Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Hiatus

Alright, alright, y'all. Sorry about infrequent posts this week.

I've been busy planning for the big trip to Asia that you probably all know about by now.

Today I took my last pill to keep the typhoid away, I packed my bags, and now I'm getting ready to take off.

I'll be gone until July 18th, but I hope you'll join me next month for the inevitabe post vacation depression!

WHAT I'M WATCHING: Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead
ALBUM I JUST DOWNLOADED: the Radio Dept. - Pet Grief

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Sir Salman

Last Saturday, author Salmon Rushdie was created a knight of the Order of the British Empire in the Queen's birthday honors list -- the last honors list of Tony Blair's premiership. Unsurprisingly, this move has sparked a furor in the Muslim world.
In Islamabad, Pakistan's parliament backed a government-sponsored initiative demanding an apology and the withdrawal of Rushdie's honor, and the director for Western Europe of the Pakistani foreign ministry denounced the honor as "an insulting, suspicious and improper act." In turn, Britain's representative expressed deep concern over a reported statement by Mohammed Ijaz ul-Haq, Pakistan's religious affairs minister, who was quoted as saying "if someone exploded a bomb on his body he would be right to do so, unless the British government apologises and withdraws the 'sir' title." The minister then claimed that he was merely stating that suicide bombers might take this as a provocation.

And, in Tehran, the first deputy speaker of the Iranian parliament called Rushdie a "hated corpse" and a fundamentalist newspaper referred to the Queen an "old crone." Also in Tehran, a group called The Organization to Commemorate the Martyrs of the Muslim Word declared that an 80,000 pound reward should be paid to the man who executes the apostate Rushdie.

There were also protests in Iran which disrupted the diplomatic party at the British embassy celebrating the Queen's birthday. Apparently, while the epithet of the "Great Satan" is reserved for the United States, many Iranians believe that Britain, the wily "little devil", is always behind the curtain pulling the strings and manipulating events in Iran.

In Britain, the first Muslim elevated to the House of Peers, Lord Ahmed of Rotherham, criticised the government's decision to honor Rushdie as "provocative" given Rushdie's offensive language aimed not only against Islam but also against Christianity and Margaret Thatcher. Lord Ahmed claimed that Rushdie has blood on his hands given the violence his writings sparked and that honoring him will set back the government's attempts to reach out to Muslim Britons. In Rushdie's stead, Ahmed suggested the Queen might have honored Harry Potter author J.K. Rowlings -- I sort of can't tell whether this was a serious proposition or whether he meant it like even she would have been a better choice.

Apparently, back in the day, Rushdie had a lot of enemies among British conservatives who saw him as ungrateful and disrespectful towards their society's institutions. Yet his knighthood is now lauded by younger conservatives who supported the war in Iraq and who view troubles between the West and the Muslim world as a clash of civilizations. Meanwhile, Rushdie's friends in the literary world such as God is not Great author, Christopher Hitchens, welcomed his knighthood not only as a celebration of his accomplishments as an author but also as a vindication of free speech.

Sir Salmam's wife is ex-model/actress Padma Laksmi who is best known to peeps like me as the hostess of Bravo's competitive reality show Top Chef. Earlier this year, old rumors resurfaced that Salman and Padma's marriage was on the rocks. For some reason people just don't believe that these two crazy kids have anything in common! Four years ago they even issued a statement denying that Padma found the old man "boring" or that he didn't think she was intellectually stimulating enough.

Check out Padma's huge scar in the photo. I read this article Padma wrote for Vogue in April 2001 in which she explains that the scar was the result of a car accident she was in when she was fourteen. It's actually a really sweet article in which she explains how she became a famous model despite of her scar, and how it helped her come to terms with her imperfection.

Also, rumor has it that Padma smokes the ganja on the set of Top Chef before judging the cheftestants offerings. If you've ever watched the show, it totally seems like she is high all the time. She just seems out of it, and half the time she is dressed up in some ridiculous get up. I like to imagine her smoking a doobie on set and saying "You think anti-drug laws intimidate me? My husband has a price on his head!"

So, anyway, everybody knows that the Muslim world's beef with Rushdie stems from his 1988 novel the Satanic Verses: in 1989 Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa ordering Rushdie to be assassinated, and in 1991 the novel's Japanese translator was stabbed to death and the Italian translator was seriously wounded. But who really knows what this book is all about? Mr. Wikipedia does: the novel is about two expatriate Indian actors of Muslim descent who go back to visit the land of their birth. On their return flight to Britain, as they are crossing the English Channel, the plane explodes during a hijacking. The actors are the only survivors who somehow float down to shore unharmed. When they land one has been transformed into the Archangel Gibreel (i.e. Gabriel) while the other has morphed into the devil -- or something like that. Within the framing story the novel also contains dream visions, one of which portrays the life of Muhammad. This section is responsible for most of the alleged blasphemy.

Kind of weird... I think it sounds like it could be genuinely interesting. But then, much as I do with the works of Jim Crace whose Being Dead is about two decaying bodies and whose Quarantine is about Jesus starving to death during his 40 days in the desert, I wonder whether the Satanic Verses might not in actuality be a dull and drawn out cerebral work. But I guess I plan on checking it out someday.

More so than the novel, I'm fascinated with the story of the actual "satanic verses" which inspired the novel's title. These are verses which were interpolated in some early versions of the Quran but which were later excised by Muslim editors. At the beginning of his teachings, Muhammad's monotheistic message condemning the traditional gods caused his followers to be persecuted by the pagans of Mecca. Thus eighty-three of his disciples went into exile in Christian Ethiopia. In an attempt to convert the Meccans, Muhammad recited before a crowd of believers and nonbelievers the 53 chapter (or sura) of the Quran ("By the star when it setteth") which had been revealed to him by the Archangel Gabriel. Yet, according to the story found in a few early Muslim documents, Satan tempted Muhammad to insert a couple of verses in the middle of the sura.

19 Have ye seen Lat and 'Uzza

20 And another, the third (goddess), Manat?

These are the elevated cranes

truly their intercession is dearly hoped for

21 What for you the male sex, and for Him, the female (as offspring)?

22 Behold, such would be indeed a division most unfair!


Lat, 'Uzza and Manat were Meccan goddesses and with the insertion of Satan's verses the message becomes ambiguous and can be interpreted as praising the goddesses. Everyone who heard Muhammad's sermon prostrated themselves, and when word spread that Muhammad was reconciling Islam with their traditional faith the persecutions of Muslims ceased and the exiled believers returned to Mecca.

The Archangel Gabriel was none too pleased with this ad-libbing, yet he told Muhammad to take heart and revealed a verse stating that all God's prophets had at one point been subject to the temptations of Satan but that in the end God removes the words of Satan and confirms His message. Thus Muhammad went on to renounce his previous, ambiguous praise of the Meccan gods and the persecutions resumed.

Most Islamic scholars reject this story as a medieval legend and some of their arguments against the verses' authenticity are rather persuasive. If it were true that Satan once put words in Muhammad's mouth this might throw the infallibility of the prophet's revelations into question. Yet Western academians tend to believe there must be something behind this account. Many Western scholars regard this account as historically based because they believe it unlikely that Muslims would fabricate this story that casts the prophet in an unfavorable light. Uri Rubin suggests that the story heightens the drama in this portion of the Quran and that it helps create parallels between Muhammad and previous religious figures who were tempted by Satan (cf. the Last Temptation of Christ).

Apparently, the retelling of this incident in Rushdie's novel plays up the sexual element inherent in the fact that the deities Muhammad praised were female: thus it's a small wonder that Muslims took offense.

Photo of Salman and Padma taken from thisislondon.co.uk, image of the Satanic Verses is the cover of the 2006 Vintage paperback cover. Quote from the Quran taken from the Yusuf Ali translation.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Helping educate children in Africa

You may not know this, but my friends Ada and Zach (who are getting married in two weeks!) are involved in a charity called the Endeavor for Hope Foundation (EFHF) which works to promote access to education in rural communities in sub-Saharan Africa.

When I checked my email this morning, I found a message from Ada forwarding photos of the students at a school in Africa that the foundation is helping support.

It really brightened my morning (like a ray of sunshine) and helped me start my day out right (like Maker's Mark), so I figured I'd share one with you while I was waiting here for the people who clean my apartment for my useless ass.

It's so great to see where your donation money goes and to get first hand proof of the good the institution is doing! If you're looking to make a tax-deductible chartiable organization this fiscal year (and who isn't, really?) I highly recommend you check out the EFHF website for details on how to contribute to this worthy cause (you can do it online via paypal).

Also, I love how some of the children look bored: just like good students should!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Short Stuff

According to a recent study, conducted by researchers from Princeton and the University of Munich and published in Social Science Quarterly, the average height of Americans has been on the decline while the average height of Europeans has increased. From colonial times (when George Washington stood at 6'2") up until around the 1970s, Americans were the tallest people in the world -- but no longer. Today the average Dutchman stands at 6'2" and the average Dane at 6' while the average American male is only 5'10".

So why are future generations of Americans shrinking compared with their European cousins? Apparently, the difference cannot be explained away by the nation's changing ethnic composition. Rather, one of the likely factors is nutrition. It certainly cannot be said that American children are not getting enough to eat -- obesity is a big problem for our youth, but whereas children may be ingesting too much fat and calories from junk food they may not be getting the nutrients they need from healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, fish, and meat. This would mesh with another article I read which stated that a growing number of Britons who are overweight, or even morbidly obese, have also been found to be malnourished. It has also been suggested that overeating might cause children's bodies to produce too much growth hormone too early which leads them to stop growing at an earlier age.

Another factor cited by the researchers as a likely contributor to this phenomenon is the state of health care and social welfare programs in the US as compared to Europe. European nations have national health care systems which help insure that all children and expectant mothers receive the medical care they need. Thus our nation's shrinking stature is due in part to disparities in access to health care services and to the large gap between the standard of living of our nation's haves and have-nots.

Now I'm a proud 5'7". I do not think that height is really that great a concern (although it has been suggested that taller men have an advantage in finding a mate and even that they earn more). But I do think that Americans' shrinking stature is a problem in so much as it reflects poor diet and limited access to health care and in that height is a general indicator of a people's state of health and prosperity.

On a related note: I first learned about these findings today in this ABC news video clip, and I noticed several interesting differences between ABC's coverage of the phenomenon and that which I later found in the international articles cited above.

(1) Compared with the two German articles, which stress even in their headline that this decline is in no small part due to inferior US health care, ABC seems to deemphasize health care (which appears to be cited by the researchers as a major factor) and instead devotes more time to discussing dietary concerns.

(2) ABC is the only source which claims that Americans are now on average the shortest of all industrialized peoples. Color me sceptical here. Traditionally, the stereotype is that Americans are taller than Asian peoples such as the Japanese and Southern European peoples such as Italians or Greeks due to genetic variations and/or diet. Is this no longer true? I know that Japanese young people are much taller than previous generations due to dietary changes. But whereas ABC cites the average height of Dutch and Danish males (both Northern Europeans) we are given no statistics for other countries nor any indication about which other industrial nations they are referring to. I'm not saying that this claim is necessarily false, but I wish they gave us the details behind their vague generalization.

(3) The ABC video also contains a few -- totally pointless -- interviews with your average, stupid American on the street [I recommend you watch it if only for these]. First there is a 6'3" man who is like "I don't want to live in a world where the Dutch tower over us" and then there is some bimbo who is like "if the men are taller in Europe then oooh la la. I'll start putting mayonnaise on my fries." But best of all is the interview with a shrimpy 4'7" American boy who says that if the Dutch are taller than us now than no way does he want to go over there: he'd "feel terrible" about his short self. He seems to suggest that Americans travel to other countries so that they can point at shorter foreigners and laugh; but who would want to travel abroad only to suffer the humiliation of being the shortest man on the tram?

TV show currently on pause: Entourage
Tonight's beer of choice: Restoration ale
Song I'm currently listening to: The Magnetic Fields - Strange Powers

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Judge Crazy Pants

A couple of months ago, Tsachie first brought to my attention the case of Roy Pearson, the DC Administrative Law Judge who was suing his former dry cleaners for +$54 million dollars for a pair of pants (part of a suit) which he claims that they lost. His case was based on DC consumer protection law and relied heavily on the fact that the dry cleaners had a sign proclaiming that "SATISFACTION" was "GUARANTEED". Needless to say he was not satisfied.

The dry cleaners, on the other hand, have since produced a pair of pants whose tag matches the number on Pearson's ticket and which they say they legitamitely believe to be his long lost pants. Yet, Pearson, after only a cursory glance at the garment, denied that these could be one of the many pairs of pants that he dropped off at the cleaners.

How did he arrive at such an outrageous sum: well there's the replacement cost of the suit ($1,150) plus the price of the car that Pearson was forced to rent in order to reach another dry cleaner due to the bad blood with the only dry cleaners within walking distance of his home, not to mention statutory damages under DC's consumer protection law which provides for $1,500 per violation per day. At one point the cleaners offerd Pearson an $1,150 check for a new suit but that was no longer enough to please him.

Well this ridiculous lawsuit has ceased to be just an "odd news" anecdote. Last week there was a trial, and the judge (and trier of fact in the case) is expected to hand down her decision later this week. I feel like the local news and many people here in DC have been following this case with a great deal of amusement. Washington post columnist Marc Fisher has been covering the trial in his online blog (the most amusing of several posts about the case is that on Day Two). Fisher notes how Pearson broke down in tears during his first day on the stand, how he called on the presiding Judge to revisit the judgment on his divorce which was decided in Virginia state court (and which she rightly refused to touch).

On the second day of his testimony, the courtroom at one point broke into derisive laughter at Pearson's argument. My favorite part of his testimony was when the defense attorney (in reference to the infamous "Satisfation Guaranteed" sign) asked whether signed ought not to be interpretted reasonably. Pearson was all "well that depends..." and when the attorney asked him to commit to a simple yes or no he answered "no". Signs should not be interpretted reasonably.

Judge Judith Barnoff who had the pleasure of overseeing this trial has already made her opinion on the merits rather clear as (a) in response to defense counsel's motion to dismiss the claim at the close of plaintiff's case she refused but said it was a "close call", and (b) at the end of the trial she said that the statute was very important to protect consumers but also that it was very important that statutes like this were not misused. Nevertheless she is taking her time in drafting her written judgment no doubt so it will stand up on Pearson's inevitable appeal.

In case I haven't made my opinion of this case perfectly clear by now, I too think that Pearson is cuckoo bananas. Clearly a sign stating that satsifaction is guaranteed is not meant to be strictly construed (I think you can even argue that it is "meer puffery" and more-or-less meaningless). What if Pearson would be satisfied with nothing less than an opportunity to bang the merchant's daughter? Would the dry cleaner be obliged to consent to that then?

Pearson's tenure as an ALJ is up for renewal and many people believe that he should lose his bench as this outlandish litigation shows that he lacks the requisite judicial temperament. I tend to agree.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

What, me quarry?

Hey, everybody. Sorry I haven't been more dutiful about the blog posts these last few days. It's not that blog worthy stuff hasn't been going on in my life: it's just that things have been keeping me from writing about them such as being busy, alcoholism, casual sex, sloth, and the heat (my god, the heat!).

Anyway, I may have already told you how I was taking a scuba diving class. This weekend I did the openwater dives you need to complete to get certified. In order to manage this, I needed to rent a car so I could drive myself out to the quarry in Haymarket (or, as I liked to think of it: Bum Fuck, Virginia).

I had big plans to memoralize the occasion by taking pictures of the quarry and/or my dorky ass in a wetsuit, but when I got there I realized that my camera's battery was dead. So we'll have to make due with the above photo of some divers in the quarry which I found on the internet.

I was probably at least as worried about the car rental as I was about diving, but the whole thing went off without incident. As always happens to me, they didn't have the size car that I reserved when I got to the rental place, and so I opted for the next car up: a Ford Taurus. Thus I was driving around the highways and byways of Arlington County in a solid, dependable old man car.

Speaking of driving: today the Vatican diffused a set of "Ten Commandments for Motorists." Beat that, Moses! These new "Commandments" warn the faithful against road rage and drinking-and-driving and remind us that we should aim to be courteous drivers and help those in need such as victims of car accidents.

Usually my reaction to everything that's come out of Pope Benedict's Vatican has been a resounding "oh, just shut up!" such as on his recent trip to Brazil where he philosophised about how the Catholic Church and the Christian faith had "purified" the indigeneous people of the Americas thus belittling pre-Colombian religious traditions and suggesting these people were savages before missionaries shared with them the good news. And when he threatened Mexican lawmakers with excommunication for moving to legalize abortion. And his condemnations of gays whom he referred to as "objectively disordered." And who can forget the pope's well chosen words, in a speech calling for Muslims to reject violence, when he decided it was a good idea to quote Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaiologus who asserted that Mohammed added nothing to Western religion but evil and inhumanity, referring in particular to the prophet's call to spread the faith by the sword.

But I am all for these "Ten Commandments" of the road. Heck, I did my fair share of praying behind the wheel this weekend (as well as a little taking the Lord's name in vain).

Tonight's beer of choice: Abita Restoration Ale
TV show currently on pause: Big Love

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

I had a long day today, and tomorrow promises to be hectic seeing as how I need to rent a car and go to the dive shop to be fitted for a wetsuit for my open water dives this weekend. But I figured I had time to make a quick post to satisfy all my blog readers.

I was just watching the first episode of the Jewel in the Crown which I rented from Netflix, and hearing the song "We'll Meet Again" made me think of Doctor Strangelove which is one of my favorite movies.

It was directed by Stanley Kubrick who I think was a genius. In my opinion, his adaptations of The Shining, Lolita, and A Clockwork Orange either improved on the book or at the very least surpassed films that merely attempted to slavishly follow the plot of the original novel.

I first watched Doctor Strangelove in my senior of high school in English class. I remember that by the end I was smiling to myself, barely containing my glee, but I might have been the only one in the class. Thus I realized that this one of those rare works of art that embodies my twisted sense of humor precisely.

If you've never seen Doctor Strangelove before, it's a dark comedy about the Cold War raging between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960s. Admittedly, it takes a little while to get into, but once you get past the initial dull scenes you'll be rewarded with the film's wry wit.

For instance, who can forget the classic line "You can't fight in here: this is the War Room!" The amazing, idiosyncratic British comedian Peter Sellers plays three different roles in this movie: the President of the United States; Group Captian Mandrake, a British officer taking part in the officers' exchange program; and Dr. Strangelove, a half-mad, wheelchair-bound ex-Nazi scientist working for the American military and suffering from alien hand syndrome.

Perhaps the most memorable scene from the movie is towards the end where an American pilot sits astride an atomic bomb as it falls towards its target, and ,waving his cowboy hat in the air, rides it as if it were a bucking bronco.

Last TV Show I Watched Tonight: Top Chef
Last song I listened to: B52s - Love Shack
Beer of choice: Stella Artois

Erin/Aaron

Just a short post tonight because I was busy until 11 AM learning to breathe underwater.

Just now, I was thinking about regional differences in the way we Americans speak English. Personally I have a bad ear for identifying accents: I know some people can listen to someone speak and recognize that they are from Arkansas or Texas or Tennessee, but not me. My ear just doesn't register those subtleties.


When I was a young boy, I spoke with a horrible Bronx accent, but then when my family moved to the suburbs I slowly, unconsciously dropped it because the kids in school would make fun of the way I talked... and I am glad they did! Whoo, I could not imagine going through life like that.

Anyway, after that I felt like I had a generic, standard American accent, but when I went off to college at Tulane the students hailing from other parts of the country informed me that I definitely had a New York accent. One girl went so far as to suggest I sounded just like Woody Allen, but she was clearly kind of trippin'.

As I said I am a terrible gauge, but I was told a few times that, after living in New Orleans for so long, my accent had mellowed alot. Once someone told me that what with the slow way I was talking I was almost more like a Georgian without the accent. I'm not sure if that's changed at all since I've moved up to DC. I think I kind of pick up all kinds of things from people I'm around (usually bad linguistic habits like saying "like" all the time or starting sentences with "I feel")

One regional difference in pronunciation which my friend Kiki and I (pictured above) worked out, and which you dont often hear remarked on, is the fact that some people from the South or wherever pronounce the names Erin and Aaron basically identically whereas people (like us) from New York/New Jersey made a big distinction between Eh-rin and Aaagh-rin. How do you pronounce these names?

There's also odd differences in vocabulary that I've notice between New Yorkers and people from other parts of the country like how we usually refer to our sporty footwear as "sneakers" whereas other Americans might prefer to say "tennis shoes" or "running shoes". And how my Mom refers to "handbags" as "pocketbooks" (pronounced like "pock-a-book" moreover. It's fun to say).

Anyway that's my observation for the evening.

SONG I'M CURRENTLY LISTENING TO: Dynamite Hack - Boyz N The Hood
TV SHOW CURRENTLY ON PAUSE: Hell's Kitchen
TONIGHT'S BEER OF CHOICE: Stella Artois

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

t.A.T.u. update

So, a few weeks ago I told you all about Putin's latest smackdown on glastnost which involved the arrest of gay rights activists marching in Moscow. I also told you about how the faux lesbians from 2002-2003's biggest Russian pop duo, t.A.T.u, showed up for all the fun. Then I talked a lot of smack about t.A.T.u.'s kissing schoolgirl charade and their screechy innane music (which I admitted rocking out to) before dismissing their present day musical endeavors.

Well, it seems my suggestions that t.A.T.u. would slip forever into obscurity were a bit premature, because, according to Variety magazine, there is a bizarre new film in the works called Finding t.A.T.u in which Mischa Barton is going to star opposite the poptarts.

From what I read, Mischa Barton plays an American girl living in Moscow who develops an ambiguous relationship with a Russian girl based on their shared love of t.A.T.u. as well as a drug problem. All this is set against the backdrop of Moscow's frenetic club scene and the exciting world of internet chatrooms.

Sounds weird right? Apparently, RAMCO, the production company behind this project, also produced a political thriller called Silent Partner starring Tara Reid (wow, how much do I want to see that!)

While we are on the topic of Mischa Barton, I must confess that she falls into the category of celebrities that I inexplicably hate. I recognize that she is very beautiful (although sometimes she looks a little too frail and birdlike in my humble opinion) and for all I know she could be a talented actress and an intelligent person -- although somehow I REALLY doubt it.

But I think my hatred for Mischa stems from the fact that I never watched the OC and I was frustrated by her ubiquity in the celebrity fashion/gossip magazines which are my not-so-secret guilty pleasure. Whenever I came across a photo of her in one of these rags my reaction would be something like "Since when does Mischa Barton qualify as a celebrity?" or "Why should I care what Mischa Barton is doing on her vacation?" or simply "I hate Mischa Barton!" Don't feel too bad, Mischa, I hate Rachel Bilson too.

I originally found the link to the article about Finding t.A.T.u. in a great bestweekever post counting down 10 of the most awesomely bad movies in which musicians play an exaggerated version of themselves. My only complaint is that they left out Class Act: the hilarious, early 90's classic in which Kid n' Play are a nerd and a thug (respectively) who switch places for some reason. It features such unforgettable lines as "How big did you say them titties were?"

Also, along with My Best Friend is a Vampire, Class Act is one of those movies where some high school kid is acting strangely and his parents, grabbing a hold of the wrong end of the stick, decide they have to come to terms with the fact that their son is gay. Then, towards the end of the movie, the kid is like "Mom, dad, I'd like you to meet my girlfriend, Jane" which is met with the response "Boy, are we glad to meet you!" I am obsessed with this phenomenon, but perhaps that is a topic for another post.

Photo of Mischa Barton taken by John Galliano for Elle France's May 21, 2007 issue.

And that's the way it is in Minnesota

A lot of you may have already heard me talking about how much I dig the Dresden Dolls. In case you haven't already been turned on to this duo (comprised of singer/pianist Amanda Palmer and drummer Brian Viglione), their musical stylings have been characterised as "punk cabaret".

Amanda's vocals sometimes remind me of a stronger, more musically proficient Courtney Love and the pounding piano accompaniment rocks. Their musical influences are said to include British punk, alternapop, girl rock, and (most interestingly) the cabaret of the Weimar Republic. The duo is also known for the theatricality of their live performances.

Anyway, I signed up for the Dresden Dolls newsletter a while back and thus I was alerted that they just released the video for "The Shores of California" off their latest album Yes, Virginia.... I was pretty psyched because this is a catchy tune (which references evolution, Noah's ark, and Homer), and it was the first song I heard which really made me sit up and take notice of the Dolls. They released the video on YouTube since music videos on television have gone the way of the dodo.

It's a pretty fun, campy video, and Amanda is definitely stylin'.

The Dresden Dolls are also playing on the True Colors Tour this month along with Erasure, Debbie Harry, Cyndie Lauper and Margaret Cho.

Oh, and you may also want to check out the YouTube video for another of my favorite Dresden Dolls songs (off their first album) "Coin-Operated Boy"

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Dr Demented

This was gay pride weekend in DC. Here is a photo I took today at the gay pride street fair...



I think I captured the event fairly well what with the pretty drag queen, the shirtless muscular dudes, and the Capitol in the background.

In honor of Gay Pride, I also thought I should share with everybody this article I found about Bush's nominee for the Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. James Holsinger. Holsinger is a cardiologist who has previously held the position of chancellor of the University of Kentucky's medical center and of Kentucky's health secretary. He also served as the President of the Methodist Church's national Judicial council where he voted to expel a lesbian pastor. Moreover, sixteen years ago, he wrote a paper for the church where he explained how gay sex was unnatural and unhealthy because the pipe fittings of male and female plumbing aren't supposed to connect that way. I wonder if that scientific language came straight out of the AMA Journal? He also believes that homosexuality can be cured, and he helped found the Hope Springs Community Church where heaven-only-knows-what-methods are used to "cure" gays.

Bush said he chose Holsinger hoping the doctor could help publicize the growing problem of childhood obesity. But obviously Holsinger harbors a deep-seeded, personal bias against gays. I also think that appointing someone who is involved in the hierarchy of an established church to a cabinet post seems like it would further entangle church and state.

To be totally fair, someone in the article is quoted as saying that Holsinger did not let his religious beliefs affect his duties as a doctor back in Kentucky and that he did reach out to offer gays and lesbians necessary medical advice. But still, if Americans won't accept an unabashed homophobe as their TV doctor why should they accept one as their surgeon general?

There was also a Pro-Palestinian/Anti-Israel rally on the mall today; I guess that means all the gay Palestinians had a tough choice to make.


As someone who's never been to Israel and thus doesn't know first hand what he's talking about, here's my take on this controversial issue: I am all for Palestinian statehood. I imagine that the majority of Israelis (leaving to one side some ultra-Orthodox crazies) believe in a two state solution to the problem. Heck, Ariel Sharon began Israel's unilateral disengagement from Gaza, and Olmert planned on doing likewise for the West Bank. I also read an article on Friday which stated that Israel was making overtures towards the government of Syria in an attempt to loosen the strong ties currently in place between Syria and Iran. A treaty between Syria and Israel would likely include secession of the Israeli occupied Golan Heights, but -- as the article suggested -- Olmert presently lacks the political clout necessary to pull off such a bold move.

So of course Israelis want to live in peace, and they are clearly ready to secede land to the Palestinians in order to realize this dream. The major concern hindering this process, from the Israeli point of view, is security. Again and again, the Palestinian authority has proven itself unwilling and/or unable to crack down on extremist groups who use their territory as a base for terrorist attacks against Israel. Sadly, no concessions by Israel will ever satisfy these most extreme elements because their goal is the destruction of the Jewish state. They even use terrorism to try and sabotage the peace process because they are against any compromise.

Israel's military missions in Palestinian territory are an attempt to weed out these terrorist groups, who plan and carry out attacks on Israeli civilians, much as the US invaded Afghanistan because the Taliban offered sanctuary to Al-Qaeda. The only difference is that Israeli society is not shielded from the consequences of these military decisions the way Americans are: we have a buffer zone between us and Afghanistan, which is half a world away; the Palestinians and Lebanese are Israel's next door neighbors.

The fact that the Palestinian parliament is currently controlled by Hamas, a party which does not recognize the state of Israel (and you can't negotiate with someone if you don't have diplomatic relations with them) and which refuses to renounce violence, does not help matters. This is what rifles me about these protesters who were calling for an end to "Israeli occupation". Why pick on Big Bad Israel and let Hamas, which refuses to negotiate or even to recognize Israel's right to exist, off scot-free? You almost wonder if these people are calling for an end to"Israeli occupation" of such places as Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Copyright lagniappe

Wow, I was pleasantly surprised by the positive feedback I got on my copyright spiel.

It is true that proving copyright infringement can be tricky. Just for the heck of it, here is my attempt to outline the elements of copyright infringement...

DISCLAIMER: this is not legal advice. I am not a copyright lawyer, I am just a dork who took some Intellectual Property classes in law school; do not assume that I necessarily know what I'm talking about (always a good rule of thumb, really).

  1. It must be proven defendant was familiar with the copyrighted work. Obviously, you can't copy something if you've never seen/heard it before, and there's no infringement unless there was copying. In an oft quoted decision, Learned Hand asserts that if someone who had never read the poem Ode to A Grecian Urn (assuming it is protected by copyright, which it isn't) by some coincidence managed to pen the same exact poem, not only would he not violate Keat's copyright, but he would he would hold a copyright for his "original" work. This element of an infringement claim is usually met by offering circumstantial evidence that the defendant likely came across the original work.
  2. Defendant must have copied plaintiff's protected work. This element is usually met by proving that the allegedly infringing work is substantially similar to the protected work.
  3. The copying must amount to infringement. (and I'm saying this is an element of copyright infringement? If that isn't begging the question I don't know what is. Anyway...) Did the defendant merely copy "ideas" which are not protected or did he copy "creative expression"? Are the copied elements generic (like the stereotypical drunken Irishman in Nichols or the caped superhero) and thus part of the public domain? Even if the copied elements are indeed deemed to be non-generic, creative expression there is still a threshold test: if someone copies (without the original author's permission) a line from a song, a shot used in a movie, a particularly apt turn of phrase in a book, perhaps even a character, this borrowing/stealing a small element of creative expression from a protected work may be considered "fair use" and thus would not constitute copyright infringement.

One more basic point about copyright law: remember that copyrights only last for a limited time. Under current US law, the term of a copyright for a work created today is the Life of the Author + 70 years (or simply 120 years if the author is a corporation or some other kind of non-natural person). US copyright law used to be more complicated than this, however, and some older works are governed by the rule in effect at the time they were created. Also good to know: the copyright for all works created before 1923 has expired and all these works have fallen into the public domain meaning people are free to use them as they wish.

Have a good weekend everybody!

Friday, June 8, 2007

Copywritten (So don't copy me)

You have probably already heard about Knocked Up, the comedy which is in theatres now. It was written and directed by Judd Apatow who also wrote and directed the 2005 Steve Carell vehicle, the 40 Year Old Virgin, and who is one of the people responsible for the short-lived TV series Freaks and Geeks. Incidentally, if you have never seen Freaks and Geeks you should stop reading this blog and immediately make arrangements to rent all 18 episodes. The series takes place at a suburban high school in the early '80s, and it follows two sets of students: the nerds and the stoners (surely everyone reading this can relate to at least one of those groups).

Anyway, in between obnoxious projects at works today, I read an article about how a Canadian author, Rebecca Eckler, is suing Judd Apatow and NBC Universal claiming that the movie's premise was taken from her popular book entitled "Knocked Up: Confessions of a Hip Mother-To-Be." Besides sharing the same title, both the book and the movie feature an ambitious reporter whose life is turned upside down after she gets drunk and randy at a party and finds herself in a family way. Eckler claims she learned about the planned movie when she was peddling the rights to her book in Hollywood and that she saw a copy of the project's screenplay which featured a martini glass with a pacifier: just like the cover of her book.

Judd Apatow denies that the movie was copied from Eckler's book and points out the differences between the two stories: for example, the heroine of the novel gets knocked up by her fiance on the night of their engagement party, whereas the movie's female lead is a young careerist who ends up preggers after a one night stand with a pothead slacker.

This leads to the question of how similar an allegedly offending work must be in order for it to infringe on an earlier work's copyright.

In the famous case Nichols v. Universal Pictures Corporation (45 F.2d 119 (2d Cir 1930)), Judge Learned Hand (yes, for those of you who never went to law school, this guy's name was Learned Hand) weighed in on the question.


The plaintiff was the writer of a play called Abie's Irish Rose while the defendant produced the movie The Cohens and the Kellys. Both works feature a young couple, one from a Jewish family, the other from a family of Irish Catholics. These star-crossed lovers become enamored of one another and cross-cultural hijinks ensue when their families get together. The Hand noted that a copyright does more than protect the author against works which copy them verbatim (otherwise the protection would be meaningless), but nevertheless the content taken from the original work must be substantial.

In this case, Judge Hand found that borrowing the basic concept of a Jewish/Irish multicultural couple was not substantial enough to constitute infringement and that any similarities between the characters in the two works were due to their reliance on well-worn ethnic stereotypes (e.g. the drunken Irishman, the bearded rabbi) and that such generic characters were in the public domain and not subject to plaintiff's copyright.


Possibly the clearest example of copyright infringement ever is the silent film Nosferatu. Filmmaker F.W. Murnau was denied permission by Bram Stoker's estate to make a movie of the novel Dracula, so instead he took the story of Dracula and just changed some of the names and places. For example, the creature is called Nosferatu rather than a vampire, the Count's name is Orlok, he hails from Czechoslovakia, and the setting is supposed to be Bremen rather than London. Stoker's widow almost succeeded in having all prints of Nosferatu destroyed since the work so clearly violated her late husband's copyright, but several prints managed to outlive old lady Stoker as well as the copyright.

So copying the plot of a previous work and just changing the names is clearly infringement whereas just taking the basic premise of a previous work is not likely to constitute infringement: yet of course there is a lot of grey area in between these two extremes. As further illustration, here are a couple of my favorite copyright cases that I remember from the class I took in law school:

First, there was the case against George Harrison claiming that the song he penned "My Sweet Lord" infringed the copyright of the Chiffon's hit "He's So Fine" given that the chorus of both song features the same three notes in the same order followed by similar background harmony "Doo-lang-doo-lang-doo-lang"/"Hal-le-lu-jah". Surely Harrison and the Beatles must have heard this song on the radio at some point. Harrison gave a long account of the song's creation, which involved a late night raga session and (I'm sure) plenty of hash. Yet the court ended up ruling that "My Sweet Lord" did indeed infringe on the writer's copyright given that the two songs were basically the same tune with different words. The judge suggested that one need not intentionally set out to rip off another's work, but that one could infringe by "unconsciously" mimicking a work that you've previously seen or heard.


Then there was the case involving the TV show The Greatest American Hero. This sitcom centered around a divorced high school teacher who -- on a class trip to the desert or something -- stumbles upon a spaceship containing a red suit and cape which endows its wearer with superhuman powers. He takes the suit and becomes a freelance superhero although a bumbling one given that he immediately lost the instruction manual. There was also like an FBI agent investigating the alien suit who develops an I'm sure not-at-all-homosexual friendship with Super English Teacher Man. Warner Brothers and DC Comics sued ABC claiming that this was an impermissible rip off of Superman (They even make a joking allusion to "It's a bird! It's a plane" earlier on in the series, I think). But the court disagreed citing the many original elements of the sitcom and stating that airborne, caped superheroes had by then become a generic archetype and were thus in the public domain. I've never seen The Greatest American Hero (and it looks pretty '80s-licious and cheesetastic), but I remember the court's decision made it sound pretty entertaining.

Anyway, I hope you found my dorking out on copyright law informative and at least slightly entertaining. Another well established and vague rule is that "ideas" are not protected by copyright whereas "creative expression" is. This explains why taking the basic plot of a story wouldn't be infringement. This also explains why the historians failed in their lawsuit claiming that Dan Brown's novel the Da Vinci Code infringed on the copyrights of their nonfiction works exploring the legend of the bloodline of Jesus Christ. Under this rule, incorporating their theories in his work would clearly not constitute copyright infringement.


Photos: Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl in Knocked Up, the creature in Nosferartu, album cover of George Harrison's My Sweet Lord, William Katt as The Greatest American Hero.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Queen Venus

This is a rewrite for a little vignette that I wrote several years ago but subsequently lost. It's definitely one of those pieces that offer a window into my twisted mind. The photograph (which I didn't take) is of Lake Bled in Slovenia, but this is a work of fiction and I do not believe anything like the events depicted in my story take place in Bled. I was lucky enought to visit in late November 1998, and it was beautiful.
In our small lakeside town, what began centuries ago as a primeval celebration of the rites of spring had been carried into the present day in the town's redlight district. It was not only the usual patrons of this underworld who would attend, but also interlopers from the more respectable half of town: housewives, pensioners, the occassional tourist -- even older children, for the inhabitants of the Lakes Region were not shy about sex.

The ceremony's organizers would procure a morbidly obese woman for the occassion -- the fatter, the better. For one night she would be revered as Queen Venus, and she would serve as the focal point of the ceremony. All made up, Venus would be led out onto the stage where she would disrobe before laying herself out on the circular bed, exposing that expanse of white cellulite that didn't quite seem human.

Then there were the ceremony's male participants. According to ancient tradition, these were meant to be strong, beautiful, pink-cheeked men in the first flower of youth; but in this degenerate modern spectacle, they were more likely to be coarse, no-longer-young men: men with pockmarked faces who had never had much luck with women and laughed too eagerly at dirty jokes.

These men would emerge, already nude, from the recesses of the stage's red curtains and encircle Queen Venus. They would then proceed to grab hold of their engorged members and to rub them between the plentifold folds of the amorphous Earth goddess. As the men thrusted at her from all angles, Venus could be heard to moan with pleasure as if she actually derived carnal satisfaction from their attentions.


When the men climaxed, so did the ceremony which was tradionally meant to ensure the fecundity of the community's young women as well as a fine harvest in the vineyards.

As a boy, I always found the figure of Queen Venus to be the subject of perverse fascination. I couldn't help but ponder her orifice, fatally hidden beneath mounds of flesh, which I imagined to be small and red and shaped like a playing card heart Y

Photo of Lake Bled taken by Wikipedia User Marianocecowski and is under Wikipedia commons GNU free license.

Diversity of Life

I read yesterday that scientists found 24 new species in the rainforests of southeastern Suriname, including this cute little guy!

The atelopus frog is characterised by its distinctive, fluorescent purple markings. It's sort of like a Grateful Dead poster come to life.

The diversity of life on our planet can truly be astounding. In my first blog post, I included a link to the NYTimes article about this book, The Deep: The Extraordinary Creatures of the Abyss, which -- judging from what I saw -- features beautiful photographs of all kinds of bizarre deep sea creatures.

I've also watched a couple of nature documentaries about creatures of the deep. No sunlight manages to permeate the depths of the ocean, and the water temperature there is just above freezing (2 degrees Celsius). Despite these harsh conditions, a multitude of organisms have been discovered living in these dark reaches. Many live off of the detritus that trickles down from waters nearer the surface, and some use bioluminescence to attract prey.

Furthermore, scientists once thought that the area surrounding volcanic, deep sea vents couldn't possibly sustain life due to the toxic elements that the vents spout and due to the fact that water temperatures there can reach up to 400 degrees Celsius. Yet, much to their surprise, deep sea divers have found a rich ecosystem surrounding the vents. Whereas our ecosystem has at its base organisms such as plants which convert sunlight into food through photosynthesis, the foundation of the "black smoker" ecosystem is organisms which practice chemosynthesis, a biological process through which they are able to convert heat, methane and sulphur compounds into food. Given this fundamental difference from all life that we are familiar with, this can truly be considered an alien ecosystem.

This ecosystem contains many unique species such as giant tube worms which gather their sustenance from chemosynthetic bacteria living inside them. It also includes some organisms that resemble more familiar sea creatures like shrimp but which can be distinguished by their ability to survive intense heat and by the fact that they are blind, given that vision would not represent an advantage in this environment devoid of light.

All this makes me recall an incident which happened when I was in junior high: the boy sitting behind me interrupted the teacher to tell him how during class a fly had landed on the boy's desk and given birth to several maggots.

The teacher informed someone: I'm not sure who he could have called -- the administration? the school nurse? -- in retrospect it seems pretty absurd. In the end, the crisis was resolved with a member of the janitorial staff coming in to blow the fly away, maggots and all, with a blast of antiseptic aerosol spray. Yet, before this happened, I turned around to get a look at the unsettling scene of the mother fly perched motionless beside its squirming babies.

I still recall this episode every so often, and it makes me think that the Universe is infinitely more complex and more messy than most people choose to imagine.

Frog photo by Paul Ouboter/Conservation International. Black smoker photo was taken by US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and is in the public domain.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Mind FUH-reak!

OK, so I'm going to try to keep the blog posts dedicated to haterating on celebrities to a minimum; but I couldn't help myself with this one.

Criss Angel is this goth magician who has a show on A&E (the CBS of basic cable) called Mindfreak dedicated to his illusions, mind games, and magical douchery. I feel like he's a cross between David Blaine and Trent Reznor/Marilyn Manson. I also feel obligated to point out that he is not really as cool/good-looking as the poster to the right might suggest (seriously, check out the links below).

Angel's been in the gossip magazines recently due to the fact that he's been spotted out with Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz. In fact, it's been rumored that he and Cameron are dating (incidentally, even if you're not a big Justin Timberlake fan, I think we can all agree that going from JT to this guy is a huge downgrade). Angel denies these rumors and claims that they are just friends. I tend to believe him because you think he'd be bragging if he managed to bag a girl like Cameron Diaz.

ALTHOUGH... have you seen Trippin, the show where Cameron goes travelling around the world with "a group of her closest celebrity friends?" There was a time when I used to think she was a cool, free-sprited type, but after watching that mess for five minutes I came to the conclusion that she is a total idiot. Now I can see why people say that Sofia Coppola had her in mind when she created the ditzy, blond starlet in Lost in Translation.

But I digress... Criss Angel is currently performing this 24-hour illusion in New York where he's supposed to escape from a small concrete box suspended above Time Square before it comes crashing to the earth. In a move that is bound to draw comparisons, this is going down in the same spot where David Blaine performed his stupid stunt that involved a lot of hanging around above the street. I'm not sure if this is some sort of tribute to Blaine or if maybe this is the only spot in Manhattan zoned for mid-air magic tricks.

I find it especially hilarious that in the Reuters article I found (link above) the journalist managed to track down a couple of Mindfreak fans to interview about this stunt. One was a 20-year-old who drove three hours from his Pennsylvania home in order to watch all 24-hours of this death-defying, paint-drying excitement. Then there was a 19-year-old New York student who felt inspired by Criss Angel and saw this illusion as proof that you can do anything if you believe in yourself. I was going to say that these kids are clearly losers, but that "he makes me believe in myself" thing was kind of touching.


In other entertainment news, master auteur/borderline autist Quentin Tarantino insulted the entire nation of Italy. It had recently been announced that Tarantino would be co-presenting a screening of Spaghetti Westerns (cowboy movies filmed in Italy in the mid-sixties) at this year's Venice Film Festival. In an interview with Italian television magazine Sorrisi e canzoni, Tarantino stated that he was a fan of classic Italian cinema (much as he is a noted admirer of the French New Wave), but that he found contemporary Italian cinema to be depressing. "Recent films I've seen are all the same. They talk about boys growing up, or girls growing up, or couples having a crisis, or vacations of the mentally impaired."

Ha! I think I've seen some of those films. And you know l'Ultimo Baccio falls in there somewhere.

So Italians, who are huge film buffs, were up in arms. Sofia Loren said that Tarantino shouldn't be talking smack about Italian cinema when he doesn't even know what's going on in American cinema. Meanwhile an editorial in Italian newspaper La Repubblica was all "right back at ya" and suggested that if Italian cinema had seen better days then perhaps Tarantino's recent film Death Proof was no Pulp Fiction (chasquido!).

Leaving aside Tarantino's usual lack of tact and social grace, I think he has a point. To my knowledge the Italian film industry hasn't produced anything in the last few decades that can be compared with Fellini's 8 1/2 or Il Gattopardo or Lina Wertmueller's 1970s classics like Swept Away, the Seduction of Mimi and Love and Anarchy. Well, with the exception of La Vita e' Bella which was pretty outstanding. But still, Italian cinema hardly seems to be at the forefront of the industry as it once was.

As for Tarantino's recent work: I thought that Kill Bill in its entirety was a masterpiece. I still haven't seen Grindhouse although I definitely want to. I know its box office receipts have been a disappointment and critics have not been very vocal with their praise, but I'll reserve judgment until I watch it myself.


SPANISH WORD(S) OF THE DAY: yerno (son-in-law), nuera (daughter-in-law)
COOL LINK (courtesy of Desiree): awesome lego art

P.S. To make up for the celebrity stuff tomorrow's post is going to be about science

Mindfreak image taken from a poster promoting the upcoming new season, photo of Quentin Tarantino prespiring at Cannes by Victor Tonelli/Reuters

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America

This is old news, but you may not have heard about Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification, the book which won the prestigious Diagram Oddest title of the year award.

Stray Shopping Carts beat out the front runner, How Green Were the Nazis?, which offers readers a serious treatement of the oft overlooked environmental policies of the Third Reich.

Riveting stuff.

I'm sure that Stray Shopping Carts has been receiving a lot more publicity (i.e. some publicity) since its big win. I for one looked up the book on the internet, intrigued by its curious name. Turns out the book is kind of awesome. The editorial review on Amazon.com describes it as "A must-have for anyone with a passion for shopping carts and a love of the great outdoors."


It features a thorough classification system to help you properly identify any stray shopping carts you may be lucky enough to catch in their natural habitat along with photographs which range from the poetically mundane to the hilarious. It somehow manages to make you empathize with the common shopping cart and appreciate all the messes it might find itself in.

I think it would make a great coffee table book / conversation piece and maybe we could help make stray shopping cart watching a "popular" hobby, like bird watching.

In my research, I came across the website for the Stray Shopping Cart Project which inspired the Field Guide. Check it out if you want to learn about the classification system or if you want to see photographs of vandalized shopping carts submerged in water.


WHAT I COOKED TONIGHT: morroccan carrot salad with olive oil, garlic, cumin, black pepper, red pepper flakes, salt, lemon juice and fresh mint.
Also saffron rice which ended up coming out like a tasty porridge: first I used too little liquid (vegetable broth and carrot juice) then I used added too much liquid I guess. Here's the recipe i kinda sorta followed. I used olive oil instead of butter and instead of using a cinnamon stick and cardamon seeds and all that I used hawaj and powdered cinnamon. I also mixed in carrot juice with the vegetable broth, and instead of boiling the rice on the stovetop I poured the ingredients into the rice cooker. I think I went wrong because (a) I didnt let the rice soak long enough before hand (as the recipe suggests) and (b) I didnt measure how much rice I was using. I'll let you know if I ever master this recipe.

TV SHOW CURRENTLY ON PAUSE: Brothers and Sisters

LAST SONG I LISTENED TO: Nina Simone - Four Women


Shopping cart images taken from http://www.strayshoppingcart.com.

Apparition

Friday night I worked late. When I got home it was after 10. I chatted with my friend Ada for a little bit via gmail and then, even though I was exhausted, I went to the gym. >pat self on back<

When I got back, I took a shower and got dressed to go out since a friend from my Spanish class was supposed to call me up to go someplace. That didn't end up happening which was fine with me since I was super tired. I ended up sitting on the couch for awhile drinking and stuff. Then, at around 1:15 AM, I left the apartment in an unsuccessful attempt to get a drink at a bar before the dreaded last call (aah, "last call": perhaps the biggest downside of life in exile).

When I got outside it was dark and damp, and the day's heat had broken. There was a slight breeze. As I waited for the light on the corner behind my building (18th & S Fern), I saw the most bizarre thing. Now, as I stated previously, I had been partaking a bit of the good stuff back in my apartment, so I'm not sure how reliable my eyewitness account is. But I swear I saw a classic car drive past, like a mint green cadillac, whose back end seemed to be riding significantly lower than its upturned nose. The top was down, and I could see four people riding: two men and two women. One moment I took them for young, black hipsters, and the next I felt like they were older, white people. Either way, I am pretty sure that the men were both wearing boater hats.

Just thought I would share that strange vision with you all, perhaps scope out your theories on whether this (a) actually happened, (b) was some sort of hallucination, or (c) is not even that weird and I'm just trippin'.

Aha, I think I figured out how to add a poll here let's see...



Sa-weet. Feel free to share your comments as well.

Also... just to end the rebo fest that was my "million dollar idea": Ada told me that they do indeed make shower curtain reenforcements. She thinks she bought them from Ace hardware. >shudder< Armed with this knowledge, I scoured the internet and found a website where you can buy these things. Anyway, I bought me a box. I guess we can all rest easier knowing shower curtain reenforcements are readily available and all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Spy vs. Spy

More developments in the Litvinenko affair:

In Britain, Crown Prosecutors are calling for Russia to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, the businessman and former KGB agent who is the prime suspect in Litvinenko's murder investigation. This is unlikely to happen in part because the Russian constitution prohibits the extradition of citizens.

Lugovoi had met with Litvinenko in a hotel room three weeks before the latter died of radioactive poisoning. British intelligence believes that a former or current Russian agent must be behind this assassination since Polonium-210 doesn't grow on trees and they think it must have come from a State institution.

Litvinenko himself was a former agent of the FSB (the KGB's successor) who sought political exile in Britain after he accused his fellow agents of plotting to kill a Russian expat living in London named Boris Berezovsky.

Here's the interesting part: in a press statement this week, Lugovoi -- who in the above picture looks sort of stylin' in that pinstripe suit, as if he belongs to the highest class of shady Russian biznezmen -- suggested MI6 was behind the murder. He claims that Litvinenko had been recruited by the British intelligence agency as part of their campaign to gather dirt on President Putin and his family and that the agency offers Russian spies British citizenship in return for their cooperation. Indeed, Lugovoi claims that he too had been propositioned by MI6, something the agency vehemently denies.


According to Lugovoi's account, Alexander Litvinenko had a big mouth and often boasted about his contacts with top MI6 officials, much to the agency's chagrin (British intelligence admits to having debriefed Litvinenko even if he was not an active agent). He also says that in the months before his death, Litvinenko had become increasingly disillusioned with MI6: he felt underpaid and underappreciated and managed to escape from the agency's control, at which point he became a liability and MI6 either had him killed or withdrew their protection allowing his enemies to kill him. Lugovoi claims that since Litvinenko was an agent if MI6, the assassination could not have happened without the agency's knowledge and assent. British authorities dismissed Lugovoi's tale as a smokescreen.

Anyway, the Litvinenko affair is starting to sound more and more like a spy movie or something (aren't there actual plans to make a movie out of this, with Johnnie Depp slated to play the lead?). For me Lugovoi's story especially brings to mind the '60s television series The Prisoner.

If you're not familiar, the Prisoner is a unique, brilliant-but-flawed 17 episode British television series. It's creator and star, Patrick McGoohan, had previously been the star of the hit TV series Danger Man (in the US it was called Secret Agent). Spy shows were apparently all the rage in the '60s especially in Britain which also produced the better known series The Saint (starring Roger Moore) and The Avengers (with Honor Blackman and Diana Rigg who would both go on to play Bond girls).

Anyway, Patrick McGoohan grew bored with Danger Man and quit. He then came up with the premise for the Prisoner: a spy abruptly resigns from his post. After tendering his resignation letter he returns home only to be drugged. When he wakes up in what appears to be his London apartment he looks outside to see that he has been transported to a surreal village (the series was filmed in a quirky Welsh resort town called Portmeirion) whose inhabitants (many of whom are former spies from around the world) wear colorful costumes and are known only by numbers (the person in charge of the village at any given time is #2, and the Prisoner is given the #6, I guess because he is a top priority).

Beneath its genteel facade the village is actually a high-tech prison where the unidentified Powers that Be (in the person of #2) struggle to break down our #6 "by hook or by crook" getting him to conform to their society and to spill "information," in particular the reason for his resignation. Meanwhile #6 attempts alternatively to escape the village or to uncover its secrets.

Although it does raise the question about what does happen to retired spies, more than espionage the series is interested in exploring the authoritarian, conformist nature of modern society and the individual's struggle to maintain his identity.

Now I did say brilliant but flawed: I think that McGoohan went a little mad with all the power and freedom he was given by the producers. The final episode is kind of an unwatchable mindfuck, and there's a ridiculous Avengers spoof and a cowboy episode thrown in there as filler. But if spy gadgets and philosophical musings on the individual v. society appeal to you, you should definitely check it out. My two favorite episodes are "the Schizoid Man" in which #2 employs a doppelganger in order to destroy #6's sense of identity and "the General" which involves a subliminal education/brainwashing device.

On a somewhat related note, if you haven't already checked out the Little Gray Books Lecture on Spy Rock you should it's hilarious. Here's a link to download the podcast.

You also might want to check out this cool site that Mennu found on Friday. It's for this European techno group called Stockholm Cylo and you can listen to streaming music off their album.

Be seeing you!

Photo of Lugovoi by Alexander Zemlianichenko, AP, Prisoner image is from a trading card used to promote the series, photo of Portmeirion is taken by Wikipedia user Arpingstone and it is in the public domain.