the rise and fall of ziggy stardust’s personal assistant


10 a.m. Woken up today to Nepzoid clawing my face. The cat, from Japan, is now without a doubt my arch-nemesis. It took me two weeks to find a Japanese cat with a “screwed-down hairdo”; the pet-store owners over there are wholly unhelpful. Ziggy seems pleased with him—last night, he scrawled “NEPZOID IS VOODOO” on the bathroom mirror after staring at himself and crying for over an hour.

12 p.m. Sitting in the parking lot, waiting for Ziggy’s dry cleaning. Mostly gloves and a feather boa or two, as usual. Last night, I asked him why he has so many left-handed leather mittens—huge mistake. He screamed something about his “sweet hands,” ran into the studio, and banged his penis heavily against an electric guitar.

more from McSweeney’s here.

Helon Habila and oscillatory in-between-ness


Twins, quadratures and syzygies have long been part of Nigerian literature and myth, usually as a challenge to views of society based on the primacy of the individual. Given the way the country has gone, Nigeria now being a byword for scheming selfishness and corruption, it seems no accident that twins should play such a big role in the late renaissance of the Nigerian novel, as illuminated by Helon Habila, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Helen Oyeyemi.

That renaissance is a phenomenon for which any lover of African literature must be grateful, for not since the early 1970s has much emerged from the continent that has been able to make a global impact. There are many reasons for this, but chief among them is the paralysing connection between a breakdown of societal mechanisms (including publishing) and the wider degradation of what might be described as “citizenship memory” – something by no means limited to Africa.

more from The Guardian here.

VIJA CELMINS: I am nature looking at itself.


By 1964, Celmins had already experienced a crisis with her previous Abstract Expressionist painting style as a grad student at UCLA (having fled with her family from war-torn Latvia for a new life in Indianapolis — almost certainly an improvement). Inspired by the epically mundane paintings of Giorgio Morandi, the cranky theories of Ad Reinhardt and the ob-comp-lit of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s nouveau roman, Celmins broke through by painting deadpan realist images of the objects sitting around her Venice studio — a toaster, a fan, a double gooseneck lamp, a hotplate, a space heater. These unmediated records of the perception and translation of visual phenomena from three-dimensional reality to two-dimensional reality were the template for Celmins’ eventual disappearance into the work.

You can sense Celmins groping toward this near invisibility in the first room of the chronologically ordered exhibition. While much has been made of the autobiographical overtones of her trompe l’oeil renderings of warplanes (or, more precisely and essentially, of clippings from books and magazines depicting warplanes), the inclusion here of images depicting the Bikini nuclear test, a skyful of clouds, the aftermath of Hiroshima, and space-probe photos of the surface of the moon suggests an attempt to achieve a kind of symbolic neutrality — a flattening — of the extremes that make up human experience. Evil may or may not seem banal, but it is most certainly mundane.

more from the LA Weekly here.

Inside the Madrasa: A Personal History

Ebrahim Musa in the Boston Review:

DeobandAs I walked one morning last spring through the town of Deoband, home to India’s famous Sunni Muslim seminary, a clean-shaven man, his face glowing with sarcasm, called out to me. “Looking for terrorists?” he asked in Urdu. “I have every right to visit my alma mater,” I protested. With a sheepish grin he turned and walked away.

I shouldn’t have been so annoyed. The century-old seminary in Deoband had come under intense scrutiny after the Taliban leadership claimed an ideological affiliation with it via seminaries in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Journalists, politicians, and diplomats have since September 11 descended periodically on this town near Delhi in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, long considered the intellectual and spiritual heartland of Indian Islam.

Once the Taliban was linked to Bin Laden, every aspect of India’s Muslim seminaries, or madrasas, became stigmatized. Top-level U.S. officials, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and a chorus of journalists, pundits, and scholars have declared all madrasas to be breeding grounds for terrorists, but they have done so without any evidence and without an understanding of the complexity of these networks of schools, which are associated with multiple Muslim sects and ideologies.

More here.  [Photo shows Darul Uloom, Deoband.]

The Needle and the Damage Done

Elizabeth Weil in the New York Times Magazine:

11lethal_2Lethal injection is the most recent attempt to find a way to transport condemned inmates from life to death in a manner that does not offend our civilized sensibilities. Over the past 100 years, states have chosen from, and discarded, as many as five execution techniques. As a dominant method, the noose has been replaced by the electric chair and the electric chair by lethal injection. Some states also cycled through the firing squad and lethal gas (all five methods still remain options in one state or another). Each change in technique was based on the notion that the new method would be better — more dignified, less gruesome — and in some ways each has been. Nooses, if the drop is too short, can leave bodies twitching for up to 45 minutes, and if the drop is too long, as it was for Saddam Hussein’s half brother, the condemned can fall with so much force that his head is ripped off. Firing squads are considered too violent. Lethal gas takes too long; the 1992 lethal-gas execution of Donald Harding in Arizona was so long — 11 minutes — and so grotesque that the attorney general threw up and the warden threatened to quit if he were required to execute someone by gas again. The electric chair often results in horrible odors and burns; in Florida, in the 1990s, at least two inmates heads’ caught fire, and the chair routinely left the condemned’s body so thoroughly cooked that officials had to let the corpse cool before it could be removed.

More here.

Wax intellectual about tomes that you have never actually read

Sarah Vine in The Times (of London):

Well, zut alors! A distinguished French literary professor has become a surprise bestselling author by writing a book explaining how to wax intellectual about tomes that you have never actually read.

Pierre Baynard, 52, specialises in the link between literature and psychoanalysis, and says it is perfectly possible to bluff your way through a book that you have never read — especially if that conversation happens to be taking place with someone else who also hasn’t read it. All of which just goes to confirm what I’ve always thought about French academics, which is that mostly they are oversubsidised frauds.

Obviously I haven’t read Mr Baynard’s book; but it is in the spirit of his oeuvre that I shall proceed to write about it anyway.

More here.

Respecting the Holocaust

Howard Zinn in The Progressive:

Fifteen years ago, when I was teaching at Boston University, I was asked by a Jewish group to give a talk on the Holocaust. I spoke that evening, but not about the Holocaust of World War II, the genocide of six million Jews. It was the mid-eighties, and the U.S. government was supporting death squads in Central America, so I spoke of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of peasants in Guatemala and El Salvador, victims of American policy.

My point was that the memory of the Jewish Holocaust should not be circled by barbed wire, morally ghettoized, kept isolated from other atrocities in history. To remember what happened to the six million Jews, I said, served no important purpose unless it aroused indignation, anger, action against all atrocities, anywhere in the world.

More here.

The Number: 654,965

When Johns Hopkins epidemiologists set out to study the war in Iraq, they did not anticipate that their findings would be so disturbing, or so controversial.

Dale Keiger in Johns Hopkins Magazine:

P3031 In April of last year, Gilbert H. Burnham and Leslie F. Roberts, A&S ’92 (PhD), began finalizing plans for some new epidemiology. There was nothing notable in that; Burnham and Roberts, at the time both researchers at Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health, were epidemiologists. What was notable was the subject. They would not be studying the spread of HIV in sub-Saharan Africa, or incidence of cholera in Bangladeshi villages. They meant to conduct epidemiological research on the war in Iraq. They would treat the war as a public health catastrophe, and apply epidemiological methods to answer a question essential to an occupying power with the legal obligation to protect the occupied: What had happened to the Iraqi people after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion?

Their efforts produced a mortality study, their second in two years, published last October in The Lancet, Britain’s premier medical journal. The study produced a number: 654,965. This was the researchers’ estimate of probable “excess mortality” since the 2003 invasion — Iraqis now dead who would not be dead were it not for the war. The number was a product of the study, not its central point. But it commanded attention because it was appallingly, stupefyingly large. It was beyond anyone’s previous worst imagining. It was just plain hard to believe, and in the weeks following its publication, it became an oddity of science: a single number so loud, in effect, it overwhelmed the conclusions of the research that produced it.

More here.  [Thanks to Asad Raza.]

While war rages in Iraq, some Hollywood friends gather to talk, watch movies and have sex

From The Washington Post:Smiley

It’s March 2003, and the war in Iraq has just begun. Such is the backdrop for Jane Smiley’s new novel, Ten Days in the Hills, a work modeled in part on Boccaccio’s Decameron. Instead of fleeing the plague, however, the ensemble in Smiley’s book is hoping to exist for a short while in a world free of newspapers, television and reports from the front — distant as that front is. They have withdrawn the night after the Academy Awards to the home of a 58-year-old movie director named Max, “a mansion that cascaded down a mountainside in Pacific Palisades, looked across Will Rogers Memorial Park at the Getty Museum, and had five bedrooms, a guesthouse, and a swimming pool down the mountainside (three flights of stairs) that caught the morning sun.” And then there are the gardens. Moreover, this is only the first of two homes — the second so palatial that it makes Max’s place look like a shabby bungalow near LAX — in which the pilgrims will take shelter.

In those mansions, they will tell stories about their lives and their beliefs, and they will forge new friendships and alliances (some sexual, some political).

More here.

In Pakistan, the Problems That Money Can Bring

From The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Pakistan_1 Over the past four years, Pakistan’s higher-education budget has increased more than sevenfold, to about $449-million. While that amounts to only 0.5 percent of Pakistan’s gross domestic product, it is a big improvement from the days of barely enough to pay “measly salaries and basic bills.” More than 800 Pakistani students, supported by the government, are working toward doctorates in engineering or the sciences in countries including Austria, Britain, China, France, Germany, and South Korea — up from about 20 in 2002.

A plan to attract expatriate professors and foreign faculty members back to Pakistan, with substantial research grants and salaries of up to $4,000 a month — about a third higher than the maximum pay for professors on the tenure track — has lured 350 expatriates, as well as 201 long-term faculty members and 88 scholars on a short-term basis.

Plans are in the works to start nine engineering universities across the country, in collaboration with Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, and other countries, in order to fix the country’s acute shortage of engineers, at a cost of $4-billion to the Pakistan government. Five law schools and several medical schools are in the works as well.

So why are students and professors alike worried? The chairman’s many critics say the flood of money has led to corruption, plagiarism, and favoritism.

More here. (Thanks to Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy).

Kapuscinski’s encounter with India

Ruchira Paul in The Accidental Blogger:

21184Came across this charming little travel tale (via Amardeep) in the New Yorker.  Polish travel writer Ryszard Kapuscinski reminisces about the first time he stepped out of his homeland and landed in … India (via a short stop in Rome).  The India he describes is of another era – from the 1950s.  Much has changed since then but a lot remains the same. What some of us can identify with in the essay is the author’s keen wander lust, tempered by caution. He just wanted to cross the border from Poland … and return home the same day! Not for him the distant and the unknown, not even Paris or London.

“I rattled along from village to village, from town to town, in a hay cart or on a rickety bus—private cars were a rarity, and even a bicycle wasn’t easy to come by. My route sometimes took me to a village along the border. But it happened infrequently, for the closer one got to the border the emptier the land became, and the fewer people one encountered. The emptiness only increased the mystery of those regions, a mystery that attracted and fascinated me. I wondered what one might experience upon crossing the border. What would one feel? What would one think? Would it be a moment of great emotion, agitation, tension? What was it like, on the other side? It would, of course, be . . . different. But what did “different” mean? What did the other side look like? Did it resemble anything I knew? Was it inconceivable, unimaginable? My greatest desire, which gave me no peace, which tormented and tantalized me, was actually quite modest: I wanted only one thing—to cross the border. To cross it and then to come right back—that would be entirely sufficient, would satisfy my inexplicable yet acute hunger.

But how to do this? None of my friends from school or university had ever been abroad. Anyone with a contact in another country generally preferred not to advertise it. I was sometimes angry with myself for my bizarre longing; still, it didn’t abate for a moment.

More here.

Great Performers

Lynn Hirschberg in the New York Times Magazine:

Screenhunter_01_feb_10_2219It was not a standout year for filmmaking, but the acting in 2006 was consistently intriguing and often thrilling. In our annual photographic portfolio, the magazine has never tried to guess which actors will win awards but rather to praise performances that moved, distressed, enlivened and, finally, amazed us. We are saluting 22 of those remarkable characters: from Helen Mirren, whose subtly layered portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II both humanized a seemingly cold matriarch and revealed the complicated nature of duty in shifting times, to Sacha Baron Cohen, whose brilliant, seamless portrayal of Borat was simultaneously hilarious and shocking, to the lesser known Abbie Cornish, who was heartbreaking in “Somersault,” an Australian coming-of-age film that played in American theaters for only a few weeks.

More here.  [Photo shows Cate Blanchett.]

The Story of the Time Traveler

From a review of Ronald Mallett’s Time Traveler:

Physicist Mallett’s theory that ‘space and time can be manipulated’ to make time travel possible has gained national media attention. His research and theories flow nicely through this easy-to-read autobiography. Mallett, one of the first African-American Ph.D.s in theoretical physics, has lived under the shadow of his father’s death when he was 10. His struggles with poverty, racism and depression, coupled with his extreme drive to succeed at building a time machine and so see his beloved father again are inspirational. (Publishers Weekly)

The story of how the death of his father drove him to build a time machine–and led him to theoretical physics–is beautifully told in this installment of “This American Life” entitled “My Brilliant Plan.” (The story is about 33 minutes into the episode.)

[H/t Linta Varghese.]

for bug fans

Mike Spinelli in Wired:

Folksy The Volkswagen bus: 1960s beach bums dug it, brah. And no wonder. It was cheap, had plenty of room for surfboards, and was about as complicated as a lawn mower. That’s why, when Volkswagen of America’s Electronics Research Lab in Palo Alto wanted an unassuming vehicle to house some of its undercover tech, it settled on a roomy, 21-window Deluxe Microbus from 1964. Dubbed Chameleon by the ERL team, the van — purchased on eBay for $20,000 — has been completely restored, converted to electric drive, and stocked with the lab’s souped-up automotive electronics. But the best part? It still looks boss on the beach.

The Paleolithic air-cooled engine, which once put out double-digit horsepower, has been replaced with an electric motor fueled by 10 lithium polymer batteries. The plug for recharging is hidden inside the false tailpipe, and rooftop solar cells mounted on two surfboards provide additional juice the natural way.

Can’t catch a wave? Catch a movie instead. A 42-inch Sony LCD rises into place behind the front seats at the touch of a button. The rear window glass changes electronically from transparent to opaque, doubling as a movie screen for a digital media projector. Plus, the MP3 player responds to voice commands.

In lieu of a key, an infrared palm-vein scanner built into the gas cap identifies the driver. The system can be programmed for multiple users with separate security levels (door unlock only, door unlock and startup, et cetera). Similar ID systems are already in use at ATMs in Japan and top-secret US government facilities.

A circular digital instrument cluster mimics and updates the original analog speedometer, acting as a central information hub with a graphical user interface and speech recognition to control the bus’s various functions. It also serves as a display for the nav system, which links with Google Earth to provide 3-D maps.

More here.

catching some wind

John Geoghegan in Wired:

The Gulf Coast is littered with the carcasses of unused oil equipment. Now those structures are being repurposed to build the first offshore wind farm in the United States.

Windmills The port of Iberia has never been busier. Situated on a narrow canal leading to the Louisiana coastline, the docks here throb with the sound of tugboats towing oil platforms to and from their anchorages in the Gulf of Mexico. When a drilling site is depleted, the platforms return to port; the docks are littered with rusting steel hulks waiting for their next run. In December, though, one of these platforms, stripped and refurbished by a local startup, returned to sea with a new mission. The first of a flotilla to come, it carried wind-monitoring equipment as well as radar for tracking migratory birds. Those that follow will be topped not by drilling rigs but by windmills. The turbines are bound for an 18-square-mile area roughly 10 miles off the coast of Galveston, Texas, where the first offshore wind farm in the US is under construction. That’s right: The flower of sustainable energy is blooming in oil country. Get ready for the Great Texas Wind Rush.

Formed in 2004, Wind Energy Systems Technology (WEST) is on track to commercialize offshore wind power well ahead of more established and better funded contenders with greener credentials. At $240 million and 150 megawatts of peak output—enough to power 45,000 homes—the project is modest. But the eyes of the alt-energy world are upon it. “WEST may not be in the mainstream, but they’re definitely serious,” says Walt Musial at the National Wind Technology Center in Colorado. “They might actually do it.”

… Leave it to a couple of Gulf Coast good ol’ boys to take up the slack.

More here.

One World People of 2006

From One World USA:


In the aftermath of the U.S. invasion in 2003, pharmacist Dr. Rashad Zidan founded the Knowledge for Iraqi Women Society (K4IWS) in response to the needs of women working to hold their families and communities together in war-torn Iraq.

In March 2006, Zidan made a CodePink-sponsored trip to the United States to share her story and her determination to “relieve the suffering of Iraqi women by providing financial, occupational, medical, and educational resources.”

K4IWS offers basic health services, financial loans, schools for children, and courses for women to develop literacy and marketable skills. The organization currently employs 70 people and has 300 volunteers across Iraq. In 2006 alone CodePink raised over $10,000 to help K4IWS continue their important work and to raise awareness about the lives and insights of Iraqi women.

Says Zidan: “If you listen to the people who are in the midst of the conflict, they will help you better understand how to end the violence and suffering because they have firsthand knowledge and experience.”

More here.

I’d like to turn the whole world on just for a moment


Edie Sedgwick stands out amidst a long line of modern muses such as Jane Avril, Dora Maar, Ruth Kligman, Ilona Staller and Dash Snow. Edie is the problem of the muse: a figure one wants so to behold but never to be. The fascination with her since her death in 1971, at the age of 28, has never abated. Her friend, filmmaker David Weisman, in his book Edie: Girl on Fire (Chronicle Books, co-authored with Melissa Painter), describes going before a film class at USC in 1998, prepared to talk about his award-winning film Kiss of the Spider Woman, and being stunned when the students only wished to know, “What was Edie like?”

The answer has been sought in Jean Stein and George Plimpton’s bestseller Edie, in Sienna Miller’s erotic portrayal in the new film Factory Girl, in David Bourdon’s Warhol and in Weisman’s film of Edie’s last years Ciao Manhattan, memorably filmed in the bottom of an empty swimming pool.

more from Artnet here.

I’m a crude existential malpractice


Every poet strikes his or her own balance between innocence and experience, and that balance is easily lost. If lost to experience, the poet gets lost along with it: to feline self-regard, to the sly messaging of the in-group. The danger to an English poet is probably greater than to an American counterpart. There the apparatus of public acclaim sits, spring-loaded and ready to descend upon the promising young talent. This inevitably alters the way the promising young talent thinks and feels and writes. Maybe it is preferable, when young, to be stranded amid philistines than dandled by old toadies.

The English poet James Fenton has survived the specter of his own immense promise. Every possible temptation, disguised as encouragement, has been thrown in his path: the burdensome epithet (“heir to Auden” or “major British poet of his generation”), the sexy hype of a new coterie (the so-called “Martian” school), and even a turn on the throne, as the Oxford professor of poetry.

more from NY Times here.

Many lung cancer cases in nonsmokers

From Scientific American:

Smoking Up to 20 percent of women who develop lung cancer have never smoked, U.S. researchers found in a study that suggests secondhand smoke may be to blame. A survey of a million people in the United States and Sweden shows that just 8 percent of men who get lung cancer are nonsmokers.

She said it is not clear why women may be more likely to get lung cancer even if they have never smoked. “There is a lot of controversy over whether women are more susceptible to smoking at all, whether direct or secondhand smoke,” Wakelee said in a telephone interview.

Among women who never smoked, the lung cancer incidence rate ranged from 14.4 per 100,000 women per year to 20.8 cases per 100,000. In men, it ranged from 4.8 to 13.7 per 100,000. Rates were about 10 to 30 times higher in smokers. This would translate to about 20 percent of female lung cancer patients having been nonsmokers and 8 percent of males.

Smoking is by far the leading cause of lung cancer, but radon, asbestos, chromium and arsenic are also associated with lung cancer.

More here.