Sunday, October 31, 2004

Fasting and feasting

It's the middle of Ramadan and my friend broke her daily fast at 6 o'clock to share a meal with me at an Italian restaurant in Balham. We ate chicken stuffed with ricotta and spinach, and conchiglie shells with salmon and asparagus; vanilla pod ice cream and tiramisu. No alcohol, though (apart from the tiramisu - whoops).

The Muslim ritual fast runs from 15 October to 14 November this year and ends with the celebration of Eid ul-Fitr. It's an Arabic tradition, when the pious retreated for asceticism and prayer, and it precedes the Prophet Mohammad.

My British-born Bangladeshi friend has had a few days off, though. These have been tough days for her, made more difficult by the fact that even water is not allowed during daylight hours. She works all day in a science lab and has no Muslim friends where she lives in Cambridge. So she has taken this week off to return to London and fast more easily with her family.

Smoking, sex, swearing, gambling, thinking evil thoughts and quarrelling are also forbidden. The latter two are particularly difficult for my friend to avoid now she is temporarily living under her parents' roof!

The Christian Science Monitor has an entertaining Ramadan diary series chronicling a Saudi Arabian woman's first fast:

"Iftar, or the breaking fast, when it finally arrives each day after the call to evening prayers, is lavish. Star-studded Egyptian soap operas are scheduled one after the other for prime-time Ramadan viewing, right after iftar, when people are usually too full to move. And with an eye toward the following day's deprivation, most people stay up, snacking until dawn."

Other links today:

+ "What if you live on the East coast and all the organic produce is shipped from California - how do you compare buying that to buying locally and supporting a farm which may be using pesticides but is helping to preserve the rural landscape closer to home?" The labyrinthine world of ethical eating.

+ "My prerogative right now is to just chill & let all the other overexposed blondes on the cover of US Weekly be your entertainment ... GOOD LUCK GIRLS!" Britney is taking another break. Hurrah!

+ "Sure Jesus was black - he called everybody 'brother', liked Gospel, and couldn't get a fair trial!"

Saturday, October 30, 2004

Megapixel myths

"Buying a point-and-shoot digital camera seems easy enough. Just pick your price range, get as many 'megapixels' as possible, a high zoom capability and you're all done, right? While that's certainly what the camera industry wants you to think, alas, like with most things involving technology, it's not nearly as simple as it seems. Even if you're a casual photographer shopping for an automated, pocket-size, point-and-shoot model, the landscape is filled with myths and traps that can lead you to the wrong decision. So here's a rundown of the seven most common pitfalls digital camera buyers encounter and how to avoid them."

The myth of the megapixel (via J. Walk).

Other links today:

+ "One entomologist named a species of owl louse Strigiphilus garylarsoni as a tribute to The Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson who is known for his humorous depictions of bug hunters." So The Hobbit's been discovered - who verifies and names such new discoveries?

+ "It's no surprise that the Brits who grew up listening to John Peel have been filling message boards with their fond memories of him. What is surprising is that Americans are doing the same." How John Peel helped shape American musical taste.

+ International tipping etiquette. Very useful.

Friday, October 29, 2004

Comfort eating

The British Library is as good a place as any to eat at whilst in Kings Cross. Their menu is a smidgeon more sophisticated - today's selection included pork and apricot casserole, wild rice, pork souvlaki and braised oxtail - and yet meals here still remind me of school dinners.

I don't say this because of the institutional feel of books and academics, and I don't mean this as a slur on British Library chefs: I am the only person I know who loved school dinners.

I went to a school where soggy cabbage, liver and bacon, oxtail soup, lumpy mashed potatoes, pickled beetroot salad and rice pudding with a film on top were standard stodgy fare well into the late 80s. I ate them all and the dinner ladies adored me.

I still get cravings for toilet-paper-pink blancmange, spotted dick, jam roly poly, tapioca - "frogspawn" - pudding with the dollop of strawberry jam on top, spam sandwiches and mashed swede (but not together).

Though I concealed it from my peers, I was distraught when my school introduced burgers and chips and my old-school favourites were violently sidelined.

So despite the posher-sounding menu items, the stews at the British Library are still over-cooked, the salads still wilting, the chips still dry, and the custard still has a film of skin over it.

Just the kind of comfort food I love.

Related link:
+ School dinners haunt adults

Other links today:

+ "Jasper rings, boots of Cordoba leather, cloaks and hats, a spray of rose water at the barber's, short rose-pink tunics, beautifully curled hair cascading down his back." A bit of a dandy was our Leonardo da Vinci.

+ "Have you not noticed that Americans don't give two shits what Europeans think of us? Each email someone gets from some arrogant Brit telling us why NOT to vote for George Bush is going to backfire, you stupid, yellow-toothed pansies!" Clark County Ohio backlash and The Guardian's hasty retreat.

+ "There are at least 700 books in my English department office. There are another 200 stashed in filing cabinets in the hallway. In my home office I estimate there are more than 2000 on the shelves and another 300 in a pile on the floor. There are about 400 books on cooking and gardening in the kitchen. And finally, there are about 50 books on a shelf next to my bed. Those are the ones I intend to read soon." I want to marry this man!

+ "If single moms come out in droves in the forthcoming US presidential elections, that is good for Kerry. But not if single dads come out in larger numbers, unless, of course, if the Latinos show up, balancing out the possible Nader factor, which could also be overtaken by the cell-phone voters who, along with black voters, are much more likely to vote for Kerry. Except for the fact that black voters seem to be not quite as Democratic this year as the last time around." X marks the... what? Why it appears so difficult to predict the presidential victor.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

2004's scariest halloween costumes

The Littlest Prisoner at Abu Ghraib

"Your child will be the hit of the neighborhood costume parade in this recreation of the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal's most indelible image. As an added bonus this easy-to-make costume will remind everyone on your child's trick-or-treat route of our national shame! Simply roll a cone from a sheet of 24"x38" black cardstock, making sure to cut out a hole for the face. Drape with two yards of black felt, and add leftover wires from your last lamp-rewiring project. Voila! So easy, so quick, and so terrifying!"

Other links today:
+ The Hobbit existed and he was one of us. Scientists have discovered a new and tiny species of human that lived in Indonesia at the same time our own ancestors were colonising the world.
+ Creative Commons arrives in the UK. A new group of licences about to be introduced to the UK could offer a more flexible approach to copyright law.
+ The Economist endorses John Kerry shocker. "With a heavy heart, we think American readers should vote for John Kerry on November 2nd." It supported Bush the last time around.
+ Because bigger is better, right?
+ Villa for rent. Minutes to downtown Baghdad, suits executives & diplomats. Rent it for: $27,000 USD per month (negotiable).

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Uneasy passion

"I like Wagner's music better than anybody's. It is so loud that one can talk the whole time" Oscar Wilde.

Well, it was very loud, and I was tempted to annoy, but I couldn't because I was too busy being overwhelmed. The highly-charged performance by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the RFH last night was my first live hearing of the German Romantic, Richard Wagner. It was only the Overture of Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman), but I was side-blinded.

Based on legend, the Flying Dutchman is the tale of a ship captain doomed to sail the world's oceans forever unless he finds true love. Wagner's fifth opera dramatically paints with music raging seas, stormy nights and supernatural yearning.

I've been listening to the old man on vinyl and CD since I was a teen. Tristan und Isolde is my favourite "music drama" (Wagner's preferred term over "opera"), followed closely by Die Walkure. One of my dreams is to attend the annual Richard Wagner Festival at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus one summer. I find his music's dramatic tension and dissonant harmonics uplifting and disturbing.

I'm passionate about his music, but his anti-semitism and cultural appropriation by the Nazis is shocking: his views on Jews influenced Hitler's own, and Wagner's music was frequently played at mass Nazi rallies. Any proposed performance of Wagner's work in Israel today sparks controversy.

In common with many intellectuals at the time, Wagner promulgated numerous anti-semitic views over the course of his life, including the view that Jewish musicians could only produce shallow and artificial music that had nothing in common with "the genuine spirit of the Folk"; that Jews were "freaks of Nature" who blabbered in "creaking, squeaking, buzzing" voices; and that either Jews should be expelled from Germany, or Germans should abandon Jewish culture.

His essay "Das Judenthum in der Musik" (1850) concluded: "There is only one way of redeeming the Jews from the terrible curse that hangs over them - annihilation."

Though many believe he meant eradication of Judaism and conversion to Christianity rather than actual physical annihilation, the sentiment is chilling to the core and it is why my love for his music will always be tempered.

Related links:
+ Sightings of the Flying Dutchman
+ "Wagner was probably the big-head to end all big-heads." Funny account of Wagner's life.

Other links today:
+ Wanna play President Bush defending the Queen from gun-toting attackers? Or John Kerry fighting himself in the boxing ring? Well now you can.
+ The right to worship Satan recognised by the Royal Navy. God bless our navy.
+ Supermarket sweep. Is the rise of Tesco such a terrible thing? You decide.
+ MP3 downloads of some of the sessions John Peel had on his show over the years

Keystone capers

"All I need to make a comedy is a park, a policeman and a pretty girl" Charles Chaplin.

The BFI London Film Festival has begun and I had a glut of wonderful movies - from Costa Rica to China - to choose from. So what did I choose to see? A series of shorts from Charlie Chaplin's Keystone days. Well, it had been a hard day in the office and I needed a few laughs.

Keystone was the first movie studio Chaplin worked with after a successful run on the British and American stage with the Karno comedy troupe. In 1914 he made 35 silent comedies there.

They're your standard Keystone affairs - slapstick mayhem and alot of people bashing each other over the head - but they're worth watching for the introduction and development of Chaplin's alter ego the Little Tramp, who makes his first appearance in Kid Auto Races at Venice, California.

Kid Auto is hilarious and features Chaplin as the tramp who annoys the film crew at a car race by continually posing in front of the cameras - a national pastime even today. What adds to the humour is the fact that Kid Auto was filmed at a real car race and the responses of the spectators to Chaplin's capers are classic. At one point a young boy also decides to ham it up in front of the camera and Chaplin promptly punches him in the face. You're not quite sure if the spectators realise Chaplin is acting. Of course, in 1914 he would have been unknown to them.

Tonight the NFT also showed Getting Acquainted, Mabel at the Wheel and Mabel's Married Life.

There's little of the pathos and subtlety that made Chaplin great in the years to come, so the most striking thing about tonight's screening was the quality of the film reels. The Chaplin Project has begun the difficult process of restoring all Chaplin's films, including the Keystone series, by sourcing negatives and positives from all over the world. The picture quality of the Keystones they showed tonight were as clean as they can be from the turn of the last century. And it made for a satisfying viewing.

Other link today:
+ Jesus tops the list for black icons

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

John Peel, R.I.P.

UK broadcasting legend and alternative rock advocate, John Peel dies at 65 of a heart attack.

Radio 1's controller said, "John's influence has towered over the development of popular music for nearly four decades."

I grew up with him and remember making mix tapes from his shows on Radio 1 as a teen. Now I listen to him on Radio 4. Older friends of mine remember him on pirate radio in the sixties. His influence spanned the generations.

A truly sad day.

+ BBC announcement of John Peel's death
+ BBC's John Peel obituary
+ Wikipedia biography of John Peel

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Perfect day

Coffee and papers in bed; fry-up in the local; sunny, blustery, autumnal day; stroll around the park; Eastenders omnibus on the box; long catch-up calls to distant friends; back to bed again.

What Sundays were made for.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Music to my ears

Been completely bored with my own MP3 and CD collection of late, so have been on the hunt for fresh music. Because I've been so busy in my offline life, it's been a while since I've scoured the web and P2P networks for new sounds. So today I've been revisiting my favourite music blogs, starting with my two ultimates Cocaine Blunts and Moebius Rex:

Cocaine Blunts
The best hip hop blog out there. Bleeding my ears: all of it! Okay, how about "Hands in the Air, Mouth Shut" by Lord Finesse.

Moebius Rex
Underground rap, mutant disco, experimental noise, post punk. Bleeding my ears: "Tempura Soul" by Fuka Vincente; "Girls (Rex The Dog mix)" by The Prodigy.

Pop, indie, garage, damn - everything really. Bleeding my ears: "Wipe that Sound" by Mark E- Curtis and Mouse on Mars; "I Believe in You" by Kylie Minogue and Scissor Sisters.

Soul Sides
Old R&B/soul and underground hip hop. Bleeding my ears: "A Day In The Stuy" by Major Stress; "To Love Somebody" by Nina Simone.

Fusion rock, dub, reggae, hip hop, global beats. Bleeding my ears: "Untitled 1" by Local 12; "Sweet and Tender" by Medina Green.

Music for Robots
Electronica, punk rock and re-mixed hip hop. Bleeding my ears: "Go Home, Get Down" by Death from Above; "Regicide" by Matmos.

Have also been knocked about by David Bowie's Reality Tour DVD - filmed in Dublin, 2003 - which arrived in the post this morning. Dame Bowie still thrills me and there are some spine-chilling moments on here, principally Fantastic Voyage, Sunday, Battle for Britain, The Motel, Loving the Alien, Slip Away and Five Years. The show ends with blistering performances of Hang On To Yourself and Ziggy Stardust that would make the original Leper Messiah proud. And all for a tenner - perfect!

In between all this music devouring, I also found time to cook so that I won't have to rely so much on takeout during the week. I cooked a feta cheese and mint meatloaf, a courgette and cheese omelette, and a mixed vegetable and red lentil dahl. Gourmet cuisine, they ain't, but they're easy and quick, which is what counts at the moment.

The freezer's stacked with home-cooked grub and myself and my wallet are very happy.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Durga Puja

I have fulfilled my Hindu obligation and attended the Durga Puja at Camden Town Hall. Durga is one of India's most important Goddesses and signifies life, femininity and creative energy. In statue form, she is depicted as a woman riding a tiger with many arms carrying weapons and assuming symbolic hand gestures or mudras.

Legend has it that Mahisasur, the Buffalo demon, became invincible and started ravaging the entire world. Eventually killing people lost its allure and he began desiring to uproot all the Gods too. The Gods combined their powers to create the beautiful Durga, had her riding a tiger, and in each of her ten hands they placed a different weapon with which she successfully overpowered Mahisasur and saved the material and spiritual world.

The Durga Puja is the biggest and most important religious festival in the Bengali calendar, during which prayers and offerings are made. No doubt, many of the people who attend her Puja are devout. But there are other motivations, one of which is to show off the finest of saris and jewellery. Much preening was going on tonight! As Trishna Guha Roy writes:

"A feeling of festivity pervades the whole atmosphere as people get busier by the day buying clothes, buying jewellery, buying cars, just buying, buying, buying. Huge colourful banners, fabulous-sounding discounts and festive offers are the order of the day."

When my friend was a teenager in London and the main London Durga Puja was in Belsize Park, she and her friends used the excuse of the festival to take 5 days off school (the length of the festival). Then, in all their Indian finery, they would sneak out of Puja to watch films in the Screen on the Green and drink shandy in the nearby pubs. Now she has a 3 year old child of her own and we wonder what tricks he will get up to during Puja when he is older!

Though we are Bengali, my family never celebrated Puja when I was growing up. My father is Brahmo Samaj - a religious and social movement founded in 1828 by Raja Ram Mohan Roy. Roy's movement rejected the strict Hindu social system of castes, and believed all people, regardless of caste, religion and gender, had equal rights. Brahmoism rejects idol worship, believing no created object can be worshipped as God, of which there is only one. It also has no use for notions of karma (causal effects of past deeds), no faith in incarnations, and does not insist on belief in rebirth.

My mother is a traditional Hindu, but says she has always hated Pujas for the preening and showing off that goes on. She prefers to practise in private, and has a tiny Kali altar taking up one shelf of her dresser cabinet.

And me? Well, my parents sent me to Catholic school and refused to state my religion on the school's application form, saying "She'll decide when she's old enough." When I did become "old enough" I decided I had more faith than religion, which is still the case today.

After the Puja tonight they served everyone luchi (a wheat puri), khichuri (a curried rice, potato, cauliflower and lentil stew), poppadom, lime pickle and mango chutney.

View photos.

Related link:
+ Triumph of the Devi

Other links today:
+ The rise of the adultescent. This is me (well, not the middle-aged part)!
+ But this is not me at all! (Reg. req)
+ The Mona Lisa experience. "She's one of the ugliest women in the world!"

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Pink triangle

Tonight I returned to the Cochrane Theatre for the Graeae Theatre Company's production of Bent. Quite an extraordinary performance about the treatment of gay men during the Holocaust. At the heart of the drama is the surprising love story that unfolds in the camp of Dachau.

So hidden was this history even as late as the 1970s, when this play was written, that the librarian who helped playwright Martin Sherman research it assumed he was interested in Nazis as homosexuals.

When the play premiered at the Royal Court in 1979, uproar ensued because, Sherman says, "people didn't realise that this had happened and thought I was making it up, or were offended that I had brought it up." Things have changed 25 years on and as Ian McKellen, who was in the original cast, pointed out, "The play educated the world about the pink triangle."

As most people know by now, the Nazis classified people in the camps with symbols. The yellow Star of David for Jews, a red badge for political prisoners, green for criminals, black for Roma, purple for Jehovah's Witnesses and the pink triangle for gay men.

A moving production, made even more powerful for its use of disabled artists and seamless integration of sign language.

Related links:
+ Homosexuals in Nazi Germany
+ What happened to lesbians under the Nazis?

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Sufi magic

Tonight I was mesmerised by the primeval swoon of Youssou N'Dour's voice at the Barbican. He was accompanied by the mystical swirl of the Egyptian Fathy Salama Orchestra's strings, oud, wind and percussion instruments, and his Senegalese band of kora, balafon and sabar drum players. Together, they stunned us with their interpretation of Sufi Islamic music from N'Dour's new album Egypt.

N'Dour has an amazing 4-5 octave range and his voice soars and swoops with such ease, it transfixes its listener.

He adheres to the Sufi sect of Senegal's moderate take on Islam, the Mouride faith, and the album combines Sufi chants with Senegalese griot praise songs.

The album was recorded in 1999, but the events of 9/11 and the subsequent conflation of Islam with terrorism led to N'Dour delaying the album's release until now. In fact, N'Dour refused to tour the album in the US as a protest against the Bush government's invasion of Iraq.

A sublime and intensely uplifting evening. View photos.

Related link:
+ Profile of Youssou N'Dour. With 1 hour music.

Other links today:
+ To ad or not to ad. Personally I'm not at all bothered by web ads. They're so ubiquitous that I rarely register they're there. Besides, I use Firefox and AdBlock. More.
+ Product placement in video games. More on "stealth marketing".
+ Are political books preaching to the converted?

Monday, October 18, 2004

Mrs Chan and Mr Chow

It was worth leaving work early for Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love at the NFT this evening. Mrs Chan and Mr Chow are neighbours whose spouses are always absent (and absently together, it turns out) and whose mutual sadness and loneliness draws them inexorably together.

Kar-Wai has produced a hypnotic, haunting romance that is languidly sexy despite never even showing the two lovers kiss. A film of tension and nuance, yearning and despair - the only resolution is more of the same.

Utterly seductive.

But now I'm in mourning, because the NFT's Kar-Wai season is over. What to do?

Related links:
+ "It is uplifting to witness a story which unfolds in peace and quiet." BBC's review of In the Mood for Love.
+ More reviews (Rotten Tomatoes)

Other links today:
+ Google Desktop Search a security threat?
+ In Oregon, voting is only done by mail. So why don't we do this - so much more convenient.
+ Bush's bulge. Why can't anyone see it's a bullet-proof vest, for goodness sake.
+ First JibJab, now FlowGo: more animated political Bush-Kerry satire to the tune of Bohemian Rhapsody. Via Presurfer.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Happy Together

Saw Wong Kar-Wai's Happy Together at the NFT tonight. Flighty Ho Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung) and loyal yet sullen Lai Yiu-Fai (the gorgeous Tony Leung) are two gay men from Hong Kong, washed up "at the end of the world" in Argentina.

Lai works as a doorman of a Buenos Aires tango club and Ho is his hustler boyfriend. The two are emotionally and physically drained, strangers to each other in a strange land, but desperately struggling through co-dependency, caretaking, adultery and fading intimacy to make their relationship work.

Less of a "gay movie" per se and more a story of human relationships, Happy Together had me in tears of recognition. Dark and harrowing, deeply moving yet unsentimental, it's quite a departure from most of the Kar-Wai films I have seen in that this is a relationship at the end rather than the beginning of its lifespan.

The casting of two Asian stars as gay lovers was a controversial decision for Kar-Wai that saw Happy Together banned in South Korea and Malaysia, and rated Category III (adults only) in Hong Kong.

My favourite of all the Kar-Wai films I've seen so far.

A great evening overall, that began with a delicious and inexpensive dinner (under £20 for two - chicken katsu curry, sashimi and breaded chicken bento box, and free rice tea) at Tokyo Diner in Soho.

Related links:
+ New York Times review
+ Other reviews (Rotten Tomatoes)

Other links today:
+ A little reminder of the history of blogs by Rebecca Blood
+ What do women want? Most everything, according to a new study that shows women are more aroused by more forms of erotica than men. (Free day pass may be needed to read this).

Friday, October 15, 2004

Migrant Voices

Spent the evening in my old mucking ground Harringay, north London, watching the Banner Theatre's Migrant Voices production at the Kurdish Community Centre.

Combining music, song, theatre and video-taped interviews, the production draws parallels between the experiences of various immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Salford, north-west England: from the Irish coming to work in the city's cotton, transport, mining, engineering, timber and clothing industries in the early twentieth century, through the Jews fleeing fascism in the 1930s, the Yemeni people, and then, more recently, the Kurds fleeing persecution in Iraq.

Framing the drama is the story of an attack by a group of white youths on a Kurdish teenager and his father.

A debate between audience, Banner Theatre personnel and activists on the treatment in Britain of refugees followed, with numerous plugs for the European Social Forum events in London this weekend - a gathering of some 20,000 social and environmental justice activists from across the world.

Afterwards, we had a wonderful meal on Green Lanes - chicken kebab, bulgar and rice pilaf, lamb stewed with tomatoes and peppers, spinach in a spicy yoghurt sauce, aubergine baked with olives and apricots, spiced black tea and honey-drenched baklava for dessert. Oh, and lots of dark, heavy red wine.

Bloated links roll:

+ IPod users go into the closet. Link via one of my favourite gadgets blogs Popgadget.

+ "The reactionary stereotype of a Guardian reader is a person with leftist or liberal politics rooted in the 1960s, working in the public sector, regularly eating lentils and muesli, wearing sandals and believing in alternative medicine and natural medicine." Tee hee, well they got the first one right as far as I'm concerned (even though I wasn't even born in the 60s!). Superb Wikipedia entry for my favourite newspaper, The Guardian. Link via randomWalks.

+ Joke for nerds only: "One eskimo speaking to another eskimo. The first eskimo says, 'You'll never guess what. Those social software people have three hundred words for "friend".' From Interconnected.

+ "Email is one of the greatest things the computer revolution has done for personal productivity. Used improperly, it can also hurt your productivity. This article discusses ways to use email effectively. Then it goes beyond that and talks about how to be productive, period." The tyranny of email. Simply brilliant.

+ We're not humans, we're bacteria-human hybrids

+ Extraordinary and eloquent exchange between an Iraqi mother of 3 (and blogger) and an ex-US marine sniper.

+ Google desktop is here. But only for Internet Explorer and M$ Outlook users (so not at all useful for me who uses Firefox and - sorry - AOL Communicator). Via blog-God Kottke.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Killer bland

Despite having read No Logo, Shopped and The Good Shopping Guide, I still blithely make brand choices my more ethical self later cringes at.

Where I work, I am surrounded by independently-owned eateries from Italy to Eritrea, yet still, too often, I stumble in to Marks and Spencers for a factory-produced, plastic-wrapped and ultimately bland-tasting meal deal, which I then gulp down at my desk as I work.

Clothes shopping bores me, so twice a year I battle the crowds on Oxford Street and buy my generic high-street wardrobe (from The Gap to Top Shop), then retreat for a few hours of recovery time in bookstore behemoth Borders and its squeeze-out-all-the-small-coffee-shops-in-every-town Starbucks, wondering why I feel so unexcited about my purchases.

I firmly believe it's the small decisions we make daily that result in the big global changes, but I do not simply mean consuming for the sake of being ethical. Uninformed shopping makes us reliant on just a limited range of global brands; it dulls our senses and cuts us off from the richness, diversity and sheer excitement of choice. Real choice - offered by a diverse range of independent stores and stalls - is liberating.

Coca Cola is one such brand I unthinkingly consume, and a visit tonight to a lecture at University of London's SOAS on the impact of Coca Cola on local communities in India and Colombia has reignited my political awareness of brand consumption.

Coca Cola in India stands accused of depriving communites of water, poisoning groundwater and local vegetation with toxic waste, and poisoning people by having 30 times the acceptable level of pesticide and insecticide residues in their drinks.

Coca Cola in Colombia stands accused of gross human rights violations, where workers daring to unionise and organise are murdered, kidnapped, tortured and disappeared. There is currently a lawsuit against Coca Cola by trade union SINALTRAINAL working its way through the US court system for such abuses against Colombian workers.

The smallest thing I can do as an informed consumer is not buy Coca Cola products (Coca Cola, Fanta, Lilt, Minute Maid, Sprite) - a difficult thing for me as I actually love the stuff.

The by-product of this tiny protest should be the discovery of a wide variety of other drinks to consume, such as Whole Earth organic cola and locally-squeezed fresh juices (even Irn Bru!). This greater choice can only enrich my experience of daily life.

Related links:
+ The Qibla Cola path of resistance. London students are trying to fight the US hegemon through the drinks machine.
+ Ethical Consumer magazine
+ Fairtrade Foundation
+ Nike sweatshops
+ Behind the Label's sweatshop report (PDF)

Monday, October 11, 2004

As Tears Go By

Saw Wong Kar-Wai's first and most conventional movie, As Tears Go By, tonight. A straight take on Scorsese's Mean Streets and filled with genre cliches, it's the story of a tough Triad man Wah who has to look after his inept little brother and gangster-wannabe Fly, while falling in love with his ailing cousin Ngor.

Cheesy music (Cantopop version of Berlin's Take My Breath Away) punctuates classic gang battles and love scenes. It's a very 80s film, but worth it purely for seeing how quickly and brilliantly Kar-Wai progressed in his moviemaking.

But even this early on, Kar-Wai manages to subvert the usual images of non-stop, frenetic violence typical of modern Hong Kong movies, by introducing his now-familiar themes of the search for identity, urban alienation, and troubled romance.

And, as ever, Hong Kong is gorgeously filmed.

The next Kar-Wai movie we're seeing at the NFT is Happy Together, about two male Chinese lovers reaching the end of the literal and emotional road in Argentina.

Related link:
+ Hypatia Avenue's thoughts on Wong Kar-Wai. October 11 entry.

Other links today:
+ First space tourists will blast off to Bowie. How appropriate!
+ Tuna's red glare? It could be carbon monoxide. The mercury scare was bad enough, now this. What impact will this have on my sushi habit? Probably not a lot cause I have a sushi addiction, but eating it will certainly never again be a stress-free experience. Ignorance is bliss.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

"Are you still talking about jobs?"

Spent a chilled day visiting friends in St Albans. St Albans is a pretty little commuter town that dates back to 20 BC, when a local Celtic tribe built its capital there. It was then invaded by Romans in 43 AD who renamed it Verulamium. This settlement was subsequently burned down by British queen Boudicca in 61 AD.

Unfortunately, the town has succumbed to the chain-store invasion with small independently-owned boutiques and bookstores being squeezed out by the generic likes of Monsoon, Marks and Spencers, Burger King, Carphone Warehouse, Cafe Rouge, Comfort Inn and countless realtors. Today, the town is largely populated by London commuters who have escaped the capital in search of better schools and safer, greener environments.

My two friends are one of these families who have escaped London "for a better quality of life". On the one hand they are perfectly conventional: table talk today focussed on such middle class, 30-plus-year-old preoccupations as mortgages, people carriers, pensions and DIY. At one point their 3 year old son came up to us and asked: "Are you still talking about jobs?" I replied, "No, honey, we're now talking about schools." To which he replied with disgust, "Oh, I'm going to go outside and play then."

We did manage to laugh at ourselves though. My friend said, "My God, we're turning in to our parents: we're thinking of buying nested tables for the living room." We groaned and she hastily added, "But they're trendy, acrylic, see-through nested tables!" Phew!

On the other hand, they're very unconventional. They're in a mixed-race (Bengali and Welsh), lesbian relationship and have two boys from two fathers through artificial insemination. One works with poor Bangladeshi families in Tower Hamlets and the other works on the Civil Partnership Bill that seeks legal protections for same-sex partnerships.

Okay, back to my conventional life: laundry, cooking, and paying some bills.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

It's Good to be in D.C.

Those JibJab brothers have done it again. Here's the follow-up to the political satire sensation This Land. It's Good to be in D.C. stars our good friends John Kerry and George Bush singing to the tune of "Dixie". Guest starring Michael Moore, John Ashcroft, Jane Fonda and the vice-presidential candidates. Go check it out before it goes offline due to server overload:

It's Good to be in D.C.

Other links today:
+ Hi-tech smartens up to get the girls
+ Shiny shiny. My favourite girly gadgets blog that isn't girly at all. (Well, okay, some of it is: jewel-encrusted iPods, anyone?)

"Blog til you drop"*

There's a bloggers Xmas party coming up. I'm a blogging newbie - having only been blogging for two months - but I hope I can make this one.

* Blame last year's Guardian for that one.

Erotica in the city

So, lapdancing club Spearmint Rhino's fortunes are tumbling. I don't have much to say on the Rhino as I've never been, but did know a couple of guys who had, and remember them finding the club glitzy and kitsch in a tacky, 70s, gold-plated way.

The news made me think about the dearth of cool and trendy erotic clubs in the city - those aimed at a younger, artier crowd, rather than the usual sweaty, suited-businessmen and stag-party crowd. Something like the Skin II/Flesh events without the hardcore: mixed crowd, open and non-seedy ambience, chill-out zones, and good music. There are a few, but not enough.

Straight women get just as much erotic pleasure out of looking at male bodies as men do out of female bodies. This is where many erotic videos for women fail - they over-focus on the female experience. I'm sure a significant proportion of male gay porn is consumed by women.

So where are the lapdancing clubs for women who don't like the hen-party sweat-fests of Lap Attack, Adonis Cabaret and Full Monty theme nights at the local pub? If you know of any, please let me know.

Friday, October 08, 2004

Korean quickie

Had perhaps the nicest lunch meeting ever today. I really believe that the area around the British Museum is the best for small eateries in central London. Bi Won is a spectacular, tiny cafe-restaurant on Coptic Street that has had Time Out salivating for the last two issues.

Set lunches for around six quid. I ate miso soup with spring onions and tofu so soft it melted in the mouth but miraculously didn't disintegrate in the bowl; a spicy seafood broth with tofu and chilli; pickled chinese cabbage (kimchi); pickled bean sprouts; and, my favourite, bi bim bab, a stew of vegetables, beef and chilli paste on a bed of rice and a raw egg broken on top - which arrived at the table sizzling away in an earthenware bowl and which our sweet, adorable waitress then mixed all together for us (the heat cooked the egg as she stirred).

So nice to have a cheap(-ish) meal during lunchbreak that isn't Pret a Manger or Marks and Sparks. I'm going back again, and again.... and again.

Related links:
+ Korean restaurants in London
+ Guide to Korean food
+ Korean recipes

Other links today:
+ Where have all the intellectuals gone?
+ Popular criticism. Improving ourselves to death.
+ Where to go on the web if you love reading

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Days of Being Wild

Tonight we saw Wong Kar-Wai 's tightly scripted and beautifully shot Days of Being Wild at the NFT.

Yuddy lives the reckless life in Hong Kong, relentlessly seducing then forsaking young women, before setting off in search of the mother who left him as a baby in the custody of a prostitute aunt.

The women in the movie are equally lonely and rootless, searching for but never finding an emotional anchor for lives that are in constant flux.

Despite the bleak existentialism of this and all Kar-Wai's films, the strong characterisation and superb performances ensure that we genuinely care for each and every seemingly unredeemable character.

Wong Kar-Wai stands apart from the mainstream Hong Kong movie scene you may be familiar with, and seems to have more in common with French cinema. The NFT is showing a season of his films this month. So what are you waiting for?

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Silver surfers?

This weekend, I visited my parents in Lowestoft, Suffolk. I was helping them set up their brand spanking new computer and broadband connection. I guess the press would call them "silver surfers", but surely, as more and more older people are going online, this categorisation should be obsolete?

My father has only been online for a few months and is already listening to Bengali music from a Calcutta server and watching the BBC news via streaming media. My mother sent her first email two weeks ago, and is now emailing her family in India and her colleagues at work every day.

The internet is no big deal to them - it's quickly become just another tool for communication. If they don't single the internet out, why should we single them out?

Other links today:
+ Strange news from around the world
+ The European Dream versus the American Dream

Monday, October 04, 2004

I knew there had to be a reason Swindon was special, aside from The Office that is. The town has the most roundabouts in Europe. Here are six of them:

And here it is in action. And there are more. Sheesh. No wonder I can only drive in the US!

Other links today:
+ Vote for the seven wonders of London. I vote the Houses of Parliament for its gaudy, gothic splendor; and the River Thames for the sheer wealth of culture and diversity on both banks.
+ 50 fascinating things you never knew about the London Underground
+ Fonts for programmers. Now, I am a computer nerd, but I'm not this bad!

Saturday, October 02, 2004

Gothic adventure

Today was the last day of the summer opening of the Houses of Parliament, and of course the tourist me went along for a tour. I've popped in and out of Parliament (that gorgeous, high Victorian gothic work of art by Pugin - gaudy, ostentatious and full of gold leaf, marble and solid oak) for work a good many times over the years, but have not taken a proper guided tour since I was a child with my politics-loving father. Enid, our tour guide, taught me a few things I didn't know before:
  • In the UK there are 664 MPs for a population of 60 million, compared to just 435 House of Representatives in the US for a population of 300 million.

  • Parliament houses 8 bars, none of which are open to the public and none of which are subject to UK licensing laws.

  • Parliament is also called the Palace of Westminster because it was the principal residence of the monarchs of England from the 1100s until the mid-1500s. Henry VIII was the last king to reside there.

  • The oldest part of the Palace of Westminster still standing is Westminster Hall which dates back to the 1100s, although Parliament's history there dates back to the late 1090s. The remaining Palace was burned down in 1834 and rebuilt in the high gothic style in the 1840s.

  • Those MPs, Ladies and Lords may not be falling asleep on the job after all. Each leather bench has 4 or 5 amplified speakers embedded in its back. Some lean back into their seat to catch what everyone is saying. I prefer to believe most are catching 40 winks, though.

View photographs.

Friday, October 01, 2004

Incest, murder and electric guitars

Tonight, I saw Sam Shepard's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Buried Child at the National Theatre, with M. Emmet Walsh and Lauren Ambrose, among others, and accompanied by a live electric guitar score. Shepard excels at depicting characters caught between two worlds - a mythical past and a modernised present. When Vince returns to the home he has not visited in six years, no one seems to remember him - neither his bickering grandparents, nor his mentally-vacant father - much to the crazed bemusement of his girlfriend whom he'd fed with stories of an apple-pie dream of a childhood house. A fantastic cast, portraying with relish the fractious relationships between members of a normal, sorry, dysfunctional family in America's heartland, burdened by secrets of incest and murder.

Terrific performances, prefaced with an even greater one on the way to the theatre:

Companion: Do we have to see this play. Could we not go drink at the NFT instead?
Me (with the crazed glint of a fanatic in my eye): But Sam Shepard is a preeminent playwright of the American avant garde!
Companion: What?! That baffoon who couldn't even act his way out of the Pelican Brief and Baby Boom?!
Me: Er, yes...

Okay, so I exaggerate, but my friend was far less suspicious after the show.

Was I the only teenager who hung posters of Sam Shepard and not Simon Le Bon on her wall?

Related link:
+ Portrait of the artist: Sam Shepard and the anxiety of identity. Masters thesis (not mine!). For the devoted only.

Other links today:
+ The cult of Che Guevara is an episode in the moral callousness of our time
+ Super Size Me sequel. Out in 2005.
+ The Magic Roundabout movie!