31 maio 2009

My life as a giraffe

I have a theory that we each have a vague kinship with an exotic animal. Perhaps you have an inexplicable affinity for leopard print. Or your shower curtain is covered in butterflies, similar to the one on your ankle. Or you were a Rubenesque, somersaulting toddler and your family nicknamed you Panda.

For me it is the giraffe. My career as a long-necked mammal began at a supermarket checkout circa 1987, when a woman actually said it: "Aw. You look just like a little giraffe!" I looked up to my mother for help, but her face was hidden behind the People announcing Princess Diana's marital woes. I was left to fend for myself. I must have looked stricken, because the woman said, "Don't worry honey, it's a compliment." "Don't worry" is code for, "You should really worry a lot about this." She was a puffin of a woman, smiling warmly down at me. Stick drawings were an accurate representation of my body that year, so I'm sure that my limbs shooting out of a jumper below a mop of brown hair did indeed resemble a baby giraffe.

Up to that point, I was aware of height only insofar as I bruised my knees on my best friend Jeni's bike handlebars, and that I shopped in the juniors section. I wasn't concerned until adults started regularly shrieking, "My, look how tall you are!" Rather than looking at my never-ending fingers and saying, "Oh, a piano player," they opted for a comparison with an African safari creature.

The woman was still looking at me expectantly. I grabbed my mother's thigh, looked down and quietly said, "Thanks."

Puffin woman would prove to be firmly in line with the rest of society. In my elementary school zoo play, I was the giraffe. In sixth grade, when my science class voted on who would do reports on which animals, I got the giraffe. A decade later, as a 6ft 2in first-year undergraduate at Harvard, the annual water polo team initiation ritual took place at a jungle-themed party. While the other girls wore little black dresses (the panther), faux snakeskin trousers (the python), or tight red sweaters over green minis (the parrot), I wore tapioca yellow Capri pants, ears and chocolate body paint spots.

Tall folk are incapable of talking about their height without discussing their family. Height is a trait that comes with a long shadow. There's always a history. It's an inheritance.

Mine begins in 1952, when my grandmother bought a baby book in which to note the developments of my mother's childhood, and began plotting my mother's height on the growth chart provided. The result is comical: my mother's height stubbornly refuses to stay within half a page of the chart's clearly defined "average zone". By age four, my grandmother's ballpoint indentations have turned into a panic. The page is filled with erased pencil dots attempting to plot the future. The future said 6ft 2in.

In 1962, my grandmother read in a newspaper about a new oestrogen treatment that brought on early puberty, closing the growth plates around the age of 11, thereby skipping the furious years of growth at 12 and 13. Up to that point, my mother's tall childhood had been textbook: "Amazon Arline!" she was called. "Daddy Long Legs". Ten thousand queries of, "How's the weather up there?" One of her legs was already permanently shorter than the other from her hip-drop stance, where she spread her legs into an upside-down V and shifted one hip downward so the socket dropped, shaving off three or so inches. With slouching, she could reduce herself by nearly five inches.

The photo albums are consistent with the baby book: a coltish girl with never-ending legs under an afro of auburn curls. Arline pouting in a slouch on family vacation. Arline pouting in a slump at home. Arline pouting in a pile at the beach. It takes the suspense out of turning the page.

Which is all to say that my mother arrived at the office of the endocrinologist in a mild state of ecstasy. For the next year-and-a-half, she took an orange pill morning and night. A bevy of male doctors tracked her for signs of puberty. She had a few migraines, presumably from the hormones, and went into express puberty, gaining 30lb in a year, as dutifully documented in the baby book's accompanying weight chart. Her growth curve, previously a gentle sinusoidal arch, suddenly flatlined. And then treatment ended abruptly. She was 5ft 11¾in, thrilled to have dodged the 6ft bullet.

Of course, she was still tall, towering five inches over the 5ft 7in Jacqueline Onassis, then considered statuesque. She puts it shortly: "My height was my biggest problem, it defined who I was, and it was defined negatively." She grew into an adult who "dreams of being 5ft 5in". She wore beige and navy, and never donned a hue that you might see in, say, a rainbow - nor heels, ever. (The goal is to be shorter, not pretty.) If she could become the wallpaper, she would.

Which is how I came to visit the endocrinologist annually from the age of three. She wanted me to have the option, because for her it had been "among the best things I've ever done". For a decade I went as a matter of course. I thought everyone had an endocrinologist, like a dentist for your growth. Just bone scans instead of tooth X-rays.

The skeleton details of why I was there were revealed to me when I was 11. Which is how I found myself facing Dr Kauger, my mother, and the question: "So what height would you like to be?" I had six months to decide, because the pills must be started before puberty. I peered over Dr Kauger's shoulder, tracing my curve to its end: 6ft 3in. Way above all the other growth curves. My mother sent me to the waiting room so she could talk with Dr Kauger. I thought things over. I was having a hard time framing my height positively. The week before I'd attended a social, a dance-cum-hangout where 11-year-olds gossiped in the basement of my school alongside pool tables and a long mahogany bar that served root beer and ginger ale. I arrived early and lingered in a corner for a while in my signature stance, the hip drop. Nothing is more unattractive than the hip drop. The room lacked chairs (no one can work a chair like a tall girl), so I hovered awkwardly, towering above the cliques, unable to hear the girls and drawing zero interest from the boys.

When my hips started to ache, I awkwardly strolled my 5ft 7in self around the room, passing Katie and Justin, a year older, at a pool table. My brain has blocked out the precise phrasing of what they said, but the gist was: "No one likes you, you look like a giraffe, and no boy will ever date you."

The problem with tall teasing is that, unlike most teasing, it's 100% accurate. I really did look like a giraffe. And no boy on the premises would even consider dating me. So obviously they were right.

At least my mother was on my side. She had smartly overloaded my schedule with activities where height was an asset - tennis, dance, swimming.

In Dr Kauger's waiting room, I watched adorable chemo-stunted boys and girls play below walls muralled with giraffes. Children's illustrators often employ giraffes as a neutral mascot of difference. "Because of its height, the giraffe has long been a symbol of people who just don't fit in," writes Lynn Sherr, the tall American news anchor who was so intrigued by her own lifelong association with giraffes that she took time off to write a book about them, Tall Blondes. "They may be too tall or too eccentric, or simply too different from everyone else, like exclamation points on the landscape."

An exclamation point. That is exactly. What. I felt like!

I was the sort of child who read the op-ed page, so I thought that perhaps there might be a book to help me make my decision. That afternoon I went to the library. The card catalogue said, "Tall: see Giraffe". No mention of "oestrogen" or "height-reduction treatment". From Memily, by children's writer Stephen Cosgrove: "Week after week, Memily grew and she became sadder and sadder. She was shy and embarrassed by her height, and whenever any of the other creatures walked by she would turn her head, knowing that they had to look up just to look her in the eye." Memily develops a severe slouching problem. So did I.

But Memily, apparently, was never offered oestrogen therapy. So I had to make the decision alone. My thinking had little to do with height and more to do with a general aversion to medication: when in doubt, don't take chemicals. At the time, it was simply a decision of passivity. I was frozen. Though I wasn't happy with my body, I didn't want to change it. I told myself that the fastest swimmers in the world were six-footers. Long limbs were important. So I decided to not do anything. I figured I'd just wait and see what happened.

What happened is I ended up on the couch of therapist Diane, my gawky 17-year-old limbs sprawled awkwardly. My mother sent me as a precautionary measure, concerned that I wasn't talking much. But really, I just didn't want to talk about my life as an exclamation point. I mean, what was there to say? Boys ignored me. My closest resemblance was to Big Bird. There wasn't enough happening to fill light pleasantries, let alone an hour of analysis.

So we talked about my mom. This is what therapists do: untangle women from their mothers. One day I announced that I didn't think my familial height was particularly feminine. Diane gamely insinuated that perhaps this was just one perception. Mine.

She asked me how I felt about my body. I looked down at myself on the couch, lean and tanned from hours of daily swimming. As bodies go, even then, mine sort of did what it's supposed to do. Length is a great friend of thighs and tummies - it stretches them, taking the eye away from the bulges. And I could wear pretty much any style - glam, boho, sporty, chic. Tallness is, objectively speaking, gorgeous. Tallness, by definition, can only be awkward when there are shorter bodies nearby. You see it at basketball games: the 6ft 5in athlete looks ethereal in her own space, all grace and long angles. And then the 5ft 5in teammate comes into the frame, and suddenly she looks like Hulk. Or the shorter teammate looks like Humpty Dumpty. Ditto on catwalks when the designer appears. Sitting on the couch alone was great.

"So," Diane asked, "where'd you get the idea that you weren't feminine?"

The true challenge of tall life is not that you're tall. Who cares about that - legs are legs. The challenge is that everyone can see you, all the time. Eyes follow everywhere you go. You're public. On display. There is no hiding. Learning to love yourself has nothing to do with the blather you see in women's magazines about treating your body as a temple - it's learning to accept the high-wattage spotlight that came packaged with your body, always shining on you. I can tell you what it feels like to resist: like a non-performer pushed on stage, day after day. The giraffe in the room.

Shortly after college, I headed for a journalism job in Cambodia, one of the shortest countries in the world, where men average 5ft 4in, and women below 5ft. If you want to know why I chose Cambodia, I can only say that I had just spent four undergraduate years at Harvard, where students are quite tall, and I'd melded in for the first time. Thus, height wasn't on my mind when I chose my next step.

I spent much of my time in Phnom Penh attending press conferences where I walked in to find 50 men and 20 cops milling around, the tallest of whom reached my armpit. All stared. I never figured out how to manage this situation.

I was the tallest person anyone had ever seen. Taller than the locals, taller than the expatriates. I assumed that after months of frequenting the same markets with the same saleswomen, they would eventually get over it. Never
happened. Every time I entered a market or passed any Cambodian, I ran a 75% chance of hearing, "Bpee metres!" ("Two metres!") followed by a swift sucking in of breath.

I was considered so tall, and therefore exotic, that I didn't get a gender - I was just an enormous barang (foreigner), a sort of über-large white mutant.

Tall hazards are never quite what you expect. One Monday I awoke in Phnom Penh with a bit of stomach pain and soon found myself on a plane to Bangkok General for an emergency appendectomy. The surgery went smoothly and I landed in an extra-long bed on the Foreigner Floor. A nurse handed me my belly-button ring, which had apparently caused 15 minutes of operating room commotion.

The resident English-speaking doctor, the green-turbaned Dr Singh, explained that my surgery had been successful. Then he informed me that they had found an "unspecified mass" on my pancreas. He wanted to let me rest and then perform another CAT scan the following day, focusing on the pancreas. He also ordered blood work to look for tumour markings. He held up an MRI image of my pancreas and pointed to where it should end. Mine extended 6in past his finger. He said it could just be inflammation, but that he'd asked the nurses not to mention it.

I knew perfectly well that pancreatic tumours are bad news. The five-year survival rate is 3%. But I consoled myself with the freeflowing morphine and the knowledge that I would have an answer soon.

While I pondered the fact that I was potentially dying of pancreatic cancer, Dr Singh took a five-day trip to China. I was put on the Foreigner Diet, which consisted of cream of corn soup breakfast, cream of chicken soup lunch and, one night, cream of cream. Then the CAT-scan machine broke. Despite this, too-young nurses starved me every night in preparation for morning CAT scans that never materialised. I was so bored that I watched Showgirls in Chinese.

When you think you have a terminal illness at 23, this is what you do: first, you want to wave a wand to make your problems go away. You poke at your pancreas, and wonder why you can't just reach through the skin and fix it. Then you remind yourself that you will never have sex again, and that the rest of your life will be painful, boring and short. It was over.

On day seven, a relaxed-looking Dr Singh appeared.

I was very hungry, having fasted yet again. He was smiling:

"Good news, your CAT scan was fine. You do not have a pancreatic tumour."

I tried to convey my best "I just spent eight days contemplating my own death" look.

He explained that in the basement the radiologists review the X-rays and scans, and they have little charts glued to the wall telling them how many centimetres each organ should be. "My dear, as you know, you are very tall. So, I think that maybe they looked and thought your pancreas was very large for a Thai person. You probably had a bit of pancreatitis, too, but you are OK now."

I glared.

"You do not have a tumour, my dear," he smiled. "You are just very tall."

Cambodia was my one respite from giraffes. Southeast Asians don't really know what they are. But had I known what I know now about giraffes, I would have missed their presence in my life. Giraffes are tall, laid-back creatures of the highest order: polysocial, known for hanging out in any number or gender combination, the cool lunch table. They stand lookout among the zebras and wildebeests and ostriches, and get along with the entire savannah. They are anything but outcasts.

Giraffes come in all the hair colours I have tried - red, black, brown and blonde - and their hooves are the size of dinner plates, their eyes wider than a spread hand. The word comes from the Arabic zarafa, which means to hurry, something at which they are more awkward than the most awkward tall person you've ever seen. They move both right legs and then both left legs to prevent tangles. At 18ft tall, their ability to get a drink and not black out is studied by Nasa scientists. They are nuts for routine. If the daily schedule changes, they turn into Rainman.

Our interest in them is intriguing, because giraffes are one of those rare creatures that serve no purpose to us. We can't eat them or make clothes out of them or use them for labour. They're not even all that entertaining (see: penguins). Basically, we like them because they're tall.

I saw this during my brief stint as one half of America's tallest couple, with my 7ft 2in partner, Alan. It was important for me to see someone else's experience of extreme height. We met at the European Tall Club convention, where I'd gone to report for my book. As I watched people interact with him, what I saw was that people really loved him. Toddlers make a beeline for him; adults want to sit at his table; friends sort of burrow into his side; at parties, the space next to him is always filled. He gets a lot of hugs. From everyone. Men, women, children, the elderly. They could never say why.

I found the answer in a 1969 book on giraffes by CAW Guggisberg: "Humans are awed and deeply stirred by anything that is big. A monumental building, a big ship or a towering mountain all give us a thrill." People love tall. I didn't believe it until I saw it with my own eyes.

In researching The Tall Book, I found that, without fail, children absorb their parents' feelings about their height. Just as one learns from one's parents a suitable wedding gift and what appropriate make-up and jewellery looks like, one also finds one's adult self-ingrained with a sense of what bodies are appropriate. And I sensed that to be tall was not appropriate.

Susie Orbach puts it differently: "If parents are tall and uncomfortable, then children will feel that part of being tall is to be out of sorts, to be peculiar in some way. So they will feel like they are ill-fitting in a profound sense."

Which is how I ended up at the European Tall Club Convention, on the arm of the one man who negated any sense that I was on display - more than any other man on earth. When we went for walks, people either stared at him or at my dog. In my journal I wrote, "Ignored again! Fascinating!"

I had never dated anyone shorter than me. I spent my time seeking out the 3% of men taller than me, who by definition made me not tall. I was alerted to the error of my ways while interviewing love and relationship expert Dr Betty Dodson. When I told her I only dated up, she exclaimed, "You're prejudiced! I mean, come on! Develop a sense of humour! It will help. Look in the mirror and say, 'God damn, we're a weird-looking couple.' And then shut it off."

This was among the most life-changing advice I've ever received. Because she's not talking about height. She's talking about the way in which we all unwittingly corner ourselves by whittling down our options. Perhaps you only date or befriend people who are your ethnicity, or are overly educated, or in a certain field. And suddenly, just like that, 90% of your pool disappears.

Height makes a great case study, because height statistics are easily quantifiable. Tall women have half the birth rate of shorter women. "It's not related to lower fertility," says anthropologist Boguslaw Pawlowski, the pre-eminent mating patterns researcher. "It's the same with short guys. They are not limited by sperm quality or hormone level - they've got problems with finding a partner." In the population at large, women typically date men who are 8% taller. This is a boon for the women below the 50th percentile, who have 99 per cent of men to choose from. A 6ft 3in woman is looking at less than 3% of the male population. Extrapolate freely to the choices you make in your own life.

I had six months with Alan to let Dodson's words marinate before the relationship imploded. The truth was that despite getting along famously, we had little in common. No tall joke could save us. And in the two years since, I haven't kissed anyone taller than me. Don't get me wrong, they're still tallish - the 6ft DJ, the 5ft 11in triathlete, the 6ft 1in actor. But my dating pool has expanded by 3,000%. I'm happier.

Giraffes have incredible vision, able to identify people or animals a mile away. This is also metaphorically true. To be different is to see more. And I saw that perhaps I should look slightly downward from time to time.

I did, and a whole new world opened up - one a little closer to the ground.

29 maio 2009

estamos Fartos dos Recibos Verdes

Por indicação da Poison Ivy, sempre atenta a esta vida trabalhadeira mas precária :|

27 maio 2009

Alice Munro wins Man Booker International prize

The Guardian

Canadian short story writer Alice Munro has emerged victorious from a clash of the world's literary giants to win the £60,000 Man Booker International prize.

The 77-year-old writer, whose win places her still higher on her ascent to what fellow Canadian Margaret Atwood last year described as an elevation to "international literary sainthood", was picked from a line-up of towering international talent that pitted Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa against the Nobel laureate VS Naipaul, Australia's Peter Carey and the UK's contender, the Booker prize-winning Scottish author James Kelman. Judge Jane Smiley, the

Pulitzer prize-winning American novelist, admitted that selecting a winner from the 14 longlisted authors – who are assessed on their bodies of work and the contribution they have made to "fiction on the world stage" – had been a challenge, but that Munro "just won us over".

"Her work is practically perfect. Any writer has to gawk when reading her because her work is very subtle and precise," said Smiley. "Her thoughtfulness about every subject is so concentrated."

Munro's spare, quiet stories of small-town life have won her a host of literary awards, although the Nobel prize for literature, for which she is a perennial contender, still eludes her. But she has nonetheless spoken of her desire to write a great novel. "I'm always trying. Between every book I think, well now, it's time to get down to the serious stuff," she told the Guardian in 2003. But Smiley said that Munro managed to do more in the 30 pages of her short stories than some novelists do in an entire book.

"Her commitment to the story as a form is very impressive. Lesser writers would have produces a good or mediocre novel, or three or four, over the years. The fact she decided this is what she was going to explore is very impressive, especially in the Anglo writing world, which is inimical to the shorter form," agreed Smiley's fellow judge, the novelist and critic Amit Chaudhuri. "She's wonderful – the way she brings in memory, the way she handles language and narrative …The level of craftsmanship involved demands attention."

Munro's short story collections, from her acclaimed debut in 1968 with Dance of the Happy Shades and its masterful handling of adolescent preoccupations to 2006's fictionalised family history The View from Castle Rock, have generally focused on small-town life in rural Ontario. On this apparently narrow canvas, with its finely calibrated social nuances, Munro paints a profoundly resonant human comedy taking in all the grand themes of love, life and death.

"Although her style seems simple, sinuous, easy to read, she's thought about each subject so much that you feel like you've had a real immersion in a particular subject," said Smiley, pointing to her story The Turkey Season, about a girl gutting turkeys in a factory. "It gives you such a sense of everything about that turkey factory – where it is, what she's doing, the social groups. That depth is what you'd usually expect to get in a novel, but Alice Munro gives us it in 20 to 30 pages."

Munro is the third recipient of the £60,000 Man Booker International prize, following Ismail Kadare in 2005 (when she was shortlisted for the first time) and Chinua Achebe in 2007. The author said she was "totally amazed and delighted" to win the award, which will be presented to her on 25 June at Trinity College in Dublin.

Now living in Clinton, Ontario, near Lake Huron, Munro is the author of 11 short story collections, and one "novel", Lives of Girls and Women – which is generally agreed to be more accurately described as a series of linked short stories.

Her latest collection, Too Much Happiness, will be published this October.

A Conversation with Alice Munro

This Vintage Books website features an interview with Alice Munro.

Alice Munro

Search for reviews of books written by Alice Munro, Canada’s quintessential short story writer. From McClelland and Stewart Ltd.

Alice Munro

A biography of Alice Munro and a chronology of her works. A British Council website.

Historica: Alice Munro

Listen to a dramatization of “How I Met My Husband” by Alice Munro. A Historica Radio Minute.

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage Stories

Read this online excerpt from one of Alice Munro’s short stories. A WYNC website.

From The Canadian Encyclopedia

10 things I'd tell Darwin

Guest post by Nick Lane, author of Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution

When Matt Ridley read Nick Lane’s new book he said “If Charles Darwin sprang from his grave, I would give him this fine book to bring him up to speed.” We asked Nick to write a quick 10-point primer for the father of evolution about our current understanding of the science of life.

"Darwin knew everything and nothing about evolution. Everything, because nobody grasped the priciples of natural selection better than he. Nothing, because almost all of today’s proofs of his theory are written in the languages of genes and molecules that he knew nothing about.

Darwin would be amazed and delighted by the scope and details of our current understanding of life. In Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution I take life’s most celebrated ‘inventions’, each one of which transfigured our planet, and trace what we know of how they came to be"

Here’s what Nick would tell Darwin:

1. The Origin of Life
Darwin famously speculated about life beginning in some warm pond, but recent research has framed a far grander setting – the hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean. One type of vent bubbles hydrogen gas into the oceans, giving rise to a myriad of honeycomb cells with delicate mineral walls. These natural cells replicate spontaneously under the pressure of the vents. What’s more, they concentrate organic molecules, including DNA, up to amazingly high levels, and generate energy across a membrane just as living cells do today. There’s lots to learn, but as a setting for the origin of life, it brooks no equal.

2. DNA
In 1953, Francis Crick and James Watson walked into The Eagle in Cambridge and declared they knew the secret of life – the structure of DNA. It immediately provided the mechanism of heredity so sorely missed by Darwin. But Watson and Crick didn’t know how DNA coded for proteins. The story of the code within the DNA code is one of the best (and least known) scientific detective stories of the 20th century – and it also points to life’s origins in deep sea vents. Most unexpectedly, the detailed mechanism by which DNA is replicated implies that life actually emerged from the vents twice from a common ancestor that lived inside.

3. Photosynthesis

Without photosynthesis, life wouldn’t be up to much. It provides us not only with all the food we need to live, but also with the oxygen needed to burn it up to provide our energy. And yet true photosynthesis arose only once in the whole history of evolution – in bacteria that were later captured by algae and plants and put to work. The trick depends on an enzyme that splits water to extract hydrogen, releasing oxygen as waste. The core of the water-splitting enzyme is similar to a mineral in its structure. Knowing how it works at the atomic level could help to solve the energy and climate crises of our planet.

4. The Complex Cell

Complex life, like photosynthesis, arose only once on earth. The differences between plants, animals, fungi and algae suggest that plants arose from one type of bacteria and animals from another, but that’s not what happened. Compared to bacteria, our cells are virtually identical to those of a daffodil: we are in fact closely related. Complex cells arose in an unprecedented merger between bacteria. That vital step was not anticipated by Darwin, who saw organisms as diverging rather than converging. Yet without that improbable chimera, natural selection may never have got beyond bacteria, and none of us would be here.

5. Sex
Sex is absurd. Not only does it cost a small fortune to find a partner, but it transmits horrible venereal diseases and parasitic genes, and randomises all successful combinations of genes. Worse, sex requires males, viewed by implacable feminists and evolutionists alike as a waste of space. So why we all have sex anyway was viewed as the queen of evolutionary problems in the 20th century. An old explanation for the benefits of sexual recombination has risen in a new guise, and helps explain not only why we have so much sex, but also why it got going in the first place in simple cells.

6. Movement
Muscle is the invention that sets us animals apart. Yet the two molecules that make muscles work, the chain-like proteins actin and myosin, are found in all organisms, even those without any muscle. Nothing would have given Darwin more pleasure than the finding that the same molecules that power muscular contraction evolved from simpler forms that propel amoebae around, support plant cells, and help bacteria to divide. Or that they they work by forming a dynamic scaffold in cells in the same way that a variant form of haemoglobin does when it distorts red blood cells in sickle-cell anaemia. Selection fashioned such spontaneous quirks into the might of muscle.

7. Sight

Darwin himself pondered the evolution of ‘organs of extreme perfection’ such as the eye, and it’s been an icon ever since. What use is half an eye, say detractors, yet the eyeless rift shrimp reabsorbs its fully formed larval eyes and replaces them with a naked retina – literally half an eye – as it moves down to the black-smoker vents. We now know how eyes evolved in more detail than any other organ. Surprisingly, it looks as if the critical light-sensitive protein at the centre of it all, rhodopsin, evolved from an ancestor in algae where it is used to calibrate light levels in photosynthesis. Some bacteria even use rhodopsin for a type of photosynthesis.

8. Hot Blood
Hot blooded animals keep their thermostat jammed on hard at 37°C, regardless of need. Many small mammals need to eat as much in a day as a lizard eats in a month, and a serious penalty is smaller populations. One big benefit is stamina, yet dinosaurs like Velociraptor apparently combined stamina with a low resting metabolism. But hot blood may also solve an interesting problem with diets rich in carbon and low in nitrogen, such as leaves. Vegetarians get enough nitrogen from leaves only if they eat a lot and get rid of the excess carbon. We hot bloods just burn it off, and that enables herbivores to survive on a much lower quality diet.

9. Consciousness
There’s no doubt that consciousness evolved, and that many animals are aware of themselves and their surroundings, perhaps right down to bees. But still there are deep uncertainties about what consciousness actually is. We simply don’t know yet how neurons firing in the brain can generate a feeling of anything. This is what philosophers call the hard problem, and it may be solved by studying the behaviour of animals like bees that apparantly gain neural rewards for finding nectar. I’d tell Darwin that consciousness is the last great challenge for understanding natural selection.

10. Death

But death is no challenge. Without death, natural selection would count for nothing, and life could never have evolved the majesty of consciousness at all. Yet death benefits individuals, or rather their genes, in some way. Mitochondria, the power-houses inside our cells, hold the key. They generate reactive free radicals that ultimately undermine our health. The problem is that in the short term, free radicals optimise respiration, making us as strong and energetic as we can be when young. Antioxidants disrupt that. So sadly the penalty for vigour in youth is decreptitude in old age. But there’s hope. Birds leak fewer free radicals and live longer than mammals, without losing their vigour. And that means the anti-ageing pill is not a myth.

The links go to Nick Lane's website. Don't miss it :)

26 maio 2009

John Keats, Bright Star

And a beautiful, beautiful film website

Colombo in the New Yorker ;)

Jorge Colombo drew this week’s cover using Brushes, an application for the iPhone, while standing for an hour outside Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in Times Square.

“I got a phone in the beginning of February, and I immediately got the program so I could entertain myself,” says Colombo, who first published his drawings in The New Yorker in 1994. Colombo has been drawing since he was seven, but he discovered an advantage of digital drawing on a nighttime drive to Vermont. “Before, unless I had a flashlight or a miner’s hat, I could not draw in the dark.” (When the sun is up, it’s a bit harder, “because of the glare on the phone,” he says.) It also allows him to draw without being noticed; most pedestrians assume he’s checking his e-mail.

There’s a companion application, Brushes Viewer, that makes a video recapitulating each step of how Colombo composed the picture. (Watch how he drew this week’s cover below.) Colombo leans heavily on the Undo feature: “It looks like I draw everything with supernatural assurance and very fast—it gets rid of all the hesitations.”

Colombo’s phone drawing is very much in the tradition of a certain kind of New Yorker cover, and he doesn’t see the fact that it’s a virtual finger painting as such a big deal. “Imagine twenty years ago, writing about these people who are sending these letters on their computer.” But watching the video playback has made him aware that how he draws a picture can tell a story, and he’s hoping to build suspense as he builds up layers of color and shape.

And so are we: look for a new drawing by Colombo each week on newyorker.com.

See how our Jorge did it in this video here!

Love and Pain by Edvard Munch

aka Vampire

25 maio 2009


7 de Maio a 7 de Junho de 2009

A Tarumba-Teatro de Marionetas realiza em Lisboa a 9ª edição do Festival Internacional de Marionetas e Formas Animadas – FIMFA Lx, com direcção artística de Luís Vieira. Um projecto renovador e aberto a novas tendências, de dimensão internacional, que pretende promover e divulgar uma área específica de expressão artística: o universo das formas animadas.

A 9ª edição tem o apoio do Ministério da Cultura/Direcção-Geral das Artes e envolve, mais uma vez, um conjunto de parcerias fundamentais para a sua realização com alguns dos mais importantes agentes culturais da cidade, destacando-se a que se realiza com a EGEAC e as co-produções com o Museu da Marioneta e o Teatro Maria Matos, o Teatro Nacional D. Maria II, para além dos apoios e parcerias com a Câmara Municipal de Lisboa, o Museu do Oriente, o Centro Cultural de Belém, Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, entre outros. No âmbito do seu programa de descentralização, o FIMFA Lx efectua ainda extensões a Viseu - Teatro Viriato, Guarda - Teatro Municipal da Guarda e Aveiro - Teatro Aveirense, com o objectivo de difusão dos espectáculos do festival.

Em 2009, Lisboa será de novo o grande palco do Teatro de Marionetas, com a maior edição de sempre do FIMFA, onde durante um mês 26 companhias profissionais, de reconhecido mérito internacional, apresentarão as suas mais recentes criações.
Estão previstas cerca de cem representações, onde poderemos apreciar o trabalho de companhias oriundas de países como a Rússia, Bélgica, Reino Unido, Suíça, Espanha, França, Alemanha, Itália, Taiwan, Holanda e Portugal, envolvendo espectáculos de sala, de pequenas formas e de rua. É ainda desenvolvida uma componente laboratorial e experimental, que permite a aproximação e troca de experiências entre criadores, workshops destinados a profissionais, bem com um conjunto de actividades complementares.

A marioneta soube ocupar o seu lugar na paisagem artística e cultural contemporânea. Inovadora e atenta ao mundo actual, novas tecnologias e novos temas trouxeram-lhe a capacidade de se reinventar. O FIMFA Lx9 oferece a oportunidade de a ver em todo o seu esplendor, numa grande diversidade de técnicas (sombras, objectos, manipulação directa, teatro visual, etc.) e propostas estéticas, estabelecendo ligações entre a marioneta, a dança, vídeo, circo, teatro, instalações plásticas... A arte da liberdade e efervescência artística - porque no campo das marionetas é proibido proibir! Sejam bem-vindos ao universo do movimento e deixem a vossa imaginação voar...

Why do we often care more about imaginary characters than real people?

Why do human beings spend so much time telling each other invented stories, untruths that everybody involved knows to be untrue? People in all societies do this, and do it a lot, from grandmothers spinning fairy tales at the hearthside to TV show runners marshaling roomfuls of overpaid Harvard grads to concoct the weekly adventures of crime fighters and castaways. The obvious answer to this question -- because it's fun -- is enough for many of us. But given the persuasive power of a good story, its ability to seduce us away from the facts of a situation or to make us care more about a fictional world like Middle-earth than we do about a real place like, oh, say, Turkmenistan, means that some ambitious thinkers will always be trying to figure out how and why stories work.

The latest and most intriguing effort to understand fiction is often called Darwinian literary criticism, although Brian Boyd, an English professor at the University of Auckland in New Zealand and the author of "On the Origin of Stories," a new book offering an overview and defense of the field, prefers the term "evocriticism." As Boyd points out, the process of natural selection is supposed to gradually weed out any traits in a species that don't contribute to its survival and its ability to pass on its genes to offspring who will do the same. The ability to use stories to communicate accurate information about the real world has some obvious usefulness in this department, but what possible need could be served by made-up yarns about impossible things like talking animals and flying carpets?

Boyd's explanation, heavily ballasted with citations from studies and treatises on neuroscience, cognitive theory and evolutionary biology, boils down to two general points. First, fiction -- like all art -- is a form of play, the enjoyable means by which we practice and hone certain abilities likely to come in handy in more serious situations. When kittens pounce on and wrestle with their litter mates, they're developing skills that will help them hunt, even though as far as they're concerned they're just larking around. Second, when we create and share stories with each other, we build and reinforce the cooperative bonds within groups of people (families, tribes, towns, nations), making those groups more cohesive and in time allowing human beings to lord it over the rest of creation.

The popular understanding of evolutionary biology can be sketchy even among (I'm tempted to say especially among) its most enthusiastic lay proponents. That's why it's important to point out that, whatever you've heard about "selfish genes," the secret to humanity's success lies less in Hobbesian competition than in individuals' capacity to cooperate, and even to act altruistically. While there are short-term benefits to individuals who behave selfishly -- say, by stealing or hoarding food -- the long-term benefits of sharing usually outweigh the quick payoff, provided that everybody else in your group also participates fairly. Human beings are what biologists call "hypersocial," more social by far than any other animal, and the major product of our deep investment in sociality is our culture: our language, tools, political institutions, clothing, medicine, sculpture, songs, religions, etc.

In short, humanity itself is an element, like the weather or seasons, that each of us needs to negotiate in order to survive. We're innately skilled at reading each other's intentions, judging a person's position in the current social hierarchy, checking the emotional temperature in a room, detecting when our companion isn't paying attention to us, and so on. Those who are especially adept at this are said to have good "social skills," but the average human being is a pretty impressive social navigator even when not conscious of what she's doing. It's only the rare exceptions -- people along the autistic spectrum, for example, whose social instincts and perceptions are impaired -- who make us aware of just how essential these abilities are when it comes to getting by in this world.

Boyd acknowledges that factual stories give us pertinent information about our world and the people in it -- that my neighbor is a serial killer, for example. However, fictional stories encourage and permit us to hypothesize, to speculate about potential situations we've yet to encounter and to anticipate how to respond appropriately. Were I to discover tomorrow that my neighbor had a wall entirely covered with photographs, newspaper clippings and charts with pushpinned strands of yarn connecting the items, I might conclude, thanks to my years of watching cop shows on TV, that my neighbor was either a serial killer or a law enforcement professional obsessed with catching a serial killer. I'd know better than to accept his offer of a nightcap because even if he were the detective rather than the killer, if I got too involved with him, sooner or later the serial killer would kidnap me and hold me captive in a deserted warehouse as part of a deadly game of cat and mouse.

Fiction also fosters a part of cognition known as the "theory of mind," one person's understanding that another person has feelings, desires, intentions and beliefs, the latter of which may or may not be correct. A child's ability to deduce that another child will mistakenly believe that a ball is still in a basket because the second child wasn't in the room when the ball was moved to a bucket develops surprisingly late, around age 5. Theory of mind is at the heart of empathy, and our brains are replete with systems for reinforcing it, such as the recently discovered mirror neurons, which fire both when you're, say, dancing and when you're watching someone else dance.

These cognitive features explain why tears pour down your face when you see a performance of "Romeo and Juliet," even though you know the characters aren't real people and the actors are just pretending. Furthermore, the brain turns out to be more like a muscle than scientists once thought, and the more you exercise the thinking and feeling parts of it vicariously, through stories and other kinds of play, the more active and developed those parts of the brain become.

Most of us, of course, don't realize any of these processes are going on; we just think that consuming fiction feels good. But, as with sex, Boyd notes, pleasure and other enjoyable emotions are a kind of bait, coaxing us to do things that will help propagate our genes. The affection we feel toward fictional characters like Dorothy Gale or Tom Sawyer is akin to the warm belonging we seek among friends and family, drawing us into the kind of group affiliation that can spell the difference between life and death. The late novelist David Foster Wallace once told me that reading fiction made him "feel unalone -- intellectually, emotionally, spiritually. I feel human and unalone and that I'm in a deep, significant conversation with another consciousness." That profound sense of comfort he described is, as he correctly perceived, quintessentially human, an incentive to keep connecting with each other despite our inevitable conflicts and tensions.

Stories in their most rudimentary forms -- parables, fables, myths -- usually champion what Boyd calls "prosocial values," such as sharing, kindness, honesty and so on; in short, morals. The moral of the story of the boy who cried "wolf" is that if you violate people's trust by faking distress, they will eventually stop believing you entirely and fail to come to your aid when you really need them. Other stories, like "Cinderella," insist that liars like Cinderella's stepmother and stepsisters will ultimately be thwarted and punished, while the virtuous will receive their just rewards. This sort of narrative fosters our taste for "social monitoring," the policing of group members to make sure that nobody tries to cheat the system, that everyone pulls his own weight and takes no more than his share of the group's resources.

Lastly, stories command attention, which is a valuable commodity among all social animals. Lower-status primates pay more attention to higher-status primates than vice versa. Good storytellers earn attention and admiration, and they also provide their audience with the pleasure of a communal experience that strengthens the bonds within a group. They set forth the group's shared beliefs, myths, symbols and history (real or legendary), creating a greater identity, a culture, that can expand beyond the boundary of small, local communities where everyone knows each other personally. That's one reason we have national epics like the story of Gilgamesh, the Hebrew Bible and the poems of Homer.

In the second half of "On the Origin of Stories," Boyd attempts to apply his idea of "evocriticism" to two exemplary works: the "Odyssey" and Dr. Seuss' "Horton Hears a Who." Up to this point, the book is informative, if poorly written, a mass of clotted and repetitive prose that nevertheless offers some sound insights if you're willing to really work for them. But evocriticism doesn't scale down (or is it up?) very effectively. Boyd exhaustively details Homer's narrative techniques, such as focusing on a larger-than-life yet sympathetic protagonist with a distinct goal, erecting obstacles in the protagonist's path to that goal, breaking the long narrative into discrete, digestible blocks with their own internal conflicts and resolutions, ending on a satisfying note of fulfillment when Odysseus is finally reunited with his wife, Penelope, and so on. All of this he presents, with the flourish of revelation, as brilliant strategizing on the part of Homer, an author who understands that he must seize and hold his audience's attention.

But come on, who doesn't know that? Even the rabble that masses on Amazon's review pages grasps that the storyteller's prime directive is to retain his audience's interest; "I couldn't get into it" is the complaint of first and last resort for the minimally literate customer. As for the narrative devices that Boyd lauds -- a likable hero, stumbling blocks in the way of the ultimately happy ending, etc. -- that's the stuff of remedial "Write a Novel!" guides and screenwriters' seminars. (Oh, and by the way, in case you hadn't noticed while spending your childhood amid star-bellied sneetches and loraxes who speak for the trees, Dr. Seuss has a penchant for strong liberal messages.)

To be fair, Boyd feels compelled to insist on the obvious. That's because "On the Origin of Stories" is at least partly written to refute Theory, the dominant trend in late-20th-century academic literary criticism. Theory is deeply invested in the idea that human identities are entirely "constructed" by the cultures people grow up in, that we are born blank slates with no innate traits. A disciple of such evolutionary psychology evangelists as Steven Pinker and Denis Dutton, Boyd has the enthusiasm of a convert, and he shares his gurus' propensity for overstating their case as well as exaggerating the strength and recalcitrance of the other side. A hardcore constructionist camp does still persist in academia, but it's such a tiny and marginal element in the culture at large, that evolutionary psychologists come across as disingenuous when they insist on portraying themselves as an outnumbered, ragtag band of embattled crusaders.

The truth is that evolutionary psychology has enormous popular cachet; books by Pinker and Robert Wright vastly outsell those of, say, the constructionist gender theorist Judith Butler. Furthermore, evolutionary psychology and sociobiology (and by extension "evocriticism") strive to wrap themselves in the mantle of science, but they are fundamentally speculative; more sciencey than scientific. Unlike actual science, their claims can't be falsified, given that the human behavior they purport to explain has evolved over vast periods of time and can't yet be observed in the process of continuing to evolve simply because we haven't been aware of evolution long enough to do so. (How do we know when people first told stories, for example? No physical evidence remains, and the most we can do is suggest that it co-evolved with practices like cave painting, whose true purpose we also can only guess.) That doesn't mean that some of these theories aren't plausible, or that certain observations -- like the universality of spoken language and religious beliefs among human societies -- aren't pretty persuasive.

The difficulty is that once culture became the ascendant environmental factor affecting humanity, the game changed fundamentally. It's true, as Boyd observes, that culture transforms itself in a way that resembles biological evolution; ideas and practices that catch on (such as Christianity or rap music) become more and more prevalent. But natural selection is a mindless process by which random mutations succeed or fail and the successes slowly accumulate. The evolution of culture is intentional, directed by the desires of human beings pursuing certain goals. (Nobody intends biological evolution to happen, unless you believe in God.) That's why it took 540 million years for the eye to evolve, while the detective story has become culturally ubiquitous in the mere 170 years since Edgar Allen Poe published "The Murders in the Rue Morgue."

While evolutionary psychology, when kept on a judiciously short leash, seems capable of adding a lot to our understanding of narrative, it's a pretty crude tool to apply to something as recent and culturally volatile as literature. Identifying innate traits is a matter of observing average human behavior across large populations and in diverse societies. Even when a behavior seems obviously adaptive -- like the tendency of men to be sexually attracted to women who appear fertile -- there can be significant exceptions. Although every neurologically normal human being acquires spoken language and enjoys stories and almost everyone places a high value on some kind of group membership, it is only the majority of human beings who are sexually attracted to individuals of the opposite sex and of reproductive age.

And hardly anybody is a great writer or a storyteller of genius. Such individuals could well be freaks and anomalies, strange yet wonderful products of unique confluences of genetics and culture, illustrating next to nothing about humanity as a whole. Even if storytellers on average are getting better (and how could we quantify that?), we can't say that evolution is causing the improvement, any more than we can claim that natural selection is responsible for the fact that microchips are getting smaller. If sociobiology has yet to come up with a truly persuasive evolutionary explanation for homosexuality (and it really hasn't), then it's certainly not in a position to explain Shakespeare.

Instead of trying to fit an outlier like Homer into his evocritical scheme, Boyd would be better off looking at patterns of story that occur across cultures. He notes in passing that there are "200 folk variants" of the story of how Odysseus and his men escaped from the Cyclops' den by strapping themselves to the underside of the blind giant's sheep. Rather than asking evocriticism to explain how the rarity of Homer came to occur, why not ask why this same story keeps cropping up again and again in slightly different forms? What makes it so popular?

Such a move, however, would change the category of Boyd's studies from English literature to folklore, a less prestigious discipline on the academic scene, perhaps. (Even valiant scholarly crusaders are subject to the evolutionary pressures of status-seeking, after all.) Still, if evocriticism or Darwinian literary criticism or whatever it's called hopes to contribute something significant, it will probably need to turn away from literature's great works and their authors, at least at first and for a while, and focus on popular culture, ancient and recent. At present, one of its seminal texts argues that "Pride and Prejudice" is about courtship in a society where men are valued for their wealth and social class and women for their beauty and social class, a thesis that manages to be simultaneously crushingly obvious and not really accurate while explaining exactly nothing about why Jane Austen is better than the average romance novelist. Genius is, by definition, exceptional, while evolutionary science concerns itself with the universal, or the nearly universal. Unless this new school of criticism can find a way to reconcile that conundrum, it may soon find itself extinct.


LEGO Film Posters

Check the gallery at the Telegraph

Apocalypse Meow

The triple A tag post ;)

13 maio 2009

Chocolat ! Vive la France !

These stamps that look and smell like chocolate have been issued in France to mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of chocolate beans at the port of Bayonne

Cette année, les traditionnelles Journées du Chocolat prendront une ampleur exceptionnelle pour célébrer les 400 ans de l'arrivée à Bayonne de la recette chocolatière apportée par les Juifs portugais, faisant de notre ville la première ville chocolatière de France. A l'initiative de l'Académie du Chocolat de Bayonne, le lancement par Phil@poste en avant-première, d'une série de timbres inédits retraçant la route du chocolat jusqu'aux portes de notre cité, donnera à cet événement un rayonnement national et exemplaire.

Giants Pillows? So far away from Giants Causeway?

An aerial view of the sand dunes at the Lençois Maranhenses National Park taken from an Air Force helicopter providing relief supplies to flood victims in Maranhão state, Brazil



A B-2 Spirit stealth bomber is frozen in time as it breaks the sound barrier during a test flight above the Californian desert

12 maio 2009

The Last Voyage of the Demeter

One of the coolest chapters in Bram Stoker's Dracula (the book, not the Coppola movie) is the one in which the titular bloodsucker is on a boat ride from Bulgaria to England, and he uses the crew as a rather messy all-you-can-eat buffet. It's a sequence that certainly seems spooky enough to warrant its very own film, so I say it's good news that Marcus Nispel is on board to direct The Last Voyage of Demeter.

Variety describes the story with a bit more clarity than I can muster at 6am on a Sunday morning, so here goes: It's "based on a chapter in Bram Stoker's "Dracula" describing the arrival of the vampire count in England on a cargo ship that has crashed into the rocks at Whitby with no crew and the dead captain lashed to the steering wheel. Stoker tells the story via the captain's log of the voyage, which begins in Bulgaria and becomes increasingly disjointed as members of the crew disappear."


the internet Sacred Text Archive

The Tempest by Julie Taymor

Coming soon...

In The Tempest, Shakespeare puts romance onstage. He gives us a magician, a monster, a grief-stricken king, a wise old councillor, a beautiful princess, a handsome prince, and two treacherous brothers.

In Julie Taymor’s version of the play, the magician is transformed to ‘Prospera,’ and is to be played by Dame Helen Mirren. She is the widow and heir to the deceased duke of Milan. Her intense attraction to the study of magic and science causes her to lose sight of the necessity of maintaining political power, which she then loses to her treacherous brother-in-law, Antonio. When we first meet Prospera, she has already suffered twelve years of exile on a desert island, where her only companions have been her daughter, Miranda, now a beautiful young woman, the spirit Ariel, and the monster Caliban, whom Prospera has used her magic to enslave.

Sailing by the island and caught in a terrible storm are Prospera’s enemies (and one of her friends), who are returning from North Africa. On the ship are Antonio, who usurped Prospera’s dukedom and put her out to sea to die - King Alonso of Naples, who conspired with Antonio against Prospera - Sebastian, Alonso’s brother, who is about to conspire with Antonio against Alonso - Prince Ferdinand, Alonso’s son, destined to discover and fall into the power of
the beautiful Miranda – Trinculo and Stephano, jester and drunken butler - and finally, Gonzalo, the wise old councillor who, twelve years before, provided Prospera with the books and other necessities that have made it possible for her not only to survive her exile, but also to grow ever more powerful as a magician and organic alchemist. Prospera turns her awesome power upon her enemies through the agency of Ariel (and the many other spirits whom Ariel directs) in producing terror in her victims and pleasure in those whom she favours.

The conclusion of The Tempest is perhaps one of the most famous of all Shakespearean moments, when Prospera breaks her magic staff, the source of her great art, signifying her desire to forgive and be forgiven, and her return to Milan and the duties of the world for the sake of her daughter.

ARTEMIS Films, and a production PDF to download ;)

Tolkien’s “cultus” is now an integral part of our culture

JRR Tolkien was famously appalled by the eagerness with which American hippies in the 1960s snapped up his tales of hobbits, elves and wizards. It was, he wrote, a “deplorable cultus”, and he commented dismissively that: “Art moves them and they don’t know what they’ve been moved by and they get quite drunk on it. Many young Americans are involved with the story in a way I’m not.”

So what he would have made of the abiding influence of his Lord of the Rings books on 20th century culture – an influence driven more than anything else by the American uptake of his work – is anyone’s guess.

Tolkien’s “cultus” is now an integral part of our culture. Without his particular brand of high or epic fantasy – its feudal Celtic settings, Edwardian cadences and contrasting dramatisations of good and evil – our shelves would be bare of the kind of bulging, bodice-ripping, medieval fantasy that buys yachts for people such as David Eddings, Julian May and CJ Cherryh.

Not a bad thing, perhaps. But writers such as Terry Pratchett, Roger Zelazny and Ursula K Le Guin might also be denied a crucial inspiration. There would be no Dungeons and Dragons (and a vastly thinner version of the geek culture and gaming revolution it inspired) and no World of Warcraft, and its 11.5 million subscribers would have to find something else to do with their lives.

There’d be none of the epically silly and thrilling Lord of the Rings films by Peter Jackson (the 15th, 8th and 2nd highest grossing movies of all time, respectively), and there certainly wouldn’t be, a few times each decade, another bundle of Tolkienana unearthed from the vaults and published by his son Christopher along with the author’s mind-bogglingly exhaustive notes.

The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun is the 15th of these things to emerge from the Tolkien archive – and what a Borgesian library that archive must be, lined with tottering piles of manuscript and bedecked with spidery footnotes.

Unlike the other 14, however, it has no connection with the Middle-Earth of the Rings books. Instead, it’s a pair of long poems, written in an English approximation of Old Norse heroic metre, that attempts to reconcile certain crucial differences between the Icelandic Prose Edda and the 13th-century Volsunga Saga. It’s pretty arcane, but fortunately both Wagnerians and Tolkien fans will be at home with the basic lineaments of the story: chosen hero, dragon, obsessive personal jewellery and lashings of destiny.

Sigurd and Gudrun is tentatively dated to the 1930s, well before its author had begun work on the story that would become The Hobbit. But it’s far from an exercise in dusty philology. Tolkien maintained that “to hit you in the eye was the deliberate intention of the Old Norse poet”, and his interpretation, with its tense, counterpointed lines and its knots of alliteration, aims for much the same effect. This is poetry that stamps and swings, all the better for being read aloud, and the narrative is dipped up to the elbows in passion and bloodshed.

“His shield he shed / With shining sword / smoking redly / slew two-handed”: you can practically see the high fives from the black T-shirted fraternity from here.

But go online to try to get an idea of the Tolkien community’s buzz for this one and you get lost fast. Dip even a toe into the murky waters of fandom and the weird rises to meet you like Gollum coming out of his pond. You get ensnared in the various Tolkien name generators that dot the internet, trying to work out whether Drogo Bullroarer Darnswool of Buckland (hobbit name) fits you better than Curunir of the High Ones of Arda (wizard). Or you become tangled in the hundreds of forums, where enthusiastic participants endlessly debate everything from the detailing on Theoden’s splint mail to the feelings aroused by seeing Elijah Wood in pain (“Here again I see the beautiful and noble man suffering – in anguish, in deep travail. He even has a tied-up scene, though the flogging was not included.”) You finally end up bogged down among translations of the Gospels into Quenya, Tolkien’s invented High Elven tongue. And nary an Old Norse Edda in sight.

But the fan base should really take Sigurd and Gudrun to its heart. It’s a peculiarly attractive package: the thunder of the poetry ought to please legend-fanciers and fantasy junkies alike, while scholarly tastes are catered for by an exceptional critical apparatus covering intricacies and elisions in the text and its sources. And I would lay money that not long from now an executive at New Line Studios will have to listen to a pitch beginning: “It’s got a ring and a dragon and smiting. It’s Tolkien. And they made a film of Beowulf.” Stay tuned.

Nazi War Criminal will face Trial

German prosecutors believe that John Demjanjuk was a sadistic guard at the notorious death camp Sobibor. They would like to put him on trial in Munich, but his family says the 88 year old is too old and frail to be extradited -- and that he is innocent anyway.

The wife of the alleged concentration camp guard is petite and rather friendly. She's wearing a blue-green checkered blouse, and her long hair is pulled back in a bun. Standing there at the door of her yellow farmhouse in Seven Hills, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, she seems a bit lost.

Vera Demjanjuk speaks a mishmash of German and English. She looks exhausted as she explains that everything is starting over again and that, once again, she will have to fear for the fate of her 88-year-old husband, John. Her family, she says, has neither the energy nor the means for a new court case, especially not in far-off Germany. "We are poor and have no money," she says.

It was 1977 when American Nazi hunters first set their sights on her husband. At that time, the retired Ford auto worker was stripped of his US citizenship and extradited to Israel. The Israelis wanted to hang him. They accused him of being "Ivan the Terrible," the barbarous operator of the gas chambers at the Treblinka concentration camp.

'A Sick Old Man'

In 1993, though, the Israelis released him after it became clear that "Ivan the Terrible" was likely someone else. Demjanjuk was allowed to return to the US. Since then, though, more and more clues have surfaced indicating that Demjanjuk may actually have been a guard at the Sobibor death camp in present-day Poland. Prosecutors in Munich want him to stand trial in Germany. They allege that he took part in the murder of 29,000 people.

Demjanjuk is stateless. Last May, the US Supreme Court refused to hear his final appeal. Nothing now stands in the way of Demjanjuk's being extradited to Germany at any time to face the new charges.

Experts from the Bavarian State Office of Criminal Investigation have just recently verified the validity of Demjanjuk's ID, which puts him in Sobibor during the period when the crimes took place. Their finding marks an important step in the effort to try him in Germany.

But there is a potential hitch: Is the 88-year-old physically capable of standing trial? Demjanjuk's son, John Demjanjuk Jr., has said that his father is "very frail." His father reportedly suffers from a "blood and bone marrow disorder," which forces him to go to the hospital several times a month for regular blood transfusions. During the last year, his son adds, Demjanjuk's condition has worsened so much that he fears his father couldn't make it through a trial.

John Jr. says that, were his father extradited to Germany, he would "have to have medical care every step along the way." Even Demjanjuk's lawyer, John Broadley, says that his client is "a sick old man." The family, though, has been saying the same thing for decades. He has even appeared in court in a wheelchair.

'As Strong As an Ox'

Nine years ago, Jonathan Drimmer was part of the US Department of Justice's Office of Special Investigations when he helped lead the government's successful efforts to strip Demjanjuk of his citizenship. "At that time, he was still a giant guy," Drimmer says, adding that he was tall, broad-shouldered and had huge hands. At the time, Demjanjuk was able to testify for an entire day. "By the end of it, I was exhausted and he was still going strong. He was as strong as an ox back in 2000," Drimmer recounts.

Nowadays, Demjanjuk looks like the 88-year-old he is, says his neighbor Erik Keller, a young graphic designer, who chats with Demjanjuk often. According to Keller, Demjanjuk's bad knees won't allow him to stand or walk for long periods. Keller adds, though, that after a recent snowstorm Demjanjuk was scraping his driveway. Keller says he helped Demjanjuk clear his walkway -- and says he has never seen him in a wheelchair.

Keller goes on to say how Demjanjuk spends his summers in jeans and a sweatshirt tending to his large vegetable garden. And sometimes his wife Vera even stops by to give him some tomatoes. "They're very neighborly," Keller says, adding that Demjanjuk was proud of his garden and speaks often about his days working at Ford.

But, says Keller, Demjanjuk never talks about anything that happened before that. And Keller has never asked. As Keller sees it, Demjanjuk enjoys a little neighborly chit-chat, but "he doesn't talk to a lot of people."

Dreams and Nightmares

While most of the neighbors' mailboxes have big numbers on them, those on the Demjanjuks' are small. In front of the house, there is a big sign that says: "No Trespassing." The single-family residence has an attached garage, a greenhouse and a big outdoor garden. It's in better condition than most of the other houses on the street -- despite the fact that losing his citizenship also meant losing his state retirement benefits, which forces Demjanjuk to live off support from his children.

Seven Hills is a suburb of Cleveland, formerly a booming industrial city but now one of the poorest large cities in America. Not long after World War II, this neighborhood -- with its low-slung houses made of brick and wood -- was part of the American dream.

But, today, it is also part of a nightmare. Garage doors are locked shut, shades are pulled and the mailboxes are covered in rust. The streets are empty of people, and a good 20 minutes can go by before a car drives down the street. Seven Hills is as good as dead. Only the sound of highway traffic can be heard in the distance.

'My Father Has Never Killed Anyone '

John Demjanjuk Jr. says that his father doesn't seem concerned about the discussion in Germany. "He is really concerned more with his health and staying alive for the last few years that he has remaining," John Jr. says. As he sees it, there is "absolutely no case to convict my father of anything in a criminal trial."

The son has made protecting his father his life's labor. "My dad never killed anybody in his life," John Jr. says. "There's no evidence to say that he was personally involved in killing anybody in his life." John Jr. continues: "He isn't a murderer. He is a very gentle, kind person. I know my dad and I know in my heart that he did not kill anyone. He was a Red Army soldier who was caught up in what was happening in World War II."

John Jr. says that he believes his father is innocent and that this knowledge has given him the strength to fight for his father through the years. He calls the crimes of the Holocaust "horrific" -- but says that "that's not what it is about."

Contesting the Evidence

But, in the minds of American and German prosecutors, that is the point. Seven water-tight pieces of evidence substantiate that Demjanjuk served in the Sobibor concentration camp, says Drimmer, the former prosecutor. Seven different documents from different archives and agencies. As Drimmer sees it, this makes it very unlikely that there has been a mistake and very unlikely that someone could be trying to frame Demjanjuk. Still, 63 years after the end of the war, it doesn't mean that Demjanjuk will be put on trial.

John Jr. doesn't have a plausible explanation for how these bits of evidence incriminating his allegedly innocent father could have found their way into court papers. But he says that the burden of proof in a German criminal case is much higher than in the American case which focused on stripping him of his citizenship. He also says that Germany doesn't have a single living eyewitness. And, of course, he points out that his father is too ill to stand trial anyway.

But if you ask him what might really have happened in his father's past, he doesn't have an answer.

All about it in Der Spiegel

11 maio 2009

História da Astronomia em Portugal

Integrada nas comemorações do Ano Internacional da Astronomia, que se celebra em 2009, a Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal organiza uma exposição em que pela primeira vez será apresentado um conjunto fundamental das obras mais emblemáticas da história da astronomia, manuscritas e impressas. Uma oportunidade rara para conhecer um património cultural que revela a evolução da mais antiga das ciências exactas – a Astronomia – e testemunhar o fascínio que o espectáculo da abóbada celeste exerceu em todos os povos e culturas, nas suas expressões tanto científicas como estéticas.

Constituída por quatro núcleos documentais, complementados por alguns instrumentos astronómicos de época, a Exposição começa por apresentar os Antecedentes da Revolução Astronómica, com obras de Ptolemeu, Sacro Bosco, Afonso X, Regiomontano e Pedro Apiano, entre outros, mostrados através de manuscritos de Alcobaça, códices árabes, incunábulos e edições do século XVI. Em A Revolução Astronómica mostram-se raras edições de autores célebres como Copérnico, Tycho Brahe, Galileu, Kepler, Riccioli, Hevelius e Newton. Um núcleo dedicado aos Atlas Celestes reúne os exemplares mais significativos da evolução da representação das constelações, estrelas, planetas e cometas desde o século XV, com a sua enorme riqueza iconográfica. Como último núcleo, A Astronomia em Portugal exibe impressos e manuscritos de autores portugueses entre os quais Pedro Nunes, Sardinha de Araújo, Manuel Bocarro, Castro Sarmento, Eusébio da Veiga e Monteiro da Rocha, assim como edições portuguesas de autores estrangeiros.