk on fresh warm Chianti from roadside enotecas, and on the periphery of Montepulciano, will find our kinsman's villa where we will drink more, eat more and revel for a fortnight. Then we will head further east on a cheap ticket that includes a long layover in Amman, before arriving at our final destination, Karachi.
Sipping wine in the shadow of the edifice of history, we have mused that the next leg of the journey, from Italy to Jordan, recalls another made a millennium ago by the Franks of Italy who swept south circa 1097. Let by Peter the Hermit and Walter the Penniless, David Koresh-like figures, the First Crusade began with an attack on the Jewish communities across the Italian coast and ended at the gates of Nicaea where they were wiped out by the young Turkoman leader Arslan. Subsequently, one Bohemond of southern Italy, along with a French contingent comprising Raymond St. Gilles and the Brothers Bouillon, led another effort that succeeded in taking Jerusalem. Carnage followed the fall of the city: Muslims, Jews and Christians alike were slaughtered. Soon, a tenuous Frankish empire comprising the principalities if Jerusalem, Antioch, Edessa, and Tripoli was established, one that relied on the Genoa and Venice for naval support.
The attack stirred a period of introspection amongst the disparate Muslim nations of the region: the Fatamids of Egypt, the Seljuk Abbasids in Baghdad and the Turkomans of "Rum." Ultimately, because of the attacks, the Muslims were able to summon a coherent response: Salahuddin. Salahuddin expelled the Crusaders circa 1290. There were other Crusades, the most unfortunate being what has come to be known as the Children's Crusade (when bands of children were sold into prostitution before they left the continent.)
Although we don't like reading too much into history, today, when the horrid specter of jihad looms, the Crusades seem strangely relevant. Moreover, the quest for Jerusalem seems to be a powerful historical dynamic. Of course, the Crusades summon different memories for different peoples. Here in Italy, the Crusaders are lionized while in the Middle East they are remembered as the defeated. Of course, history like literature, is simply an exercise in perspective.
Ridley Scott's perspective on the Crusades makes for a mildly interesting spectacle (although Orland Bloom is an unfortunate casting decision). Amin Malouf's the Crusades Through Arab Eyes is a novel variety of historiography. P.M. Holt's unembellished version appeals to our sensibilities. It is, of course, the ascendant civilization that canonizes collective memory and defines discourse.
We remember things differently and different times (and like to think of different things altogether) but then we've had too much to drink. And we believe, "It's not where you're from/ It's where you're at."
May 28, 2005
Multi-functional Maglev: Treehuggers meet the Jetsons
"Mention "Maglev train" at your run of the mill urban planner's dinner party, and you'd probably get laughed out of the room. High speed train projects in the US have flopped, foundered, and fizzled since the 60's. But now, with oil shortages peaking over the horizon, and a growing interest in a hydrogen economy, The Interstate Travel Company(ITC) thinks that the time is right for a fresh attempt."
Reminds me a little of the doomed "Supertrain" concept that Campbell Scott's urban-planner character tirelessly promotes throughout Cameron Crowe's "Singles"...
April 11, 2005
From the observation deck of the Aloha Tower there is a panoramic view of the Honolulu waterfront and a once infamous district known as Iwilei. Looking for local color, Somerset Maugham went slumming there and wrote this in his notebook: “You go down side-streets by the harbour, in the darkness, across a rickety bridge, and you come to a road, all ruts and holes; a little farther … there is a certain stir, an air of expectant agitation; you turn down a narrow alley, either to the right or to the left, and find yourself in the district… . The pretty bungalows are divided into two lodgings; each is inhabited by a woman, and each consists of two rooms and a kitchenette.”
A prostitute named Sadie Thompson, Maugham was to find, lived in one of those bungalows. Shortly after Maugham’s Iwilei adventure, the police shut down the district. Sadie was out of business and sailed off to Samoa. As it turned out, Maugham was on board that ship too and suffered through her loud gramophone and late-night trysts. In Samoa, temporarily stranded by a storm, he found himself in the same boardinghouse as Sadie. There was a reallife hypocritical missionary staying in the boardinghouse too, although he seems not to have met the final grim end of Maugham’s character Davidson. Sadie’s adventures became Maugham’s most famous short story, “Rain.” The writer did not even bother to change her name: Passenger lists published in the Pacific Commercial Advertiser record a “Somerset Maugham” and a “Miss Thompson” departing Honolulu for Pago Pago on the Sonoma, December 4, 1916.
September 27, 2004
Branson's move into space tourism
It's either the zietgeist or it's just herding in both journalism and the blogosphere--
I lean toward the latter, but following on the post on flying cars below, there's this from the BBC.
"The news that Sir Richard Branson has signed a deal to take paying passengers into space suggests the Ansari X-Prize has achieved its goal of bringing space tourism closer to the masses. One of the aims behind the $10m (£5.7m) challenge was to galvanise enthusiasm for private manned spaceflight, thereby bringing 'out of this world' tourism within reach of ordinary people.
In the past, space travel has been open only to the privileged few; either government-back astronauts or millionaires with enough spare cash to book a flight on a Russian Soyuz rocket to the International Space Station.
If and when the Virgin venture - dubbed Virgin Galactic - begins offering its first spaceflights, the tickets will still be expensive. A sub-orbital flight is expected initially to cost about £100,000."