Death key to sex in butterflies

From BBC News:

Butterfly_3 Bacteria that kill off male butterflies can actually lead to increased promiscuity in female butterflies, scientists have found. The Current Biology study looked at the Hypolimnas bolina species, common to the Pacific and SE Asia. The team discovered as the bacteria caused male populations to fall, females mated more frequently to boost their chances of becoming impregnated.

The study has revealed the bacteria’s powerful effect on mating systems. The Wolbachia bacteria are passed from mother to son in some species of tropical butterfly, and kill the embryo before it hatches. The bacteria are so effective, some islands can be left with one male to every 100 females. Theoretically, an excess of females should lead to an increase of mating opportunities for males and a decrease in the average number of matings per female, as males become increasingly rare.

More here.

Dispatches: Nihari Redux

Last week, Abbas posted a little video I made of a journey to Karachi’s Burns Road to have one of my very favorite foods, nihari.  So I thought I would supply some more information about this gastronomic epiphany.

Nihari is a dish of spiced, braised meat that has achieved sentimental status for many Pakistanis and Indians.  Shanks, which can be beef, lamb, or goat, are simmered overnight in a broth flavored with red pepper, black pepper, garlic, mace, coriander, and other spices.  Often they are left to braise in a pot covered in embers to maintain an even and low temperature.  After six to eight hours of simmering, when the shanks have tenderized, the cooking liquid is thickened and flavored with fried onions, and the finished stew is served with chopped coriander, minced green chilies, slivered ginger, lime wedges.  It is eaten with plain fresh naan, usually for breakfast or brunch – especially after long nights for its restorative qualities.  I think its combination of deeply flavored, earthy meat, the fresh zest of the toppings, and the perfection of a proper tandoori naan is one of the greatest bites there is to eat.

The nihari shops of Karachi and Lahore do bustling business, but mention it to many expatriate Pakistanis and you will hear consecutive sighs.  (I hold that Pakistani nihari is better.  Why?  Because Pakistan is better.  Kidding.  It’s because it’s best made with beef, which is uncommon in India.)  Good nihari is not commonly available in this country.  The great wave of Indian restaurants that colonized the US and Britain, mostly run by Bangladeshi entrepreneurs starting in London’s Brick Lane and New York’s Sixth Street, denatured a group of regional dishes into a standardized scale of chili heat: vindaloo, jalfrezi, do piaz, madras, etc.  Nihari, a much more singular dish, didn’t make it into this list, and is thus only found in restaurants catering to South Asian immigrants, and even then usually only available as a weekend special.

The number of cultures that have restorative dishes made from long-simmered, gelatinous cuts of meat served with fresh seasonings makes one wonder about the possibility of a universal index of deliciousness.  In Mexico, so similar to the subcontinent in ingredients and general approach to cuisine, there is goat’s head stew as well as  the great hangover cure, posole (hominy corn in pork and chicken broth topped with fresh radishes, lime, and salsa).  In Italy, osso buco combines braised lamb shanks with gremolata, or lemon zest mixed with chopped parsley.  In Turkey, tripe soup is a weekend brunch special.

The shanks, or lower legs, of cows, lambs and goats have richly marrowed bones surrounded by a ring of stringy, tough meat.  Opposite in texture to more usual star cuts such as tenderloin, shanks require long cooking to become edible and also contain large amounts of gelatin.  That’s why they are usually used in luxury Western cooking for stock.  But shanks, like many humble cuts of meat, have enjoyed a popular renaissance with the vogue for peasant foods.  So maybe it’s time for nihari to take its place alongside osso buco and barbecued ribs in the list of foods considered by gastronomes as honest and authentic regional delicacies.  As Abbas mentioned, I bet Anthony Bourdain would love it.  For many Pakistanis and Indians, it occupies that place already: its rarity in restaurants only contributes to its aura.  You might say that in the social imaginary it represents the streets of home themselves, in all their remembered specificity.  Taste, memory.

With most such foods, the genius of the place supposedly cannot be transported – if you’re meant to taste authenticity, you can’t take it with you.  Here is the point in the story where I’m supposed to admit that my grandmother cooked the greatest nihari, or that I fondly remember youthful trips to the nihariwallahs of Burns Road.  That would go along with the mythologizing impulse that we often give in to when talking about such talismanic foods.  I’d rather use the example of nihari to rebut that idea.  Actually, I tasted it for the first time at the age of about twenty at my aunt’s house, in Baltimore.  I was immediately hooked, and started cooking it for both my family and anyone else who expressed an interest in trying it.  Surprisingly, it was quite easy, and the results were always good.  There were a few early periods where I ate it every day for a week.

It was only in 2004, when I visited Pakistan for the first time in ten years, that I had the chance to try the real deal.  And so I toured the famous specialist shops (in case you’re going, I especially love Zahid’s of Saddar, Karachi and the little shop outside the Lahore’s Lahori gate, where my mother and I had a memorable lunch).  So for me the dish doesn’t hold the kind of retrospective nostalgia it does for many people.  So just as I think it’s a bit silly to wait in line for two hours with a bunch of trainspotting foodies to have a slice of Di Fara’s admittedly delicious pizza, I think one shouldn’t overly romanticize a foodstuff’s most legendary purveyors when you can have it in your own home.  This is also because I know that nihari is not hard to make, and so you can have it anytime.  Here’s how:


4 tablespoons oil
4 lbs. beef shanks (I think beef provides the best flavor for this dish)
6 garlic cloves, minced
4 tablespoons nihari masala (you can use a packet of Shaan, or use the one below)
2 onions, halved and sliced
1/2 cup flour
naan, made yourself or from a good restaurant (no butter!)
for garnish: chopped coriander, limes wedges, minced bird’s eye chilies, slivered ginger

Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat and brown the meat in two batches.  Then fry the garlic until just coloring, return the meat and add the masala to the pot and add ten cups of water.  Bring to a boil, then cover and turn down to the lowest simmer.  Go to sleep.  When you wake up, or about six to eight hours later, test the meat for doneness – it should be fork-tender and the marrow should have melted out of the bones, leaving them as clean white rings in the broth.  Remove a teacup of the broth and whisk the flour into it, removing lumps.  Reintroduce the floured broth to the pot.  Now fry the onion until browned with a little more of the masala, then pour this mixture into the broth.  Turn the heat up and boil rapidly with the cover off until you reach a slightly thickened texture, though still a bit watery.  Taste for salt.  Serve with fresh naan (if bought, ride your bike back from the restaurant quite fast to maintain their heat) and small bowls with the garnishes.  Make sure to squeeze plenty of lime juice into your serving.  You won’t be sorry.


2 tbl red pepper
5 tsp salt
2 tbl of paprika (for redness)
2 tbl ginger powder
1 tsp powdered nutmeg
2 tsp black peppercorns
2 tsp fennel seeds
1tsp black cumin seeds
1 tsp kalongi (um, either onion or nigella seeds, can’t remember)
4 bay leaves
1 tbl whole mace

Grind the last six ingredients into a powder, then mix with the above.  This will make more than you need for one dish.

All my dispatches.

Teaser Appetizer: Health Care Agenda For Barack Obama

Here we go again! The white house contenders are piping seductive music to our ears: the loud techno-heavy metal clatter about the Iraq war and the gospel-soul music for the healthcare. And we know it well — they will play only the doleful blues after the election.

Screenhunter_01_feb_04_2341Barack Obama has promised to provide health coverage for all Americans in next six years, which means 47 million uninsured would get some kind of coverage. Obama is certainly not the first candidate to garner electoral support by espousing liberal health care. In 1883, Otto Bismarck of Germany enticed labor support by passing the health insurance bill for the factory workers and he succeeded in severing the support of labor to the social democrats. On august 6, 1912 Theodore Roosevelt called for compulsory health insurance for the industrial workers, to outwit the liberal platform of Woodrow Wilson.

The health-care-for-all rhetoric tugs your heart — the uninsured suffer unduly from denied care. The truth always lies buried in the details.

The uninsured have extremely limited access to outpatient and preventive care. They rely on the hospital emergency rooms for their needs from where the seriously sick are admitted to the hospital and others go home after treatment. The hospitals shift the cost of their care to the other insured and paying customers. It is not that the uninsured don’t get health care but they are compelled to access it deviously and often in desperation. The ER visit is free but suffused with contempt.

The annual cost of providing the care to the uninsured is approximately 250 billion dollars. The current 1.7 trillion dollar system already carries this load. Obama should not tax and spend extra 250 billion dollars but squeeze it out from the current health care expenditure and make it visible and available. The current system is morbidly obese, with redundant flab. Even the cost of administering the current system sucks up at least 25% and some believe it to be even more. Canada administers its health system at less than half the US cost. And then there are layers of clever businesses cannibalizing the system without adding to consumer health.

Obama should fulfill his promise and also differentiate himself from other candidates. Here is a five-point plan for Obama:

1. Unified Payer System

No, this is not another single payer system attempt, which will again face fierce opposition from the entrenched. In 1993, Clinton health reform exercise collapsed because the American public did not trust a government controlled single payer or a nationalized health insurance, which denied local participation.

In the early 1970s Kennedy and Mills (Chairman of Ways and Means Committee) proposed a bill, which would have created a single national indemnity insurance plan based on fee for service with co-payments. The opposition from all quarters killed the bill in the congress. The medical establishment feared it as ‘socialized medicine”, labor complained of its inadequate benefits; republicans frowned on it as expensive and Wilbur Mills, the cosponsor of the bill found amorous relief in the arms of Fanny Foxe, a night club stripper.

Currently, every insurance payer insists on its own unique processes of fixing rates for medical services, prior authorization process, credentialing health providers, prescription plans and myriad other procedures. Health insurance industry is an inefficient behemoth probably beyond repair. The system is so dysfunctional that one wonders at the wisdom of financing the health care through indemnity coverage.

Obama should propose a unified standardized payment system with multiple payers. While the insurance companies can still sell the individual products, a unified standard payment system is likely to save enormous administrative costs.

This will differentiate him from Hillary Clinton who is likely to rehash the failed 1993 attempt.

2. Health Savings Account

Market system does not work in health care because of insurmountable asymmetry of information between the physician (seller) and the patient (buyer). The seller decides what the patient should buy. Add to this the vulnerability of the ailing consumer at the point of purchase and an assurance that some third party (insurance) will pick up the tab.

The indemnity model has built in flaws: moral hazard and inducement of demand: the consumer considers the insurance a free ride and demands more services, which the economists call, ‘moral hazard.’

In a landmark study by RAND, the investigators analyzed the magnitude of moral hazard over a period of three to five years by the health care utilization behavior of six thousand individuals in six locations. The participant consumers differed in the amount of co-payments they made and were grouped in five categories: one group got completely free care and the other four had varied co-payments from 25% to 95% of the charges. The results were revealing: while co-payments decreased the utilization, free care increased the utilization by 30%; and there was no difference in the outcome health status between groups. Co-payment decreased the threat of moral hazard.

The physician also plays the system. In order to preserve or enhance his income, the physician induces demand for more services. Victor Fuchs studied the correlation between the supply of surgeons and the demand of operations. (Journal of Human Resources, 1961) He found that 10% increase in the number of surgeons in a community would increase the demand of surgeries by 3%.

Hospitals also induce demand. Roemer, an economist, described a hospital in upstate New York, which had 139 beds and average occupancy of 108 beds in 1957.The hospital increased its size to 197 beds in a new building in 1958 and the occupancy increased to 137. Though there was no inappropriate care, yet there was no health enhancing benefit to the community either.

The traditional health insurance has responded to moral hazard and demand inducement by creating managed care, capitation, HMOs and other innovations. These organizations work on the principle of curtailing the seemingly unnecessary care and resource utilization. The proponents of these organizations claim that in 2005 the system spent 300 billion dollars less because of their intervention. But it is unlikely that the whole health system benefits much, because the cost saving shows up in the profit column of these organizations and insurance companies. The previous income of health provider now becomes the revenue of the middle meddlers.

That is why Obama must encourage the ‘Health Savings Account’ where the consumer saves money regularly in this account and pays for her care from the savings. The unspent money belongs to her. Coverage for major medical catastrophe supplements the savings account. The consumer has incentives to spend her money wisely, which may partially curtail moral hazard and the demand inducement.

3. Import Drugs

Every one knows by now, that the drugs are more expensive in the US compared to Canada, Europe and other countries. Obama should create mechanisms of approving, accrediting and inviting a selected few reputed foreign drug manufacturers to sell their products in the US at a negotiated cost similar to their home countries. The USA is in a strong negotiating position as it is the largest market for foreign drug manufacturers. An FDA approved accreditation and licensing process of the manufacturer will eliminate the fear about the quality and efficacy.

Under Mr. Clinton’s global initiative, some reputed foreign pharmaceutical companies are already selling drugs for AIDS in the rest of the world at a fraction of the US cost. There is no reason why it can’t be replicated here.

Obama will win the wrath of the US pharmaceutical industry and the votes of the senior citizens. Both are laudable goals.

4. Health IT

All health care facilities in the nation should be connected on an interoperable Internet platform. Each citizen should have a secure access to her life long health record and should be able to authorize its use to care providers of her choice. The technology is already here; what we need is a legislative push to expedite the process. This single important step will benefit the patients and decrease excessive testing, redundant procedures, length of hospital stay and medical errors. The electronic billing and payment will cut the fraud and abuse.

While considerable progress in this direction has occurred lately, Obama should encourage a time bound plan with an end point in next six years.

5. Liability Reform

It would be good for Obama to suggest caps on punitive damages to differentiate himself from John Edwards who made a fortune as an injury lawyer. He will endear himself to the medical establishment whose support he will need to push other reforms.

Barrack Obama needs neither a magnifying glass to search the glaring faults nor a hearing aid for the screaming inefficiencies of the current system. While some wisdom is desirable, mere common sense will suffice for the most part. His chances of achieving the reform in health are brighter than retreat from Iraq. There is enough money in the current system to cover the uninsured. Let the gospel-soul music play for long this time.

PERCEPTIONS: monkey business or learning hindustani


Walton Ford. The Forsaken. 1999.

Watercolor, gouache, ink, and pencil on paper; 60 x 40 inches.

“When I painted the monkey wife, I painted her individually and I named it ‘The Forsaken.’ And my idea is that what Richard Burton did as part of his colonial enterprise was to actually learn languages. When he would go to a new place…he would have a woman set up house for him and become his mistress. And he said he would learn the language that way. So this thing with the monkey wife seemed to be perverse once you know that about him.”
— Walton Ford

More here & here.
The just-ended Brooklyn Museum show here.

Thanks to my friend Vimala Mohammed.

Sandlines: The UN millipede meanders towards reform

Remember the ‘Slinky’—the children’s toy born of an accident in World War II research? How did the myriad vibrations of that single coil get it moving? It was gravity, of course, but how gravity failed to enchant my childhood mind.


Another mysteriously undulating mechanism, the United Nations, doubtless qualifies as the public global entity with the most moving parts. Like the Slinky, the higher purpose of its incessant undulating is unconvincing to some. Ostensibly animated by a Charter of guiding principles it is, like the Slinky, bound by the gravity of its 191 member states and their infinitely competing interests.

Quite unlike the Slinky, however, the UN is not remote from the world’s current crises, nor is it beyond the realm of our individual lives. Unless you live in Antarctica, Palestine, Western Sahara, or Vatican City—which do not qualify for membership because of their ambiguous sovereign status—your taxes fund the meanderings of this megalithic millipede. Although the EU, the US and Japan contribute 82% of its budget, the more numerous poor member states can dominate voting referenda. Their obstruction of sweeping UN reform efforts, initiated in 2004 by former Secretary General Kofi Annan to improve UN efficiency and impact, is a case in point.

The buildup to Annan’s declaration of the proposed reform lasted years, even decades; the supporting evidence exhaustive. Support among member states, however, was far from unanimous. Apparently the common criticism of the UN as little more than a ‘hiring agency for the Third World’ is not shared by those member states who oppose its reform.

During the Cold War, the UN was blocked from acting on the interventionism enshrined in its Charter, and fell back on useful humanitarian and monitoring missions. It also took refuge in passing resolutions that had little bearing on actual world politics.

The Middle East is an example of this impotence. It failed to stop wars in 1956, 1967, 1973 and 1982. Its key Security Council resolution 242, outlining a solution for the Israelis and Palestinians along the lines of land for peace, has been only partially fulfilled. In the Middle East partially has meant hardly enough.

It did send troops to the Congo in the early 1960s when the country began to fall apart after the precipitatous departure of the Belgians. The breakaway province of Katanga was brought back under central control, but the experience was not a happy one for the UN, symbolized by the death in an air accident of its Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold.

In more recent years it has been slightly more successful. Its sanctions helped persuade white South Africans to hand over power to majority rule. Its quiet diplomacy helped bring an end to the Iran-Iraq War, and it played useful roles in winding up conflicts and developing democracy in Namibia, Mozambique, Cambodia, El Salvador, Sierra Leone, East Timor and, for a second time, DR Congo.

Yet it failed in Bosnia, where intervention was led by the US and its Nato allies, and Kosovo where Nato acted against Serbia (not the UN). Most spectacular, however, was its paralysis in Rwanda where it failed to prevent genocide. When Annan announced plans, subject to the approval of UN member states, for a “bold and far-reaching” reform agenda, the institution was deep in criticism over its management of the Iraq oil-for-food program and allegations of sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers in the DR Congo.

Fundamental changes in three main areas of the UN mission and Charter– development, security and human rights–were proposed. “We will not enjoy development without security, we will not enjoy security without development, and we will not enjoy either without respect for human rights,” Annan said at the time.

Laying_cornerstone_at_un_hq The general reform package promised to:

§         Enlarge Security Council from 15 to 24 members

§         Streamline General Assembly agenda

§         Introduce new guidelines for authorising military action

§         Replace Commission on Human Rights with Human Rights Council

§         Introduce zero tolerance policy on abuses by UN peacekeepers

§         Improve coordination of environment and development aid agendas

Since then, many have commented on UN reform efforts, particularly the vaunted makeover of the much-contested Human Rights Council, which replaced the old Commission on Human Rights. Last October the Washington Post argued of the newly minted Commission:

For all its faults, the previous U.N. commission occasionally discussed and condemned the regimes most responsible for human rights crimes, such as those in Belarus and Burma. China used to feel compelled to burnish its record before the annual meeting. The new council, in contrast, has so far taken action on only one country, which has dominated the debate at both of its regular meetings and been the sole subject of two extraordinary sessions: Israel.

Western human rights groups sought to focus the council’s attention on Darfur, where genocide is occurring, and on Uzbekistan, where a dictator refuses to allow the investigation of a massacre by his security forces. Their efforts have been in vain. Instead, the council has treated itself to report after report on the alleged crimes of the Jewish state; in all, there were six official “rapporteurs” on that subject in the latest session alone.

Regarding proposed expansion of the Security Council (consisting of five permanent seats–China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United Statesand ten temporary seats), there is widespread agreement that the five permanent members should no longer reflect the victorious powers of World War II.  Yet there is no agreement on who might join this privileged group, how big a new council should be, or how members should be selected.

In the development sector, much is at stake given the proliferation of specialized UN agencies, sometimes as many as twenty, working in a country at a time. Harnessing their collective powers while eliminating duplication and waste will prove an enormous challenge. ‘Herding cats’ comes to mind. It is essential, for attaining the Millennium Development Goals on poverty alleviation, health, education and the environment in the poorest corners of the world by 2015 is considered doubtful without significant institutional reform. A High-Level Panel on UN Reform, convened by the Annan in 2005, has gone further and proposed ‘streamlining UN agencies’ for improved efficiency and impact on the ground.

Recommendations specific to the development sector include:

  • putting operations in countries under a single umbrella with overall responsibility for delivery
  • better funding and co-ordination of humanitarian aid
  • full funding of the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF)
  • donors to commit more aid through UN programs and less to their own “pet projects”
  • ongoing reform of business practices under the Secretary-General’s direction
  • secure long-term funding for agencies that meet reform goals

The CERF fund, launched during last year’s World Summit, aims to create a pool of $500m in ready money allowing a quick response to natural disasters. Only half of the money has so far arrived, and NGOs in line to receive this money to respond to emerging crises have begun to issue their own reports detailing the shortcomings of the initiative. I was in DR Congo in late 2006 to evaluate a similar emergency fund, and found it useful. NGOs are highly mobile and able to operate in insecure areas generally off-limits to UN staff. The UN agencies, while administratively slow, possess massive procurement capacity for life-saving relief supplies. These are prepositioned in known volatile areas, and when crisis hits–massive civilian displacement, earthquakes or cholera outbreaks–participating NGOs are able to evaluate acute needs and distribute relief supplies in under 72 hours. No relief agency operating alone is capable of such rapid, massive response, and in places like Congo such reform initiatives are clearly bearing fruit.

The ‘single umbrella’ experiment is perhaps the most radical initiative outlined above. The ‘One UN’ initiative, currently piloted in Vietnam, was triggered in September 2005 by a Vietnam UN country team note submittted to the 2005 World Summit in New York. The objective is to ensure faster and more effective development operations by establishing a consolidated UN presence, while maintaining the distinct purposes and personalities of the six participating UN bodies—UNICEF, UNDP, UNFPA, UNIFEM, UNV and UNAIDS. 

The initiative provides a tool through which the agencies and programs can work as one team, while cutting fragmentation and duplication of efforts. UN staff expect there to be difficulties along the way as entrenched interests fight to preserve their independence; ‘One UN’ will also be piloted in six other countries, not yet announced.

Annan’s successor, Ban-Ki Moon, will continue to pursue these long-overdue reforms. 

Selected Minor Works: When Screens Bleed

A Note on Sex and Violence

Justin E. H. Smith

Somewhere, and I don’t remember where, Arthur Danto describes the power ‘bad words’ have of ‘bleeding out’ of any quotation marks within which one might hope to contain them. Thus in the philosophy of language it has been known for some time that if John says, “Sally said ‘wow’,” John is not really using ‘wow’ in a sentence, he is only mentioning it in connection with Sally’s use. But try the same thing with ‘fuck’ -–supposing say that John and Sally are siblings and John is reporting to his parents–, and you will find that to mention is to use. The profanity bleeds out of the quotation marks meant to separate it from the sentence in which it is contained. FCC broadcasting rules confirm this: not only vulgar rants, but even the titles of vulgar songs, are forbidden.


When it comes to these charged words, the more common way of saying without saying is not through punctuation but through euphemism: freaking, darn, gosh, shoot, etc. But these terms pose no danger of bleeding out into the language surrounding them only because they are already bloodless. Or perhaps, better, they function in language like artificial sweetener in food –giving you something for nothing, but turning out in the end to be nothing themselves–, and should be used just as sparingly. They are a worse habit than cursing. Cicero understood this. “When you speak of the anus,” he wrote, “you call it by a name [‘anus’, i.e., ‘ring’] that is not its own; why not rather call it by its own [i.e., ‘culus’]? If it is indecent, do not use even the substituted name; if not, you had better call it by its own” (Epistolae ad familiares IX xxii). While also showing that one era’s euphemisms are another’s hyper-correct orthophemisms –today ‘anus’ is the preferred term of the straight-faced and literal-minded– when followed out to its logical conclusion the orator’s observation makes a rather strong demand of us: that we eschew all allusion, all talking-around, perhaps even all metaphor. Euphemisms frequently taste artificial, but to insist on pure, direct literalism in all speech at all registers would amount to a severe impoverishment of language.

The difference between the poetic allusion, the insipid euphemism, and the blunt literal description, it seems to me, is strikingly similar to that between erotic art, idiotic softcore simulations, and porn, a three-part distinction which in turn maps onto that between epic battle scenes, cartoonish blood-splattering violence, and snuff films. I would like to consider whether Danto’s insight about profane language might thus be useful for understanding images that fall into any of these genres. Here, I am interested primarily in ontology –in particular the relation of images to reality–, and not in ethics, except insofar as our ethical judgment of the content of an image is relevant to that image’s power to jump out from behind its screen and become part of reality. It seems to me, in short, that just as certain words cannot be contained semantically within quotation marks, certain images cannot be kept morally behind the screens on which we watch them. They bleed out of the pixels meant to contain them, like ‘fuck’ bleeds out of its punctuational container. (Need I plead that I did not just say ‘fuck’, but only mentioned it? Undoubtedly, the editor of a less enlightened review would judge that I did, and ask me to garble it with dollar signs and asterisks. Fine. I confess I did use it. That is precisely my point.)

The images that seem least capable of bleeding in this way are the ones that rely, curiously, on copious quantities of fake blood. The more the red dye spills, the less infectious the image seems. It is a weighty decision to watch an Iraqi beheading video. It is not a weighty decision to watch Helloween or Child’s Play. A psychologically mature adult should be able to watch anything acted without coming away tainted. Martin Amis recounts: “As the credits rolled on Child’s Play 3, I felt no urge or prompting to go out and kill somebody. And I also knew why. It’s nothing to boast about, but there is too much going on in my head for Chucky to gain sway in there.” Child’s Play, it seems, has roughly as much to do with violence as saying “gosh” has to do with blasphemy. It is the same unreasonable fundamentalist who would attempt to supress the one and the other.

I think most of us would have the same opinion of Emmanuelle or The Story of O. These are harmless entertainments: they do not bleed out of the screen with moral consequences for the real people watching it. But isn’t ‘real’ porn more like an Iraq beheading video than it is like ‘erotica’? With few exceptions (Bruno Dumont, Nagisa Oshima, Vincent Gallo: all predictably received as enfants terribles), it is still not possible to have sex qua actor. That is, if you are an actor having sexual intercourse in your role in front of a camera, then like it or not you are also having sex in your real life. It is an action that cannot be contained within the bounds of a fiction. There are at least some actions, then, that can’t be executed in the name of artistic integrity, actions that, even if attempted in the aims of art, inevitably prove to be uncontainable within the art for which they were performed and end up constituting some small corner of reality. What distinguishes these actions –let us call them ‘radioactive’— from the safe kind? What do they say about art and its relationship to reality?

It seems that the list of such actions has no existence independently of evolving community standards. Consider for example our culture’s rapidly changing attitude towards smoking, and how this has impacted art. A New York Times article of January 28 reports: “England’s [smoking] ban, which begins July 1, allows actors to smoke only ‘if the artistic integrity of the performance makes it appropriate for them to smoke.’” Other rules in other places are stricter. Smoking, like sex, seems increasingly to be one of those activities that cannot be contained within the simulated world that hosts the other actions of characters on a stage or in front of a camera. In contrast with the world of Tennessee Williams, these days a character smoking is a person smoking.

It is worth noting that sex involves bodily fluids which may seep through pores or sores, and smoking, as its enemies have driven home ad nauseam, involves the transmission of airborne particles into the lungs and bloodstreams of all who come near the smoker. Fluids and vapors are at stake in these radioactive actions, not just sights and sounds.

Why is this distinction important? Aren’t sound waves and light rays just as much a part of reality as fluids and particles? Against those who claimed that the introduction of sound marked the end of the ‘pure’ cinematic form of the silent film, André Bazin has argued that in 1929 a dream that had run through much of the history of 19th-century technology was finally realized: the mechanical recording of a larger sliver of reality than what is given to any one of the senses individually. The 19th-century had phonographic recording, and it had photographic recording, but only with Al Jolson’s Jazz Singer were we able to have both at once.

One might reasonably ask Bazin: if what you are interested in is registering reality mechanically, why stop at sight and sound? Why not give the people smells, tastes, and feels as well? One thing to note right away is that, physically, the senses are not all analogous. Sights and sounds can be recorded, but the only way to capture a smell and to deliver it at a later time is not to record it but to capture the smell itself. It doesn’t make any sense to speak of a ‘recording’ of a smell. If you are smelling something, this is because there are particles of that thing entering your nose. If you are seeing or hearing something, this is admittedly because there are light rays or sound waves entering your ears or eyes, but in the case of recording they need not be coming from the thing of which they give you an impression. That thing may be on the other side of the world, may have ceased to exist a century ago, and what you are sensing, even if dependent on that thing, is by no means a part of it in the way that aromatic particles are literally taken from some source material. These same points may be made a fortiori for tastes. ‘Feels’ deserve their own analysis, but suffice it to say here that they are more like tastes and smells than like sights and sounds.

As a result of this physical difference, I believe there are fundamental reasons why cinema could never expand beyond sight and sound, even if John Waters experimented with ‘odorama’ cards in the 1970s. To incorporate smells or tastes or feels would not be to enhance the art form, in the way that the addition of sounds to sights no doubt did. It would be to change activities altogether: from the creation of visual art, to what is today called ‘virtual reality’. That is to say, one can watch and hear a movie as an external spectator, whereas if one is smelling and tasting and feeling, one is necessarily a participant. Movies disclose worlds to us, to speak with Cavell, whereas virtual reality would enworld us.

Yet perhaps certain sights and sounds are capable of having a physiological and psychical effect comparable in force to the vapors and fluids that penetrate the body and that consequently inspire legislation and moral concern. Susan Sontag writes in Regarding the Pain of Others: “No ‘we’ should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain.” I take this to mean that certain images are such that the spectator/participant distinction collapses in looking at them: to watch is to be implicated, just as there is no way to experience the tastes of a meal but by joining the diners. In the case of snuff films and pornography, the power to bleed off the screen is so strong that even the time delay, even the assurance that everything you are seeing is already a fait accompli, does not seem to make a difference. The time delay does make some difference of course—to watch live webcam pornography is on many accounts morally indistinguishable from a visit to a prostitute; to watch a live snuffing online is to be an accomplice to murder, while once a snuff film is available, the deed has been done, and our decision to watch can have no retroactive influence.

But again, the time delay is somehow not enough to make all the moral difference. It’s impossible, of course, but I want to say that Iraq beheadings and gonzo porn bleed off the screen by travelling in time. Their presentness is not entirely diminished by the fact that we are watching them on playback. Consider in this connection the French verb for what audience members do at live spectacles: “assister.” To go to the theater is to “assist” in its performance, as obviously the performance would not be a performance if there were no audience. Students “assist” at lectures, and witnesses “assist” at executions. At the movies, one does not “assist,” one just “watches.” Families of the victims of Timothy McVeigh, interestingly, were satisfied to “assist” at his lethal injection by way of closed-circuit television: TV, in its original, live function is a way of circumventing boundaries imposed by space, but not by time. Film, though, is in general the medium that shows events at a remove in both time and space. Yet somehow this remove disappears in porn and snuff. To watch is for the event itself to be relived, and somehow almost to cause the real people on the screen to relive the event (even if they are now headless). To watch is to “assist”, with all the moral repercussions this verb implies in English. As Linda Lovelace testified, every time a man watches Deep Throat, she is being raped all over again. This is of course believable only if one believes Lovelace was raped in the first place, for the moral status of the time-delayed “assistance” derives from the moral status of the original event.


The two most well-known films set in Italy under the Nazi occupation, Rossellini’s Open City of 1946 and Pasolini’s Saló from 1975, both share the view that fascists are the true anarchists, but differ as to how the anarchic freedom that fascism affords the victors ought to be used. The thirty years that separate the two seem only to have strengthened the Italian view (Visconti’s Götterdämmerung is another example) of the Nazis as sexual perverts.

In Saló, a clique of top Nazis and their clerical collaborators kidnap two dozen or so local Italian teens, and take them off to a secret castle to force them into sexual slavery. The men are bored with conventional sex, of course, and as the film wears on the fantasies they act out grow increasingly exremental and bloody. They are revaluing all values, creating from scratch a world à rebours, etc.

It strikes me that satanism, sadomasochism, any sort of celebration of the dark side in the form of communal rites can’t but remain stuck in the mode of parody. They are effective in providing a kinky rush, but as a way of life they must be difficult to sustain. This for me was the (likely unintended) lesson of Saló. It is an intriguing thought experiment to envision what a total subversion of all ‘bourgeois’ values would really look like: where society says kiss your lover, strike her instead; if society serves nourishing food, we’ll serve toxic excrement (a concoction of chocolate and orange marmelade in the film), etc. A certain pessimistic view of modern morality, moreover, and one that no doubt rubbed off on Pasolini (he cites Blanchot and Klossowski in his film’s ‘bibliography’), would have it that bourgeois codes of conduct only mask the violence we are all inflicting on the other all the time, that the order subverted in Saló is a lie, while what goes on in the castle in Saló is somehow an acknowledgment of the truth about human beings.

I for my part would really rather not eat shit, and I suspect that this aversion has more to do with my evolutionary history than with my boring conventional morality. Perhaps for this reason, my experience of Saló was rather like the one Martin Amis had watching Child’s Play. I was unmoved; my view of the world and of my place in it was left unshaken. I was mildly concerned when I learned that the actors involved were, rumor had it, underage, and that for that reason the legality of the film has been disputed throughout the years. But my sense has been that the nubile young things came out of the experience intact, far closer to Dakota Fanning after Hounddog than to Daniel Pearl after his most memorable screen appearance.

Realism as the end of cinema, Bazin thinks, extends back to the discovery in the mid-19th century of the possibility of mechanical recording of sights and sounds. Today, every yokel in the first world, and a growing number in the third, can record both just by slipping that little object we still insist on calling a ‘phone’ out of his pocket and holding it up to the world. Saddam Hussein’s hanging was a far more perfect achievement of realism than The Bicycle Thief. But surely realism as an aesthetic end was not meant to come to this. Di Sica and Rossellini wanted that newsreel feel, but not to the extent that their films would be mistaken for news. Curiously, to the extent that realism is an aesthetic end, it can only be accomplished through simulation. To the extent that cinema is to be an art, it must build up an alternate world out of mechanical projections of this one, rather than simply reproducing this one. And just as good speech will slide neither into insipid euphemism nor blunt literalism, good cinema will not make too much use of fake blood, and will not forget that real blood (as well for the most part as real bodily secretions of other sorts) cannot be deployed without bleeding right through the screen.

[For an extensive archive of Justin Smith’s writing, please visit]

The most dramatic decline of a wild animal in history has been taking place in India and Pakistan

Susan McGrath in Smithsonian Magazine:

Vulture_branchThe long-billed vulture, Gyps indicus, is one of three vulture species that serve as sanitation engineers in India, Nepal and Pakistan. For thousands of years, they have fed on livestock carcasses. As many as 40 million of the birds once inhabited the region. Obstreperous flocks of vultures thronged carcass dumps, nested on every tall tree and cliff ledge, and circled high overhead, seemingly omnipresent. In Delhi, perching vultures ornamented the tops of every ancient ruin. In Mumbai, vultures circled the Parsi community’s hilltop sanctuary. Parsis, who are members of the Zoroastrian religion, lay their dead atop stone Towers of Silence so that vultures can devour the flesh. This practice, according to Parsi tradition, protects dead bodies from the defiling touch of earth, water or fire.

But across the subcontinent all three species of Gyps vultures are disappearing. Dead livestock lie uneaten and rotting. These carcasses are fueling a population boom in feral dogs and defeating the government’s efforts to combat rabies. Vultures have become so rare that the Parsi in Mumbai have resorted to placing solar reflectors atop the Towers of Silence to hasten the decomposition of bodies. International conservation groups now advocate the capture of long-billed, white-backed and slender-billed vultures for conservation breeding.

More here.

The Trekkie nudist behind the Richter scale

Jenn Shreve reviews  Richter’s Scale: Measure of an Earthquake, Measure of a Man by Susan Elizabeth Hough, in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Richter_3The shift of science from an individual to a team pursuit has caused some to opine that the days of the great scientific biography are numbered, too. Yet there are still a few luminaries of science who have not yet gotten their due in print. Among them, until now, was Charles Richter.

That it took so long for a biography to appear is surprising because Richter’s life is about as ripe for the book treatment as it gets. A reluctant seismologist, he made important contributions to the field, including though not limited to the scale that bears his name. But as we learn in Susan Elizabeth Hough’s “Richter’s Scale: Measure of an Earthquake, Measure of a Man,” noteworthy professional accomplishments tell only a fraction of the story.

Richter, it turns out, was also an avid nudist, a frustrated but prolific poet, a Trekkie, a devoted backpacker profiled in the pages of Field and Stream, and a philandering spouse who was quite possibly in love with his sister and whose globe-trotting wife may have been a lesbian. While that may not sound all that unusual to the modern-day San Franciscan, keep in mind that the guy was born in 1900.

More here.

‘Be nice, be thin, have daughters’

Steven Poole in The Guardian:

Appleyard5There is a silent catastrophe going on all around us. Every day, 100,000 people die of a condition that might be curable. If it were an ordinary disease it would be called a plague, a pandemic, and epic public-health plans would be drawn up. So why aren’t we devoting more of our resources to finding a cure for this one? Because it’s old age.

In his thought-provoking book, Bryan Appleyard has talked to many of the scientists who think something should be done. They are known as the “life-extension” movement, or, more vividly, the promoters of “medical immortality”. There is no reason in principle why our bodies should be allowed to fall apart and stop working. We could be “medically immortal”: still killable by violence or accident, but otherwise going on and on, like a race of those Ariston washing machines from the 1980s. And if such a thing is possible, delay is immoral. Here is Aubrey de Grey, a beer-loving Englishman who takes an engineering approach to pedantic objections: if, for example, clearing out the garbage that builds up in your cells works, we don’t need to know exactly how it works, we should just start doing it right away. Another researcher says: “It would be insane not to hit the ‘save’ key on you and your life.” The dream is a procedure that would take the old you and repair your bodily damage (perhaps using nanobots, rebuilding you from the inside out), thus restoring you to the physical age of 29. Would you take the pill?

More here.

The British East India Company, The Corporation That Changed The World

In the Asia Times Online, a review of Nick Robins new book on the British East India Company, The Corporation that Changed the World.

From the 17th to the 19th century, the East India Company shocked its age with executive malpractice, stock-market excesses and human oppression, outdoing the felons of our times such as Enron. Its contemporaries across the political spectrum saw the “Company” as an overbearing and fundamentally problematic institution.

Karl Marx called it the standard bearer of Britain’s “moneyocracy”. Adam Smith, the economist deeply suspicious of mighty corporations, was horrified at the way in which the Company “oppresses and domineers” in India. Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism, declared India to be “radically and irretrievably ruined through the Company’s continual drain of wealth”.

Established in 1600 by royal charter, the Company’s operations stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to India, Southeast Asia, China and Japan. Colonial rule in India was the eventual outcome of the Company’s forays, but its ultimate purpose was profit-making with an eye to shareholders and the annual dividend in London.

Personal and private profits were the abiding motives of this Company, which “reversed the centuries-old flow of wealth from West to East and engineered a great switch in global development” (p 7). Robins challenges romantic reinterpretations of the Company’s past, now under way in Britain, for ignoring the abuse, misery, devastation and plunder that marked its presence in India. His point is that the Company should be assessed on the basis of its extortion, corruption and impunity rather than peripheral contributions to “discovering” Oriental culture.

Anatol Rappaport, 1911-2007

Via Crooked Timber, Anatol Rappaport, best known for the the most successful strategy in an iterated prisoner’s dilemma, “Tit-for-Tat” (a very important finding in political science, economics, and biology), is dead.

For Anatol Rapoport, rationality wasn’t all that rational. It was slippery and deceptive and tended to default to the selfish interests of the individual, only to hurt collective interests. Examples abounded: If every farmer kept as many cows as possible, soon there would be no grass to graze on, and all cows would die. If everyone ran for the exit of a burning building at once, no one would get out. If every fisherman took the maximum catch, the fishery would soon be depleted.

He believed war was no different: Belligerent factions actually work toward the same goal — to kill — in what appears (to them) as rational behaviour. The result is that all humanity is needlessly threatened by war and conflict.

Among the most versatile minds of the 20th century, Dr. Rapoport applied his protean talents in mathematics, psychology and game theory to peace and conflict resolution. The first professor of peace and conflict studies at the University of Toronto, he is known as one of the world’s leading lights in the application of mathematical models to the social sciences.

“This is a great loss for the program, the centre, Canada, and, indeed, all of humanity,” said Thomas Homer-Dixon, director of the program’s successor, the Trudeau Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at U of T. “He was a man of staggering intellectual scope.”

Ian Buruma on Tariq Ramadan

In the New York Times Sunday Magazine, Ian Buruma profiles Tariq Ramadan.

Tariq Ramadan, Muslim, scholar, activist, Swiss citizen, resident of Britain, active on several continents, is a hard man to pin down. People call him “slippery,” “double-faced,” “dangerous,” but also “brilliant,” a “bridge-builder,” a “Muslim Martin Luther.” He wants Muslims to become active citizens of the West but four years ago was himself refused permission to enter the U.S. He could not take up the teaching position he’d been offered at the University of Notre Dame. Oxford University took him on as a visiting fellow instead.

To his admirers, he is a courageous reformer who works hard to fill the chasm between Muslim orthodoxy and secular democracy. Young European Muslims flock to his talks, which are widely distributed on audiocassettes. A brilliant speaker, he inspires his audiences, rather like Black Power leaders did in the 1960s, by instilling a sense of pride. A friend of mine saw him last year in Rotterdam, talking to a hall packed with around 1,000 people, mostly Muslims. To them he had the aura of an Islamic superstar. Even my friend, an Iranian-born Dutchman with entirely secular views, was impressed by the eloquence of this Muslim thinker, who wishes to press his faith into the mainstream of European life. His critics see things differently: they accuse him of anti-Semitism, religious bigotry, promoting the oppression of women and waging a covert holy war on the liberal West.

I first met Ramadan last year in Paris. The French news magazine Le Point had organized a debate between the two of us on Muslims in Europe (or “Eurabia,” as some fearful people are now calling my native continent). I was instructed to “really push him.” But if the hope of Le Point was for sparks to fly, they were disappointed. Ramadan is much too smooth for sparks. Slim, handsome and dressed in a very elegant suit, he spoke softly in fluent English, with a slight French accent. His first languages were French and Arabic, but he heard English at home in Geneva, spoken mostly by visiting Pakistanis.

Perhaps I didn’t push hard enough. We agreed on most issues, and even when we didn’t (he was more friendly toward the pope than I was), our “debate” refused to catch fire. So when I set off for London a few months later to talk to him again, I felt that I had seen the polished Ramadan, the international performer who, in the words of Reuel Marc Gerecht, an expert on the Middle East at the American Enterprise Institute, sounds “like a British diplomat at the U.N.,” the kind who leaves you with “a strong impression that prevarication is in the DNA.”

JEAN-PAUL SARTRE, 911 operator


OPERATOR: 911. What is your urgence?

CALLER: Operator, I need an ambulance. I think I just cut my finger off in the blender …

OPERATOR: (The sound of a cigarette being lit, then an exhale.)

CALLER: Do you hear me, man! I need an ambulance at 2304 Powell St. Now!

OPERATOR: Ceci s’intéresse. Yes, the predicament of Roquentin … yes … it is the indifference to existence of the inanimate. No matter how much he longs for something other or something different, he cannot get away from the plundering evidence of his engagement with the world. You know, le Monde. I think we must look at …

CALLER: What in the shit are you talking about? I was just making margaritas …

OPERATOR: Ah, oui. Vous pensez. A typical ignorance of the common folk. Perhaps this is why you sit with your extremity half-digested in the bowels of the blender. It seems you are … comment devoir je dis … a student of Kant? Freedom. I spit.

more from McSweeney’s here.

drunk judgment

The world is wasted on you. Show us one clear time
beyond childhood (or the bottle) you spent your whole
self—hoarding no blood-bank back-up, some future aim
to fuel—or let yourself look foolish in reckless style
on barstool, backstreet or dancefloor, without a dim
image of your hamming hobbling you the whole while.
Voyeur to your own couplings, you never did come
with them, did you, even when you did?

more from Steven Heighton’s poem at Poetry Magazine here.

Novel ideas

From Dawn:

Begumshaista Shaista Suhrawardy Ikramullah traces the genesis of the Urdu novel.
The contact with English literature has had a profound and far-reaching effect on Urdu. With the impact of western culture came new ideas and ideals, a new outlook on life, and a new conception of values. It revolutionised thought and changed not only the superficial outlook on life but basic moral values as well. In short, contact with English life and literature brought about the same changes in India as the Renaissance had done in Europe. In fact this period is called, and rightly so, the Renaissance of Urdu. There is nothing like a shock to bring about the flowering of genius, and a new leavening from time to time is a very beneficial thing for any society.

Urdu poetry had reached its peak of achievement on the lines it had chosen in the field of the ghazal and qasida. Even in the marsia and the masnavi all that could be done had been done. The language had been polished and purified, until it shone like burnished gold. Every thought and idea that could be culled from mysticism and from philosophy had been culled and distilled and presented, not once but many times; nothing original remained to be done in that sphere any more.

The time was ripe for a change, for the exploration of new realms of thought and for the adoption of new ways of expression. And the western influence did both.

More here.

The Supermodel School of Poetry

From The New York Sun:

Dickinsoe129x173_1 There is something to be said for the silence of the page. On it, a poem — three neat quatrains, say — can speak, indestructibly, to the eye, ear, and mind.

But there is also something to be said for singing along. Recently I found myself doing just that to a poem by, of all people, Emily Dickinson, as performed by, of all people, Carla Bruni, the Italian ex-supermodel and ex-girlfriend of Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, and Donald Trump. Dickinson’s poem, “I Went to Heaven,” is featured on Ms. Bruni’s new album, “No Promises.” On it, she sets to music poems by W.B. Yeats, Dorothy Parker, Walter de la Mare, W.H. Auden, and Christina Rossetti, among others.

To the strumming of an acoustic guitar, the Dickinson poem — or can it now also be classified as a song lyric — begins:

I went to Heaven
‘Twas a small Town
Lit, with a Ruby
Lathed, with Down
Stiller, than the fields
At the full Dew
Beautiful, as Pictures
No Man drew.

As you might expect, it’s very beautiful.

More here.

David Byrne at Carnegie Hall

Christine Kearney at Reuters:

Carnegiejanbyrne200Independent rock icon David Byrne took the stage at Carnegie Hall on Saturday to unveil for a U.S. audience a collection of songs about the life of former Philippines first lady Imelda Marcos — minus the shoes.

Byrne, 54, best known as the frontman for the influential off-beat 1980s pop band “Talking Heads,” performed the sold-out show “Here Lies Love,” accompanied on stage by two singers, a rock band and a small orchestra.

“This is the place to audition a lot of new material,” Byrne told the audience at the start of the show, thanking Carnegie Hall for letting him perform the 23 songs he wrote in collaboration with British Deejay Norman Cook, known as Fatboy Slim.

The project, first performed as a song cycle with multimedia elements in Australia last year, is still in development. Byrne recently described it as more akin to a disco opera than a possible Broadway musical.

In skinny black pants and a white shirt, Byrne informed the audience between songs about Imelda Marcos and her life before meeting her husband Ferdinand Marcos, the Philippines president from 1965 until he fled to Hawaii in 1986.

“This is not artistic licence, this is reportage,” Byrne told a laughing audience as the story moved to Marcos’ extravagant visits to New York, where she frequented the famed nightclub “Studio 54.”

More here.

My wife Margit and I were at the Carnegie Hall concert earlier tonight, along with with Robin Varghese and Maeve Adams, and Byrne and Co. were just absolutely brilliant. The show tonight was the third in the four-part Perspectives series that Byrne was invited to direct by the Carnegie people, and it was a song-cycle called Here Lies Love with the music and lyrics by Byrne (along with some musical contribution by Fatboy Slim). The songs in Here Lies Love follow the life and loves of Imelda Marcos, the former first-lady of the Phillipines (you know, 3,000 pairs of shoes and all that), and the woman who took care of Imelda since she was a young child, Estrella.

The parts of Imelda and Estrella were sung by Joan Almedilla and Ganda Suthivarakom, both beautiful singers of immensely deep talent. Byrne played several different guitars and also sang all different parts (including some of the women’s roles–but in his normal male register!) in a voice of truly awesome range and control. He also introduced each of the twenty songs making up the cycle with historical background, often with bits of wry commentary. This gave the musical evening an almost folksy story-telling feel (but the music was not folksy, it was ineluctably dancy, making it impossible for me to complain about the guy behind me tapping my seat with his foot, as I irresistably found myself doing the same to the guy in the seat in front of me). Did you know that Benito Aquino, the opposition leader who was killed by Ferdinand Marcos (and who’s wife, Corazon would eventually become President of the Phillipines) was Imelda’s first love? I didn’t. And the seemingly self-evident notion of the Marcos couple as the ultimate symbol of a greedy third-world family empowered and enabled by imperial US policies was nicely complicated by Byrne’s stories and song. About half-way into the concert, the five-man band was joined by a 15-person orchestra, adding a lovely symphonic richness to the later songs. As the climax, Byrne sang a reprise of the title song they had begun with, Here Lies Love, with the very moving and very impressive skill and strength of the master-singer that he has become. Byrne also deserves credit for not shying away from pointing out the “resonance”  that the song “Order 1081” (the numerical identifier of the legal code that established martial law in the Phillipines, ostensibly to create greater security against terrorism) might have for us today. (It was my second most favorite song, after Here Lies Love itself.)

Abbas_and_mauroBesides the singers, by far the most impressive performance, musically speaking, of the evening was (yes, I may be biased, but I really don’t think I am in this case!) by our old friend Mauro Refosco, whom I believe to be one of the most gifted percussionists alive today. (We have to get Zakir Hussain and Mauro together, so anyone out there who knows Zakir, write to me!) Mauro, who has been on tour with Byrne recently, is the sort of guy who I am sure could play a danceable beat on coconuts and palm fronds if you happened to be deserted with him on some island. Imagine what he can do when he is given what Maeve aptly described as a “kitchen of instruments.” Taking this culinary metaphor further, someone in our party (Robin? Margit?) said he looked at one point like a “mad cook” on a mission, hammering away at his incredibly varied instruments. In any case, it was he who gave the songs a powerful comtemporary rhythm.  [Yes, that’s Mauro and me in the photo, at the afterparty.]

Congratulations to David and Mauro and everybody else involved in this beautiful project!

Gilbert and George

Rachel Cooke in The Observer Magazine:

They are a British institution, as charming as your favourite uncle and as regular as Big Ben. Yet on the eve of their long-awaited retrospective at the Tate, the art world’s most enduring couple are feeling feisty. Rachel Cooke joins Gilbert and George for lunch at their favourite Turkish cafe and hears them trade anecdotes about homophobia, dead rats and dishy waiters
Gil_geoInterviewing two people at the same time is never easy, but Gilbert and George, a retrospective of whose work opens at Tate Modern next month, take the thing (and of course they’re perfectly aware of this) to a whole new level. Ask a question and, to your right, George will offer some piece of gnomic wisdom topped off with a dash of mild smut while, to your left, Gilbert will titter or splutter or make his own naughty joke in an effort to back up his friend. Then, as you struggle to grasp what it is that they actually mean, the two of them will fall eerily silent. Their marmoset eyes are always on you, which would be scary if they weren’t so invincibly charming. George, in particular, has the kind of manners – if you ignore the smut – that one might have found behind the discreet rosewood counter of a gentleman’s outfitter, circa 1935.

Here they are talking about the long struggle they had to persuade the Tate to give them a retrospective:

George: ‘We said: “If you won’t do the show, simply write us a letter saying no” – which they wouldn’t do.’

Gilbert: ‘They wanted us in Tate Britain, but we said no.’

George:’We believe it is wrong that there is a Tate Britain and a Tate Modern. You can’t judge artists by their passports. It’s an apartheid. An apartheid in art!’

Gilbert:’Then they said: “OK, half in Tate Britain and half in Tate Modern.” So we said: “Oh, yes! And then we will have a ship [they mean going up and down the Thames between the two galleries] with a big shit round it!”‘ …

… An editor at Thames & Hudson once told George that usually, with art, the critics and the artist must gang up to convince the public. But in the case of he and Gilbert, it has always been the other way round. ‘At our last show at the White Cube, there were 30,000 visitors.’

They expect Tate Modern to be equally swamped: people are mad for art just now – although, personally, he and Gilbert disdain gallery going.

Gilbert: ‘We don’t look at other artists.’

George: ‘We don’t socialise with other artists.’

Gilbert: ‘We haven’t been to a gallery in 30 years.’

George: ‘We don’t belong to the gallery-going class, you see.’

More here.

keeping up with the joneses

Matt Chaban at Architects Newspaper:

Right Turn in Abu Dhabi
United Arab Emirates releases designs for large-scale cultural center with projects by Gehry, Hadid, Nouvel, Ando, and others …
W_zaha20rendering_1Dubai never had the petroleum resources of its neighboring emirates, so it reinvented itself through ambitious real estate ventures and destination architecture, drawing tourists and businesspeople alike. Neighboring Abu Dhabi, capitol of the United Arab Emirates, may be taking a page from Dubai, hoping to diversify its economy before finite oil and natural gas reserves dry up. On January 31, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, unveiled the concept designs for three museums and a performing arts center to establish a cultural hub on Saadiyat Island, off the coast of Abu Dhabi city, all designed by four of the world’s most distinguished architects.

Joining Frank Gehry, whose commission to build the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi was announced last July, will be Jean Nouvel, Tadao Ando, and Zaha Hadid. Hadid was commissioned to design a performing arts center, Ando a maritime museum, and Nouvel a classical art museum, which may be the reported Louvre branch, which Abu Dhabi bought the rights to in January (see “At Deadline,” AN 01_01.19.2007). According to spokesperson Rachel Judlowe, the government-owned investment company Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC), which is funding the projects, is engaged in talks with the Louvre and other prominent international cultural institutions about development in Saadiyat Island’s Cultural District.

More here.

Al Gore’s foot soldiers

Carolyn Sayer at Oneworld:

A_gore0130 Former Vice President Al Gore’s 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth grossed over $20 million, earned two Academy Award nominations and was widely credited for bringing the issue of global warming into American living rooms. But Gore’s team believes there are still many regions throughout the country — particularly in the Midwest — that still have not gotten the message. Now through the Climate Project — an initiative to spread awareness and challenge citizens and governments to take action against the effects of global warming — Gore has trained nearly 1,000 of his foot soldiers to give the same presentation that he delivers in the movie. His disciples, who are required to give at least 10 talks a year, are not just scientists but volunteers from all walks of life including teachers, housewives and even celebrities like Cameron Diaz.

The Climate Project brings a personal element to groups that may have never encountered the film, says Kalee Kredier, Gore’s communications director. “The trainees have given his version of the slideshow more times than Vice President Gore,” Kredier adds. “That’s really the goal for them to reach down in where the movie and Vice President Gore cannot reach.”

Gore’s “cavalry,” as he calls them, can also do something else the movie can’t: talk back to the audience. “I can answer questions better than Gore can in the film,” said Ken Mankoff, by night a soldier for Gore and by day a computer programmer who develops models at Columbia University.

More here.