27 setembro 2006

X-rated Tolkien

A DARKNESS is once again descending on JRR Tolkien’s fabled land of Middle-earth. An unfinished work completed by the writer’s son is such a departure from the world of hobbits that it may merit an X-certificate.

The manuscript for The Children of Hurin, to be published next spring, contains incest, suicide and a multitude of violent deaths. Any film version is likely to have restricted audiences because of the subject matter.

Christopher Tolkien has spent the past 30 years working on the epic tale that his father began in 1918 while on leave from the army. JRR, who was recovering from trench fever contracted during the battle of the Somme, later abandoned the work.

Its publication 90 years on follows the success of The Lord of the Rings, which has sold more than 50m copies and was adapted into a trilogy of Oscar-winning films.

The “new” work does not include characters such as Arwen, played by Liv Tyler in the movies directed by Peter Jackson, and Legolas, played by Orlando Bloom.

It is much darker and is based on the Kalevala, an epic poem from Finland. Tolkien, who died at the age of 81 in 1973, took the tale and weaved his own magical story around it.

The Children of Hurin will tell the story of the family of an elf warrior taken prisoner by Morgoth, the first Dark Lord, held responsible for torturing elves and producing the first orcs, a race of evil goblins.

Hurin, the elf warrior, is given powers by Morgoth to foresee what will happen to his children. “Death you may yet crave from me as a boon,” Morgoth tells him.

One son, Turin, is manoeuvred into having sex with his sister Nienor and becomes a carrier of doom, triggering the death of everyone close to him.

One Tolkien expert, William Ferguson, said this weekend: “Turin makes folks like Othello and Hamlet and Oedipus look like lucky devils.”

A dragon, slain by Turin, causes Nienor to realise that they have committed incest. By then she is carrying his unborn child and commits suicide by throwing herself into a ravine.

Turin finally kills himself with his talking sword. “I will drink thy blood gladly,” says its black blade.

Tolkien touched briefly on the story in The Silmarillion, a compendium of Middle-earth history: “And when all was done, the elves sang a lament for the Children of Hurin.”

His son revisited the story in a chapter of his father’s Unfinished Tales in 1980, but this will be the first time it has been told in detail in one volume.

Christopher Tolkien said this weekend he believed there was a strong case for completing his father’s long version of the legend, “if this could be done without distortion or invention”.

Tolkien experts welcomed its forthcoming publication. Dorothy Heydt, a writer of fantasy and science fiction, said: “Turin had more grief in his life than anybody ought to. The story is based on a Finnish folk tale and is full of incest and suicide and stuff.”

Adam Tolkien, son of Christopher, said: “The book will be the equivalent of a director’s cut of a DVD, except in this case the director is deceased.

“It is a very educated work. My father has been working on these stories for 30 years. What has already been published is a very condensed version of the story.

“The Silmarillion gives a history of Middle-earth mythology. To give you an idea of the scale, the whole story of The Lord of the Rings takes up [only] 15 pages in The Silmarillion.”

Christopher Tolkien is now 81 and The Children of Hurin, which will be published by HarperCollins in Britain, may be the last “new” book to be issued under the JRR Tolkien name.

Writers’ literary estates lose their entitlement to copyright income 70 years after their death.

Next week sees the publication of a sequel to Peter Pan, commissioned by the estate of JM Barrie to raise money for Great Ormond Street hospital before the copyright expires in 2007.

Nicolette Jones, author and children’s books reviewer for The Sunday Times, said: “There is a lot of mileage in reworking books. The Ian Fleming estate asked Charlie Higson to write books about the young Bond, William Horwood wrote sequels to The Wind in the Willows and there have been Winnie the Pooh spin-offs.

“Given the controversy over whether JK Rowling will bump off Harry Potter, where will that leave a sequel? Somebody, some day is going to try to pick up the story again.”

It started off as a cautionary tale about a little girl and a wolf - and grew into something bigger and darker

'You probably think you know the story," says the sardonic voiceover at the start of Hoodwinked, as we see a leather-bound volume of classic fairy tales lying open at the legend of Little Red Riding Hood. The movie then dresses up this old granny of a fable in the vulpine comedy of post-Shrek, multilayered family entertainment, tailored to an audience fully aware that the word "hood" denotes not only a type of head-covering but also urban territory disputed by gangs.

In this animated retelling, released on Friday, young Red turns out to be a tough, sussed type whose first words to the wolf are: "You again? What do I have to do? Get a restraining order?" The film's poster pastiches The Usual Suspects, and this hints at a narrative in which visual and verbal clues consistently mislead. None of the central characters - Red, Granny, the Wolf, the Woodsman - fulfils the same purpose as in the traditional nursery version, and the narrative variously sends up the James Bond and Mission: Impossible franchises, the TV series CSI, and even the genre of computer-generated kidult movies itself. After a reversal, the heroine mooches around while a Randy Newman-ish ballad called Red Is Blue oozes on the soundtrack.

However, for audiences truly to be surprised by this vision of the girl in the 'hood, they would need to have avoided the strikingly numerous modernisations of the Little Red Riding Hood story that have already been attempted in print and on film.

The French fabulist Charles Perrault was the first to commit the story to ink, publishing it in 1697 as Le Petit Chaperon Rouge. Most of the details that have become familiar enough to be satirised three centuries later are in this initial telling: a young girl's visit to a sick grandmother ending in death as a result of flirting with a wolf (in fact, a werewolf) in the woods. The colour of the head-covering could be taken to symbolise either sin or the blood of female fertility.

Adolescent girls of the time didn't have to wait for Freud to discern the message in the story of the dangerous, hairy protruberance that may lie behind unthreatening clothes. "Seeing the wolf" even reportedly entered French slang as a euphemism for losing one's virginity. Perrault directed his allegory at girls wandering off the track and chatting to chaps, although in earlier European oral versions the heroine is more reminiscent of the Red character in Hoodwinked, who outwits the wolf to survive.

The Grimm brothers, in their 1812 variation Rotkappchen (Red-Cap), made the girl less culpable and less helpless. In their vision, a woodkeeper - representing a benign masculinity which contrasts with the wolf's - is able to free both granny and granddaughter from the wolf's stomach by performing an emergency gastric operation on the interloper. The women together then see off a second wolf.

Perhaps because the Perrault telling was seen as a churchy virginity sermon, subsequent updatings loosened the central character's moral corsets. The 19th-century French writer Alphonse Daudet made his heroine a free spirit in a society trying to force her to walk approved paths. And the New Yorker humourist James Thurber's The Girl and the Wolf, published in 1940, ends with his sassy Red producing a revolver and shooting her aggressor dead. Thurber's moral - little girls are not so easy to fool nowadays - began the tendency to reverse the original characterisations, and not just that of the girl.

Anne Sexton, in a verse retelling of the story from her 1971 collection of updated fairytales, Transformations, is intriguingly sympathetic to the wolf, or at least to methods of pretence. "Many are the deceivers," her poem begins, before picturing, among others, "the suburban matron, proper in the supermarket", shopping before she meets her lover for sex in a parking lot. Sexton also empathises with a comedian who gets big laughs live on TV, but then kills himself in a hotel room. As an adulterer who would later commit suicide, the poet was perhaps understandably reluctant to endorse the original's moral about not taking people at face value. At the end of her poem, Red and Granny, though saved from the wolf's belly (Sexton uses the Grimm ending), are left "remembering nothing" of their ordeal. They are still deceived.

In a 1974 adaptation by the French-American children's writer Tomi Ungerer, the wolf is able to persuade the girl to marry him, and this submission is presented as a happy ending. Although Ungerer presumably intended to subvert the virginity propaganda of the Perrault original and suggest that the male stranger doesn't necessarily bite, a truly modern version would now have the young woman enjoying a one-night stand with the imposter before returning to work or university.

The 1970s, a period of unease about the stories told to women to keep them down, produced the most significant single remaking of the fable. Angela Carter played with the Perrault and Grimm versions in three tales about girls and werewolves, culminating in The Company of Wolves, a story filmed in 1984 by Neil Jordan. A movie so Freudian that you keep expecting it to grow a beard and move to Vienna, The Company of Wolves takes place in the erotic dreams and nightmares of a pre-pubescent girl in Thatcher's Britain. Her father, seen in the film's contemporary sequences, turns up in other worrying guises in the dark, woodland dream scenes. Carter, who had translated the stories of Perrault, obeys his original in making the threatening stranger a werewolf ("Never trust a man whose eyebrows meet," the girl is warned by her granny), but she completely rejects his moral. Her red-caped female is at first frightened and then excited by her desires, and at the end has learned to, as Professor Freud might have put it, take the wolf inside her.

This sense of the woman's encounter with the wolf being both a necessary and a liberating experience is also found in Stephen Sondheim's 1987 musical Into the Woods. His Little Red Riding Hood suspects all too well the danger that the wolf may represent, and her dilemma is whether to submit. At the end she concludes: "Though scary is exciting/ Nice is different than good."

Recently, though, the meaning of the fairytale has been inverted again. No longer a celebration of female sexuality, it again warns against predatory masculinity. Three movies in the past 10 years have invoked the story in connection with paedophilia. In Matthew Bright's Freeway (1996), Reese Witherspoon is an abused teenager who runs away from home to seek sanctuary at her nan's, but is intercepted by a psychologist (Kiefer Sutherland), whose apparent friendship conceals hidden threats. The climatic scene in The Woodsman (2005) features Kevin Bacon as a paroled sex offender following a young girl into the woods. And the symbolism is even more explicit in Hard Candy (2006): a teenager wearing a red hoodie is carrying a basket of goodies when a middle-aged photographer persuades her to come back to his house. Weaving sexual abuse into the tale is logical, given that the monster who threatens Red in the original is disguised as a relative and a home is shown as being a dangerous place.

Hoodwinked gives the story its most dramatic reinterpretation yet, in that the outcome is entirely the result of female actions. This is the surprise that modern Little Red Riding Hoods tend to keep in their baskets. Whether with serious effect in The Company of Wolves or with comic intention in Hoodwinked, a legend that warned of girlish vulnerability has become a story celebrating female strength.


Dante's Inferno:
A Virtual Tour of Hell

for once, do NOT skip intro

26 setembro 2006

The Father, the Son, and the Holy Guest Star quotes

Father Sean (voice by Liam Neeson): I was lying in the gutter picking up my teeth, St. Peter himself appeared before me. 'Sean, yah wanker,' he says, 'repent of your wicked ways or sod off!' Then he gobbed in my face and turned back into the streetlamp.

Homer: Face it, Marge. Catholics rule! We got Boston, South America, the good part of Ireland, and we're makin' serious inroads in Mozambique, baby!

Bart: This is a Catholic church. Chicks got no authority here.

Marge: Homer, you've been gone all night—and you look like you accepted someone as your personal something. Were you at that Catholic Church?
Homer: Look, I know I was supposed to yell at that priest, but he's so cool! He plays drums in a band with a bunch of other priests!
Marge: I knew they'd try to convert you! That's what they do! Well, I'm not having another twelve kids.
Homer: Marge, no one's saying twelve. Nine, ten, tops! (gets out a pamphlet entitled "Plop 'til You Drop")

50 ways to better health

When the cacophony of claims overwhelms, turn to these simple hints.
In this media-heavy world, we are pelted with complex and often confusing nutrition messages almost daily. These bulletins come from the government, consumer groups, physicians' groups, dietitians and marketing teams for products making bold "healthful" claims.

It often takes an interpreter to translate these messages into language we can all understand.

Here is a list of small changes I have developed as a nutrition professor and writer. They can yield big results if we incorporate them into our daily routine.

Reducing risk of disease

- Use heart-healthy olive oil and canola oil in cooking.

- Eat yogurt with active cultures to help boost your immune system.

- Snack on nuts: They contain heart-healthy fats, vitamin E and minerals such as selenium and magnesium that are typically low in our diets.

- Read food labels for sodium content; aim for no more than 2,400 milligrams a day.

- Eat foods with dark colors: Red, green, blue and purple foods contain disease-fighting compounds.

- Eat fish rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids such as salmon, trout and herring.

- Switch to brown rice from white rice to boost fiber and fight diabetes.

- Eat foods with soluble fiber to lower cholesterol: oatmeal, dry beans, barley and apples.

- Eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day, but aim for nine servings.

- Include more potassium-rich foods that lower high blood pressure: baked white or sweet potatoes, yogurt, bananas, orange or tomato juice.

- Cooked tomato products, such as tomato sauce, tomato paste and marinara sauce, contain lycopene, a chemical that may protect against prostate cancer.

Increasing fiber

- Eat an apple for an afternoon snack.

- Choose breads with 100 percent whole grains.

- Top casseroles with rolled oats instead of bread crumbs.

- Choose lentil soup instead of chicken noodle; a cup of lentil soup has 7 grams of fiber.

- Add baked beans to the cookout menu.

- Eat fruit instead of drinking fruit juice.

- Grind flaxseeds to provide fiber and healthy fats called alpha-linolenic acids; add to your cereal or a smoothie.

- Slice berries into plain yogurt.

Managing your weight

- Switch to fat-free milk if you use whole or 2 percent, and save 45 to 72 calories in every 8-ounce serving.

- Grill fish instead of burgers.

- Weigh yourself every morning, or regularly enough to monitor changes and adjust your eating patterns before the pounds get out of control.

- Learn to cook by taking a cooking class; many hospitals have wellness centers that offer healthful-cooking classes.

- Monitor liquid calories. Besides soda, calories from juice and alcohol can add up.

- Make substitutions, not sacrifices, by finding alternatives to high-fat foods.

- Bake or broil foods instead of frying; when sauteing, use only a tiny amount of oil. All oils contain about 120 calories per tablespoon.

- Eat small meals throughout the day; just remember to keep portions small.

- Increase the volume of foods without increasing calories by including salads and soups with meals.

Snacking smart

- Try light cheese wedges with whole-grain crackers.

- Snack on microwave popcorn with no butter.

- Keep snacking portions small, and choose nutrient-rich snacks.

- Grab some animal crackers and carton of fat-free milk.

- A handful of almonds midafternoon can curb your appetite.

Eating out

- Choose your entree from the appetizer list.

- Select grilled, blackened or baked chicken or fish, not fried.

- Ask for sauce and salad dressing served on the side.

- Don't be shy about asking how food is prepared.

- Ask for a doggie bag at the beginning of the meal, and save half to take home.

- Choose restaurants that have at least a few healthful options.

- When ordering pizza, pass on the high-fat meat toppings, and pile on the vegetables.

Sneaking in more produce

- Toss chopped broccoli, zucchini or carrots into the boiling water as you cook pasta.

- Top a sandwich with piles of baby spinach leaves.

- Add dried fruit to your breakfast cereal.

- Add grated vegetables to tuna, chicken or egg salad.

- Top potatoes or chicken breasts with salsa.

25 setembro 2006

Why Christians and conservatives should accept evolution

Can one be a conservative Christian and a Darwinian? Yes. Here's how.

1. Evolution fits well with good theology. Christians believe in an omniscient and omnipotent God. What difference does it make when God created the universe--10,000 years ago or 10,000,000,000 years ago? The glory of the creation commands reverence regardless of how many zeroes in the date. And what difference does it make how God created life--spoken word or natural forces? The grandeur of life's complexity elicits awe regardless of what creative processes were employed. Christians (indeed, all faiths) should embrace modern science for what it has done to reveal the magnificence of the divine in a depth and detail unmatched by ancient texts.

Calling God a watchmaker is belittling.

2. Creationism is bad theology. The watchmaker God of intelligent-design creationism is delimited to being a garage tinkerer piecing together life out of available parts. This God is just a genetic engineer slightly more advanced than we are. An omniscient and omnipotent God must be above such humanlike constraints. As Protestant theologian Langdon Gilkey wrote, "The Christian idea, far from merely representing a primitive anthropomorphic projection of human art upon the cosmos, systematically repudiates all direct analogy from human art." Calling God a watchmaker is belittling.

3. Evolution explains original sin and the Christian model of human nature. As a social primate, we evolved within-group amity and between-group enmity. By nature, then, we are cooperative and competitive, altruistic and selfish, greedy and generous, peaceful and bellicose; in short, good and evil. Moral codes and a society based on the rule of law are necessary to accentuate the positive and attenuate the negative sides of our evolved nature.

4. Evolution explains family values. The following characteristics are the foundation of families and societies and are shared by humans and other social mammals: attachment and bonding, cooperation and reciprocity, sympathy and empathy, conflict resolution, community concern and reputation anxiety, and response to group social norms. As a social primate species, we evolved morality to enhance the survival of both family and community. Subsequently, religions designed moral codes based on our evolved moral natures.

5. Evolution accounts for specific Christian moral precepts. Much of Christian morality has to do with human relationships, most notably truth telling and marital fidelity, because the violation of these principles causes a severe breakdown in trust, which is the foundation of family and community. Evolution describes how we developed into pair-bonded primates and how adultery violates trust. Likewise, truth telling is vital for trust in our society, so lying is a sin.

6. Evolution explains conservative free-market economics. Charles Darwin's "natural selection" is precisely parallel to Adam Smith's "invisible hand." Darwin showed how complex design and ecological balance were unintended consequences of competition among individual organisms. Smith showed how national wealth and social harmony were unintended consequences of competition among individual people. Nature's economy mirrors society's economy. Both are designed from the bottom up, not the top down.

Because the theory of evolution provides a scientific foundation for the core values shared by most Christians and conservatives, it should be embraced. The senseless conflict between science and religion must end now, or else, as the Book of Proverbs (11:29) warned: "He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind."

Can men write romantic novels?

Yes says Ray Connolly

So now it's clear. The reason Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary were such unromantic flops is because both books were written by men. Big mistake.

There was nothing wrong with the writers. They were good enough in their own ways. It's just that the balance of their chromosomes wasn't up to the job.

If only Sadie Tolstoy or Sharon Flaubert had done the writing, instead of Leo and Gustave, the entire history of Western literature would have been completely different.

And how do we know this? Because Daisy Goodwin, the presenter of Reader, I Married Him, a new BBC4 series on the novel, which will be transmitted this autumn, just about tells us so.

"You can't have a really seriously romantic book written by a man," she says, dismissing in a sentence the murmuring hearts of half humankind. If you're a male writer, Daisy goes on, you lack insight into the ways of women.

Oh dear! Presumably the converse is true, too, which explains why Emily Brontë was so useless at creating a believable male character. Sorry, Emily. Wrong sex. What was the name of that brooding, revengeful bloke in Wuthering Heights? No wonder he never caught on.

Now I don't want to upset Daisy Goodwin or those who think like her, since my new novel, a romantic piece called Love Out of Season, is due to be published in February and I want all the kind reviews I can get, but she really is talking through a prism of prejudice and stereotype.

Admittedly, men's names don't crop up so often on those displays of books with pink, frilly covers in Waterstone's and Borders, but in truth the history of literature is filled with romantic stories written by men.

They just do it in a different way, from Shakespeare's take on the old Montague and Capulet story to Nick Hornby's High Fidelity.

But isn't High Fidelity about a lad and his records? Yes, but it's also about a bloke and his relationship, because boys fall in love, too.

And despite the barrage of propaganda telling us that all men want is sex, the truth is, as any man will tell you, they don't. Not that it isn't good fun now and again, as any woman will tell you.

There may well be differences in the way men's and women's brains are wired, but don't try to tell me that men and women can't empathise with each other.

Has Daisy Goodwin never sat with a man watching a romantic movie and seen him crying? If she hasn't, she should have been round at our house the other night when Love Story was on television again and Ali McGraw died of leukaemia.

Of course, if the novel from which that movie was taken had been written by a woman instead of a Yale classicist called Erich Segal, it might even have been a bestseller. Who knows, women might even have read it.

Teasing aside, it seems to me that most stories are about people in relationships, and how relationships change people.

Nearly always, relationships are about love and, yes, desire, too, and love inevitably involves romance in its many and varied forms. But neither men nor women have a monopoly on falling in love.

If it was only women writers who had the romantic gift, what on earth was John Donne doing wasting his time mooning about that flea in his sonnet, why did Graham Greene get himself into such a state in The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair, and what was Richard Curtis thinking about, trying to make a career from writing romantic screenplays such as Notting Hill and Love Actually? I could go on.

I know it makes it easier for publishers and bookshops if they can label a book as a "woman's novel", and certain kinds of stories obviously appeal more to one sex than the other.

I don't suppose Andy McNab has many women wanting to read about how he won in Iraq. But then, I don't want to read it either.

It seems to me that we're all romantics, and the idea that one sex is simply emotionally incapable of understanding the way the other thinks is to deny everything men and women share – and, worryingly from a creative point of view, to deny all authors the possibility of understanding anyone of the opposite sex. And I can't believe that.

But if Daisy Goodwin needs convincing further, might I recommend that she places an order right now for Love Out of Season by Ray Connolly. It's wonderfully romantic, brought a tear to the author's eye now and again when he was writing it, and it's coming soon to a bookshop near her.

No says Liz Hunt

Ask any woman to name her favourite romantic novel and the likelihood is that she will mention one of two titles: Wuthering Heights or Pride and Prejudice.

No matter that the hero of one is a psychopath, given to roaming the moors in a frenzy of rage, despair and sexual frustration, while the other stands around in drawing rooms being superior.

At the heart of both, there is a brooding, obsessive, all-consuming passion that every woman – if she is being honest – aspires to be the object of at some time in her life.

It is how women would like men to feel about them, but they know that in reality such feelings will last only until his hangover kicks in or Chelsea kicks off.

So they must seek that passion between the covers (of a book) and it is only another woman who really knows how to deliver it because she has been there – or would like to have been there – too.

For example, women don't love Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca because of the desperate-to-please second wife's adoration of Maxim.

What fascinates them is his tormented – and, we suspect, enduring – love for the beguiling but black-hearted witch who was the first Mrs de Winter.

Women also identify with heroines who are the source, rather than the object, of the brooding, obsessive, all-consuming passion, albeit cunningly disguised, as in the case of Jane Eyre.

Then there is a woman's desperate longing for a lost love so brilliantly deconstructed in Maggie O'Farrell's After You'd Gone.

I would argue that only a woman can truly capture these emotions in a credible way, because she has experienced them or can imagine experiencing them in a way that a man simply cannot.

Men are more used to pursuit and action. Ask a man what is his favourite romantic novel and Graham Greene's The End of the Affair or Sebastian Faulks's Birdsong may get a mention.

For those unfamiliar with either, it's basically sex combined with the Blitz in one, and with the horrors of trench warfare in the other.

You see, too often male writers get caught up in the story – "Events, dear boy, events" – whereas women writers better understand that they must keep the romance central, that it drives a narrative better and faster than any other device. For women, it is the ultimate reason to turn a page.

The Da Vinci Code, though thinly written (by a man), was attention-grabbing enough with its mutilated curator and self-flagellating albino monk, but I persevered with it because – I'm ashamed to admit – I was curious to find out what would happen between the hero Robert Langdon and his sidekick Sophie Neveu.

And, yes, of course, the fall of Atlanta was an interesting peripheral happening in Gone With the Wind. But my 15-year-old self wasn't interested in the historical context, I just wanted to know if Scarlett would ever understand that Rhett was the only man who understood her and truly loved her and therefore should not possibly be passed over in favour of weedy Ashley Wilkes.

Just three weeks ago, I saw the film version on a cable channel and was seduced again by Margaret Mitchell's masterpiece. I knew how it would end, but how I wished that Scarlett would damn well seize the day (and Rhett), instead of wittering on and on about tomorrow.

Women writers are better at detail, too – and details are essential in creating a romantic build-up: what he wore, what she wore, how they were standing, how they moved, how they touched.

The novelist Charlotte Bingham once observed that there were no descriptions of what the heroine was wearing in Madame Bovary. The closest Flaubert came to describing her dress was that it was something white and frilly.

According to Bingham, men just don't appreciate "that a soul, or heart might be longing to make the right kind of romantic sounds, but will be turned away for no better reason than that he has plumped for wearing fawn which, alas, doesn't do a thing for her". Women appreciate this – and so much more – and that's why they're better at romantic fiction.

Tackling the carbon pawprint

Having a green pet needn't mean keeping frogs, you know. There's actually a lot you can do to reduce your pet's environmental pawprint.

Let's start at the bottom: faeces. It's more of a problem than most people realise, especially if you live in a built-up area. More people means more pets, and the abundant concrete means more runoff, which gets washed into water courses and ponds, the bacteria that thrive on them starve ponds of oxygen and kill aquatic life. Cat faeces can also harbour nasty parasites such as toxoplasma gondii, which has even been known to survive sewage treatment and kill sea life.

All of which means the best solution is not to let dogs or cats defecate where the poop can get into the drains. If you're a dog owner, you'll already know to bag it and bin it, but how about using biodegradable dog poop bags, made from corn starch, (biobags.co.uk) as a green alternative?

There are green options for cat litter, too. Avoid the clay stuff: it swells, hardens and doesn't rot, so it both takes up space and is the devil to get rid of. What's more, it's liberally dusted with silica, a known carcinogen and cause of respiratory disease. It's not even good for cats: it gets in their fur, which means it gets in their mouths. It's far better to use litter made from recycled material such as sawmill scrap or waste from wheat or corn. It's biodegradable, flushable, lighter and less smelly. Pets can contribute to noise pollution - dogs in particular. Often this is simply down to boredom. Ensure your dog has a stimulating environment and don't leave it alone for too long.

Avoid flea and tick repellents containing DDVP, diazinon carbaryl, permethrin or propoxur. These are nerve toxins that can build up and poison wildlife and pets alike. Add to that the various chemicals that make up the bulk of the product and you've got a nasty brew. Try citrus extracts such as D-limonene and linalool - both natural alternatives - and make regular use of a flea comb. And while cats plus outdoors equals fleas, it does help to vacuum regularly. Dog food flavoured with brewer's yeast and garlic is also a natural flea repellent.

Then there's the impact pets can have on wildlife. Keep your cat indoors at night when it is likely to hunt. You might also consider putting bells around its collar - the sonic variety are most effective in alerting birds. Finally, keep your cat entertained: this reduces that nasty instinct for recreational killing.

Dogs should be kept on a lead when walking and it's well worth keeping in mind that a well-trained dog is likely to wreak less havoc than an unruly one.

Keepers of exotic pets should be aware of the damage to native species that accidental releases have caused. They can prey on local wildlife and spread disease - the Chinese mitten crab and the American signal crayfish in the Thames are two examples of the damage alien species can do. So it follows that you don't flush fish down the loo, even if they're dead, as they can spread disease.

As for food, try switching to organic: commercial pet food often contains unhealthy additives and preservatives. There's more choice than you'd think: indeed, there's a growing range of eco-friendly pet products at pet shops and online.

Even if Fido might not be able to help it, there's plenty you can do for the environment.

My all time favorite

US hypoallergenic cats go on sale

Hypoallergenic kittens (photo courtesy of Allerca)
At just three weeks old these kittens have already been reserved
The world's first specially-bred hypoallergenic cats have gone on sale in the United States.

US biotech firm Allerca says it has managed to selectively breed them by reducing a certain type of protein that triggers allergic reactions.

The cats will not cause the red eyes, sneezing and even asthma that some cat allergy sufferers experience, except in the most acute cases.

Despite costing $3,950 (£2,104), there is already a waiting list to get one.

Allerca first started taking orders for hypoallergenic cats back in 2004.

No genetic modification

It tested huge numbers of cats trying to find the tiny fraction which do not carry the glycoprotein Fel d1 - contained in its saliva, fur and skin - which produces allergies.

Those cats were then used to breed the hypoallergenic cats.

The company's Steve May told the BBC that it is a natural, if time consuming method.

"This is a natural gene divergence within the cat DNA - one out of 50,000 cats will have this natural divergence," he said.

"So candidates, natural divergent cats were found and then bred so there is really no modification of the gene."

The BBC's Pascale Harter says there could soon be a global market for the kittens - in the US alone 38 million households own a cat, and around the world an estimated 35% of humans suffer from allergies.

[Honestly, this is too much for a man + Monday morning... and no one "owns" a cat, there are 38 million households where the cat(s) tolerate the presence of humans. In most cases, the cats will have trained their humans to fulfill their every whim.]

24 setembro 2006

The Smell of Hell

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez compared George Bush to the Antichrist in a speech at the United Nations on Wednesday. "The devil came here yesterday, right here," he said. "It smells of sulfur still today, this table that I am now standing in front of." When did Satan start smelling like sulfur?

About a century or two before the birth of Christ. Satan almost certainly gets his rotten scent from his underworld lair, described in the Book of Revelation as a "lake of burning sulfur." Hell as such doesn't appear in the Old Testament, but the book of Genesis does recount how God "rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah." The idea of a sulfurous Hell ruled by an archvillain called Satan seems to have arisen at some point in the period between when the two sacred texts were written—probably in the first or second centuries B.C. The Apocryphal Books of Enoch, for example, talk about a place of punishment with "rivers of fire" and "a smell of sulfur."

It didn't take long for the devil to take on the stench of his kingdom. By the 400s, the Councils of Toledo would describe him as a horned beast with cloven hooves, a huge phallus, and a sulfurous smell.

Tradition placed hell as far as possible from God and heaven. The Bible uses the word "Gehenna," which means the "Valley of Hinnom" and refers to a garbage dump on the outskirts of ancient Jerusalem. Hinnom stood in for the underworld because of its topography—as the lowest point in the area, it served as the spiritual counterpoint for the high ground of the temple mount. The same sort of reasoning imagined hell at the very center of the Earth, in a fiery and sulfurous pit.

This isn't an unreasonable description. Underground volcanic activity can release plumes of sulfurous gas, as rocks heat up in the absence of significant oxygen. Sulfur doesn't always smell bad—given enough oxygen, it generally takes the form of an inoffensive sulfate. But when sulfur is given off from these hot underground sources, it comes in the stinky, rotten-eggs varieties of hydrogen sulfide or pure sulfur gas. (Think of a smelly, bubbling hot spring.) Gregory I, who became pope in 590 C.E., made the connection between volcanoes and hell more explicit. In his Dialogues, he describes a sinner "thrown into Vulcan's gulph" on one of the volcanic islands north of Sicily.

The idea that Satan had a strong odor is consistent with ancient attitudes about smells. A connection between sweet, dry smells and the divine goes back to the Greek epics, and it shows up in precise terms in the Old Testament: The Lord tells Moses to prepare an anointing oil "blended as by the perfumer" consisting of liquid myrrh, cinnamon, cassia, and olive oil. Rotten-smelling gases like hydrogen sulfide would have been associated with moral corruption.


Everything you know about British and Irish ancestry is wrong.
Our ancestors were Basques, not Celts.
The Celts were not wiped out by the Anglo-Saxons,
in fact neither had much impact on the genetic stock of these islands

The fact that the British and the Irish both live on islands gives them a misleading sense of security about their unique historical identities. But do we really know who we are, where we come from and what defines the nature of our genetic and cultural heritage? Who are and were the Scots, the Welsh, the Irish and the English? And did the English really crush a glorious Celtic heritage?

Everyone has heard of Celts, Anglo-Saxons and Vikings. And most of us are familiar with the idea that the English are descended from Anglo-Saxons, who invaded eastern England after the Romans left, while most of the people in the rest of the British Isles derive from indigenous Celtic ancestors with a sprinkling of Viking blood around the fringes.

Yet there is no agreement among historians or archaeologists on the meaning of the words "Celtic" or "Anglo-Saxon." What is more, new evidence from genetic analysis (see note below) indicates that the Anglo-Saxons and Celts, to the extent that they can be defined genetically, were both small immigrant minorities. Neither group had much more impact on the British Isles gene pool than the Vikings, the Normans or, indeed, immigrants of the past 50 years.

The genetic evidence shows that three quarters of our ancestors came to this corner of Europe as hunter-gatherers, between 15,000 and 7,500 years ago, after the melting of the ice caps but before the land broke away from the mainland and divided into islands. Our subsequent separation from Europe has preserved a genetic time capsule of southwestern Europe during the ice age, which we share most closely with the former ice-age refuge in the Basque country. The first settlers were unlikely to have spoken a Celtic language but possibly a tongue related to the unique Basque language.

Another wave of immigration arrived during the Neolithic period, when farming developed about 6,500 years ago. But the English still derive most of their current gene pool from the same early Basque source as the Irish, Welsh and Scots. These figures are at odds with the modern perceptions of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon ethnicity based on more recent invasions. There were many later invasions, as well as less violent immigrations, and each left a genetic signal, but no individual event contributed much more than 5 per cent to our modern genetic mix.

Many myths about the Celts

Celtic languages and the people who brought them probably first arrived during the Neolithic period. The regions we now regard as Celtic heartlands actually had less immigration from the continent during this time than England. Ireland, being to the west, has changed least since the hunter-gatherer period and received fewer subsequent migrants (about 12 per cent of the population) than anywhere else. Wales and Cornwall have received about 20 per cent, Scotland and its associated islands 30 per cent, while eastern and southern England, being nearer the continent, has received one third of its population from outside over the past 6,500 years. These estimates, set out in my book The Origins of the British, come from tracing individual male gene lines from continental Europe to the British Isles and dating each one (see box at bottom of page).

If the Celts were not our main aboriginal stock, how do we explain the wide historical distribution and influence of Celtic languages? There are many examples of language change without significant population replacement; even so, some people must have brought Celtic languages to our isles. So where did they come from, and when?

The orthodox view of the origins of the Celts turns out to be an archaeological myth left over from the 19th century. Over the past 200 years, a myth has grown up of the Celts as a vast, culturally sophisticated but warlike people from central Europe, north of the Alps and the Danube, who invaded most of Europe, including the British Isles, during the iron age, around 300 BC.

Central Europe during the last millennium BC certainly was the time and place of the exotic and fierce Hallstatt culture and, later, the La Tène culture, with their prestigious, iron-age metal jewellery wrought with intricately woven swirls. Hoards of such jewellery and weapons, some fashioned in gold, have been dug up in Ireland, seeming to confirm central Europe as the source of migration. The swirling style of decoration is immortalised in such cultural icons as the Book of Kells, the illuminated Irish manuscript (Trinity College, Dublin), and the bronze Battersea shield (British Museum), evoking the western British Isles as a surviving remnant of past Celtic glory. But unfortunately for this orthodoxy, these artistic styles spread generally in Europe as cultural fashions, often made locally. There is no evidence they came to Britain and Ireland as part of an invasion.

Many archaeologists still hold this view of a grand iron-age Celtic culture in the centre of the continent, which shrank to a western rump after Roman times. It is also the basis of a strong sense of ethnic identity that millions of members of the so-called Celtic diaspora hold. But there is absolutely no evidence, linguistic, archaeological or genetic, that identifies the Hallstatt or La Tène regions or cultures as Celtic homelands. The notion derives from a mistake made by the historian Herodotus 2,500 years ago when, in a passing remark about the "Keltoi," he placed them at the source of the Danube, which he thought was near the Pyrenees. Everything else about his description located the Keltoi in the region of Iberia.

The late 19th-century French historian Marie Henri d'Arbois de Jubainville decided that Herodotus had meant to place the Celtic homeland in southern Germany. His idea has remained in the books ever since, despite a mountain of other evidence that Celts derived from southwestern Europe. For the idea of the south German "Empire of the Celts" to survive as the orthodoxy for so long has required determined misreading of texts by Caesar, Strabo, Livy and others. And the well-recorded Celtic invasions of Italy across the French Alps from the west in the 1st millennium BC have been systematically reinterpreted as coming from Germany, across the Austrian Alps.

De Jubainville's Celtic myth has been deconstructed in two recent sceptical publications: The Atlantic Celts: Ancient People or Modern Invention by Simon James (1999), and The Celts: Origins, Myths and Inventions by John Collis (2003). Nevertheless, the story lingers on in standard texts and notably in The Celts, a Channel 4 documentary broadcast in February. "Celt" is now a term that sceptics consider so corrupted in the archaeological and popular literature that it is worthless.

This is too drastic a view. It is only the central European homeland theory that is false. The connection between modern Celtic languages and those spoken in southwest Europe during Roman times is clear and valid. Caesar wrote that the Gauls living south of the Seine called themselves Celts. That region, in particular Normandy, has the highest density of ancient Celtic place-names and Celtic inscriptions in Europe. They are common in the rest of southern France (excluding the formerly Basque region of Gascony), Spain, Portugal and the British Isles. Conversely, Celtic place-names are hard to find east of the Rhine in central Europe.

Given the distribution of Celtic languages in southwest Europe, it is most likely that they were spread by a wave of agriculturalists who dispersed 7,000 years ago from Anatolia, travelling along the north coast of the Mediterranean to Italy, France, Spain and then up the Atlantic coast to the British Isles. There is a dated archaeological trail for this. My genetic analysis shows exact counterparts for this trail both in the male Y chromosome and the maternally transmitted mitochondrial DNA right up to Cornwall, Wales, Ireland and the English south coast.

Further evidence for the Mediterranean origins of Celtic invaders is preserved in medieval Gaelic literature. According to the orthodox academic view of "iron-age Celtic invasions" from central Europe, Celtic cultural history should start in the British Isles no earlier than 300 BC. Yet Irish legend tells us that all six of the cycles of invasion came from the Mediterranean via Spain, during the late Neolithic to bronze age, and were completed 3,700 years ago.

Anglo-Saxon ethnic cleansing?

The other myth I was taught at school, one which persists to this day, is that the English are almost all descended from 5th-century invaders, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, from the Danish peninsula, who wiped out the indigenous Celtic population of England.

The story originates with the clerical historians of the early dark ages. Gildas (6th century AD) and Bede (7th century) tell of Saxons and Angles invading over the 5th and 6th centuries. Gildas, in particular, sprinkles his tale with "rivers of blood" descriptions of Saxon massacres. And then there is the well-documented history of Anglian and Saxon kingdoms covering England for 500 years before the Norman invasion.

But who were those Ancient Britons left in England to be slaughtered when the legions left? The idea that the Celts were eradicated—culturally, linguistically and genetically—by invading Angles and Saxons derives from the idea of a previously uniformly Celtic English landscape. But the presence in Roman England of some Celtic personal and place-names doesn't mean that all ancient Britons were Celts or Celtic-speaking.

The genocidal view was generated, like the Celtic myth, by historians and archaeologists over the last 200 years. With the swing in academic fashion against "migrationism" (seeing the spread of cultural influence as dependent on significant migrations) over the past couple of decades, archaeologists are now downplaying this story, although it remains a strong underlying perspective in history books.

Some geneticists still cling to the genocide story. Research by several genetics teams associated with University College London has concentrated in recent years on proving the wipeout view on the basis of similarities of male Y chromosome gene group frequency between Frisia/north Germany and England. One of the London groups attracted press attention in July by claiming that the close similarities were the result of genocide followed by a social-sexual apartheid that enhanced Anglo-Saxon reproductive success over Celtic.

The problem is that the English resemble in this way all the other countries of northwest Europe as well as the Frisians and Germans. Using the same method (principal components analysis, see note below), I have found greater similarities of this kind between the southern English and Belgians than the supposedly Anglo-Saxon homelands at the base of the Danish peninsula. These different regions could not all have been waiting their turn to commit genocide on the former Celtic population of England. The most likely reason for the genetic similarities between these neighbouring countries and England is that they all had similar prehistoric settlement histories.

When I looked at exact gene type matches between the British Isles and the continent, there were indeed specific matches between the continental Anglo-Saxon homelands and England, but these amounted to only 5 per cent of modern English male lines, rising to 15 per cent in parts of Norfolk where the Angles first settled. There were no such matches with Frisia, which tends to confirm a specific Anglo-Saxon event since Frisia is closer to England, so would be expected to have more matches.

When I examined dates of intrusive male gene lines to look for those coming in from northwest Europe during the past 3,000 years, there was a similarly low rate of immigration, by far the majority arriving in the Neolithic period. The English maternal genetic record (mtDNA) is consistent with this and contradicts the Anglo-Saxon wipeout story. English females almost completely lack the characteristic Saxon mtDNA marker type still found in the homeland of the Angles and Saxons. The conclusion is that there was an Anglo-Saxon invasion, but of a minority elite type, with no evidence of subsequent "sexual apartheid."

The orthodox view is that the entire population of the British Isles, including England, was Celtic-speaking when Caesar invaded. But if that were the case, a modest Anglo-Saxon invasion is unlikely to have swept away all traces of Celtic language from the pre-existing population of England. Yet there are only half a dozen Celtic words in English, the rest being mainly Germanic, Norman or medieval Latin. One explanation is that England was not mainly Celtic-speaking before the Anglo-Saxons. Consider, for example, the near-total absence of Celtic inscriptions in England (outside Cornwall), although they are abundant in Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Brittany.

Who was here when the Romans came?

So who were the Britons inhabiting England at the time of the Roman invasion? The history of pre-Roman coins in southern Britain reveals an influence from Belgic Gaul. The tribes of England south of the Thames and along the south coast during Caesar's time all had Belgic names or affiliations. Caesar tells us that these large intrusive settlements had replaced an earlier British population, which had retreated to the hinterland of southeast England. The latter may have been the large Celtic tribe, the Catuvellauni, situated in the home counties north of the Thames. Tacitus reported that between Britain and Gaul "the language differs but little."

The common language referred to by Tacitus was probably not Celtic, but was similar to that spoken by the Belgae, who may have been a Germanic people, as implied by Caesar. In other words, a Germanic-type language could already have been indigenous to England at the time of the Roman invasion. In support of this inference, there is some recent lexical (vocabulary) evidence analysed by Cambridge geneticist Peter Forster and continental colleagues. They found that the date of the split between old English and continental Germanic languages goes much further back than the dark ages, and that English may have been a separate, fourth branch of the Germanic language before the Roman invasion.

Apart from the Belgian connection in the south, my analysis of the genetic evidence also shows that there were major Scandinavian incursions into northern and eastern Britain, from Shetland to Anglia, during the Neolithic period and before the Romans. These are consistent with the intense cultural interchanges across the North sea during the Neolithic and bronze age. Early Anglian dialects, such as found in the old English saga Beowulf, owe much of their vocabulary to Scandinavian languages. This is consistent with the fact that Beowulf was set in Denmark and Sweden and that the cultural affiliations of the early Anglian kingdoms, such as found in the Sutton Hoo boat burial, derive from Scandinavia.

A picture thus emerges of the dark-ages invasions of England and northeastern Britain as less like replacements than minority elite additions, akin to earlier and larger Neolithic intrusions from the same places. There were battles for dominance between chieftains, all of Germanic origin, each invader sharing much culturally with their newly conquered indigenous subjects.

So, based on the overall genetic perspective of the British, it seems that Celts, Belgians, Angles, Jutes, Saxons, Vikings and Normans were all immigrant minorities compared with the Basque pioneers, who first ventured into the empty, chilly lands so recently vacated by the great ice sheets.

Note: How does genetic tracking work?

The greatest advances in genetic tracing and measuring migrations over the past two decades have used samples from living populations to reconstruct the past. Such research goes back to the discovery of blood groups, but our Y-chromosomes and mitochondrial DNA are the most fruitful markers to study since they do not get mixed up at each generation. Study of mitochondrial DNA in the British goes back over a decade, and from 2000 to 2003 London-based researchers established a database of the geographically informative Y-chromosomes by systematic sampling throughout the British Isles. Most of these samples were collected from people living in small, long-established towns, whose grandparents had also lived there.

Two alternative methods of analysis are used. In the British Y-chromosome studies, the traditional approach of principal components analysis was used to compare similarities between whole sample populations. This method reduces complexity of genetic analysis by averaging the variation in frequencies of numerous genetic markers into a smaller number of parcels—the principal components—of decreasing statistical importance. The newer approach that I use, the phylogeographic method, follows individual genes rather than whole populations. The geographical distribution of individual gene lines is analysed with respect to their position on a gene tree, to reconstruct their origins, dates and routes of movement.

Torture for Dummies

What if you knew for sure that the cute little baby burbling and smiling at you from his stroller in the park was going to grow up to be another Hitler, responsible for a global cataclysm and millions of deaths? Would you be justified in picking up a rock and bashing his adorable head in? Wouldn't you be morally depraved if you didn't?

Or what if a mad scientist developed a poison so strong that two drops in the water supply would kill everyone in Chicago? And you could destroy the poison, but only by killing the scientist and 10 innocent family members? Should you do it?

Or what if an international terrorist planted a nuclear bomb somewhere in Manhattan, set to go off in an hour and kill a million people. You've got him in custody, but he won't say where the bomb is. Is it moral to torture him until he gives up the information?

Questions like these have been pondered and disputed since the invention of the college dorm, but rarely, until the past couple of weeks, unstoned. Now the last of these golden oldies—about the terrorist who knows where the bomb is set to go off—is in the news. Not because it has happened, but because of Sen. John McCain's proposed legislation forbidding the use of torture by the United States government.

It feels strange even to have to use the term "proposed legislation" about a subject like this. When you think of all the things the law forbids, with varying degrees of success, it is hard to believe that torture by public officials isn't on the list. But yes, according to the Bush administration, no law prevents our government from torturing (at the very least) nonuniformed noncitizens outside the United States. And the Bush folks like it that way. But others, including many congressional Republicans, don't.

That hypothetical terrorist with a nuke is central to the most (maybe the only) articulate argument against the McCain bill. The argument, made by Charles Krauthammer in the Weekly Standard, is, in a nutshell: 1) No rational moral calculus could possibly justify sacrificing a million innocent lives in order to spare the would-be mass murderer a few minutes of pain. And 2) once you accept that torture would be justified in one situation, avoiding the use of torture on other situations is no longer a moral imperative. The question becomes where you draw the line.

In law school, they call this second point, "salami-slicing." You start with a seemingly solid principle, then start slicing: If you would torture to save a million lives, would you do it for half a million? A thousand? Two dozen? What if there's only a two-out-of-three chance that person you're torturing has the crucial information? A 50-50 chance? One chance in 10? At what point does your moral calculus change, and why? Slice the salami too far, and the formerly solid principle disappears.

Krauthammer stops at two slices. In addition to the terrorist-with-a-nuke, he also would torture a high-level terrorist to get information that is needed on a "slower fuse." When there is less urgency, he says, "the level of inhumanity" of the torture should be "proportionate to the need and value of the information." He has sundry other requirements involving procedures for authorizing torture and keeping the military out of it. This last one is not because (based on recent experience) he doesn't trust soldiers with truncheons and electrodes, but because he believes that the military should not be tainted by the sordid business of torture.

Krauthammer's proposed rules are fairly restrictive. That is a selling point: They are far from a wholesale endorsement of torture whenever it might prove useful. They acknowledge the humanity, even the human rights to some degree, of torture subjects. They aspire to no more torture than is necessary in any particular case. If these rules were enforced as punctiliously as their author lays them out, the U.S. Government might not find itself torturing a lot more people than it is torturing already, under various legal theories or none at all. And let's face it, we live with what's going on now. Most of us don't like it. But few of us are doing much to stop it.

But where do Krauthammer's rules come from? They have no obvious connection to the reasoning he uses to endorse torture in principle. They are just his opinion. This makes their careful limits more alarming than reassuring. There is no reason to suppose that if Krauthammer's reasoning was accepted, the result would be Krauthammer's rules. Once we are rid of the childish notion of an absolute ban on torture, there is no telling where adult minds may take us.

The trouble with salami-slicing is that it doesn't stop just because you do. A judicious trade-off of competing considerations is vulnerable to salami-slicing from both directions. You can calibrate the viciousness of the torture as finely as you like to make sure that it matches the urgency of the situation. But you can't calibrate the torture candidate strapped down before you. Once you're in the torture business, what justification is there for banning (as Krauthammer would) the torture of official prisoners of war, no matter how many innocent lives this might cost? If you are willing to torture a "high level" terrorist in order to save innocent lives, why should you spare a low-level terrorist at the same awful cost? What about a minor accomplice?

Or what about someone wholly innocent? It's hard to imagine a situation where someone who refuses to supply life-saving information could be considered "innocent." But it's not impossible. (Suppose the terrorists have his wife. …) In this cold, hard world, allegedly facing a challenge greater than any the civilized world has faced before, would you torture an innocent individual for five minutes in order to spare a million innocents from death? These would be wartime deaths, many of them more painful and grotesque than the laboratory torture you are sparing one lone individual. If you say yes, go ahead and torture an innocent person, you have pretty much abandoned the various exquisite moral distinctions that eased your previous abandonment of an absolute ban on torture. But if you say no, my own moral hygiene, or my country's, forbids the torture of an innocent individual, even if the indirect but predictable consequence is a million human deaths, you are more or less back in the camp of the anti-torture absolutists whose simple-minded moral vanity you find so irritating.

So Krauthammer's second argument—that once you abandon an absolute rule against torture, there is no obvious moral stopping point—"proves too much" (in another lovely law-school phrase). It can be used to discredit any nonabsolutist torture policy, including Krauthammer's own.

Torture is like almost every other issue: It involves trade-offs between the rights of individuals and the needs of society. In his own proposed rules, Krauthammer makes some strange trade-offs. How many lives would he give up in order to relieve the military of the onus of torture? And where will he find morally pre-damaged patriots better suited to the task? Do CIA agents deserve to be told that torturing people is a "monstrous evil" that is too "inhumane" for uniformed soldiers, but just perfect for them?

It is not fatal to Krauthammer's or any other person's particular set of torture rules that they draw lines more exact than evidence or reason can justify. Drawing bright lines in foggy situations is what the law does. But good rules need to be defensible against salami-slicing in a more general way. The strength of an absolute ban on torture—or an absolute rule of any sort—is its relative immunity from salami-slicing, both in theory and in practice. It is hard to explain why you would torture a teenager abducted into a terrorist gang if this would save a dozen lives, but would not torture a uniformed military officer in order to save a thousand. It is not hard to explain why you would not torture anybody at all. The argument may be wrong, but at least it is clear. The policy—just don't do it—is hard to misunderstand, making it easier to teach and enforce. And the principle can be consciously abandoned but it can't easily erode.

But what about Krauthammer's conundrum? Will you eschew torture even when a few minutes of it, applied to a very bad person, would save a million lives? One answer is that the law wouldn't really be enforced in such an extreme situation. McCain himself has hinted at this, as Krauthammer points out, and Andrew Sullivan fleshes out the point in a reply to Krauthammer published in the New Republic. This may well be true as a prediction, and tempting as a moral argument, but ultimately not good enough. Surely every law should at least aspire to be enforced. Or—an even more modest standard—a law should not depend on unenforceability for its very justification. Furthermore, a law expresses a social norm even apart from its enforcement. If the hypothetical situation ever arises, something will happen. What do we want that something to be?

There is yet another law-school bromide: "Hard cases make bad law." It means that divining a general policy from statistical oddballs is a mistake. Better to have a policy that works generally and just live with a troublesome result in the oddball case. And we do this in many situations. For example, criminals go free every day because of trial rules and civil liberties designed to protect the innocent. We live with it.

Of course a million deaths is hard to shrug off as a price worth paying for the principle that we don't torture people. But college dorm what-ifs like this one share a flaw: They posit certainty (about what you know and what will happen if you do this or that). And uncertainty is not only much more common in real life: It is the generally unspoken assumption behind civil liberties, rules of criminal procedure, and much else that conservatives find sentimental and irritating.

Sure, if we could know the present and predict the future with certainty, we could torture only people who deserve it. Not just that: We could go door-to-door killing people before they kill others. We could lock up innocent people who would otherwise be involved in fatal traffic accidents. Civil libertarians like to believe that criminals get their Miranda warnings and dissidents enjoy freedom of speech because human rights are universal. But if we knew for sure that a newspaper column by Charles Krauthammer would lead—even by a chain of events he never intended and bore no responsibility for—to World War II, wouldn't we be nuts not to censor it? Universal human rights would make no sense in a world where everything was known and certain.

This is not to say that Krauthammer's killer hypothetical could never happen. It is to say that morality does not require us to build a general policy on torture around a situation that is not merely unlikely in real life, but different in kind from the situations we are likely to face in real life. What we would do or should do if this situation actually arose is an interesting question for bull sessions in the dorm, but not a pressing issue for the nation.

Every day American forces in Iraq and elsewhere probably inflict more pain on guilty and innocent people than officially designated American torturers would do in a year, even if Bush and company were free of any legal restriction. That pain is not necessarily unjustified (although I believe it is). But it makes the whole debate about officially designated "torture" artificial and symbolic, not to say deeply hypocritical. And yet supporters of the administration, the war, and the practice of torture have not leaped to embrace this argument, for some reason.

btw :)

James Joyce's Ulysses has been hailed as a masterpiece since its publication in 1922. This tale of the adventures of advertising salesman Leopold Bloom on June 16, 1904, in Dublin is a remarkable conflation of mythology, symbolism, philosophy, social realism, and humanity. Bloom's relationships with wife Molly and surrogate son Stephan Dedalus reflect the simple decency of the common man.

However, the common reader has been reluctant to face Joyce's great panorama. Laden with obscure references and dogged by an ever-growing body of secondary literature, the book's reputation as a "difficult" work has placed a barrier between the book and its potential audience. This is a shame, because Joyce was writing for a general readership, and his novel offers a remarkable experience even for the reader with no prior familiarity with Joyce's world.

From Hunger smells an opportunity when we step in it. Herewith, our stripped-down, revved-up version of Joyce's great work, which we, with one eye on the marketplace, have called Ulysses for Dummies. Now you can thrill to the discussion of Shakespeare in chapter 9; weep with Simon Dedalus at Dignam's funeral in chapter 6; frolic with Bloom and Stephen in chapter 15's dreamscape of Nighttown; and join in Molly's optimistic vindication of the world in chapter 18. And it's in color, thanks to the 16-color palette of Windows Paintbox! Those with Netscape Navigator 2.0 have another (quite moving!) surprise.

So join us in a Bloomsday tour of James Joyce's fictional Dublin. Begin here with Chapter 1.

for Dummies

Few thirsts run deeper these days than the one for self-improvement, and few recent books have slaked it better than the ubiquitous bumble-bee-colored titles in the “For Dummies” series. Since it began in 1991 with “DOS for Dummies,” which helped computer neophytes navigate the user-unfriendly program that predated Windows, the series has swelled to more than 1,000 titles and sold more than 150 million copies.

The list of Dummies topics is like a parallel history of contemporary consciousness. Lawn care, Mormonism, golf, women in the Bible, Excel, auto repair. Wedding planning, digital photography, sudoku, bathroom remodeling, senior dogs, Chinese cooking. Fighting spam, TiVo, Nascar, Catholicism, yoga with weights, Sarbanes-Oxley and living with Hepatitis C, not to mention forensics, ballet, adoption, overcoming anxiety, gluten-free living, kittens, baking, eBay timesaving techniques, knitting, C. S. Lewis and Narnia, teaching kids to spell, and even sex (explained by no less than Dr. Ruth Westheimer).

“We have what we call a hit list — that would be unpublished topics — as long or longer than our actual list,” said Diane Steele, the publisher of the Dummies series. “Our challenge has never been ‘Is there anything left to publish on?’ ” Instead, it’s what to publish next. “It’s a very rare thing when someone suggests something we don’t already have on the list.” John Wiley & Sons, which bought the Dummies brand in 2001, cranks out 200 new Dummies titles a year. At that rate, there may soon be more Dummies books out there than dummies to read them.

Pitched middle- to lowbrow, the books all adhere to the same format: goofy chapter headings, bullet points, tips and lists, leavened with a laugh track of cornball, sitcom humor. Although Dummies titles have been translated into more than a dozen languages — an original French title, “L’Histoire de France Pour Les Nuls,” has sold more than 125,000 copies — there’s something profoundly American about the enterprise. Amiable and nonthreatening, the books are informed less by populist anti-intellectualism than by a bedrock belief that knowledge is democratic, that you too can master things — especially by ignoring those highfalutin experts who make you feel inadequate.

The series originated in California in the late 80’s. Dan Gookin, a technology writer and radio host, had the idea for a practical guide to DOS, with its constant “Abort, Retry, Fail” error messages. After being turned down by several publishers, he sold what became “DOS for Dummies” to IDG Books, a start-up subsidiary of the technology publisher IDG. The guiding idea was that “people don’t want to learn computers or love computers, they just want to get the answer to that one question and then get on with their lives,” Gookin said by telephone from his home in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. There’s some debate about who first came up with the “For Dummies” name. “Success has many fathers,” said John Kilcullen, a founder of IDG Books who’s now president of the VNU Music and Literary Group. “Everyone has their own fine recollection.” (In 1976, a one-off book, “Auto Repair for Dummies,” appeared; IDG later bought the rights.) The first print run of “DOS for Dummies,” a cautious 7,500 copies, trailed the latest edition of DOS by a long six months. At first, Waldenbooks, then one of the top bookstore chains, declined to stock it. “They hated the color, garish yellow; they hated the title and thought it would insult their customers; and we were late,” Kilcullen said. Then word of mouth took hold. Around the 15th printing, Gookin said, the publisher “realized the sucker was just not going to stop.”

David Pogue, now a technology columnist for The New York Times, wrote the second title in the series, which also did well. “I bought a house on ‘Macs for Dummies,’ ” he said. “We call it the house that Dummies built.” (Pogue was also a co-author of “Opera for Dummies.”) Technology and personal finance books remain the Dummies top sellers — the different editions of “Windows for Dummies” have sold more than 10 million copies combined — while the No. 1 consumer title is “Personal Finance for Dummies,” by Eric Tyson, who has also written Dummies books about investing, mutual funds and mortgages.

Sometimes the Dummies editors approach authors, but to avoid opening the floodgates they now deal exclusively with literary agents. Authors are given an advance — some reported getting $12,000, others $40,000 — and royalties. The editorial team, based in Indian-apolis, gives authors a kind of “Dummies for Dummies” manual and a computer template. “Copy editors do the line editing and Dummifying,” Steele said. “It’s a word we use to talk about how to make text comply with our style guide.” The approach is strict. “We address the reader as you — you can, next you do this — we don’t talk about we,” she said. “We try to be funny, or at least lighthearted.” Furthermore, Steele said: “We don’t use future tense, we don’t use passive voice, we don’t have long chapters. A 26-page chapter is getting pretty long.”

Most authors must write their books in less than a year, sometimes in just a few months. “I think the biggest downside is that the schedule is killer,” said Maxine Levaren, a freelance writer in California and seasoned Dummies author who wrote “Science Fair Projects for Dummies” and is a co-author of “The ’60s for Dummies.” “You have to have a third of the book done each month.” Brian Cassity, the other co-author of the 60’s book and a professor of history in the University of Hawaii system, said it was tough to balance levity and gravity. It was hard “to write about the civil rights movement or the antiwar movement or the Vietnam War with a humorous tone,” Cassity said. “I didn’t give it any ha-ha at all.”

Dr. Alan Rubin, a San Francisco endocrinologist whose “Diabetes for Dummies” is the No. 1 title in the Dummies health category, said he had some friendly discussions with his editors about the passive-voice rule. “Sometimes I’ll write something like ‘the patient was comatose and was given thyroid hormone,’ and they’ll change that to ‘the patient was comatose and took thyroid hormone,’ ” Rubin said. “I have to tell them these are extremely sick patients, they can’t take care of themselves, they have to be passive whether Wiley likes it or not.”

A veritable Dummies ringleader, Rubin is organizing a conference of Dummies authors in San Francisco this fall, with Wiley’s participation. He also set up a Yahoo list-serv where authors can talk shop. “If your book has sold well and you want to write another Dummy book, although you may not be able to get a bigger advance, you may be able to negotiate higher percentages on your royalties,” one Dummies author wrote in, according to a transcript Rubin provided.

In general, the more practical the title, the better the material. “Wine for Dummies” teaches you everything about Puligny Montrachet (or “poo lee nyee mon rah shay,” as the book sounds it out) except how to afford it. “Alzheimer’s for Dummies” evaluates different drug therapies, “Beekeeping for Dummies” advises you to avoid perfume and “always wear your veil when you’re inspecting your hive,” and “Google for Dummies” explains how to buy advertising on the almighty search engine.

But the history books can be hilariously simplistic. “As you may imagine, Augustine’s ‘predestination’ proved controversial,” Peter Haugen, who’s identified as a lecturer at the University of Wisconsin, writes in “World History for Dummies.” “Yet without the spiritual equivalent of a carrot or stick, keeping some people on the narrow path is impossible, so some moralists consider predestination a lousy motivator.” Before the Battle of Waterloo, “Napoleon appeared to make all the right moves, both on the diplomatic and military fronts,” J. David Markham, the president of a quasi-scholarly group called the Napoleonic Alliance, writes in “Napoleon for Dummies.” “He started strong, but in the end he had too little, too late.”

And then there’s “Dating for Dummies,” by Dr. Joy Browne, a radio talk-show host and psychologist. Clearly not aimed at a New York audience, it lists “political hot potatoes” to avoid discussing “at all costs” on a first date, including: police brutality, immigration, spanking, Sept. 11 and “any current war or conflict.” Browne also offers some pre-date tips. “If you have fingernail marks on the palms of your hands, you’re a little too tense.” Maybe the series really is for dummies.

22 setembro 2006

The Ceiling and The Windows

SkyCeilingsTM and Luminous Virtual WindowsTM are authentic illusions of nature that trigger relaxation and a sense of freedom, vitality, and well-being.

Ok, then :)

21 setembro 2006


Candida Höfer's photographs of libraries are sober and restrained – the atmosphere is disturbed by neither visitors nor users, especially as she forgoes any staging of the locations. The emptiness is imbued with substance by a subtle attention to colour, and the prevailing silence instilled with a metaphysical quality that gives voice to the objects, over and above the eloquence of the furnishings or the pathos of the architecture.

This sumptuous volume contains Höfer’s famously ascetic images of the British Library in London, the Escorial in Spain, the Whitney Museum and the Pierpoint Library in New York, the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris, the Villa Medici in Rome and the Hamburg University Library, among others.

Umberto Eco introduces the collection with a witty reflection on the role of libraries in all our lives.

Almost completely devoid of people, as is Höfer’s trademark, these pictures radiate a comforting serenity that is exceptional in contemporary photography.

Via The Cool Hunter ;)

If being a man means having body hair and sweating, why are the sexy guys in ads immune to both?

In the movie Fight Club, the character Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt) boards a bus and is confronted by an advertisement depicting a model's perfectly muscled fantasy male body, sculpted by pathological obsession and posed as if natural. "Is that what a real man is supposed to look like?" he asks.

It's a common question, though not always a conscious one. Modern life takes place amidst a never-ending barrage of flesh on screens, pages, and billboards. These images convey assumptions about what is desirable in our physical selves while dispensing with reality.

Because the media have been objectifying women for so long, researchers have had time to create a body of literature on the effects of these images on women. (In short, they make women feel worse about themselves, and often cause unhealthy behaviors.)

But over the past two decades, the gender gap in media objectification has closed. Every bit as unattainable as Barbie-doll proportions and the heroin chic look are the broad-shouldered, narrow-waisted, fat-free, and muscle-sheathed male physiques littering today's media.

Researchers are beginning to pay attention to what these stimuli do to the male body image. Guys, it turns out, have body issues too.

When it comes to the media and male bodies, size and shape aren't the only issues. There's also the so-called "real body": hair, sweat, blemishes, smells—all the characteristics that are noticeably absent or can't be fully conveyed in a picture or on a screen.

Twentieth-century communications guru George Gerbner said that what we see on TV and in magazines eventually becomes our standard of reality and desire; failing to meet it is perceived as deficiency. Characteristics like sweat and hair can be controlled on screen but never escaped in reality, so some men come to see these essential parts of their body as they might a rounded belly or unfirm bicep: as a gross, unfortunate flaw.

"Hair is supposed to be ugly, so men in ads have their body hair shaved off, or disappeared with Photoshop," said Michael Rich, director of the Harvard Medical School's Center on Media and Child Health. "Sweat is replaced with glisten from a spray bottle, and you can't smell someone through a magazine."

This spring, San Francisco State University psychologist Deborah Schooler, who coined the term "real body" with her former advisor L. Monique Ward of the University of Michigan, published the first study to measure male real-body discomfort due to media consumption. They found not only that watching prime-time television and music videos appears to make men uncomfortable with themselves, but that such discomfort leads to sexual problems and risky behaviors.

"People see the same images over and over and start to believe it's a version of reality," said Schooler. "If those bodies are real and that's possible, but you can't attain it, how can you not feel bad about your own body?"

For their study, which appeared in the journal Psychology of Men and Masculinity, Schooler and Ward interviewed 179 undergraduate males at the University of Michigan, first asking how often each watched prime-time television and music videos, as well as how frequently they read fitness or sports magazines. Ward and Schooler also questioned the men about their sexual experiences and how they felt about their own physiques and their "real bodies." Looking at "real bodies" in addition to muscularity is a new approach for researchers, who have traditionally focused on muscularity or thinness. Schooler and Ward used a measuring system co-developed by Ward just four years ago. It utilizes questions such as, "How comfortable are you with the quantity/thickness of your facial hair?" and "How comfortable are you with the smell of your own sweat?"

According to Schooler, she and Ward predicted that average guys would feel scrawny and inadequate in the face of pictures of sculpted, muscle-bound men. But this was, surprisingly, not the case.

The students' feelings about personal size and physique didn't seem to be affected by media.

However, students who consumed more media than average, particularly music videos and prime-time TV, were uncomfortable with one aspect of their physique—their 'real bodies'.

This discomfort correlated with the men being less likely to have healthy sexual relationships.

"If all of a sudden you're in an intimate situation and these aspects of your body are exposed, you have to deal with the fact that your body doesn't meet the ideal," said Schooler. "You're concerned with how your partner is evaluating you, how you look and smell."

This discomfort appeared to increase the chances of guys to take sexual risks, such as engaging in unprotected sex.

Schooler isn't sure exactly how being grossed out by your back hair translates into unprotected sex. She hypothesizes that men, when ashamed, detach emotionally and mentally from sexual situations—they aren't attentive to their partner's needs or open with their own. She adds that they are more likely to be careless. Such behaviors have been observed in women who are uncomfortable with their bodies.

Depression could also play a role.

According to University of North Dakota psychologist Ric Ferraro, a negative body image makes people unhappy, leading them to be alternatively less likely to speak up for themselves when pressured and more likely to take risks as a way of impressing others.

"They engage in behaviors in hopes of feeling better, and end up getting worse," said Ferraro.

Whether "real-body" discomfort in men is truly new or something that's only now being noticed is impossible to say, but sociologists and psychologists say that images of hairless, sweatless, pseudo-perfect men are more common than ever before.

Ideally, psychologists say, people should recognize that billboard bodies just aren't real, and learn to be happy with their own appearance. That, of course, is easier said than done.