An Intellectual History of Vegetarianism

Daniel Lazare in The Nation reviews Tristram Stuart’s The Bloodless Revolution, an intellectual history of vegetarianism:

Many people no doubt regard vegetarianism as inherently frivolous and hence an unsuitable topic for serious intellectual history. But if The Bloodless Revolution does anything, it is to prove such skeptics wrong. One way or another, it shows that vegetarians have been in the forefront of some of the most important controversies of the modern era. The reason is not hard to fathom. Like everything else in life, food is multidimensional, which is why the question of whether to order fruit salad or a BLT is never solely a matter of taste but touches on everything from morality and aesthetics to agricultural policy, humanity’s place in the natural world and even constitutional affairs. In the eighteenth century, to cite just one example, beef was as central to the English self-image as cheap gasoline currently is to that of the United States. Just as the ability to cruise down a highway in an SUV or pickup is what distinguishes an American from a Frenchman paying $7 a gallon to tool around in some mini-subcompact, the ability to consume great slabs of cow flesh was what distinguished John Bull from “Frogs” dining on onions and snails. Scruffy vegetarians seeking to take all that red meat away were barely distinguishable from Jacobin sympathizers wishing to guillotine the House of Lords.

If we are what we eat, in other words, then modifying the national diet was seen as the quickest route to changing the political structure, while resisting such demands was part and parcel of defending the status quo. Their analysis may have been naïve, but vegetarians’ ambitions were immense and their critique was nothing if not sweeping.

Stuart begins his tale with Sir Francis Bacon, appropriately enough since Bacon was both a key figure in the Scientific Revolution that gave us modernity and keenly interested in the question of diet, health and longevity.

a darker frost


Robert Frost’s poetry is full of actions taken on obscure impulse. A man reins in his horse on “the darkest evening of the year” to watch the woods fill up with snow. Why does he interrupt his journey? “The woods are lovely, dark and deep.” Another man hesitates where “two roads diverged in a yellow wood” and takes “the one less traveled by.” These poems are so familiar that it is almost painful to quote them. Others less well known are no less driven by impulse. “Into My Own,” the sonnet that opens Frost’s first book of poems, evokes a distant prospect of “dark trees”: “I should not be withheld but that some day/Into their vastness I should steal away.” Every true poem, Frost wrote in “The Figure a Poem Makes,” the lovely little manifesto that served as the preface to his Collected Poems of 1939, is the child of impulse: “It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life–not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.”

more from TNR here.

interviewing evil


In August of 2003 I conducted a three-hour interview with former Mexican President Luis Echeverría. The central purpose was to explore the paradigmatic changes that so profoundly transformed population policies during his term in office (1970-1976). While this was the central topic, the interview was crisscrossed with multiple sub-topics that linked our conversation with historical memory and biography, violence and authoritarianism, and, of course, politics, power, and democratization. These sub-topics were all condensed under the metaphor of Tlatelolco – the Mexico City student massacre of 2 October 1968.

William Canak and Laura Swanson describe the events and their historical impact:

In 1968, a series of large-scale student demonstrations demanding free and mass education erupted in Mexico City. As the protest expanded to include workers, peasants, and unions, ideas of democracy and redistribution of wealth were adopted. The student movement was significant for several reasons. First, participation in the demonstrations included approximately 400 000 people […] Second, the student march to Tlatelolco Plaza in Mexico City ended violently with the Mexican police and army attacking the [unarmed and peaceful] group: 325 protesters were killed and thousands were injured […] Third, a number of students involved in the 1968 student movement influenced or became leaders of the urban popular movements in the early 1970s

more from Eurozine here.

an irascible left out


Integrity exacts a price from an artist. Take the case of painter George McNeil (1908-1995). A fixture of the New York School, McNeil refused to pose with his peers in a 1950 photo shoot for Time magazine. As the story has come down through his family, McNeil took umbrage at being pictured as a team player in a milieu rife with personality conflicts and political maneuvering. The photograph he skipped out on, taken by Nina Leen, came to be called The Irascibles. It featured 15 New York artists who had signed a letter addressed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art deriding the institution’s hostility to “advanced art.” No one could have known it at the time, but Leen’s group shot would become an iconographic staple of postwar American art. It’s hard to measure the impact of the picture on the participating artists’ careers. It certainly didn’t hurt Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Clyfford Still, Barnett Newman or Ad Reinhardt. (It wasn’t a foolproof catalyst for fame: Theodoros Stamos, Jimmy Ernst, James Brooks and Hedda Sterne have largely been consigned to storage.) All the same, Leen’s image—the Mount Rushmore of Abstract Expressionism, if you will—conferred a degree of legitimacy on a movement that would make New York the center of world art.

more from the NY Observer here.

Best Response: Jim Webb’s compelling response and rebuttal to a State of the Union address

From Time:Webb_1

In short, the middle class of this country, our historic backbone and our best hope for a strong society in the future, is losing its place at the table. Our workers know this, through painful experience. Our white-collar professionals are beginning to understand it, as their jobs start disappearing also. And they expect, rightly, that in this age of globalization, their government has a duty to insist that their concerns be dealt with fairly in the international marketplace. In the early days of our republic, President Andrew Jackson established an important principle of American-style democracy – that we should measure the health of our society not at its apex, but at its base. Not with the numbers that come out of Wall Street, but with the living conditions that exist on Main Street. We must recapture that spirit today. (Picture).

More here.

Rome’s richest hill yields up ancient treasures


Rome_1 Work on Rome’s Palatine Hill has turned up a trove of discoveries, including what might be the underground grotto where ancient Romans believed a wolf nursed the city’s legendary founders Romulus and Remus.

Archaeologists gathered Tuesday at a conference to save crumbling monuments on the Palatine. The Palatine’s once-luxurious imperial homes have been poorly maintained and were at one time in danger of collapse — a situation that forced the closure of much of the hill to the public during a restoration project.

While funds are still scarce, authorities plan to reopen some key areas of the honeycombed hill to tourists by the end of the year, including frescoed halls in the palaces of the emperor Augustus and of his wife, Livia.

More here.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

a hand drawn film

Kristin Hohenadel in The New York Times:

Marjane_satrapi_1 MARJANE SATRAPI’S life was flashing before her eyes. There she was, a mischievous girl on the streets of Tehran, buying contraband records during the Islamic revolution. Singing the lyrics in her bedroom at the top of her teenage lungs. Fidgeting with her head scarf at the lycée. Mourning the political imprisonment of her uncle. Falling in love for the first time. Saying goodbye to her beloved parents as they sent her, their only child, to find freedom and solace in the West.

“Imagine you see your face everywhere — from the back, from the front, as a girl, adolescent, everywhere,” Ms. Satrapi, 37, said during the making of an animated movie based on her best-selling and critically praised comic-book memoir, “Persepolis.” The original version, in French, includes the voices of the legendary French actress Danielle Darrieux as her grandmother, Catherine Deneuve as her mother and Chiara Mastroianni — the daughter of Marcello Mastroianni and Ms. Deneuve — as Marjane. An English-language adaptation, which will also include Ms. Deneuve, with Gena Rowlands as the grandmother, is scheduled to be released by Sony Pictures Classics this year.

More here.

Is Pope Benedict Channeling Oswald Spengler?

In Asharq Alawsat, Amir Taheri reviews Pope Benedict XVI’s Values in a Time of Upheaval.

Although Pope Benedict does not quite tell us what “upheaval” he is referring to in the title of his new book, it soon become clear that he observes the present condition of mankind as a whole and Europe in particular with a degree of pessimism unexpected from a Christian prelate. After all, Christianity is known as the “faith of hope.”

The first cause of the Pope’s pessimism is the domination of the world by what he calls “the three mythical values of today”. These are progress, science and freedom.

The trouble is that the Pope dopes not spell out what he means by any of those terms. For example, does he mean to say that the recent unprecedented progress in medical sciences represent a threat to mankind? Should we steer away form a science that has helped us uncover more and more of the mysteries of nature and mobilize its resources for improving our lives? And, last but not least, in what way can freedom be regarded as a “mythical value”? By coincidence, the Pope’s book has been published at a time that the world prepares to mark the centenary of the ablution of slavery, an evil that Christianity, along with other faiths, never even questioned. For those released from the shackles, freedom was real, not mythical.

The second cause of the Pope’s apparent pessimism is the demographic decline of Europe. The Pope’s europhilia, not to say eurocentrism, is at times to passionate that one wonders whether he regards Christianity as little more than an ingredient in a more complex ideological mix in which the Hellenic heritage and medieval scholasticism are also present.

In this book, the Pope is so focused on Europe, which he believes is about to be lost to outsides, notably Muslim immigrants, that one wonders whether he has forgotten that more than half of his Catholic flock live on other continents. At one pint ( page 41, last paragraph), the Pope speaks of the ” actual non-universality” of the Christian faith.

Even then, the Pope’s lamentations about the decline of Europe, echoing those of his fellow-German Oswald Spengler more than a century ago, may well be misplaced.

Global Warming and What to Do About It

In the Boston Review, Kerry Emanuel on the epistemology, physics, and consequences of global warming:


My own work has shown that hurricanes are responding to warming sea surface temperatures faster than we originally expected, especially in the North Atlantic, where the total power output by tropical cyclones has increased by around 60 percent since the 1970s. The 2005 hurricane season was the most active in the 150 years of records, corresponding to record warmth of the tropical Atlantic. Hurricanes are far and away the worst natural disasters to affect the U.S. in economic terms. Katrina may cost us as much as $200 billion, and it has claimed at least 1,200 lives. Globally, tropical cyclones cause staggering loss of life and misery. Hurricane Mitch of 1998 killed over 10,000 people in Central America, and in 1970 a single storm took the lives of some 300,000 people in Bangladesh. Substantial changes in hurricane activity cannot be written off as mere climate perturbations to which we will easily adjust.

Basic theory and models show another consequential result of a few degrees of warming. The amount of water vapor in the air rises exponentially with temperature: a seven-degree increase in temperature increases water vapor by 25 percent. One might at first suppose that since the amount of water ascending into clouds increases, the amount of rain that falls out of them must increase in proportion. But condensing water vapor heats the atmosphere, and in the grand scheme of things, this must be compensated by radiative heat loss. On the other hand, simple calculations show that the amount of radiative heat loss increases only very slowly with temperature, so that the total heating by condensation must increase slowly as well. Models resolve this conundrum by making it rain harder in places that are already wet and at the same time increasing the intensity, duration, or geographical extent of droughts. Thus, the twin perils of flood and drought actually both increase substantially in a warmer world.

It is particularly sobering to contemplate such outcomes in light of the evidence that smaller, natural climate swings since the end of the last ice age debilitated and in some cases destroyed entire civilizations in such places as Mesopotamia, Central and South America, and the southwestern region of what is today the United States.

Nicholas Stern, David G. Victor and Danny Cullenward, Judy Layzer and William Moomaw, Jeffrey Logan, Joanna Lewis, and Michael B. Cummings, and Kirsten Oleson and Chandra Shekhar Sinha discuss what to do about it.

joschka fischer to Iran


As I mentioned before, the modern history of Iran is full of constant humiliation and interventions from outside. Therefore I understand the desire for independence, security, and dignity. But there is a red line, where such a legitimate national policy threatens to transform itself into a hegemonial policy. Iranian culture and history are much older than those of Europe and Germany. So I am not entitled to be a history teacher. But allow me one remark about our own historical experience.

Europe developed the balance of power system after our religious wars in 1648. And we experienced its benefits and its nightmares over the centuries and finally its definitive collapse in two world wars between 1914 and 1945. My country challenged this European system twice in the first half of the twentieth century. At the beginning of the last century, Germany was the leading power of Europe, but we made the wrong decisions and ended in a complete disaster. What was our strategic mistake? We followed hegemonial aspirations that relied on military might and prestige, and we miscalculated the anti-hegemonial instincts of Europe. And twice we underestimated the strategic potential, the power, and the political will and decisiveness of the United States. Otto von Bismarck, perhaps the greatest German statesman of the nineteenth century, defined Germany’s role in his century as either “hammer or anvil.” In the second half of the twentieth century, it turned out that he was completely wrong, because this had never been a serious alternative. A new European system based on a peaceful balance of interests, common European institutions in the framework of the EU, and guaranteed security, produced by NATO and the transatlantic alliance, completely changed the course of German and European history for the better.

more from Dissent here.

village explainer


In his recent memoir, Things I Didn’t Know, art critic Robert Hughes pinpoints the moment he decided to leave his native Australia to begin a new life as a permanent expatriate. It was a warm evening in 1962. Hughes and his mentor, popular historian Alan Moorehead, were talking shop as they pounded down Gewürztraminer at Hughes’ apartment in Sydney. “If you stay here another ten years,” Moorehead told him, “Australia will still be a very interesting place. But you will have become a bore, a village explainer.”

Hughes heeded his friend’s advice, staying first at Moorehead’s villa in Tuscany, then moving to London, where he lived on the fringes of hippie counterculture (“all dope, rhetoric, be-ins, and powdered bullshit,” as he recalls) and wrote art reviews for the “quality Sundays”: the Times, the Telegraph, the Observer, the Spectator. In 1970, he got a call from Time (on a neighbor’s phone; his had been disconnected) offering him a job as the magazine’s art critic. His anecdote about this incident is a perfect snapshot of the good old days of cultural journalism: The editor who called him was drunk from his habitual three-martini lunch; Hughes was stoned to the gills on hash and, in his paranoia, assumed he was talking to the CIA. They worked it out; he took the job, moved to New York, and over the course of 30 years churned out hundreds of eloquent, witty, briskly opinionated columns for his target audience of intelligent, nonspecialist readers.

more from Slate here.

the arch apologist of dualism?


“THERE ARE ONLY two views that face all the facts,” wrote C.S. Lewis with his characteristic lectern-thumping certainty in “Mere Christianity” (1952). “One is the Christian view that this is a good world that has gone wrong, but still retains the memory of what it ought to have been. The other is the view called Dualism….I personally think that next to Christianity Dualism is the manliest and most sensible creed on the market.” What Lewis, red-faced reactionary and cheerleader for Christ, made of the writings of Norman Mailer — whose new novel “The Castle in the Forest” is published this week — is not recorded. It is unlikely, however, that he would have been disposed to judge them “sensible.” Nor, one suspects, would the great medievalist have found much that was “manly” in the young Mailer’s fascination with jazz, crime, orgasm, and marijuana. (“Swamp-literature!,” he might have said.) Nonetheless, could the pipe-smoke of his antimodern prejudice have been waved away for a minute, and a clear reading taken of Mailer’s work and views, Lewis — who suffered from an abrupt intellectual honesty — would have been forced to admit it: Here, as he himself was the big-hitting Christian writer of his time, was the century’s arch-apologist of dualism.

more from Boston Globe Ideas here.

Making Sense of Time, Earthbound and Otherwise

From The New York Times:Angi600_1

More than three weeks have passed since the great Waterford disco ball dropped over Times Square, and most of us are taking 2007 in stride. The time is flying by, just as it does when we’re having fun, approaching a deadline or taking a standardized test on which our entire future depends, though not, oddly enough, when we ourselves are flying, especially not when we are seated in the last row, near the bathrooms.

But before we stuff the changing of the annum into the seat pocket in front of us and hope that nobody notices, it’s worth considering some of the main astral and terrestrial events that make delightful concepts like “new year” and “another Gary Larson calendar” possible in the first place. Let’s think about the nature of so-called ordinary time, the seconds, days, seasons and years by which we humans calibrate our clocks and merrily spend down our lives. As Robert L. Jaffe, a theoretical physicist at M.I.T., explained in an interview and recent articles in Natural History magazine, our earthly cycles and pacemakers are freakish in their moderation, very different from the other major chronometers that abound around us, but of which we remain largely unaware.

More here.

Acupuncture may show effect in treating Parkinson’s

From Nature:

Acupuncture Acupuncture, used for thousands of years in the Far East to treat pain and illness, has many followers but little scientific rigor to explain whether it works or not. Now, an unusual study suggests that acupuncture has a marked effect on the type of brain inflammation seen in Parkinson’s disease — in mice, that is.

Studies of the effects of acupuncture in animals are few and far between. But mice can’t tell whether they are being treated or not — potentially yielding a much better idea of whether the treatment might actually be working or whether any improvement is just a placebo effect.

Parkinson’s is a movement disorder that affects more than 6 million people worldwide. It is associated with low levels of the chemical dopamine in the brain. To investigate the protective effects of acupuncture in the brain, a team led by Sabina Lim at Kyung Hee University in Seoul, South Korea, used a standard mouse model of Parkinson’s disease, in which injections of a chemical known as MPTP kill off brain cells that manufacture dopamine.

More here.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Lunar Refractions: Just Make It Up—Invention, Creation, and Deception

Pinocchioanonillust_1According to cliché most artists, aside from having the key characteristics of egocentricity and vanity, are also, to a certain degree, liars. I wholeheartedly agree with this, if you can read it in a positive way. Looking at it linguistically, the difference between creative, inventive, innovative, and visionary characters is mere nuance—it’s all just a question of people who, to varying degrees, like to make stuff up. Whether their audiences then believe them or not is an entirely different matter, and no responsibility of theirs.

It’s often said that pathological liars fool no one but themselves, and herein lies the difference. To counter what many historians and critics like to think, artists working with visual and verbal material (or any other medium, for that matter) usually know what they’re up to. I was in a bookstore the other day decorated with various quotes along a series of columns. Waiting at the checkout I came across a phrase from Einstein, something along the lines of “true creativity lies in knowing how to conceal your sources.” Both the London Review of Books and the New York Times Book Review have, over the past few months, run articles and letters discussing the growing length of author’s acknowledgements, source credits, and writer’s general fear of becoming the next J.T. Leroy or James Frey. In other countries it’s perfectly acceptable to publish a book filled with extended quotes of other works as long as the author is mentioned—the title and other information about the quote’s source are seen as superfluous, and the reader just needs to know or be willing to hunt it down. In the United States a similar approach would have one publisher’s legal department phoning the other non-stop. This obsession with full disclosure is beginning to suffocate; readers and viewers are free to trust or distrust creative types, and I’d like to think they’re bright enough to distinguish things without relying on someone else to tell them what to think. That someone else might be untrustworthy anyway.

I went to see a Piranesi exhibition at Rome’s Museo del Corso, which among copper plates, sketches, and countless prints included the over 135 etchings in his Views of Rome series. I’ve never much loved his lines, and am fairly convinced he was a sell-out, but I nevertheless can’t deny his importance. The show’s curators chose to title it Piranesi’s Rome: the Eighteenth-Century City in the Grandi Vedute. A newspaper review of the show is more accurate with its title, Piranesi, or Rome as it Wasn’t. Curiously, the museum space itself was most appropriate; there wasn’t a window in the entire place, and it was depressingly dark, completely cut off from the outside world—the world that would’ve exposed some of his embellishments.

Piranesiautoritratto In many etchings Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778) liked to bestow the title of Architect on himself, even if—or maybe because—of his many architectural projects, only one was ever realized. That design, his renovation of the church Santa Maria del Priorato and adjacent garden on the Aventine Hill in Rome, brought him much less recognition than his obsessive, incessant print production. In a pre-photographic period he was the major promoter of ancient Rome’s grandeur, and foreshadowed the Romantics’ fancy for ruins by several decades. In 1746, six years after he’d moved to Rome from Venice, the twenty-six-year-old etcher undertook the immense task of documenting views of his adopted city. At the same time the city was being invaded by ever more foreigners on the Grand Tour; French, English, German, and people of countless other nations, primarily from northern Europe, couldn’t get enough of the decadence depicted in his work. How much the fact that he himself was a northerner at heart influenced his perspectives I can’t really say, but they can certainly be seen as propaganda. A few (and some of the most interesting) works in the show were done independently of any commission; a multi-plate plan of Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli is a visual fugue stretching over nine feet. Pope Clement XIII, a member of the powerful Venetian Rezzonico family and one of his main patrons, commissioned a church renovation that was never realized for lack of funds. So these few architectural projects are utterly peripheral in comparison to the prints that sold like hotcakes both to visitors and a vast audience abroad—people who’d never have the chance to actually see the sites he portrayed. Perhaps he would’ve embellished certain scenes and buildings regardless of his audience, but I think he gained great liberty in recognizing that there wouldn’t be any fact checkers poring over his work. Hence SPQR, the acronym of Senatus Populus Que Romanus (the Senate and People of Rome), becomes something like Sabinae Populus Que Resistet (the Sabines, People that Remain/Resist/Persist) in one of his inscriptions. Over drinks the other day I was discussing this with an archaeologist who held mixed gratitude and disapproval for the Vedute—some of them are the sole depiction of important structures since destroyed, and therefore important documentation, while some are simply made up. Most fall somewhere in between. Photoshop didn’t yet exist, not to mention photography, but Piranesi managed to fool people with many of the very same techniques of today’s advertising—bits of his richly evocative scenes are the equivalent of the perfectly blue skies, radiantly blemish-free teen models, and high-gloss world in commercials for travel and just about everything else.

He’s a little more honest in his 1760–61 series Carceri d’Invenzione, where he admits his inventiveness in the title. He’d begun exploring this theme fifteen years earlier in a series initially titled Invenzioni Capric[ciose] di Carceri, with a nod to the fundamental caprice underlying it all. Piranesi was convinced that Rome’s grandeur came not from the Greek legacy, but from the Egyptians, via the Etruscans. This explains a lot of the simply wacky interventions he adds to buildings that would otherwise be plainly classical. My question remains: does it really matter how faithful he was to the world around him? Does it really matter if he’s trying to pull the wool over our eyes, or really was convinced of his own visions?

In 1930 Henri Focillon published Esthètique des visionnaires, an essay discussing the visionary esthetics of Daumier, Rembrandt, Piranesi, Turner, Tintoretto, and El Greco. His clearest claim in what could otherwise be dismissed as a relic of Romanticism is that visionaries don’t view their subjects, they rather envision them. He goes on to say that these visionaries possess (I’d say are possessed by) a particular virtue that doesn’t alter nature, but rather imbues it with a striking vivacity, intensity, and profundity. These are mere words—he contradicts this later on by writing that visionaries can’t be contented with the real world, and so they use it as a point of departure; “They interpret more than imitate, and transfigure more than interpret.” Fine.

Returning to the so-called Architect’s one completed building project, the  church atop the Aventine is almost impossible to visit, as it’s closed to the public, but the garden next door can be viewed through the keyhole of its door, where six or seven people were lined up as I got there late this past Saturday evening. Stooping to peer through the keyhole, your eye meets an orderCartolinavillamaltaly perspective, lined with well-kempt cypresses, receding to the illuminated dome of Saint Peter’s at the very center of the composition. Not only is Piranesi controlling what you see (a dome framed by dark vegetation, Vistadallaventinomuch more orderly than the surrounding city and most of his chaotic print compositions), but he’s also dictating how you see it; you’re limited by the keyhole’s outline, then by the trees. These limits closely relate it to Borromini’s famous colonnade perspective at Palazzo Spada, the views of ideal cities produced in Renaissance Florence, and the Olympic Theater of Palladio and Scamozzi in Vicenza. This last connection, to theater, is fascinating, and reveals a lot about our contemporary culture. Going to the theater—or cinema, for that matter—people expect to be removed from their own world; it’s entertainment, imagination, fantasy, and can appear more real than the people, places, and things we see around us each day. It’s the circus, it’s make-believe, it’s the Surrealists’ theater of cruelty, it’s a theater of the absurd, it’s a theater of war. It’s Dionysus’s thyrsus-led procession, the drunken debacle that became the origin of all theater. So why do people bring such different expectations to visual art? A few contemporary artists are venturing into theater: Kara Walker’s silhouettes, although immobile, narrate past and present characters and their often frightful histories; William Kentridge’s Black Box / Chambre Noire, a tripartite riff on the themes inherent in the black box as theater (realm of performance), airplane device (to record disaster), and camera (interior between lens and eyepiece), was shown at the Deutsche Guggenheim but not in New York; and Pierre Huyghe’s puppet shows all merge static visual arts with theatrical realms.

Infinite possible worlds exist, and comingVicenzateatroolimpico into the theater—or peering through the  keyhole (be it Piranesi’s or EtantdonnsDuchamp’s)—a single filtered, channeled world is presented. Such miniature theater can be sculptural object, projection, installation, print, and vice versa. The grand narrative and scale of present and past history are here reduced to small theater. Piranesi’s prints, distant relatives of later architectural follies, were both products cranked out for commercial profit and visions loftier than any debate of real vs. unreal.

At times Piranesi’s hand grew heavy, and the acid bath a bit strong, but this darkness could be read as the reverse side of the Enlightenment looking glass. The nature of shadows is key; in talking about his exploration of the black box, Kentridge describes how, while observing a solar eclipse, he became aware of the process of looking, “of being made conscious of the nature of light,” and how light diffuses mystery, making “everything immediately comprehensible.” This light can be useful, but also has the power to overexpose an image, leaving a bleached-out scene, robbed of its essence—be it actual or invented.

The Future of Science is Open, Part 3: An Open Science World

In Parts one and two, I talked about the scholarly practice of Open Access publishing, and about how the central concept of “openness”, or knowledge as a public good, is being incorporated into other aspects of science.  I suggested that the overall practice (or philosophy, or movement) might be called Open Science, by which I mean the process of discovery at the intersection of Open Access (publishing), Open Data, Open Source (software), Open Standards (semantic markup) and Open Licensing.

Here I want to move from ideas to applications, and take a look at what kinds of Open Science are already happening and where such efforts might lead.  Open Science is very much in its infancy at the moment; we don’t know precisely what its maturity will look like, but we have good reason to think we’ll like it.

By way of analogy, think about what the Web has made possible, and ask yourself: how much of that could you have predicted in, say, 1991, when Sir Tim wrote the first browser?  Actually, “infancy” being a generous term for the developmental state of Open Science, a better analogy probably reaches further back: how much of what the internet has made possible could anyone have predicted when ARPANET first met NSFnet?  Given that last link, for instance, would you have seen Wikipedia coming?  How about eBay,, RSS, blogs, YouTube, Google Maps, or insert-your-own-favorite amazing web site/service/application?

The potential is immense, and from our current perspective we cannot predict more than a fraction of the ways in which openness will transform the culture and practice of science.   Nonetheless, there are signs pointing in possible directions.

early examples: sequence data

Sequence data (such as mRNA, genomic DNA and protein sequences) have long been the leading edge of large-scale collaborative science, largely because early competition among public and private organizations resulted in a series of groundbreaking agreements on public data sharing.  (For a quick tour of the relevant history, see this article.)  Among the online tools that have been developed around openly-accessible sequence databases such as GenBank or SwissProt, the flagship effort is probably the NCBI‘s online gateway Entrez.  From Entrez I can search for information on a sequence of interest on almost thirty different interlinked databases.  I can:

  • find related nucleotide and protein sequences, and make detailed comparisons between them
  • map a sequence of interest onto whole chromosomes or genomes, and compare those maps across ten or twenty different species
  • access expert-curated information on any connection between a query molecule and human genetic disease or heritable disorders in other species
  • look for known motifs or functional sequence modules in a query molecule, or use similar sequences to build 3D models of its likely shape and structure
  • compare a sequence of interest across wide taxonomies, and formulate useful questions about its evolutionary history
  • look for array data regarding expression of a query sequence in different developmental, disease-related and other contexts
  • access genetic mapping data with which to map a query sequence in organisms for which little or no sequence data is yet available

There’s much more — that was a very brief and incomplete overview of what Entrez can do — but you get the point.  All of this analysis is only possible because the underlying sequence data is available on Open terms (and largely machine-readable due to semantic markup), and it forms a ready-made infrastructure in which further Open information can readily find a place — as soon as it becomes available.

data and text mining

In part 2 I talked about a range of efforts to make databases of other information, including text, similarly interoperable and available for mining.  Paul Ginsparg, in a recent essay, used the interface between PubMed Central and various sequence databases as an early example of what becomes possible when databases can be read by computers as well as by humans (emphasis mine):

GenBank accession numbers are recognized in articles referring to sequence data and linked directly to the relevant records in the genomic databases. Protein names are recognized, and their appearances in articles are linked automatically to the protein and protein interaction databases. Names of organisms are recognized and linked directly to the taxonomic databases, which are then used to compute a minimal spanning tree of all of the organisms contained in a given document. In yet another view, technical terms are recognized and linked directly to the glossary items in the relevant standard biology or biochemistry textbook in the books database. The enormously powerful sorts of data mining and number crunching that are already taken for granted as applied to the open-access genomics databases can be applied to the full text of the entirety of the biology and life sciences literature and will have just as great a transformative effect on the research done with it.

Donat Agosti recently pointed to three related projects: Biotext, which builds text mining tools; EBIMed, which analyses Medline search results and presents associations between gene names and several other databases; and the Arrowsmith Project, which allows semantic comparison between two search-defined sets of PubMed articles.  The latter also maintains a list of free online text mining tools, which currently includes several dozen sites offering tools for a variety of purposes, although the majority are still focused on Medline and/or sequence databases.

These sorts of tools are not only useful, they are likely to become essential.  Even now, I can hardly imagine trying to navigate the existing sequence data without Entrez, or the research literature without PubMed.  GenBank contains more than 40 billion bases and is growing exponentially, doubling every 12-15 months.  PubMed contains nearly 17 million records as I write this, and is adding well over half a million every year.  The 2007 Nucleic Acids Research database issue lists nearly 1000 separate biological databases, up more than 10% from last year.  As Matthew Cockerill of BioMed Central has pointed out, simple text searching is not enough to keep a researcher afloat in this onrushing sea of information.


Data and text mining methods stand to come into their own as discovery tools once they have a fully Open and machine-readable body of published research on which to work.  Similarly, the utility of bibliometrics, the quantitative analysis of text based information, can be dramatically enhanced by Open Access.  In particular, measures of research impact can be made much more powerful, direct and reliable.

Research impact is the degree to which a piece or body of work has been taken up and built upon by other researchers and put to practical use in education, technology, medicine and so on.  Governments and other funding bodies want to be able to measure research impact in order to provide accountability and ensure maximal return on investment, and researchers and research administrators want the same measurements in order to assess the quality of their research and to plan future directions (“how are we doing? how can we do better?”).

The most important measure of research impact currently available is citation analysis, a proxy measurement based on acknowledged use by later published work; the predominant citation-based metric in modern research assessment is the Impact Factor (IF).  If a journal has a 2004 IF of 5, then papers published in that journal in 2001-2002 were cited, on average, 5 times each in 2003.  This number is probably the most widely misunderstood and misused metric in all of science, and comes with a number of serious built-in flaws, not the least of which is that the underlying database is the property of for-profit publishing company Thomson Scientific.

Despite these flaws and considerable high-profile criticism, it is difficult to overstate the influence that the Impact Factor has had, and continues to have, on all efforts to evaluate scientists and their work.  Researchers obsess over journal choice: you don’t want a rejection, which forces you to re-submit elsewhere and wastes time, but you need to get that paper into the “best” (that is, highest IF) journal you can so as to appeal to hiring, funding and tenure committees.   And that’s not unrealistic, since quite frankly the bottom line for most such committees is “who has published the most papers in high-IF journals”.  Other factors are usually considered, but the IF dominates.  It’s a clumsy, inaccurate and unscientific way to go about evaluating research impact and researcher talent.

Happily, there is a better way just over the Open Access horizon.  Once a majority of published research is available in machine-readable OA databases, the community can get out from under Thomson’s thumb and improve scientific bibliometrics in a host of different ways.   Shadbolt et al. list more than two dozen improvements that OA will make possible, including:

  • A CiteRank analog of Google’s PageRank algorithm will allow hits to be rank-ordered by weighted citation counts instead of just ordinary links (not all citations are equal)
  • In addition to ranking hits by author/article/topic citation counts, it will also be possible to rank them by author/article/topic download counts
  • Correlations between earlier download counts and later citation counts will be available online, and usable for extrapolation, prediction and eventually even evaluation
  • Searching, analysis, prediction and evaluation will also be augmented by cocitation analysis (who/what co-cited or was co-cited by whom/what?), coauthorship analysis, and eventually also co-download analysis
  • Time-based (chronometric) analyses will be used to extrapolate early download, citation, co-download and co-citation trends, as well as correlations between downloads and citations, to predict research impact, research direction and research influences.
  • Authors, articles, journals, institutions and topics will also have “endogamy/exogamy” scores: how much do they cite themselves? in-cite within the same “family” cluster? out-cite across an entire field? across multiple fields? across disciplines?
  • “Hub/authority” analysis will make it easier to do literature reviews, identifying review articles citing many articles (hubs) or key articles/authors (authorities) cited by many articles.

Existing metrics (which basically means Thomson’s proprietary data) are simply not rich enough to support such analyses.  There are already efforts underway to mine the available body of text for better ways to evaluate research.  Hirsch’s h-index, an alternative way of using citation counts to rank authors according to their influence, can be calculated online using Google ScholarBollen et al. have proposed a method for using Google’s PageRank as an alternative to the Impact Factor, as well as their own Y-factor which is a composite of the two measures.  The Open Citation Project built Citebase, an online citation tracker which has been used to show that downloads (which are measured in real-time from the moment of upload) can predict citations (for which data one must wait years).  Authoratory is a text-mining tool based on PubMed, and is capable of co-author analysis, authority ranking and more.

As the body of OA literature expands, these and similar tools will provide a far more reliable and equitable means of comparing researchers and research groups with their peers than is currently available, and will also facilitate the identification of trends and gaps in research focus.  The downstream effects of increased efficiency in managing and carrying out research will be profound.

commentary and community

Andrew Dayton recently described another feature of the coming Open Science world, which he calls Open Discourse:

The internet is expanding the realm of scientific publishing to include free and open public debate of published papers. […] How often have you asked yourself how a certain study was published unchallenged, without the results of a key control? How often have you wondered whether a paper’s authors performed a specific procedure correctly? How often have you had the opportunity to question authors about previously published or opposing results they failed to cite, or discuss the difficulties of reproducing certain results? How often have you had the opportunity to command a discussion of an internal contradiction the referees seemed to have missed?

Stevan Harnad has referred to a similar idea as peer commentary, calling it a “powerful and important supplement to peer review“.  It’s important to note that a number of journals, such as Current Anthropology or Psycoloquy, offer “open peer commentary” which is not actually open to public contribution.  Similarly, the phrase “open peer review” is typically used to indicate that reviewers are not anonymous, rather than that review is open to the public.  Neither of these pseudo-open concepts rely on “openness” in the Open Access/Open Science sense, whereas Open Discourse as Dayton means it is, of course, utterly dependent on such openness for its subject matter.

There are a number of venues which enable fully Open Discourse as Dayton means it.  OA publisher BioMed Central offers a public comment button on every article, and Cell allows public comments on selected articles.  BMC also publishes Biology Direct, which offers both an alternative model of peer review and public commentary, and PLoS has just launched PLoS One, offering standard peer review followed by public commentary, annotation and rating.  Philica will publish anything, and provides public commentary which can also serve as a form of peer review through an authentication process for professional researchers. is set up as an online public journal club, and Naboj is a forum for public review of articles posted to   BioWizard is somewhat similar, but is limited to articles accessible via PubMed and offers a number of other tools, such as a blogging platform and a rating mechanism designed to identify popular papers.  Both JournalReview and BioWizard notify corresponding authors so that they can participate in the discussion.  The British Medical Journal offers a rapid response mechanism which, having posted over 50,000 public responses to published work, sounds a cautionary note for more recent arrivals on the public commentary scene: in 2005, the journal was forced to impose a length limit and active moderation in order to avoid losing the desired signal in a flood of uninformed, obsessive noise.

Speaking of floods of uninformed, obsessive noise — what about blogs?

Of course, I’m kidding.  I actually have high hopes for the future of blogs in science, centered on three themes: commentary, community and data.  Blogs are an excellent medium for commenting on anything, and with web feeds and a good aggregator it’s pretty easy to keep track of a selected group of blogs.  If Technorati worked, it might allow interesting views of the science blogosphere; fortunately, we have Postgenomic, which indexes nearly 700 science blogs and then “does useful and interesting things” with the data.  For instance, you can see which papers and/or books are getting attention from science bloggers; there’s even a Greasemonkey script that will flag Postgenomic-indexed papers in Connotea,’s social bookmark manager for scientists, another for PubMed and yet another for journal websites.  A new Digg-like “community commentary” site, The Scientific Debate, allows trackbacks and so can interact with regular blogs.  The discussion above about text mining applies, of course, to blogs, since they are typically openly accessible and friendly to text mining software.  For instance, Biology Direct or PLoS One could interact with the blogosphere using linkbacks, or by pulling relevant posts from Postgenomic.

Blogs also tend to create virtual communities, such as the one that centers on Seed’s ScienceBlogs collection of, well, science blogs.  This group of about 50 blogs is rapidly becoming a hub of the science blogosphere, and even gave rise to a recent meatspace conference that bids fair to become an annual event.  Such self-selected communities foster a sense of cameraderie and strongly encourage co-operation over competition, which can only favor the advance of Open Science.  (It’s not just blogs, of course, that can take advantage of community building.  The Synaptic Leap, the Tropical Disease Initiative, OpenWetWare and BioForge all provide infrastructures that enable collaborative communities to do Open Science.)

Finally, blogs (and wikis) have immense potential as a scientific publishing medium.  They are, to begin with, the perfect place for things like negative results, odd observations and small side-projects — research results for which the risk of having an idea stolen is greatly outweighed by both the possibility of picking up a collaboration and the importance of having made available to the research community information which would never surface in a traditional journal.  Most research communities are relatively small; it would not be difficult for most researchers to keep up with the lab weblogs (lablogs?) of the groups doing work most closely related to their own.  I know of a few blog posts in this category.  This and this from Bora Zivkovic are, I think, the first instances of original data on a blog. This series from Sandra Porter is earlier but involves bioinformatic analysis (that is, original experimentation, but no original data), as do this and this from Pedro Beltrao.  Egon Willighagen blogs working software/scripts for cheminformatics, and Rosie Redfield and her students blog hypotheses, thinking-out-loud and even data.  Blogs are also good for sharing protocols, like the syntheses posted by the anonymous proprietor of Org Prep Daily.

Beyond that, it’s possible to do fully Open Science, publishing day-to-day results (including all raw data) in an online lab notebook.  I know it’s possible because Jean-Claude Bradley is doing it; he calls it Open Notebook Science.  His lab’s shared notebook is the UsefulChem wiki, which is supplemented by the UsefulChem blog for project discussion and the UsefulChem Molecules blog, a database of molecules related to their work.  There is nothing to prevent Jean-Claude from publishing traditional articles whenever he has the kind of “story” that is required for that format, but in the meantime all of his research output is captured and made available to the world.  Importantly, this includes information which would never otherwise have been published — negative results, inconclusive results, things which simply don’t fit into the narrative of any manuscript he prepares, and so on.  Being on a third-party hosted wiki, the notebook entries have time and date stamps which can establish priority if that should be necessary; version tracking provides another layer of authentication.

At the moment the Bradley lab is the only group I know of that is doing Open Notebook Science, but of all the glimpses of an Open Science world I have tried to provide in this entry, Jean-Claude’s model is, I think, the clearest and most hopeful.  Only when that level of transparency and immediacy is the norm in scientific communication will the research community be able to realize its full potential.

that’s all, folks

I promise, no more obsessive posting about Open Science here on 3QD.  If I’ve managed to pique anyone’s interest, I recommend reading Peter Suber’s Open Access News and anything else that takes your fancy from the “open access/open science” section of my blogroll.  And as always, if I’ve missed anything or got anything wrong, let me know in comments.


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Ocracoke Post: On the Case of the Da Vinci Code Appeal

Thank god, the lawyers of Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh are appealing the decision of a London court that Dan Brown did not plagiarize their book, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, for his blockbuster novel The Da Vinci Code. 2007 begins to look so much less drab when I consider the spectacle of this ongoing legal battle. Consider, Reader:


1. The pure cheek of the whole thing. Whether they win their appeal or not, surely the best thing that ever happened to Baigent and Leigh was Dan Brown, since their book tended to be displayed alongside The Da Vinci Code, unquestionably boosting its sales. (One of the authors was prominently featured in a History Channel “documentary” on the truth beyond the Da Vinci Code – There isn’t any, by the way. Or is there? No, there isn’t. Or is there?) And of course each new phase of the case is essentially a free advertising spot. There is no scenario in which any of the parties can lose, really, if one keeps in mind the fact that legal counsel is a tax-deductible business expense. I say fight it all the way to the supreme court of the European Union if necessary.

2. The world-historical implications for global capitalism at stake here, since it involves Random House kind of appearing to sue itself (because it published both books), or something, while simultaneously reaping the publicity benefits of any possible outcome – the late, great William Gaddis would have loved this case, and I wish he were alive to see it and write about it.

3. The exquisite legal paradox facing Baigent and Leigh. The fact is that their book, purporting to have found an ancient conspiracy leading back to a sexual relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, is a work of fiction. The irony of fate here is pretty sublime. Their plagiarism case would be much stronger if they had told the truth and said that they had made it all up. As it stands, however, the pretense of the conspiracy-theory genre forces the authors to pretend that The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail is based on actual research etc. rather than being a fabrication of two very inventive minds.

4. What does all this imply about Dan Brown? It’s possible that he is only a figurehead or sort of corporate entity (“Dan Brown”) that involves the research genius of his wife, Blythe, and some sort of marketing genius (the real Dan Brown or his agent, etc.) who has mastered the art of narrative cliffhangers to such a degree that even a complete inability to write English prose doesn’t get in the way of the story. (Please read Anthony Lane’s priceless review of the film here; Mr. Lane made it all worthwhile.)

A Final Note: The ultimate Da Vinci Code experience, for my money, is neither the book nor the film, but the audiobook. The actor they hired to narrate, Paul Michael, is a very competent person, and I mean no real disrespect to him. But he is male, and this hopeless job forces him to do the female dialog in an sort of falsetto Inspector Clouseau French accent that makes hottie archaeologist Sophie Neveu, supposedly a descendant of Jesus Christ, sound like a breathless tranny. “My grandfather, my grandfather…” Oh my, Sophie, tell me more!

Read an excerpt from Holy Blood, Holy Grail.

Negotiations 10: Les Demoiselles

From January 25 until March 3 of this year, Cindy Workman is exhibiting twelve new works—inkjet prints all—at the Lennon, Weinberg gallery in New York City. I have been a fan of hers for several years, and the current series is in my opinion some of her finest work to date. She is an artist at play in the world, and the stuff is arresting, provocative, curious, charged, and suffused with what I can only describe as a kind of tempered joy. The opening is on this Thursday, from 6:00 to 8:00 pm. Do not miss this show.

She has entitled it “les demoiselles,” and I got the sense from looking at each print that Ms. Workman had chosen to break Picasso’s large canvass into its constitutive elements, so that what we get is a series of neo-cubist portraits, in which many surfaces are present at once, and the cumulative effect of which is a larger portrayal—and hence, interrogation—of contemporary female identity, what it is and how it is constructed and experienced. Layering drawings of idealized girls taken from the envelopes of sewing patterns on top of or behind soft-core porn shots from the 1950’s, and then blending them into a single composition, Workman creates images that are simultaneously familiar and jarring. These women are sexualized in ways familiar to us all, but inappropriately so. One is attracted and repulsed at the same time. Imagine looking at what appears to be a little girl, only to realize that she is a woman who, in her attempt to look like a sexy little girl, has had too much plastic surgery—and you begin to get the idea. (Conversely, imagine that you are looking at what appears to be a voluptuous sex object, only to discover that you are seeing a little girl in a sailor’s outfit…)

Breasts are prominent in these works, in part because for Workman they are a source of identity for women and in part because their exposure renders that very identity exposed. Workman isn’t just asking you what it means to have breasts; she is asking you what it means to be a breast-having-object, what it means to be an object whose existence depends on having breasts and what it means to want to be such an object: what it means to be a commodity whose consumer appeal is proportional to the heft and shape of one’s breasts. Workman, however, is not making anti-porn, anti-consumer agitprop. There is nothing hectoring or scolding in or about these pieces. The subjects know that you are looking at their breasts, and you are invited, even expected to do so. The result is art as a kind of reportage, an art that talks about things we can’t otherwise talk about.

In “les demoiselles,” Workman continues her practice of collage, but this time the background is stripped out. This, to me, is where things get very interesting indeed. The subjects appear in color fields (the artist described one to me as “Indescribable pink. Pinky-mauve. Dirty-bright pink.”)—hues in which they are suspended and from which they are irretrievably separated. They will never again dress in the colors that surround them. This composition of containment lends to the subjects an auratic, glowing, elevated status—they have become archetypes of sexualized femininity—but that very elevation cuts them off from the world in which they appear and exist. That woman surrounded by pink, hovering in pink, one feels, will never again experience pink. She has exchanged for her elevated status the very quality that made that status possible; it is lost to her, and she to it. She is eternally lonely, and these works are a profound meditation on the contemporary condition of loneliness.

After looking at each print, I had to admit to Ms. Workman that she had put my back-brain and my super-ego in conflict. I found the work sexy; I knew I shouldn’t, for many reasons; but I couldn’t help myself. I practically apologized for that. She just laughed. That’s part of the point, I realized. And then she said it for me: “That’s because men are more visual, and women are more cerebral.” Indeed. This show makes that clear, and brilliantly so. Touché, Ms. Workman.

The Bollywood Babe and Big(ot) Brother

Big Brother. Not the leader of Orwell’s claustrophobic dystopia, but a brightly coloured reality TV show format, that has waded into controversy in the UK this week. Screenhunter_06_jan_21_2109British viewers watched the programme with increasing discomfort, as loutish English celebrities bullied (and most say, racially abused) well known Bollywood actress, Shilpa Shetty, live on air.

The Big Brother concept has made a pretty packet for its creator, Endemol, the brainchild of Dutchman, John de Mol, with the format being successfully sold to broadcasters in no less than 70 countries – most of which have been prime time hits. The format of the programme is simple. Contestants enter the “Big Brother” house to win cash prizes, or in celebrities’ cases “money for a favourite charity” although they are normally paid a hefty fee to turn up in the first place (in Shilpa Shetty’s case, a reputed £350,000). To win, contestants must avoid nominations for eviction from their housemates, with the public deciding whom amongst those nominated will ultimately get the boot. It could be a social experiment in hippy, free-loving communal living, except that the point of Big Brother is to foster division, arguments, and sexual tension, all of which makes for great ratings.

To a great deal of surprise, Shilpa “the Body” Shetty, a Bollywood siren, with at least 50 movies under her belt, and a command of 8 languages, shimmied off Bollywood screens and into the UK’s “celebrity” version of Big Brother at the beginning of this month. Given her 15 million pound fortune, and true A-list credentials, nobody understood why she would want to enter the Big Brother house with a bunch of International and British low life celebrities, the best of the bunch being, Dirk Benedict, yes “the Face” from the now defunct A Team, and Jermaine Jackson, brother of the now defunct Michael Jackson.

In doing so, the clearly successful Shilpa, has attracted a great deal of envy from the worst of the bunch: three non-entity, female English celebrities, who are famous for very little apart from once being in manufactured pop bands, or, indeed once having been in other reality TV shows. Jealousy, envy, and misunderstanding soon descended into intermittent slanging matches, and a clear policy of segregation. The bullies have mocked the laxative-like properties of her Indian cooking, made frequent silly jokes about Indians and India, said Miss Shetty should “fuck off back home”, repetitively mimicked and mocked her accent, excluded her from their conversations, refused to sit next to her in communal areas, and one woman – insisting that “Shilpa” was unpronounceable – opted to call her “the Indian” instead. Ms Shetty, while bearing the treatment with a great deal of dignity, has broken down on a number of occasions.

The issue has become emotive, and has been blown sky high. On Monday last week, Ofcom, the UK TV regulator, had received 2,000 complaints from the viewing public asking that the programme be pulled off the air – more complaints than had ever been received in relation to a single programme. By Tuesday, Asian MP, Keith Vaz, had tabled a motion in Parliament and by Wednesday Tony Blair expressed criticism of the show in the Commons. In the meantime, the hapless Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer (and Prime Minister in waiting) found himself in India struggling to reassure Indians that Britain prided itself on “fairness and tolerance”, as Shilpa Shetty’s treatment was brought up in press conferences, meetings with junior ministers, and finally with Manmohan Singh himself. By Thursday, the Carphone Warehouse, Big Brother’s main sponsor had withdrawn its £3 million sponsorship deal citing racism, and the perfume line brought out by one of the celebrity bullies was taken off the shelves. By Friday, David Cameron, leader of the opposition, urged viewers to “switch off”, and complaints at Ofcom had reached the heady heights of 30,000. Most worryingly of all, Gordon Brown, still stuck in India, and faced with public demonstrations and the smell of burning effigies, declared “a vote for Shilpa is a vote for Britain”. We knew then, that the shit had really hit the fan.

Finally, on Friday evening, the main instigator of the bullying, Jade Goody, was voted out of the Big Brother House, after a week of national soul searching, and a five day stretch of the programme continuously hitting the headlines in both the broadsheets and the tabloids. Every single person I have met over the past week has raised the issue, from my doorman, to the guys at work, to my most self interested friends, usually oblivious to the world around them. This is publicity no money could buy.

While people have been piling over each other to comment on the matter, it is Meera Syal, the comedian, who has hit the nail on the head. She says “What this treatment of Shilpa has done is remind a lot of Asian people in Britain of the type of uncomfortable treatment they’ve received themselves over the years.” Asians switched on in droves and worked themselves up into a kind of collective rage. They then switch on the PC in droves and sent hundreds of emails of complaint in a kind of collective avengement. It seems there is nothing that brings the Indian diaspora together like a Bollywood star being bullied – I should know, after just two days of watching the programme to see what all the fuss was about, I found myself angrily logging on to the Ofcom website along with everyone else.

Has the whole incident been blown out of all sensible proportion? On one level the answer is a clear yes. Why should playground taunts on a reality TV programme engage the public so much, when there are far more serious issues out there? At the end of the day, all the celebrities in the house will be evicted, collect their fat pay checks, and return to their lives of varying privilege. The Big Brother house, despite its tag of Reality TV, certainly isn’t any of the contestants’ true reality.

And yet, the BBC Asian Network has described the issue as their biggest story ever – bigger than Saddam’s botched execution, bigger than Inzamman Ul Haq’s cricket ban, bigger than the rise of the British National Party in last local elections. My view is, why should we all act so surprised? Every Asian in this country has experienced some degree of petty racism in some form or the other, and suffered some kind of silent grievance. This issue has shown that the Asian community in the UK, when united, is a force to be reckoned with. While no one would deny that a number of English viewers complained about the programme, it was the Asian community that forced the issue with regulators, the TV producers, and an Asian MP who forced the issue onto the floor of parliament.

What most members of minority communities know is that petty racism is much easier to identify with, than out and out racial abuse. Most of us would agree that we live in a broadly tolerant society, and certainly a society that has shown itself time and time again, to have at least, the right ideals, even if it sometimes falls short of them. But watching the treatment meted out to Shilpa Shetty, has served to highlight how difficult it is to identify racism. It would have been easier if one of the other contestants broke, and simply called her a paki. But instead we saw the singling out, the bitching, the bullying, and the creeping isolation that the Indian celebrity was subjected to. We were only able to put two and two together, because the programme enabled us to listen in to the conversations between the perpetrators who disclosed a number of ignorant and racist views. The frustrating thing was that Shilpa Shetty suspected she was the target of racial discrimination on some level, but had no way to prove it.

It was this, I suspect, that rankled most with Asian viewers – that we could see it happening, but she could not. Many of us could identify with the slow and painful realisation that we are encountering prejudice, but are defenceless against it, because it is simply a gut feeling that cannot be proved. Despite the pro equality policies, and the anti discrimination legislation in this country, calling treatment racist, is often still seen as playing the race card, and secretly people wonder whether the complainant is being overly sensitive, and to be quite frank, really rather weak. While racism is not a word that should be used lightly, many of us are frustrated, that we cannot call it like we see it.

The attitude of the broadcasters fuelled this frustration. Channel 4 knew that the row over racism was TV gold, but that continuing to air the programme (or at least refusing to discipline the offending housemates) could put both the producers and the channel at risk of race relations offences, and their public funding, and broadcasting license, at serious risk. The channel’s statements to the press, and official stance on the matter, were a case book study in legal obfuscation. Rather than mention the dirty “r” word, the producers first put Ms Shetty’s treatment down to “girly rivalry”. They then upgraded their assessment to “bullying”, and finally, when the issue exploded into international politics, put the whole thing down to a “clash of class and culture”, rather than racism. It was clear that the programme’s lawyers were busily working away in the background. Channel 4’s latest stance, has been that the programme has served the public interest in that it had helped to promote a discussion of racial tolerance – the language could have been lifted from the duties incumbent on the broadcaster under recent race relations legislation.

The dust has now settled, but this has been a fairly incredible week for race relations in this country. All of us watched while Shilpa Shetty, after a ninety minute conversation with the programme’s producers in the Big Brother House (reportedly persuading her that she had not suffered racism, and that an allegation of racism, would only harm her interests) made a statement that she did not think her treatment was a racist. In a twist, Jade Goody, has acknowledged that her behaviour in the house was racist, and has asked for forgiveness in true Mel Gibson style, clearly alive to the fact that her career is going down the toilet.

A number of other race related stories, have also floated into the news in the wake of Big Brother publicity. Most notably, the case of a criminal who had refused treatment from a Pakistani police surgeon, calling him a “fucking paki” and asking for an English doctor instead. Charged with racial harassment, a judge told the defendant that he should have called the doctor “a fat bastard” instead. Rather than taking anti discrimination seriously, it is clear that some, even those in power, are simply fostering, or permitting discriminatory treatment while ensuring the language used cannot be caught by the law. The important thing for people of this ilk, are the legal loopholes, and not the spirit of the law itself.

I must say that, despite my knee-jerk complaints to Ofcom, in retrospect, I am incredibly grateful this programme was not pulled off the air. It has exposed the sometimes two-faced response of the authorities to allegations of racism. It has also exposed the British viewing public to be unconditionally fair, and egalitarian – a public that I am glad to be part of. But most importantly, this year’s Big Brother has allowed the Asian viewing public to state categorically what is, and is not, accepted to be racist behaviour with a sense that they have every right to be here, and a confidence that they are welcome.