Monday, November 25, 2013
Why you can't buy a first class ticket to Utopia
by Emrys Westacott
Just about every high school would like more money and harder working students. I have a modest proposal to address both problems. In every high school cafeteria let there be two groups—call them, say, "premier" and "regular." To be in the premier group, students must either pay an additional fifty percent on top of the normal price for a school lunch or be ranked academically in the top five percent of their class. Those in the premier group would enjoy a number of privileges: they queue in their own line, which gives them priority over "regulars" for receiving service; they sit in a separate section at special tables adorned with tablecloths and floral centerpieces; their chairs have padded seats; and they have more choice at the food counter. In addition to the options available to the regular group, they can avail themselves of a complimentary hors d'oeuvre, sparkling water instead of tap water, and an after-lunch coffee or cappuccino (with complimentary chocolate mint). Best of all, perhaps, they enjoy unfiltered internet access.
The benefits of the system should be obvious. The extra revenue generated by the premier group will (among other things) enable the school to offer better food to all while lowering prices for those in the standard group. And students will be inspired to work harder so that they can enjoy premier group privileges, or at least ensure that one day their own kids will do so.
Objections anyone? I can't think of any apart from the thought that the whole scheme is utterly pernicious, likely to breed arrogance on the one side, resentment on the other, and to foster social divisions that subtly fracture the community spirit that ideally would unite all members of the school.
My modest proposal occurred to me the other day when, for the first time, by some inexplicable fluke, I found myself assigned to a first class seat on a jumbo jet flying from Denver to Washington.
Adopting the scientific attitude of an anthropologist set down amidst an alien tribe, I took careful note of all the privileges my exalted status conferred. For the uninitiated I hereby divulge the mysteries: priority boarding; a personalized greeting from the flight attendant; plusher seats wide enough to accommodate the fattest of cats; an extra foot of leg room; a pre-flight drink; a bowl of heated nuts shortly after takeoff; a heated chocolate chip cookie for dessert; and a hot wet washcloth with which to swab one's after-dinner face.
The extra room was pleasant. But what struck me most about the rest of the privileges was that they are essentially symbolic. They don't materially improve the experience; they just serve to remind you that you're in first class. This is presumably the purpose of heating the nuts, cookie and washcloth: to differentiate what you're getting from the pre-packed nuts, cookie, and scented towelette that the plebs in standard have to put up with. After all, if nuts are really so much nicer hot, why don't we eat them that way at home?
Obviously, the symbolic privileges are part of the airline's strategy to convince those who can afford it that first class is worth the price. Assuming that the market strategists know their business, the implications are depressing, although hardly surprising. It seems that some people are more likely to pay first class fares if the experience includes lots of little reminders that they are enjoying privileges extended to the few and not to the many. Possibly the airlines should try the experiment of allowing first class passengers to view via a webcam the less luxurious conditions endured by those in second class. After all, according to Thomas Aquinas, "in order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned." (Summa Theologica, Part III, Supplement, Question 94)
So why do we accept class distinctions on planes and trains but not in the cafeteria?
The reason, presumably, is our concern that in schools the likely costs would outweigh the benefits, the main costs being the insidious harm we fear will be done to the fabric of the school community and to the way in which members of that community regard one another. Nor does this argument only hold for children in school. Few college presidents, no matter how much they desire extra revenue or harder working students, would countenance class distinctions of this sort on campus.
But then the obvious next question raised by the dining hall analogy is this: Does the current system on planes and trains carry a similar cost? Is our society subtly harmed by the institution of offering first and second-class travel options? And if so, do the harms outweigh the benefits?
These are not the kind of things that are easily measured. Even if clever social scientists managed to establish correlations between institutionalized class distinctions and lower levels of social solidarity, it would be hard to prove that one caused the other; so many other variables could be playing a part. But here is where some critical and suggestive philosophical reflection may be useful.
Defenders of the travel class distinctions have to do one of two things: either claim that there is nothing wrong with my modest proposal, or explain why the arguments against class distinctions in the school cafeteria don't hold on planes and trains. The first option is unappealing. A few bean counters might consider the cafeteria scheme a decent wheeze, but I assume most people would be moderately to mightily disgusted by it. This, I concede, is proof by "hypothetical evidence"—I hypothesize that if a school tried implementing the proposal there would be an immediate moral outcry. But this assumption strikes me as highly plausible. Critics could refute it easily enough by persuading lots of school principals to try the experiment. I predict they'll find few takers.
The other option is to break down the analogy. One difference between the two situations, it might be argued, is that whereas schools are not-for-profit public services, transport providers are commercial enterprises, so a different ethic prevails. The primary mission of United Airlines and the rest is to be profitable, and they'll naturally do whatever will help them maximize profits. That's capitalism. In fact, paying extra for first class travel is no different from paying extra for a nicer hotel room, a better view of the ball game, a front row seat at the theater, or for, that matter, a bigger house, a flashier car, and more fashionable clothes. We tolerate—even celebrate--the power of money in these and many other contexts. Of course, there are contexts where we would deem it inappropriate to let money do the talking. We wouldn't, for instance, allow rich people to jump the queue for surgery…oh, wait, scratch that. OK, we wouldn't think it right, even at private colleges, to give rich students who pay higher fees first dibs on over-enrolled courses, or more careful feedback on their assignments. But in a commercial setting we are usually comfortable with allowing money to talk.
This argument has some force. We do seem to tolerate paid-for customer privileges in a commercial context more readily than when the service is seen as a basic entitlement, such as education, or is provided by the state or some other non-profit agency. Yet the line here isn't sharp. State-owned (or subsidized) railways and airlines—Air India, for instance, or British Rail before privatization—have usually also offered first and second-class facilities. Public hospitals allow patients to pay extra for private rooms. So the onus is still on anyone who supports such practices to explain why they should not be extended to schools and colleges.
Another difference, and thus another possible flaw in the analogy, is that since class distinctions in transportation have been around a long time we have grown used to them. This very familiarity renders them relatively harmless. But if we were suddenly to introduce something similar in schools, the change would be striking, people would naturally pay much more attention to it, and for that very reason it would do more harm. Awareness of the distinction would be acute. It would be as if New York City were overnight to cordon off an especially nice section of Central Park where only "first class" visitors who had paid a surcharge enjoyed sauntering rights. The outcry would be deafening, and the damage to the social fabric of the city could be severe.
Here, too, the criticism of the parallel being drawn between class distinctions in different contexts has a point, but not a strong one. The assumption that what would be a pernicious novelty has been rendered harmless by longstanding usage is questionable—in fact it is question-begging. More fundamentally, though, both objections to the analogy can be countered by asking the question: Would the practice of having first and second class seating, first and second class service, first and second class waiting areas, etc., be part of what you consider an ideal society? If you could time travel forwards to visit the cleaner, nicer, friendlier world we are presumably trying to steer towards, would you expect institutionalized class distinctions to still exist? Or would you be deeply disappointed to find that they hadn't been eradicated?
I, for one, would be deeply disappointed. The battle cry at the outset of the modern campaign to make the world a better place to live was, as I recall, "Liberty! Equality! Fraternity!" I'll grudgingly grant that having the option of paying extra for certain privileges constitutes a sort of liberty (grudgingly, because an increase in freedom should mean much more than just greater consumer choice for people with means). But what about poor old equality and fraternity? How are these ideals served by institutionalized class distinctions? The obvious answer is that they are not.
Now admittedly, there are times when the means to an end involves elements that do not belong to the end—rungs on a ladder that one hopes eventually to discard. Utopia won't have burglar alarms or tax inspectors, but that doesn't mean we should dispense with them now. At present they play a necessary part in the attempt to build a just and prosperous society. But calling to mind our utopian ideals can still serve a valuable purpose; it prompts us to ask whether our current practices are helping us advance toward those ideals or are steering us away from them, perhaps unintentionally widening the gap between our reality and our dreams.
So the next time you find yourself tempted to plunk down that extra thousand bucks for a first class seat, confident that it will accommodate you comfortably no matter how many heated cookies you scoff, ask yourself this: Should we countenance institutionalized class distinctions of this kind? If we wouldn't support them in our schools and colleges, doesn't that suggest that there is something unwholesome about them? And if they don't belong to our vision of an ideal society and are not needed to move us forward, why not inch a little closer toward that ideal right now by scrapping the practice?
One day, perhaps, a kid will ask her mother: "Mom, is it true that in the olden days they used to let rich people get on the plane first while everyone else had to wait? And that the rich people got to sit in especially comfy seats in a special part of the plane where no-one else could go?" And the mother will be able to say, "Yes, sweetie, it's true. But that was at a time when everyone was focusing on liberty—which they understood rather simplistically as maximizing consumer choice in a free market—and had rather forgotten about equality and fraternity. Eventually they realized that these values mattered as well."
Through A Printer Darkly
by James McGirk
James McGirk works as a literary journalist and is a contributing analyst to an online think tank. The following is an imagined itinerary for a tourist vacation twenty years in the future.
Seven days in the PRINTERZONE
June 20, 2033-June 28, 2033
A quick suborbital hop to Iceland courtesy of Virgin Galactic and then it’s all aboard the ScholarShip, a luxurious three-mast schooner powered by that most ecologically palatable of sources: the wind.
Weather-permitting you and twenty of your fellow alumni will set sail for the Printerzone. (The North and Norwegian Seas can be temperamental: in the event of heavy weather we revert to backup biodiesel power.) Our destination has been recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site: it is both a glimpse at what our future might become should government regulation of printers come to an end, and a fantasy of life free from credit and ubiquitous surveillance. Together we’ll spend a week immersed in this unique community, on board an oilrig in international waters, using three-dimensional additive printing to meet our every need.
Joining us on this adventure will be Prof. Orianna Braum, an associate professor of Maker Culture at Stanford University; Alan Reasor, a forty-year veteran of the additive printing industry; and a young man who prefers to refer to himself by displaying a small silver plastic snowflake in his palm.
ITINERARY - DAY ONE
A colorful day spent traversing the Norwegian and North Seas… sublime marine grays and blues stirred by the bracing sea breeze. Keep your eyes peeled for pods of chirping Minke whales! Many are 100 percent natural.
Breakfast and lunch will be served onboard The ScholarShip by our chef Matthias Spork. Selections include: printed cereals and pastas, catch-of-the-day and a refreshing sorbet spatter-printed by his wife, renowned pastry chef Rebecca Spork.
Prof. Braum and Mr. Reasor will debate: Has Three-Dimensional Printing failed its Promise? Reasor will argue that in most instances economies of scale and the cost of raw materials make conventional manufacturing a more cost-effective solution than 3D printing. Prof. Braum will counter, describing industries that have been radically reshaped by printing—prosthetics and dentistry, bespoke suiting and fashion, at-home robotics and auto-repair—and suggest instead that government safety regulation and restrictive intellectual property licenses have done more to stifle innovation than costs. There will be time for questions afterwards. And then a brief demonstration of piezoelectric substrates: printed materials that respond to the human touch.
Following a hearty and delicious dinner prepared by the Sporks, we invite you for hot toddy and outdoor stargazing with our First Mate. The Arctic winds can be fierce at night, so you have the option of lighting the hearth in your cabin, and viewing a very special Skype broadcast—The Pink Printer’s Naughty Apprentice—which outlines in a most whimsical and titillating way some of the more adult uses of the three-dimensional printer.
(Please note that cabins containing occupants below the age of consent in their country of residence will not receive this broadcast.)
Drop Anchor in the Printerzone
After a hot breakfast ladled out by the Sporks, join your shipmates on deck for an approach unlike anywhere else on earth: a faint glimmer on the horizon gathers in size and sprouts shapes and colors, until the magnificent muddle that is the Printerzone fills our entire field of vision. Crumpled wrapping paper on stilts, a wag once said. Squint at this glorious mass, and beneath the colorful sprays of plastic and the pieces of flotsam and jetsam the residents have creatively incorporated into their homes, you just might make out the original concrete and steel beneath.
Your daily allowance of printer substrate will be issued to you in bulk so that you may trade it for trinkets. A rope ladder will be lowered from above. One at a time you will be hoisted to the Zone. There, our guide, the man who identifies himself with the silver snowflake (henceforth referred to as [*]) shall greet us. He is an interesting specimen. Ask of him what you will. The tour begins at The Workshop, a vast, enclosed “maker space” where P’Zoners (as they call themselves) exchange goods, plans for new designs and information. Barter your substrate for unique souvenirs. Take a class in creation. Then enjoy a sandwich lunch carefully selected by the Sporks. Food may also be bartered with the natives.
After lunch you may explore the Zone at your leisure or enjoy another spirited debate between Reasor and Braum. Printerzone: Model City or Goofy Aberration? Dinner shall be served in the Workshop, which at night transforms into The Wild Rumpus. Guests in peak physical condition may want to join the carousing. (N.B. Beware of custom-printed entheogens and other libations, which, while they may be legal in the Printerzone, are not necessarily safe.)
Fresh croissants and a mug of coffee are the perfect way to begin a crisp Printetrzone morning! Daring types may wish to join [*] and don a protective suit printed from the city’s custom printers, and sink beneath the waves for a romp on the seafloor and a look at how the city has evolved below the waterline. Printerzone’s silver suits are said to work as well in orbit as they do submerged beneath the waves. You may examine copies of a Vogue pictorial featuring the suits.
For those who prefer a more relaxed pace in the morning, there will be a bicycle tour of the Zone’s famous hydroponic orchid nursery, its orphanage and its medical clinics (notable, for, among other things, performing the first artificial face transplant). There will also be a chance to examine the city’s recycling system up close as it transforms unwanted printer output and even sewage and brine into the raw materials for printing. No stinky smells we promise!
(All printed foods served aboard the ScholarShip are guaranteed to be free from precursor materials that were made from human waste or potential allergens.)
For lunch, if you’re ready for it, be prepared to break some taboos. Guided by [*], the Sporks, rabbis, halal butchers, vegan chefs, and a number of other experts, you will be given a unique opportunity to eat—among otherwise offensive offerings—a perfect facsimile of human flesh, pork, dolphin steak, non-toxic fugu flesh, endangered sea turtle, and even taste the world’s most potent toxins in perfect moral comfort and safety. Less adventurous offerings will also be available for the squeamish.
During lunch, Braum and Reasor will sound off on the subject of: Whether Full Employment is Possible in a post-3DP World. Braum says printing in three dimensions will kill off the middlemen who camp out in many employment categories (the warehouse managers, the marketing men…); Reasor agrees, but thinks the unfettered labor will be absorbed by innovative new industries. There will be time for questions. Coffee too.
After lunch there will be a demonstration of one of the most potent technologies to emerge from three-dimensional printing: the cheap invisibility cloak. Then you will be joined by some of the city’s most outrageous tailors, haberdashers, wig makers, and costume outfitters. Design a more colorful, eccentric version of yourself and then top off your creation with a freshly printed invisibility cloak, so that you might attend the night’s festivities in absolute comfort. You need only reveal yourself to those you want to. Buffet dinner. Brandy against the chill.
(N.B. Printerzone security forces are equipped with night-vision goggles, so rest assured that you will be safe, but don’t get any antisocial ideas. There are some rules to abide by!)
Pondering the Printerzone
On our fourth day, after a healthy, all-natural breakfast lovingly prepared by the Sporks on the ScholarShip, we delve into the Printerzone’s more pensive side. [*] will lead us on a tour of the Million Memorials, the serene necropolis where the city’s mourners print chalky likenesses of friends and family they’ve lost, and missing objects and abstractions too. A quiet, haunting place. After a pleasing serenade by the P’Zone wailers, we picnic among the monuments, and hear [*]’s own story of loss—his young bride who slipped over the railing during a photo session and drowned in the ocean— and gaze at the spun plastic residue of a brief but happy relationship and afterwards, stroll back to The Workshop for a chance to barter for more amusements.
The subject of the day’s lecture (delivered, of course by Braum and Reasor) will be: Three Dimensional Printing in the Developing World. Printing won’t be the panacea we think it will because the developing world lacks the infrastructure to sustain itself; but surely the availability of items that would otherwise have been unavailable is valuable—but what about the cottage industries that would be eradicated by printing, wouldn’t that snuff out any printing-related development? Drink during the lecture if you like. Gaze longingly at potential mates if you wish to. This is a pleasure cruise.
After a brief question and answer session, a fittingly austere supper will be served, and [*] will introduce us to a non-profit initiative sponsored by the Printerzone: a crisis response team that will race to trouble spots and, without the needless hassle of lines of communication and supply, be able to provide surgical equipment, medicines and shelter at a fraction of the cost… cost? Yes, even this barter-driven economy is soliciting funds. Contribute what you will. The city’s orphans hand out orchids.
Snack before the Wild Rumpus. Serenade. Custom sex surrogates printed for an additional fee. (Please: No printing of lecturers, crewmembers, fellow travelers without their expressed permission, no skin prints using DNA within a 15 percent match of your own.)
At home in the Printerzone
Many of travelers wake on their fifth day beside a grim memory, manifest in the form of slightly abused piezoelectric plastic. You may find it cathartic to batter your unwanted surrogate to pieces, or, if you are the showy sort—enter the surrogate into the ring for gladiatorial combat. The festivities begin with a squabble between Braum and Reasor’s creations (one wonders at the tension between them), followed by a battle royal, and a moving speech by [*] about whether or not a surrogate has a soul. Each participant will be allowed to download a copy of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep for later review.
By now you’ve spent nearly a week looking up at the frills wrapped around the upper decks of the rig. Perhaps you’ve wondered what the lives of the residents are like beyond the Wild Rumpus or the Workshop floor. Today you’ll enjoy an intimate glance at their living quarters.
Some might find this disturbing. There are children here, you might say, how could one live like this? But they’re hardly cut off; well, maybe they are cut off from nature and history and dry land but not the ‘net. See the data goggles they wear? The tykes and pubers who strut about the Zone have come to see the boundary between what is virtual and what is not as a thing much more permeable than you or I.
Here the Internet is inside out. People print virtual things. Shudder at the home robots with their suction cup attachments. Are they vacuum cleaners or sexual abominations or both? Much of the home décor won’t make sense unless you’re jacked into the ’net. Too prone to data dropsy to peer through a lens? Ask yourself why this trip appealed to you in this first place, but fear not—there are gentle entheogens that replicate the experience of data being blazed onto your eyeballs.
Nighttime. Rumpus again. Dance and flail until you feel yourself dissolve into the communal flesh. The Sporks have taken the day off. Truth be told they’re disgusted with three-dimensional printing and what it means for their profession. Can you blame them? Who cares, you aren’t hungry. From perched up high, the Zone looks terraced and circular like a medieval etching of The Inferno. The Rumpus looks like the writhing of the damned. You think you see Braum and Reasor embrace. [*] sits beside you and tells you his given name was Virgil. Has he been drugging you?
Beyond the Printerzone
Someone wakes you up by firing a pistol in the air. That’s right, there are a lot of weapons here. This is a polite society. Ugh, the sunlight streaming into your eyes is sheer agony. Your neurons are crying out. Caffeine! Dopamine! Serotonin! You wobble out on deck. The Sporks are back. Thank God the Sporks are back. They pour you a mug of coffee. They cut you a grapefruit. Crackling bacon, the smell of bread baking.
[*] won’t look you in the eye, the sweaty creep.
Above you the colorful plastic printed houses look chintzy in the light. They hoist you up. Peek below. The ScholarShip is an oasis of sanity and earthtones. Everything else is Technicolor Burp. Can you really face another day of this? The medic gives you something for your throbbing head. A party assembles. Wrapped sandwiches for lunch and shot-glasses of Astronaut Ice Cream. A hardhat. That silver protective garb you’ll have to peel off afterwards. The place stinks of kerosene (that’s jet fuel someone will say.) There are men from NASA, and men from the Air Force, and men with helmets that look like they’re made entirely from mirrorshades. Cyclopses. You want to leave. There’s a faint but unmistakable rumble.
Reasor and Braum waddle to the front of your party. Another debate: Space Exploration is Three-Dimensional Printing’s Killer App. This time they both agree. Reasor thinks the way to reach for the stars is to print a massive cable and haul ourselves up. Braum says that’s great, but what’s better is that you can go anywhere in space and print anything you could possibly need. You can beam plans to the spaceship, plans for things that weren’t invented when the ship took off. Applause. Time for questions. Cups of coffee. Cookies.
Wonder what if printers were used to print infinite printers?
Clutch your mug. Look around. The top level is cold and metallic. Limp suits hang waiting, rows of silver helmets that look like Belgian Glass globes wink in the setting sun. Rockets: fins, nose caps, nozzles, streamlined bellies, lie, being assembled from spools of plastic. Dinner is splendid and sober. You remember little of it. There were candles. An ant walked across the table.
Tonight there is no Wild Rumpus. You sleep on the rig, beneath the stars but protected by an infinitesimal layer of plastic. A storm blows in. Electricity rips the Arctic sky. Rain pounds plastic but never touches you. You are woken by a helmeted Cyclops: “Some visitors decide never to leave,” he says, extending a gloved hand. It’s silver. “We’ll nourish you.” Behind the smooth surface you can just make out the blurry face of [*]
Wake to the smell of Sporks’ cooking. A printed snowflake has been placed beside you. Visitors may opt to extend their stay. Or leave and never, ever come back.
Monday, May 27, 2013
by Jalees Rehman
"Shorter sentences and simple words!" was the battle cry of all my English teachers. Their comments and corrections of our English-language essays and homework assignments were very predictable. Apparently, they had all sworn allegiance to the same secret Fraternal Order of Syntax Police. I am sure that students of the English language all over the world have heard similar advice from their teachers, but English teachers at German schools excel in their diligent use of linguistic guillotines to chop up sentences and words. The problem is that they have to teach English to students who think, write and breathe in German, the lego of languages.
Lego blocks invite the observer to grab them and build marvelously creative and complex structures. The German language similarly invites its users to construct composite words and composite sentences. A virtually unlimited number of composite nouns can be created in German, begetting new words which consist of two, three or more components with meanings that extend far beyond the sum of their parts. The famous composite German word "Schadenfreude" is now used worldwide to describe the shameful emotion of joy when observing harm befall others. It combines "Schaden" (harm or damage) and "Freude" (joy), and its allure lies in the honest labeling of a guilty pleasure and the inherent tension of combining two seemingly discordant words.
The lego-like qualities of German can also be easily applied to how sentences are structured. Commas are a German writer's best friends. A German sentence can contain numerous clauses and sub-clauses, weaving a quilt of truths, tangents and tangential truths, all combined into the serpentine splendor of a single sentence. Readers may not enjoy navigating their way through such verschachtelt sentences, but writers take great pleasure in envisioning a reader who unwraps a sentence as if opening a matryoshka doll only to find that the last word of a mammoth sentence negates its fore-shadowed meaning.
Even though our teachers indulged such playfulness when we wrote in German, they were all the more harsh when it came to our English assignments. They knew that we had a hankering for creating long sentences, so they returned them to us covered in red ink markings, indicative of their syntactic fervor. This obsession with short sentences and words took the joy out of writing in English. German was the language of beauty and poetry, whereas English became the language best suited for efficient communication. By the time I reached my teenage years, I began to lose interest in writing anything in English beyond our mandatory school assignments. I still enjoyed reading books in English, such as the books of Enid Blyton, but I could not fathom how a language of simple sentences and simple words could be used to create works of literary beauty. This false notion fell apart when I first read "Things Fall Apart" by Chinua Achebe.
The decision to read "Things Fall Apart" was not completely arbitrary. My earliest memories of this world are those of the years I spent as a child in Igboland. My family moved from Pakistan to Germany when I was one year old, but we soon moved on to Nigeria. Germany was financing the rehabilitation of the electrical power grid that had been destroyed during the Biafra War. My father was one of the electrical engineers sent from Germany to help with the restoration and expansion of the electrical power supply in the South-Eastern part of Nigeria – the region which was home to the Igbo people and which had attempted and failed to secede as the Republic of Biafra.
We first stayed in Enugu, the former capital of the transient Republic of Biafra and then lived in the city of Aba. My memories of the time in Igboland are just sequences of images and scenes, and it is difficult to make sense of all of them: Kind and friendly people, palm trees and mysterious forests, riding a tricycle in elliptical loops, visits to electrical sub-stations. We returned to Germany when I was four years old. I would never live in the Igboland again, but recalling the fragmented memories of those early childhood years has always evoked a sense of comfort and joy in me. When I came across "Things Fall Apart" as a fourteen-year old and learned that it took place in an Igbo village, I knew that I simply had to read it.
I was not prepared for the impact the book would have on me. Great books shake us up, change us in a profound and unpredictable manner, leaving footprints that are etched into the rinds of our soul. "Things Fall Apart" was the first great English language book that I read. I was mesmerized by its language. This book was living proof that one could write a profound and beautiful book in English, using short, simple sentences.
As the Ibo say: "When the moon is shining the cripple becomes hungry for a walk."
And so Okonkwo was ruled by one passion— to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved. One of those things was gentleness and another was idleness.
Living fire begets cold, impotent ash.
A child cannot pay for its mother's milk.
It wasn't just the beautiful language, aphorisms, Igbo proverbs and haunting images that made this book so unique. "Things Fall Apart" contained no heroes. The books that I had read before "Things Fall Apart" usually made it obvious who the hero was. But "Things Fall Apart" was different. Okonkwo was no hero, not even a tragic hero. But he also was no villain. As with so many of the characters in the book, I could see myself in them and yet I was also disgusted by some of the abhorrent acts they committed. I wanted to like Okonkwo, but I could not like a man who participated in the killing of his adopted son or nearly killed his wife in a fit of anger.
Guns fired the last salute and the cannon rent the sky. And then from the center of the delirious fury came a cry of agony and shouts of horror. It was as if a spell had been cast. All was silent. In the center of the crowd a boy lay in a pool of blood. It was the dead man's sixteen-year-old son, who with his brothers and half-brothers had been dancing the traditional farewell to their father. Okonkwo's gun had exploded and a piece of iron had pierced the boy's heart.
Achebe was not judging or mocking his characters, but sharing them with us. He was telling us about how real humans think and behave. As I read the book, I felt that I was being initiated into life. Life would be messy. Most of us would end up being neither true heroes nor true villains but composites of heroism and villainy. If I did not want end up like Okwonkwo, the ultimate non-negotiator, I needed to accept the fact that my life would be a series of negotiations: negotiations between individuals, negotiations between conflicting identities and negotiations between values and cultures. The book described a specific clash of cultures in colonial Africa, but it was easy to apply the same clash to so many other cultures. I tried to envision Okwonkwo as an Indian farmer whose world began to fall apart when Arab armies invaded the Sindh. I imagined Okwonkwo as a Native American, a Roman or a Japanese warrior, each negotiating his way through cultural upheavals. The history of humankind is always that of things falling apart and, importantly, that of rebuilding after the falling apart.
As soon as the day broke, a large crowd of men from Ezeudu's quarter stormed Okonkwo's compound, dressed in garbs of war. They set fire to his houses, demolished his red walls, killed his animals and destroyed his barn. It was the justice of the earth goddess, and they were merely her messengers. They had no hatred in their hearts against Okonkwo. His greatest friend, Obierika, was among them. They were merely cleansing the land which Okonkwo had polluted with the blood of a clansman.
I read "Things Fall Apart" to find my past, but it defined my future. It helped me recognize the beauty of the English language and prepared me for life in a way that no book had ever done before.
Notes: All quotes are from "Things Fall Apart" by Chinua Achebe
Image Credits: Stack of "Things Fall Apart" (by Scartol via Wikimedia Commons), Photo of a porcelain insulator with a bullet hole probably from the Biafra war, Photo taken from the Presidential Hotel in Enugu 1973.
Monday, 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.
Monday, 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.)
Monday, 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,
Monday, 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.”
Monday, 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.”
Thursday, 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."
Sunday, 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.”
Tuesday, 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."
Saturday, 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"...
Monday, 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.
Monday, 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."