Monday, January 31, 2005


+ The Russians are coming. Russia has more spies still working undercover in the US than it had during the Cold War.

+ Animal-human hybrids spark controversy. Scientists have produced chimeras - a hybrid creature that's part human, part animal - by fusing human and rabbit cells.

+ Spirits in the stones. Archaeoacoustics attempts to hear the Stone Age's soundtrack.

+ Peggy's antiquated recipes from the 20s, 30s, 40s and into the 80s. Ginger taffy, stewed celery, pretzel soup or Cajun meatloaf anyone?

+ Dream on America. The American way of life is no longer the only model to aspire to.

+ A humble old label ices its rivals. Higher-priced and better-dressed vodka isn't always the best. (Registration required).

+ EPIC 2014. Are we feeding a monster? Google and Amazon merge to become Googlezon and control the entire world's knowledge production cycle. (Flash animation).

+ Deserted farms of Iceland. Gorgeous black and white photographs.

+ A Chicago homicide detective tells it how it is. Absolutely compelling.

+ How to cook Japanese. Step-by-step guides to making anything from sushi to donburi. The rest of the site's excellent too.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Subversive beauty

Today we visited the Mika Kato exhibition at London's White Cube gallery. Sumptuous, fantastical and hallucinatory oil paintings of the kinds of young doleful girls fetishised by Japanese Manga, but subverted by bloodshot eyes and scabby eyebrows. Kato does not paint from drawings, but from clay models which she sculpts and then dresses herself. The close-cropping of the faces is unsettling and all-absorbing. A gorgeous exhibition and highly recommended.

Also on show were beautiful paintings by Masako Ando - her first exhibition outside of Japan. Her doll-like girls are also subversive. In one, the girl suckles a piglet and is covered with bugs; in another the girl has an abdominal bump and assumes the pose of the Virgin Mary. See my photos of Ando's work on Flickr.

We ate some great food. We had an eclectic lunch at Shish on Old Street: lamb koftas, lamb dumplings, and a delicious fried radish cake with soy and chilli dipping sauce and Asian pear. Shish serves food from the diverse cultures of the Silk Road - the old trading route that stretched from Rome to China. It's fusion food, but it works. They also have a chilled-out bar in the basement.

In the evening, we drank at the Vibe bar on Brick Lane, then wandered up and down looking for a place to eat. You would think we'd be spoiled for choice, but I always have trouble deciding where to eat here and get put off by all the men standing outside their restaurants urging you to come inside before you get a chance to look at their menus. There are also alot of trendy restaurants on Brick Lane that look much better than their food tastes. In the end, we were enticed by the restaurant with flock wallpaper and dark and gaudy decor. I think it was called, simply, Balti House. How reassuringly high street, anytown. The food didn't try to woo us and its averageness was just what we needed.

Other links today:

+ Wandering around today reminded me just how much I love this part of London's East End. It's so eclectic and diverse, with different cultures jostling each other. I remembered Jack London's trek into the wilds of Whitechapel and the East End at the turn of the last century, and although the area is no longer so wretched, his account of the "screaming streets" is wonderful:

"The streets were filled with a new and different race of people, short of stature, and of wretched or beer-sodden appearance. We rolled along through miles of bricks and squalor, and from each cross street and alley flashed long vistas of bricks and misery. Here and there lurched a drunken man or woman, and the air was obscene with sounds of jangling and squabbling. At a market, tottery old men and women were searching in the garbage thrown in the mud for rotten potatoes, beans, and vegetables, while little children clustered like flies around a festering mass of fruit, thrusting their arms to the shoulders into the liquid corruption, and drawing forth morsels, but partially decayed, which they devoured on the spot." People of the Abyss.

+ Revenge of the right brain. "Logical and precise, left-brain thinking gave us the Information Age. Now comes the Conceptual Age - ruled by artistry, empathy, and emotion."

Now that we are increasingly outsourcing grunt-work or left-brain work - that focusses on reason, logic, speed and precision - to the East or automated computer programs, we need to focus more on right-brain thinking - innovation, creativity, context, emotional expression, synthesis, seeing the big picture - to survive.

+ The age of egocasting. A critique of our increasing reliance on personal media technologies:

"We talk about our technologies in a way (and grant to them the power over our imagination) that used to be reserved for art and religion. TiVo is God's machine, the iPod plays our own personal symphonies, and each device brings with it its own series of individualized rituals. What we don't seem to realize is that ritual thoroughly personalized is no longer religion or art. It is fetish. And unlike religion and art, which encourage us to transcend our own experience, fetish urges us to return obsessively to the sounds and images of an arrested stage of development.

"We haven't become more like machines. We've made the machines more like us. In the process we are encouraging the flourishing of some of our less attractive human tendencies: for passive spectacle; for constant, escapist fantasy; for excesses of consumption."

Thursday, January 27, 2005


Today is the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Here are the memories of three survivors, excerpted from The Independent today:

Henry Bulawko:

"Even on the train to Auschwitz, we didn't know what awaited us. We didn't know that we were being sent to our deaths. A few of the younger men wanted to try to escape but the women in the wagon came to plead with us, and said: 'No, please don't. If you do that, we will suffer and our children will suffer. You see, it won't be so bad. They will make us work but it won't be so bad.' Even when we arrived, when the older men, and women and children, were separated and placed on trucks, people were saying: 'See, the Germans are not so cruel as all that. They are a civilised people. They are not going to make the old people and the children walk.'"

Monty Burgerman:

"When we first arrived, we were ordered to take off our clothes and given a striped uniform. They woke us up at 4am every day for a daily head count. We would have to parade in front of the guards who told us to stand on our toes and whipped us from behind. ... We became like animals. We didn't feel like human beings any more. All we could think of was the next piece of bread. ... There was a period when the food rations stopped for four weeks. Occasionally, the SS would throw half a loaf of bread in one wagon and laugh and take photos as we tried to get the bread. After four weeks, we began eating grass and dead bodies."

Natalia Karpf was spared death because she was a virtuoso concert pianist and, along with other Jewish musicians, was forced to keep the Gestapo officers entertained:

"We were being taken in a bunker to be shot when I was told I would have to play at [a] birthday party. I had not played [for four years] and my fingers were stiff. The guests were all looking at me and [the camp's commander] called me 'Sarah' - the Nazis called all Jewish women Sarah - and told me to 'play now'. I sat down and started to play Chopin's Nocture because I have always found it very sad."


+ "You must give some meaning to my condemned existence." Zalmen Gradowski, a Polish Jew, wrote this just before he died in a camp revolt in October 1944. His testimony was found buried near the gas ovens.

"Dear reader, I am writing these words in the hour of my greatest despair. I neither know nor believe I will ever reread these lines after the 'storm' that is to come. Who knows whether one day I will have the satisfaction of revealing to the world the profound secret I carry in my heart? Who knows whether I will ever see or speak to a 'free' man again? Perhaps these lines will be the only witnesses to the life I once lived..."

Full text

+ Memories of Auschwitz. Survivors' stories from The Guardian.

Other link today:

+ BBC writer Ivan Noble's last column. "What I wanted to do with this column was try to prove that it was possible to survive and beat cancer and not to be crushed by it. Even though I have to take my leave now, I feel like I managed it. I have not been defeated." I wish I'd had his writings to guide me through my own illness a few years ago. His courage and bravery have been inspiring. But now I can't stop crying.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Holy food

"When nourishment is pure, reflection and higher understanding are pure, memory becomes strong. When memory becomes strong, there is release from all the knots of the heart." Chandogya Upanishad, I. vii.

According to India's ancient medical teachings, ayurveda, foods are grouped into sattvic, rajasic and tamasic categories: goodness, passion and ignorance. Traditional vegetarianism not only excludes meat and fish, but eggs, onion, garlic and mushrooms too.

Meat is avoided because it causes the needless harm of other living things. Onions, garlic and mushrooms are avoided because they belong in the last two categories and negatively alter the energy of the person who consumes them: not only do they increase passion and ignorance, they stimulate the central nervous system (and sexual desire) and disturb meditation. Widows and those who are grieving traditionally also avoid "rajasic and tamasic" foods.

For many years I've walked past London's Hare Krishna "pure vegetarian" restaurant Govinda's, off Soho Square, but have never eaten there. I finally got the opportunity tonight and the setting was appropriate.

Our family suffered a bereavement over the weekend and Hindu custom requires we abstain from rajasic and tamasic foods for 4 or 11 days (4 days for those who live far away from the immediate family, as we do in England). Though two of us here in England are not traditional Hindus, we observe this custom as a mark of respect.

The "pure" in Govinda's vegetarianism means it adheres to these old Hindu food prescriptions and the food was satisfyingly simple: we each had a thali comprising a variety of vegetable dishes, including peas and paneer (a type of cheese), cabbage and potato curry and a red bean curry. The water was self-served in the same kinds of stainless steel beakers you drink out of in cafes in India.

An uplifting evening.

Related link:
+ History of Indian medicine. An excellent directory of links.

Other links today:

+ Every race, colour, nation and religion on earth. "London in 2005 can lay claim to being the most diverse city ever. According to the last census, 30% of London residents had been born outside England. More than 300 languages are spoken by the people of London, and the city has at least 50 non-indigenous communities with populations of 10,000 or more. Virtually every race, nation, culture and religion in the world can claim at least a handful of Londoners."

+ The Martin Luther King you don't see on TV. "After passage of civil rights acts in 1964 and 1965, King began challenging the nation's fundamental priorities. He maintained that civil rights laws were empty without 'human rights' - including economic rights. For people too poor to eat at a restaurant or afford a decent home, King said, anti-discrimination laws were hollow." He was also a staunch opponent of the Vietnam war and claimed that from Vietnam to South Africa to Latin America, the US was "on the wrong side of a world revolution". An amazing article all the way from 1995.

+ Race isn't as clear as black and white. "Racial identity is something to be claimed and not defined by someone else. And no matter how much the public might want it to be so, race doesn't fit neatly into any sort of box."

Monday, January 24, 2005

Up and down the greasy pole

The New Yorker has an interesting article on the ecology of stress.

It's not all bad news. Stress can actually protect you. It forces us

"to perform at a higher level - a vestige of the 'fight or flight' instincts that kept us alive on the prehistoric savannah. Stress produces the hormone cortisol, for example, which improves our memory and enhances immune function. And those temporary spikes in our blood pressure? They're flooding our muscles and brain with crucial oxygen."


The problem comes when there's too high a level of cortisol in the body.

"Overloads of cortisol will damage your memory, hurt your immune system, and increase the size of your gut."

Oh well.

No surprises that work is the biggest component of stress. But it may not be for the reasons you think - simple over-work. It's all a matter of control, or, more to the point, lack of control. When people can control the rate at which they have to tackle their mountain of work, they are chemically calmer. So there is a hierarchy of stress:

"You get hit much harder than your boss. Sure, the high-priced lawyers and Wall Street boys may feel like they're getting killed by stress - and sometimes, if they're not in control of their work flow, they are. But they can compensate with roomy apartments, vacations to the Cayman Islands, and hot-stone massage treatments. Far worse off are people in low-paying, low-status jobs."

The bottom line?

"The biological rules of the marketplace are as Darwinian as you'd expect: Climbing the greasy pole improves your health, and slipping down hurts it."

Other links today:

+ Today is the most depressing day of the year, a scientist has shown.

"He settled on January 24 after using an elaborate formula expressing the delicate interplay of lousy weather, post-Christmas debt, time elapsed since yuletide indulgence, failed new year resolutions, motivation levels, and the desperate need to have something to look forward to."

An insurance company added to the winter blues by confirming that road rage also increases in January.

+ Army officers turn to the web for advice and support. An utterly compelling report from, again, The New Yorker.

"The sites, which are accessible to captains and lieutenants with a password, are windows onto the job of commanding soldiers and onto the unfathomable complexities of fighting urban guerrillas. Companycommand is divided into twelve areas, including Training, Warfighting, and Soldiers and Families, each of which is broken into discussion threads on everything from mortar attacks to grief counselling and dishonest sergeants. Some discussions are quite raw. Captains post comments on coping with fear, on motivating soldiers to break the taboo against killing, and on counselling suicidal soldiers. They advise each other on how to kick in doors and how to handle pregnant subordinates."

The sites are and

+ Measuring literacy in a world gone digital (registration required). As more and more children turn to online sources to research topics, how can we ensure they become better critical evaluators of all that digital material; become adept at sorting the wheat from the chaff?

The team behind the SAT and GRE in the US have now developed the ICT: the Information and Communications Technology literacy assessment. The ICT will test not only how students find information, but how they interpret, sort, evaluate, manipulate and repackage it from a myriad of sources.

Example questions?

"'Can you help me find a good source of products and gifts designed for left-handers?' reads a sample question from a fictitious office manager. 'I'd like someplace that offers a wide range of merchandise with product guarantees - also that has an online catalog and online ordering. Discounts would also be a plus.' Fictitious colleagues might then make suggestions via e-mail, and the test taker might also get input by instant message from people using screen names like SkyDiver, JJJunior and TVJunkie."

+ From Design Observer. Linked to simply because it's beautiful:

"Like so many things in central Paris, the Montparnasse cemetery is a mixture of logic and sensuality. Neat avenues of statuary frame a site that evokes a mesmerizing kind of timeless beauty. Inscriptions on graves offer striking typographic testimony to distinguished lives long gone, architectural biographies forever suspended in the frozen space between earth and sky. Flowers adorn nearly every grave - leggy calla lilies and leafy hydrangea and big bundles of plump tulips. Montparnasse is solemn yet quietly majestic, densely plotted but unusually open, with tall, carefully choreographed plantings punctuating the marble and limestone, the asphalt, the mausolea. If you have to spend eternity somewhere, this isn't a bad place to be: it's an urban refuge, preternaturally zoned for silence, and inviting a kind of deep, secular reflection."

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Passing through

For Ma and all my family in Jamshedpur and Bhadreshwar, India. And for my Didi-ma...

I was not aware of the moment
when I first crossed the threshold of this life.
What was the power that made me open out into this vast mystery
like a bud in the forest at midnight!

When in the morning I looked upon the light
I felt in a moment that I was no stranger in this world,
that the inscrutable without name and form
had taken me in its arms in the form of my own mother.

Even so, in death the same unknown will appear as ever known to me.
And because I love this life,
I know I shall love death as well.

The child cries out
when from the right breast the mother takes it away,
in the very next moment to find in the left one its consolation.

Threshold by Rabindranath Tagore


Peace, my heart, let the time for the parting be sweet.
Let it not be a death but completeness.
Let love melt into memory and pain into songs.
Let the flight through the sky end in the folding of the wings over the nest.
Let the last touch of your hands be gentle like the flower of the night.
Stand still, O Beautiful End, for a moment, and say your last words in silence.
I bow to you and hold up my lamp to light you on your way.

Peace my heart by Rabindranath Tagore

Saturday, January 22, 2005

A few of my favourite things

Ate in Mildred's, the vegan and vegetarian restaurant in Soho, today. It was predictably packed and we had to wait over 45 minutes for a table, but it was worth it to gorge on their fabulous food. There's nothing non-fattening about their menu but because it's wholesome and largely organic fare, it's easy to feel virtuous even after you're completely stuffed.

We had main meals of mushroom and ale pie with mushy peas and chips, and puy lentils and roasted veggies for the main course and then an apple and prune crumble (which came with custard but I didn't want it because the crumble was so delicious) and banana and maple cheesecake.

It's enough to turn any confirmed carnivore into a vegetarian. Enough, but not quite! I was vegetarian for 11 years and vegan for 2, but got turned back onto meat in, of all places, India.

The food inspired chat about our favourite dishes and I realised that for all my love of cooking and eating, my favourite foods are not rich and complex but incredibly simple. Here are a few of my favourite things to eat (and drink):

Juicy mango, ripe papaya, fresh pineapple, red grapes, mashed potatoes with cream and salted butter, a glass of full-fat Jersey Gold milk, pak choy stir-fried with garlic and soy sauce, lightly steamed spinach, broccoli and toasted sesame seeds, boiled fresh beetroot, pickled onions, baked Bramley apple with sultanas, rare filet mignon, poached salmon, roasted red peppers and red onions, lightly-spiced red lentil dahl, crispy fried bacon, freshly-squeezed orange juice, single malt Scotch whisky, very dry martini, vanilla ice cream (from organic to Wall's), black olives, black cherries, houmous and wholewheat pitta strips, marmite on toast, Cheddar cheese on toast with tangy dollops of Worchestershire sauce, creamy porridge and prunes, fresh strawberries, cherry tomatoes dressed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, beefsteak tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella salad with a drizzle of olive oil and cracked black peppercorns, Hass avocado scooped straight from the skin with a teaspoon, a pint of Adnams ale, a glass of rich-bodied Shiraz, pea and ham soup, red cabbage sauerkraut with apples, miso soup, basmati rice, puy lentils and mushrooms stewed in red wine, scallops and garlic, maple syrup over thick and soft pancakes, chocolate mousse thick enough to have the spoon stand upright in it, corn bread, plain risotto, jasmine tea, real coffee, roasted sweet potatoes smothered in butter, sashimi, lemon and garlic roasted chicken, plain tofu (which I can eat straight out of the pack)...

But if I could choose my last ever meal, it would be an egg poached so lightly that the yolk oozes out onto hot buttered granary toast, with a sprinkle of rock salt.

Afterwards, we heard Beethoven's 8th and bombastic 9th symphonies performed at the Royal Festival Hall. An exhilerating show with the animated Kurt Masur at the helm once again.

Other links today:
+ A selection of recipes from The Food Journal of Lewis & Clark. The honey-black walnut bread looks particularly yummy.
+ Malcolm Gladwell mania. See my reading list to the left.
+ What is it with the Japanese and robots? Answers on a disc please.
+ The tyranny of choice. "Scientific American reports that recent research 'strongly suggests' that, psychologically speaking, more choice is not always better than less."
+ What you'll wish you'd known. Paul Graham discusses what he wishes he'd known at 16.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Colour feast

I overdosed on colour at the Wayne Thiebaud exhibition at Faggionato in Mayfair. Most famous, perhaps, for his Pop Art paintings of cupcakes, candy apples and lemon meringue pies during the 1960s, the 80-something American painter has turned his sweet and feisty attention to the landscapes around his Sacramento River Valley home. The result is a veritable feast of colour - pumpkin orange, cobalt blue, lilac purple, olive green and blood red - that made me think, by turns, of Hieronymus Bosch, Howard Hodgkin, David Hockney, Wender's Paris Texas, Kar-Wai's 2046 and sari shops in India.

The glorious colour gluttony continued in Soho where the Riflemaker's Colour My World show mixes John Maeda's computer art, Bridget Riley's elongated triangles, David Hockney's cubist splashes, Matthew Meadow's decorative wallpaper, David Lynch's Blue Velvet, David Batchelor's lightboxes and more to explore the importance of colour for its own sake in a variety of art forms.

There's so much faux-intellectualisation of modern art these days that heartfelt, instinctive, emotional responses to it have been sidelined or even invalidated. So much research has been produced to show how colour brightness and saturation have strong effects on emotions and yet, in the contemporary art world, to experience and then discuss an artwork - a film, a painted canvas, an installation - on a sensual and visceral level is just not considered acceptable.

So I really liked what the Riflemaker had to say about it in their exhibition notes:

"Many people find the idea of colour too unexceptional and familiar to take seriously as something that art could be about. In fact colour is a liberator ... It releases you from cliches and moralising."

Colour was also on the menu when we returned to eat at the Korean restaurant Bi Won: chilli-red pickled cabbage, pink king prawn in the seafood soup, creamy rice, green spring onions and white tofu in the pork stew, and amber jasmine tea. Bi Won really is a great little place to eat.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Bill Gates v.2

Don't they make a lovely couple. Via Accordion Guy.

Original photos:
+ Bill Gates strikes a pose for Teenbeat, 1983


In The Mood For Love described the slow-burning relationship of Mr Chow and Mrs Chan - two neighbours drawn inexorably together through the affair of their respective spouses. In 2046, Mr Chow is now a jaded pulp fiction writer, impassively stumbling from one woman to the next, unable to recover the passion he once felt.

Time shuffles randomly between the 1960s and 2046 - the year the sci-fi fantasy he is writing is set. There is a similar disconnection between the succession of relationships he has and between himself and the women he has them with.

This is the most randomised Kar-Wai movie I've seen, and the first in which I've thought the characters are stilted stereotypes, created to prove a narrative point rather than to suggest emotional subtleties beyond the script.

Thankfully, the familiar themes of brooding melancholia and iconic alienation still predominate. And of course, the cinematography is as ravishing as ever.

The Guardian's review is almost as lush as the film itself. According to them, 2046 is a:

"gorgeous, shapeless rhapsody on the theme of regrets and lost love, a sensual swirl of images within which, somewhere down deep, there's a swollen heartbeat of inconsolable pain ... an extravagant, amorphous mass whose very waywardness and enigmatic elusiveness are the key to how obscurely moving it is."

I think the reviewer's been possessed, as has the BBC, which describes 2046 as "a panting, passionate picture". Phew!

I found the film too stylised for my liking, but the three people I saw it with had never seen a Kar-Wai film and they were mesmerised. Boy, are they in for a treat when they watch and then devour his back catalogue.

Related links:
+ "What is 2046, in the end, but a series of preciously hollow romantic imbroglios interspersed with ostentatious ruminations on memory repeated ad nauseam?" Slant.
+ "2046 is a big symphony, and In The Mood For Love is one of its movements." Wong Kar-Wai talks to Time Asia.

Other links today:
+ Gadget growth fuels eco concerns
+ Firefox help, tips and tricks
+ Airbus A380. One muther of an airplane.
+ Google holiday logos

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Concrete jungle

An apartment block in Tokyo:

Hmmm, inspiring. Via Tokyo Times.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005


"When a cat falls out of a tree, it lets go of itself. The cat becomes completely relaxed, and lands lightly on the ground. But if a cat were about to fall out of a tree and suddenly make up its mind that it didn't want to fall, it would become tense and rigid, and would be just a bag of broken bones upon landing." Alan Watts, What is Tao?

When all I've done all day is careen from one stressful episode to the next, I like thinking about this falling cat, letting go of itself as it falls. The trick, I guess, is to remember it at the time it's most important to remember it, and not after I've already hit the ground.

So after a long working day, I tumbled into the cinema thinking a movie about a hardened, stubborn ex-boxer reluctantly supporting a determined woman in her early thirties as she struggles to become a professional boxer would be just the feelgood, formulaic viewing I needed. Having not read any reviews of Million Dollar Baby, I sank back into my seat to let an apparently non-taxing story of the virtues of hard slog winning out over adversity absorb me in the blandest way.

I didn't reckon on yet another emotional rollercoaster ride. The film packs a devastating emotive punch right in the stomach and heart. Clint Eastwood as the gruff and disillusioned trainer, Morgan Freeman as his world-weary friend and employee, and my new hero Hilary Swank as the purposeful boxer all turn out beautifully measured performances that have you feeling deeply for each one as the relationships between them slowly develop.

Then the plot turned unexpectedly darker and deeper moral questions began to challenge us. By the end, I was bawling my eyes out and experienced complete catharsis.

On the tube home, I read in the Evening Standard that Hilary Swank put on 19lbs of muscle for the role by consuming 12 egg whites a night and training 4 hours a day. Her boxing scenes are brutal and bloody, and the moment when Eastwood snaps her nose into place so she can go on fighting in the middle of a match had my usually non-squeamish self wincing.

William Butler Yeats is the wizened trainer's favourite poet, and the New York Times (registration required) thinks this poem, The Apparitions, sums both the character and the film up perfectly:

"When a man grows old his joy
Grows more deep day after day,
His empty heart is full at length
But he has need of all that strength
Because of the increasing Night
That opens her mystery and fright."

A magnificent movie, but bring a box of tissues.

Other links today:
+ Scroogle Scraper. Google without the ads.
+ Why the sun seems to be dimming
+ How TrackBack works
+ What Yahoo used to look like
+ Hack iPod into iPod Shuffle in three easy steps!
+ 50 strategies for making yourself work. For writers, but useful advice for everyone.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Rethinking e-waste

I've just bought a new laptop and have spent much of the weekend setting it up, transferring files and downloading programs. I've also been wracking my brains about what to do with the "old" (three years old) laptop, because it may well be unsellable with a faulty screen.

There is also a 6 year old PC and a 9 year old laptop gathering dust in a cupboard. When I finally got round to thinking about selling or donating them, it was just too much of a hassle to plug them in, locate the master CDs and reformat the hard drives. Laziness also meant I never put in the effort to investigate how to dispose of them in an environmentally-responsible way. A quick questioning of my friends confirmed that my apathy is not unique. Most of us have other computers languishing in the dark somewhere.

Consumer electricals are one of the worst contributors to toxic waste. Over 3000 computers are thrown away per day in the UK alone (133,000 a day in the US). Most of these end up in a landfill - most probably one in China and southeast Asia. There is a huge market in these countries for extracting and reconditioning computer parts, but the practice releases chemicals and heavy metals to harm both humans and the environment:

  • The average computer contains over 2kg of lead, of which only 100g is recyclable.
  • Computer circuit boards contain lead and cadmium.
  • The cathode ray tubes in monitors contain lead oxide and barium.
  • There's mercury in flat screens and switches.
  • There are brominated flame retardants on the plastic casing and cables.

All are highly toxic substances.

A good solution would be for computer manufacturers to recycle products returned to them. Fujitsu is the only company I'm aware of that currently does this. An EU directive - WEEE - comes into force this August that will compel all electrical manufacturers in the European Union to recycle old products. But until the UK Government converts this directive into a UK regulation, it doesn't mean much.

Now the company that popularised the notion of getting rid of junk is urging us to take junk back. eBay in the US has partnered with computer heavyweights IBM, Intel, Hewlett Packard, Gateway and Apple, as well as some US Government agencies, to launch Rethink - a one-stop website for individuals and businesses to resell, donate or recycle their computer and other electronic consumables.

eBay will only link to recyclers who promise not to dump the equipment into the toxic landfills of China, India and other Asian countries. It is even offering a free service to wipe clean any hard drives - one of the major concerns for people thinking of passing on their old computers.

It's ironic, of course, that eBay is one of the largest retailers of electronic goods, and thus itself part of the problem. But I think that Rethink is a great start and promises to be an easy solution for consumers and their own personal landfills.

Related links for the UK:
+ Donate a PC
+ PC recyclers

Other links today:
I've finally gotten the RSS bug and am using FeedDemon news aggregator to read my favourite sites. The result is that if a site doesn't have an RSS feed, I read it less often. Sad, but true. The bottom line is that my RSS reader gets news to me more quickly and saves time. So today's links are RSS-related. Non-tech-nerds can skip them!

+ News on demand. RSS readers deliver exactly the news you need, fast.
+ RSS reader evangelism
+ Does using an RSS/XML feed lower a weblog's hit count?
+ "We will be integrating highly targetted contextual advertising into Bloglines next year [2005]." Buried in a post on the Bloglines CEO's blog. More here. Wow, that's gonna be annoying.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

You might live in South Dakota

I remember one day in June, Rapid City, South Dakota. All week, the heat had been fierce, with temperatures passing 100 degrees. We planned to go out to hear a talk at Crazy Horse Monument, in the Black Hills, and take a picnic with us. But when we awoke, the streets were thick with snow and the temperature had plummeted. No one batted an eyelid, even though we sat huddled in quilted coats on cold metal chairs outside in the snow, watching the speaker's breath curl away from the podium towards Crazy Horse's rock nostril. A couple of days later, the heatwave returned and still no one thought it extraordinary. They commented on it for a few minutes, then resumed their work.

Although I was in South Dakota for just one year, I recognise each and every line of this satire on the Plains state by comedian Jeff Foxworthy - sent to me by my wonderful friend Beth, a Dakotan. He writes:

If you consider it a sport to gather your food by drilling through 18 inches of ice and sitting there all day hoping that the food will swim by, you might live in South Dakota.

If you're proud that your region makes the national news 96 nights each year because Milbank is the coldest spot in the nation, you might live in South Dakota.

If your local Dairy Queen is closed from November through March, you might live in South Dakota.

If you instinctively walk like a penguin for five months out of the year, you might live in South Dakota.

If someone in a store offers you assistance, and they don't work there, you might live in South Dakota.

If your dad's suntan stops at a line curving around the middle of his forehead, you might live in South Dakota.

If you have worn shorts and a parka at the same time, you might live in South Dakota.

If your town has an equal number of bars and churches, you might live in South Dakota.

If you have had a lengthy telephone conversation with someone who dialed a wrong number, you might live in South Dakota.

You know you are a true South Dakotan when:

  • 'Vacation' means going east or west on I-90 for the weekend.
  • You measure distance in hours.
  • You know several people who have hit a deer more than once.
  • You often switch from 'heat' to 'A/C' in the same day and back again.
  • You can drive 65 mph through 2 feet of snow during a raging blizzard, without flinching.
  • You see people wearing camouflage at social events (including weddings).
  • You install security lights on your house and garage and leave both unlocked.
  • You carry jumper cables in your car and your girlfriend knows how to use them.
  • You design your kid's Halloween costume to fit over a snowsuit.
  • Driving is better in the winter because the potholes are filled with snow.
  • You know all 4 seasons: almost winter, winter, still winter and road construction.
  • Your idea of creative landscaping is a statue of a deer next to your blue spruce.
  • You were unaware that there is a legal drinking age.
  • Down South to you means Nebraska.
  • A brat is something you eat.
  • Your neighbor throws a party to celebrate his new pole shed.
  • You go out to a tail gate party every Friday.
  • Your 4th of July picnic was moved indoors due to frost.
  • You have more miles on your snow blower than your car.
  • You find 0 degrees 'a little chilly'.

Photos: I took the first photo in the South Dakota Badlands, on the cusp of the Black Hills. The second is of a road on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where I did much of my research on Lakota Sioux environmentalism.

I fell in love with western South Dakota for many reasons. One of them is the landscape that varies so dramatically within just a few miles: the pine-scented forests and granite mountains of the Black Hills; the solemn austerity of the Badlands, which, with the sun, pass through every colour from rose pink through blazing orange; and the undulating prairies that truly are oceanic.

I must admit, I was a little wary of going to the Dakotas. When I was in line at the American Embassy in London getting my visa several Americans in the queue were completely baffled as to why I would go to that "godforsaken" state, making me anxious about going to the "back of beyond". And yet once there, besides the generic "cowboys and Indians" population (many tribal elders used to joke that in meeting me they had finally met a "real Indian" at last) I found a sizeable artistic community of painters, poets and healers. Western South Dakota was also filled with city migrants from Chicago, New York City, Denver and San Francisco.

By the way, I met my first real cowboys in South Dakota - another reason I fell in love with the place. Beth, I change my mind - let's go back to South Dakota this year!

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Ambushed From Ten Directions

I loved comedian Margaret Cho's description of the film House of Flying Daggers - that heady Tang Dynasty romance and martial-arts epic that is more Giacomo Puccini than Bruce Lee:
"The physical feats they are able to accomplish with relative ease seem inhumanly impossible for the rest of us who have to deal with gravity and lower back pain. Still, when I watch the eloquent fight sequences, I want to be Zhang Ziyi, swinging effortlessly from tree to tree, making the bamboo forest yield to me by doing the splits. Yet, when her garment gets torn from her neck, her ivory shoulder is revealed to the audience, and I come crashing to the ground and get impaled by the bamboo spears, because if it were my shoulder, my driver's tan would be rudely exposed, along with my mortality, and my desperate inability to shed the reality of who I am. Not Zhang Ziyi. Not living in feudal China. Not a warrior. Not able to do the splits. Not really Asian. ... We don't see Asians in film unless they have super powers, and I certainly don't have them, so where does that leave this erstwhile actor?"

I finally saw Shi mian mai fu this evening. Friends who had already seen it warned me to treat it as a straightforward blockbuster, a spectacle, and not worry over the risible plot. I've (horror) not seen Crouching Tiger or Hero, therefore I had few expectations. Instead, I sank into my seat and gave myself up to the sensory assault.

From richly-textured fabrics to natural entities, the screen pulsated. Bright blood reds, buttercup yellows, ocean blues and vivid violets bled into autumnal russets, wheat golds and bamboo greens, and finally into icy cold silvers and greys. To describe the film as visually sumptuous is an understatement.

Sometimes, I also closed my eyes and wallowed in the film's aural vocabulary: the ribbons of silk whispering through the air, the rustling curtain of beads, the echoing drums and the haunting whistles of bamboo spears. The soundscapes merged silence and sound with nerve-tingling effect.

The script is so sappy and melodramatic that we laughed out loud at a few "poignant" (translation: cheesy) moments. I also stifled several yawns. The film's attention to detail, however, was so astonishing, I could forgive it all its sins. Go see this film if you're suffering from painter's block.

One thing: why, since The Matrix, does time need to stop during all movie fight scenes? Enough already!

One more thing: after making mental notes to buy a China Rough Guide, I discovered that it was actually the Ukraine's epic landscape we had been gorging on. Astounding. Need to add it to my dream destinations list (which includes Japan, Mongolia, Senegal, Iceland, New Zealand, Canada, Louisiana and Vienna).


Other links today:
+ Sugar 'N Spicy. An art blog with a difference.
+ De Grouchy Owl. A funny and wonderfully-descriptive blog on life in Pakistan.
+ Subvertise gallery. 'Subvertise! Exposing the Corporation' is a poke in the eye for corporate advertising.
+ How to explain the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster to children. The National Youth Agency's list of resources.

+ "NASA scientists using data from the Indonesian earthquake calculated it affected Earth's rotation, decreased the length of day, slightly changed the planet's shape, and shifted the North Pole by centimeters. The earthquake that created the huge tsunami also changed the Earth's rotation." NASA press release on the Indian Ocean tsunami.

+ Meditation gives brain a charge. "Brain research is beginning to produce concrete evidence for something that Buddhist practitioners of meditation have maintained for centuries: Mental discipline and meditative practice can change the workings of the brain and allow people to achieve different levels of awareness."

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

To run or not to run

Had a lovely meal at a Japanese restaurant in Brixton today, Fujiyama. Hot miso soup, crispy tempura, thick udon noodles, vegetable skewers, chicken katsu don and endless cups of jasmine tea. They also now serve sushi and sashimi, but I didn't order any as most of our group were vegetarian and I didn't want to repulse them. I think I've found my new favourite Japanese eaterie though: the food was so fresh and the servings were big. I'm happy, because I need to get out of my Tokyo Diner rut.

Because we got caught in a rainstorm, most of us ran to the restaurant and then wondered why we had bothered. So began debate over that perennial scientific conundrum: who gets wetter, a runner or a walker?

All things being equal (distance travelled, rain intensity, rain angle, body shape and size), you would assume the walker gets wetter because more raindrops hit the top of the head. The runner exposes less of the head to the rain, but more of the front of the body.

So surely the deciding factor has to be time. The runner gets hit by less rain than the walker because she spends less time in it. But then what about the runner's increased likelihood of splashing? (The question is who gets wetter, not who receives the most numbers of raindrops as they fall.)

All things never being equal in real life, for walkers and runners alike: the model can't account for splashing in puddles or getting sprayed by passing cars, for changes in wind force and direction, or for the fact that rain never falls perfectly vertically, that rain doesn't fall at the same velocity, that a person doesn't move at a constant speed, that people don't move at the same angle, and an endless number of other variables.

It's fun wondering though. My tips? 1. Always run, the exercise is good for you. 2. If you insist on walking, carry an umbrella, you dope. 3. Stay inside, have another beer and wait it out.

Related links:
+ Thomas Peterson and Trevor Wallis' research for meteorological journal Weather into who gets wetter, a runner or a walker.
+ The physicist who did the math and calculated a walker gets 40% wetter in the rain.
+ Running-in-the-rain calculator

Other links today:
+ The Givers. Using the Web to promote tsunami relief.
+ Spiders watch their diets too

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Bounty of books

Spent much of yesterday digging through charity stores for books and struck gold a number of times.

The best finds were a near perfect hardcover of the new Anthony Kiedis autobiography for just £3; the collected short stories of that incandescent fabulist Angela Carter (whose Passion Of New Eve is in my top ten of all time favourite novels); and a slim volume of Octavio Paz's poetry (this was an indulgence - albeit at 50p - because I already own volumes of his impassioned poetry and prose; however, none of them are here in London).

I also bought books by Iain Banks (Dead Air), Ian McEwan (still haven't read Amsterdam and his new novel is out at the end of the month), Wally Lamb (I Know This Much Is True) and Zadie Smith (White Teeth - I didn't enjoy her last novel, but thought I would give her first a go).

Now I just need to stay in more to read them. I'm sure I will, as reading more is one of my resolutions for this year.

Speaking of staying in:

+ The hottest tickets for the new year. "From blockbuster art shows to great gigs and dazzling new plays and films, The Guardian critics present their guide to the 101 unmissable events of the next 12 months."

I'm most looking forward to the Caravaggio, Frida Kahlo, New Art from China, and Africa Remix exhibitions; the new King Kong and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory movies, plus the upcoming 2046 by Wong Kar Wai; and Wagner's Die Walkure (if I get a ticket and if it doesn't cost a fortune).

+ And here's The Observer's 50 must-sees for spring. I'm tempted by Kevin Spacey at the Old Vic next month and the Matisse: Art and Textiles exhibition at the Royal Academy. Plus McEwan's new novel Saturday and albums by Beck (I liked his last sombre album but happy to hear his new one is funkier and more upbeat) and Rufus Wainwright (Want Two).

God, I feel so greedy and gluttonous.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Bach contortions

I love Johann Sebastian Bach - his Cello Suites are some of my all time favourite musical pieces (especially as played by Pierre Fournier). This guy perfectly sums up what I love about Bach:
"Listening to Bach is like watching energy pass from gear to gear in a complicated - but perfectly aligned and synchronised - machine. Machine turned to art. And somewhere in between - because humans err - art to humanity. Above all this Bach's music has a great sense of beauty. Because so much of his music has an abstract foundation, it can be quite easily taken out of context and employed on its own. The result of all this is an inexorable, often irresistible sense of movement beyond the material and the touchable."

Bach's Brandenburg Concerti have moved me since my early 20s when music student friends performed them at our university, Goldsmiths College. But I had never heard them performed professionally until last night, when we saw and heard the Feinstein Ensemble perform at Queen Elizabeth Hall.

One of the greatest pleasures I derive from attending classical concerts is not simply hearing a piece of work live but seeing it interpreted physically. Live classical concerts are physical theatre and it's so satisfying - sometimes even thrilling - seeing the physical personalities of individual players come to life on stage. Some of the thrill comes from the fact that it is so unexpected. I expect my favourite singers to rock around on stage, but classical performers?

The Feinstein Ensemble not only performed with consumate musicianship, grace and clarity, but they looked like they were having alot of fun. The chief violinist danced like a clown as he made playful eye contact with the other musicians; the young recorder player swayed on her feet as if she was at an indie pop concert; the oboeist bobbed around like a member of Pan's People; the flautist (Feinstein himself) twisted his body like a snake charmer; the cellist barely moved her body, but her face contorted spectacularly through every emotion from depression to elation; and the harpsichord player simply tapped his head, smiling to himself, lost in his own world.

Nights like this remind me that musical performance can be a physical performance as thrilling as dance.

Related link:
+ Feinstein Ensemble Bach audio samples

Other links today:
+ Interactive guide to Indian Ocean tsunami warning system by the Guardian (Flash).
+ Guardian interview with call-girl blogger Belle de Jour
+ Elders' knowledge of the sea helped them escape tsunami disaster
+ What the internet "looks like" from outer space
+ Iraq? Whatever. Why the big issue of 2004 now leaves most people feeling bored.

Happy birthday Mr Jones

I'm celebrating this guy's birthday today. The only celebrity I still obsess about (since I was 12). I know Elvis would have been 70 today, but I barely remember him. It's the leper messiah I grew up with (albeit a decade too late), so Happy Birthday Dame Bowie.

Other links today:
+ Wow, the terrific London band Bloc Party come second in the BBC's Sound of 2005 poll.
+ It has to be stew. "Stew: it's the essence, the heart, of English cookery. What is a stew but a metaphor for the great national talent of compromise?" Four fabulous stew recipes from The Guardian, including Lancashire hotpot and Sicilian Caponata.
+ Elvis Inc. It's good to own the King. "How many dead men made $40 million in 2004? Better yet, how many dead men - or at least their images - have recently been sold for $100 million? Only one fits the bill - Elvis Presley."
+ Nick Hornby's reading diary

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Education, Education, Education

Alan Bennett's latest stage play returns to the subject of his first, "Forty Years On" (1968). Education is the name of the game in The History Boys, in which a small group of precocious boys from a Yorkshire grammar school prepare for their Oxbridge entrance exams during the Thatcherite 1980s. They are helped in this endeavour by two teachers with very different teaching styles.

Hector is close to retirement and takes an "old school", liberal and romantic approach to education. He prefers to nourish boys' souls rather than filling their heads with dry facts, and the play ponders which is better, to know literature from the heart or to simply be able to recite it. "Exams are the enemy of education," he proclaims and describes the boys' A-level results as their "emblems of conformity". His unorthodox teaching methods include getting his boys to recite Gracie Fields dialogues, or perfect their French by impersonating clients in a French brothel.

Irwin, on the other hand, is fresh out of teaching college and believes in the Thatcherite ideals of meeting targets and passing exams. His beliefs are far from simplified (he berates his boys for producing stock answers to historical questions, insisting they explore their subjects from various, at times, subversive, angles - "The wrong end of the stick is the right one," he declares) but he encourages free thinking only as a means to an end: to impress the Oxbridge examiners.

Bennett pits several other themes against these ideological battles, including sexuality (both the boys' and the teachers'), molestation (a harmless grope?), and the role of women in history (the only woman in the play compares the teaching of history to "teaching five centuries of masculine ineptitude").

I saw this last night at the Lyttelton on the South Bank. Overall, I found it thoughtfully funny and filled with witty one-liners. However, the play felt ahistorical with the dialogue evoking the 1950s more than the 1980s. I also felt that Bennett crammed so many ideas in to 3 hours (yes, a flabby 3 hours) that some subjects - notably molestation and the gendered nature of history - were simply glossed over, and the main themes of education, history and "youth" were handled at such reckless speed that at times I completely lost track of everything. The play didn't work for me on a cohesive level, but many of the individual elements were provocative and entertaining enough that I had a great evening.

Other links today:
+ Tom Coates' pithy definition of social software: "Social Software can be loosely defined as software which supports, extends, or derives added value from, human social behaviour - message-boards, musical taste-sharing, photo-sharing, instant messaging, mailing lists, social networking." And his more lengthy description.
+ 10GB microdrives (the type used in iPod Minis) and 5GB Compact Flash cards. Storage is the new chips.
+ Wikipedia's entry on the Indian Ocean earthquake
+ Are you ready? With the help of the US Department of Homeland Security, you will be.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Make believe

"Painting is practical but it's magical as well. Being in my studio is like being inside my own theatre." Paula Rego.

One of the things I did before I got too ill to write about it was visit the Paula Rego exhibition at Tate Britain last month. Since I was a girl, Rego's paintings have mesmerised me with their dark, claustrophobic, voyeuristic, erotic and fairytale narratives. Each of her paintings inspire tales to be spun around them, and I used to write stories by doing just that.

Rego's father owned the first private cinema in Portugal, and all her works have a richly-coloured, filmic quality about them. Abortions, village dances, nursery rhymes, incest, police interrogations - very little escapes her subversive eye.

The visual equivalent of that other passionate fabulist, Angela Carter, she is also that rare breed of modern artist: a figurative painter.

"Pictures have always been about stories, like Christian mythology." Paula Rego.

Related link:
+ Guardian profile of Paula Rego

Other links today:
+ The Firefox browser began as an experimental side-project of a 17 year old.
+ How to speed up Firefox
+ How to fix mom's computer and rid it of malware, spyware, trojans et al.
+ Will the real Dr Atkins please stand up?
+ Are the Knights Templars alive and well and living in Hertford?

+ Edge asks scientists "What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?"

  • Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, for example, replies: "I believe, but I cannot prove, that all life, all intelligence, all creativity and all 'design' anywhere in the universe, is the direct or indirect product of Darwinian natural selection."
  • Physicist Kenneth Ford: "I believe that microbial life exists elsewhere in our galaxy."
  • Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux: "I believe that animals have feelings and other states of consciousness, but neither I nor anyone else has been able to prove it."
  • Cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman: "I believe that consciousness and its contents are all that exists. Space-time, matter and fields never were the fundamental denizens of the universe but have always been, from their beginning, among the humbler contents of consciousness, dependent on it for their very being."
  • Psychologist David Buss: "True love."

Monday, January 03, 2005

Reality check

Pew Internet & American Life Project recent survey results on blogs (PDF):
  • "8 million American adults say they have created blogs.
  • Blog readership jumped 58% in 2004 and now stands at 27% of internet users.
  • 5% of internet users say they use RSS aggregators or XML readers to get the news and other information delivered from blogs and content-rich Web sites as it is posted online.
  • 12% of internet users have posted comments or other material on blogs.
  • Still, 62% of internet users do not know what a blog is."

Few of my friends are web professionals and fewer still visit, let alone write, blogs. For them the web is a ubiquitous, taken-forgranted medium of communication (email), information (research and news), and function (eBay). So the "reality check" for me isn't the last statistic (that 62% of internet users do not know what a blog is) but the second (27% of internet users do read blogs).

The greatest pleasures I derive from reading blogs are discovering interesting articles online (other peoples' links) and new things to do (other peoples' recipes or music, and visits to galleries, movies, plays, cities).

The reasons why I blog include: the need to document my life but avoid navel-gazing (the public arena of blogging discourages me from dwelling too much on myself, which was the reason I gave up writing a journal); the discipline of writing (words have been my preferred medium of expression since I was a child and blogging keeps me in my writing habit, because no matter how busy I get I always try and write something); and engaging with life (quite simply, writing about the things I see and do forces me to pay attention to them more keenly).

Related link:
+Why do you blog?

Other links today:
+ 100 years of Einstein. A century after Einstein's miracle year, most people still do not understand exactly what it was he did. The Economist attempts to elucidate.
+ The erotic works of Turner not burned by Ruskin afterall.
+ Margaret Cho's blog