Saturday, December 31, 2005

Those Weird College Ads (By Mike DeBonis,

Note of the caption: One graphic identity of Boise State University’s campaign of “Beyond the Blue.”

link to the “Beyond the Blue”news release

If you like our football team, you'll love our chem labs full of Asian students.

Friday, Dec. 30, 2005, at 2:53 PM ET

College-football bowl season is a time for America's top corporate sponsors to strut their stuff on a national stage. But it's not just corporations like Gaylord Hotels, Meineke, and who plaster their names and logos all over our television screens. The 56 universities represented in this year's bowlapalooza also have the chance to sell themselves to a national audience.

And no, they don't let their football teams speak for themselves. America's colleges and universities try to make an impression with "institutional spots"—trade parlance for the promotional television commercials they use to sell themselves. The ads typically run for 30 seconds during halftime. As state-school spokespersons are quick to point out, colleges don't pay for the airtime—the slots are provided at no cost under most college-football television contracts.

The standard mise-en-scène of the institutional spot will be familiar to any dedicated college-sports watcher: campus greenery, one-on-one pedagogy, chemistry labs, black gowns and mortarboards, and laughing/hugging students of as many colors as possible. Those are just the ingredients, though. A survey of more than 30 of this year's bowl ads reveals many different tactics for selling higher education.

Play up a campus landmark: The University of Georgia's ad kicks off with a shot of a 220-year-old campus arch, then segues to the school's research accomplishments—"Today, we're leading in plant genomics!" The tagline: "The Archway to Excellence." The winner in this department, though is Boise State's "Beyond the Blue," which points out that there's more to the BSU experience than the football stadium's famous blue turf. The university also rolls out the "Red Carpet" for prominent guest speakers and gives a "Green Light" to financial aid.

Embrace the cult of Apple: Wisconsin's spot offers a classic montage of campus scenes, smiling faces, and dancing students set to the school fight song. But don't be so quick to dismiss the Badgers as too stodgy. The commercial reveals that the song—a beat-heavy "On Wisconsin" remix—is playing on a female student's iPod.

Go international: To snag applicants who might be worried that Gainesville, Fla., isn't cosmopolitan, the University of Florida plays up its global reach. Florida's ad culminates with a professor arriving at an unnamed Asian airport. As he walks out of the gate, a man shouts to him; the subtitle says, "Go Gators!" TCU's ad promises potential applicants that they won't be stuck in Fort Worth, Texas, for the rest of their lives: "I applied what I learned here at my internship with NBC in London!"

Play to adolescent self-centeredness: At Penn State, "It's Your Time!" As a series of placards held up by a diverse cast puts it, it's also "Your Love," "Your Choice," "Your Friends," and "Your Future." (Even if it is Dad's money.) Oregon prefers to ask the big questions: "Why do you work so hard? What message are you sending the world? What legacy do you want to leave?" The University of Southern Mississippi, though, wins the Ayn Rand Memorial Self-Actualization Award. What do a pensive painter, a guy in a library, and a woman at a computer have in common? "The courage to think for themselves and a university that fosters it. Southern Miss: Freeing the power of the individual."

Turn negatives into positives: Concerned you'll be lost in the crowd at a big state school? "UCLA is big," the spot concedes. But don't let that worry you: "Nobody at UCLA keeps score on who you are," says a guy standing on an outdoor basketball court. "They just want to see what you do."

Encourage alumni networking: USC's stirring, sepia-toned Rose Bowl ad opts for the time-tested approach of listing famous alums: John Wayne, Neil Armstrong, George Lucas, Marilyn Horne—and Paul Orfalea. In Auburn's ad, two alums brighten up a crappy day at the airport by sharing a spirited "War Eagle!" chant. Viewers are invited to send in their own War Eagle moments.

Trim the fat: The University of Toledo's minimalist ad leaves out almost everything—buildings, people, even cameras. On a plain blue screen (and accompanied by what sounds like a Collective Soul outtake), letters dance around to form phrases that contain the highlighted letters "UT." The lines vary from specific and meaningful—"A Reputation of Excellence" and "A Beautiful Campus"—to the vaguely Dada—"Impressive Outcomes" and "Career Clout."

Bait the Ivy League: "Two years ago, the University of Alabama won another national championship, with more USA Today Academic All-Americans than any other school. Harvard was second," beams the SEC school's promotional spot. "Now the 2005 results are in, finding the University of Alabama again leading the nation. Do I hear dynasty?" When questioned about the budding academic rivalry, a Harvard spokesperson told me, "There is no response available."

Adopt the language of debt-consolidation commercials: "If you got the brains, but not the bucks, the door's open," says the University of Virginia, plugging its AccessUVa financial-aid program. "Can't afford it? Now you can. Worried about debt? Not anymore. Don't feel welcome? Sure you will!"

Sell the nerds: Virginia Tech's ad depicts Blacksburg as the kind of place where you'll be hoisted up by a cheering throng while wearing a lab coat and holding an Erlenmeyer flask. "Think you know Florida State University?" asks Dr. Greg Boebinger, director of the school's National High Magnetic Field Laboratory. The spot goes on to re-educate those who perceive FSU as little more than a haven for over-age quarterbacks and unintelligible coaches. There's the 900MHz Ultra Wide Bore magnet, too! It's "an unrivaled scientific marvel that's yielding important discoveries in chemical and biomedical research," beams Boebinger.

Do damage control: A diverse group of students recites the campus creed: "At the University of Colorado, we act with honor, integrity, and accountability in … interactions with students, faculty, and staff." The honor and integrity of the school's football recruiting techniques are not mentioned.

Disclose divine nature of admissions committee: The season's most memorable institutional spot won't be playing during a bowl game. Notre Dame will introduce a new ad for the Fiesta Bowl, but the school will have a tough time encapsulating the smug Golden Domer attitude any better than it does in "Candle." A girl lights candles at her church, ostensibly for many years, until a thick letter arrives from the Notre Dame admissions office. A glance to the skies confirms just who's responsible for her shot at a "higher education." Prayer for personal triumph: It's not just for end zone celebrations anymore.

Mike DeBonis is senior editor of the Washington City Paper.

link to the original posting

Friday, December 30, 2005

U.S. teen runs off to Iraq to see 'struggle between good and evil' (By Jason Straziuso, The Associated Press)

Note from the blog editor: Two articles are included in today’s blog. The second story is from the New Yorker also related to knowing the situation in Iraq. It is a wonderful example of usage of today’s communication skills and technology. The first story really arose my integrity as a trained journalist. After all, I don’t do anything nearly to what Farris Hassan did. Today’s headline here, should really be “Baghdad and knowing Baghdad.”

Note of the Caption: Farris Hassan, a 16-year-old-teen from Fort Lauderdale. Fla., poses for a portrait at a hotel, backdropped by the Ramadan 14th mosque in Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday Dec. 28, 2005. [AP]

link to the caption

BAGHDAD, Iraq – Maybe it was the time the taxi dumped him at the Iraq-Kuwait border, leaving him alone in the middle of the desert. Or when he drew a crowd at a Baghdad food stand after using an Arabic phrase book to order. Or the moment a Kuwaiti cab driver almost punched him in the face when he balked at the $100 fare.

But at some point, Farris Hassan, a 16-year-old from Florida, realized that traveling to Iraq by himself was not the safest thing he could have done with his Christmas vacation.

And he didn't even tell his parents.

Hassan's dangerous adventure winds down with the 101st Airborne delivering the Fort Lauderdale teen to the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, which had been on the lookout for him and promises to see him back to the United States this weekend.

It begins with a high school class on "immersion journalism" and one overly eager — or naively idealistic — student who's lucky to be alive after going way beyond what any teacher would ask.

As a junior this year at a Pine Crest School, a prep academy of about 700 students in Fort Lauderdale, Hassan studied writers like John McPhee in the book "The New Journalism," an introduction to immersion journalism — a writer who lives the life of his subject in order to better understand it.

Diving headfirst into an assignment, Hassan, whose parents were born in Iraq but have lived in the United States for about 35 years, hung out at a local mosque. The teen, who says he has no religious affiliation, added that he even spent an entire night until 6 a.m. talking politics with a group of Muslim men, a level of "immersion" his teacher characterized as dangerous and irresponsible.

The next trimester his class was assigned to choose an international topic and write editorials about it, Hassan said. He chose the Iraq war and decided to practice immersion journalism there, too, though he knows his school in no way endorses his travels.

"I thought I'd go the extra mile for that, or rather, a few thousand miles," he told The Associated Press.

Using money his parents had given him at one point, he bought a $900 plane ticket and took off from school a week before Christmas vacation started, skipping classes and leaving the country on Dec. 11.

His goal: Baghdad. Those privy to his plans: two high school buddies.

Given his heritage, Hassan could almost pass as Iraqi. His father's background helped him secure an entry visa, and native Arabs would see in his face Iraqi features and a familiar skin tone. His wispy beard was meant to help him blend in.

But underneath that Mideast veneer was full-blooded American teen, a born-and-bred Floridian sporting white Nike tennis shoes and trendy jeans. And as soon as the lanky, 6-foot teenager opened his mouth — he speaks no Arabic — his true nationality would have betrayed him.

Traveling on his own in a land where insurgents and jihadists have kidnapped more than 400 foreigners, killing at least 39 of them, Hassan walked straight into a death zone. On Monday, his first full day in Iraq, six vehicle bombs exploded in Baghdad, killing five people and wounding more than 40.

The State Department strongly advises U.S. citizens against traveling to Iraq, saying it "remains very dangerous." Forty American citizens have been kidnapped since the war started in March 2003, of which 10 have been killed, a U.S. official said. About 15 remain missing.

"Travel warnings are issued for countries that are considered especially dangerous for Americans, and one of the strongest warnings covers travel to Iraq," said Elizabeth Colton, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

Colton said the embassy's consular section can provide only limited help to Americans in Iraq, though once officials learn of a potentially dangerous situation every effort is made to assist.

Inside the safety of Baghdad's Green Zone, an Embassy official from the Hostage Working Group talked to Hassan about how risky travel is in Iraq.

"This place is incredibly dangerous to individual private American citizens, especially minors, and all of us, especially the military, went to extraordinary lengths to ensure this youth's safety, even if he doesn't acknowledge it or even understand it," a U.S. official who wasn't authorized to speak to the media said on condition of anonymity.

Hassan's extra-mile attitude took him east through eight time zones, from Fort Lauderdale to Kuwait City. His plan was to take a taxi across the border and ultimately to Baghdad — an unconventional, expensive and utterly dangerous route.

It was in Kuwait City that he first called his parents to tell them of his plans — and that he was now in the Middle East.

His mother, Shatha Atiya, a psychologist, said she was "shocked and terrified." She had told him she would take him to Iraq, but only after the country stabilizes.

"He thinks he can be an ambassador for democracy around the world. It's admirable but also agony for a parent," Atiya said.

Attempting to get into Iraq, Hassan took a taxi from Kuwait City to the border 55 miles away. He spoke English at the border and was soon surrounded by about 15 men, a scene he wanted no part of. On the drive back to Kuwait City, a taxi driver almost punched him when he balked at the fee.

"In one day I probably spent like $250 on taxis," he said. "And they're so evil too, because they ripped me off, and when I wouldn't pay the ripped-off price they started threatening me. It was bad."

It could have been worse — the border could have been open.

As luck would have it, the teenager found himself at the Iraq-Kuwait line sometime on Dec. 13, and the border security was extra tight because of Iraq's Dec. 15 parliamentary elections. The timing saved him from a dangerous trip.

"If they'd let me in from Kuwait, I probably would have died," he acknowledged. "That would have been a bad idea."

He again called his father, who told him to come home. But the teen insisted on going to Baghdad. His father advised him to stay with family friends in Beirut, Lebanon, so he flew there, spending 10 days before flying to Baghdad on Christmas.

His ride at Baghdad International Airport, arranged by the family friends in Lebanon, dropped him off at an international hotel where Americans were staying.

He says he only strayed far from that hotel once, in search of food. He walked into a nearby shop and asked for a menu. When no menu appeared, he pulled out his Arabic phrase book, and after fumbling around found the word "menu." The stand didn't have one. Then a worker tried to read some of the English phrases.

"And I'm like, 'Well, I should probably be going.' It was not a safe place. The way they were looking at me kind of freaked me out," he said.

It was mid-afternoon on Monday, after his second night in Baghdad, that he sought out editors at The Associated Press and announced he was in Iraq to do research and humanitarian work. AP staffers had never seen an unaccompanied teenage American walk into their war zone office. ("I would have been less surprised if little green men had walked in," said editor Patrick Quinn.)

Wearing a blue long-sleeve shirt in addition to his jeans and sneakers, Hassan appeared eager and outgoing but slightly sheepish about his situation.

The AP quickly called the U.S. embassy.

Embassy officials had been on the lookout for Hassan, at the request of his parents, who still weren't sure exactly where he was. One U.S. military officer said he was shocked the teen was still alive. The 101st Airborne lieutenant who picked him up from the hotel said it was the wildest story he'd ever heard.

Hassan accepted being turned over to authorities as the safest thing to do, but seemed to accept the idea more readily over time.

Most of Hassan's wild tale could not be corroborated, but his larger story arc was in line with details provided by friends and family members back home.

Dangerous and dramatic, Hassan's trip has also been educational. He had tea with Kuwaitis under a tent in the middle of a desert. He says he interviewed Christians in south Lebanon. And he said he spoke with U.S. soldiers guarding his Baghdad hotel who told him they are treated better by Sunni Arabs — the minority population that enjoyed a high standing under Saddam Hussein and are now thought to fuel the insurgency — than by the majority Shiites.

His father, Redha Hassan, a doctor, said his son is an idealist, principled and moral. Aside from the research he wanted to accomplish, he also wrote in an essay saying he wanted to volunteer in Iraq.

He said he wrote half the essay while in the United States, half in Kuwait, and e-mailed it to his teachers Dec. 15 while in the Kuwait City airport.

"There is a struggle in Iraq between good and evil, between those striving for freedom and liberty and those striving for death and destruction," he wrote.

"Those terrorists are not human but pure evil. For their goals to be thwarted, decent individuals must answer justice's call for help. Unfortunately altruism is always in short supply. Not enough are willing to set aside the material ambitions of this transient world, put morality first, and risk their lives for the cause of humanity. So I will."

"I want to experience during my Christmas the same hardships ordinary Iraqis experience everyday, so that I may better empathize with their distress," he wrote.

Farris Hassan says he thinks a trip to the Middle East is a healthy vacation compared with a trip to Colorado for holiday skiing.

"You go to, like, the worst place in the world and things are terrible," he said. "When you go back home you have such a new appreciation for all the blessing you have there, and I'm just going to be, like, ecstatic for life."

His mother, however, sees things differently.

"I don't think I will ever leave him in the house alone again," she said. "He showed a lack of judgment."

Hassan may not mind, at least for a while. He now understands how dangerous his trip was, that he was only a whisker away from death.

His plans on his return to Florida: "Kiss the ground and hug everyone."

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

link to the original posting

Issue of 2005-12-26 and 2006-01-02
Posted 2005-12-19
by Ben McGrath

Note of the caption: A single adirondack chair poised on Parrish Beach, (Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, PA, USA) (photo by Chris Caruso, November 16, 2005, from The Daily Gazette)

link to the caption

A group of enterprising students a Swarthmore College, in Pennsylvania, ha some advice for the politically disaffected: I you find the media’s Iraq coverag unsatisfactory, pick up the phone. Don’t cal the Times, or CNN, or Rupert Murdoch; call Baghdad. There are a couple of Iraqi phone books available on the Internet, and plenty of interesting people willing to share their stories directly, from six thousand miles away, many of them speaking decent English. When your phone bill starts to get out of hand, try downloading Skype, software that allows two people to talk free, from anywhere in the world, using computer microphones and a headset.

Amelia Templeton, a senior history major, estimates that she has spoken with twenty-five Iraqis over the past year, and now, as she said the other day, “it’s a bad idea to ask me about Iraq unless you plan on listening for a while.” One of the Iraqis she spoke with, a painter named Esam Pasha, who is a grandson of the former Prime Minister Nuri al-Said, has even invited her to visit Baghdad. “I was told that if I came he’d pick me up at the airport,” she said. “Given what that road is like, how dangerous it is going to and from the airport, that’s quite an offer.”

Templeton is one of the editors at War News Radio, a weekly half-hour show broadcast on the Swarthmore campus station, and podcast over the Web, where it draws as many as three thousand listeners a day. The show’s stated aim is to “rediscover the voices of real people” in Iraq. It is supervised by Marty Goldensohn, a thirty-year veteran of public radio, who offered the students this essential kernel of advice: “Mumble with authority.” He also said, “When you call the Pentagon, you just say, as if you were the New York Times, ‘I’m calling from War News Radio.’ You say it as if it were their failing if they haven’t heard of us.”

The students began, two semesters ago, by creating a homemade sound studio, using bulletin boards and egg cartons hung from ceiling pipes. Now, thanks to the college, they’ve got proper acoustic tiling, although space heaters are still required to supplement the building’s old radiator, and the reporters sometimes wear ski jackets and hats while manning the phones. They have secured interviews, in recent weeks, with the C.E.O. of the new Iraqi Stock Exchange, an aspiring filmmaker in Baghdad, and the Sunni politician Adnan Pachachi. In one broadcast, an Iraqi doctor, referring to the mood at the checkpoints, said, “Everybody feels terrified; everything around is horrible, and you expect that you may be killed at any minute.” (His daughter had been shot, he said, by U.S. soldiers.)

Last month, an American expat who runs an FM station in Canberra, Australia, e-mailed the studio and asked for permission to rebroadcast the show. Carleton College has picked up War News Radio as well. And last week Goldensohn was preparing to send out a mailing to more than a thousand other schools, soliciting further interest.

“We thought we were at a disadvantage not being on the ground in Iraq,” Eva Barboni, a junior poli-sci major, said. “But when you hear from reporters there that they can’t even leave their hotels you start to think.” The sound quality afforded by Skype, it turns out, is often better than what can be achieved over the weak landlines in the Green Zone.

“If you’re working for a big American network, with a film crew following you, you’re not going to get out on the streets in Baghdad,” Wren Elhai, a sophomore, said. “We can do a lot from here that the networks can’t do.”

Elhai is the group’s designated pronouncer of Iraqi names and words. “I’m just the one who can do the Iraqi accent best,” he said. “My favorite word, and it’s unfortunate how often you hear it, is ‘corruption.’ Iraqis have that wonderful rolled ‘r.’ ” Elhai was in the process of editing a story about an Iraqi contractor, a frequent victim of government corruption, before heading off to a rehearsal for his a-cappella singing group.

One drawback of the long-distance approach, of course, is that you can’t be sure whom you’re talking to. Templeton, while working on a segment about a typical Iraqi teen-ager, ended up speaking with a father she later came to suspect of being a Baath Party official. She killed the story. “I thought maybe they weren’t the average,” she

Esam Pasha’s offer to pick Templeton up at the airport, meanwhile, remains unfulfilled. “I don’t want to be another American who’s potentially putting the people working with him in danger,” she said.

When not telephoning Iraq, the War News team occupy themselves with critiquing the President’s speeches (Kurt Vonnegut has appeared on the show as a commentator), assessing the ongoing media coverage (“Where are the pictures of shrapnel wounds and weeping mothers that etched the Vietnam War in American minds?”), and interviewing soldiers’ parents. Recently, a reporter, Tevye Kelman, went undercover and visited an Army recruiting station in Philadelphia. Midway through the interview, the recruiter asked Kelman, a senior, when he’d last smoked pot. “Last weekend,” he replied.

link to the original posting

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Jonathan Harr Writes With a Realist's Brush (By Bob Thompson, the Washington Post)

Note of the painting: The Taking of Christ, 1602, by Caravaggio (Michelangelo da Merisi), Society of Jesus of Ireland, on loan to the National Gallery of Ireland inv. no. 14,072.

link to the caption

Note from the blog editor:
To take a step further, one painting mentioned in the article, “the taking of the Christ” by Caravaggio was worth to be brought here with the article. It is a spectacular painting. The photo of the painting is taken from the website of an exhibition from the National Gallery, Washington D.C. United States when the painting was on loan away from its regular display of Ireland during May 30 - July 18, 1999.

link to the exhibition archive for the exhibition

Note of the Caption: The author Jonathan Harr traveled to Ireland, England and Italy in his meticulous effort to re-create the search for Caravaggio's lost painting. (Photo Credit: By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post Photo)

link to the caption

A Painting's Story, Told Stroke by Stroke
- Jonathan Harr Writes With a Realist's Brush

Thursday, December 29, 2005

The National Gallery of Art doesn't own any paintings by the great baroque realist Caravaggio, but there's a slide of one of his religious dramas being projected on an East Building screen right now. A soldier in black looms menacingly out of the darkness, extending an arm to seize a downcast Jesus. A treacherous disciple pulls back from his infamous kiss. And look, in the back: There's a wide-eyed bystander with a lantern, said to be a self-portrait by the ragged, revolutionary Italian painter who brought "The Taking of Christ" to life in 1602.

Below and to the side, a lectern reading light lends a painterly glow to the face of today's speaker, nonfiction maestro Jonathan Harr. For just a moment, lecturer and subject appear to merge, and you imagine that Harr has come to physically inhabit the world of "The Lost Painting," his book on the disappearance and rediscovery of the treasure now on the screen.

This is an illusion, of course, but it's a suggestive one. A major theme of "The Lost Painting" is the longing of scholars to bridge the gap between present and past. It's a longing the 57-year-old Harr totally understands: After all, what wouldn't he give for an interview with Caravaggio, who died on the run in the summer of 1610?

"Thirty minutes with the man, just give me 30 minutes," he muses while being interviewed himself, the day before his National Gallery talk. He's full of questions for the quick-tempered brawler who was forced to flee Rome after he killed a man in a street fight: "Were you sleeping with Lena? Is that why you hit the notary, Mariano Pasqualone? Did you intend to kill Ranuccio Tomassoni, or were you just . . . ?"

You'd really need hours, of course. "But if you could have only 30 minutes, what an incredible gift that would be."

Fortunately for Harr, the main subject of his book is not the artist himself but a clutch of contemporary Caravaggio scholars -- in particular, a young Italian art historian named Francesca Cappelletti, whose crucial discovery in a musty archive helped establish that "The Taking of Christ" was the real thing.

Unfortunately he wasn't hanging with Cappelletti in 1989, when she made her discovery. He had to reconstruct the scene, along with almost everything else in "The Lost Painting."

This was a major change -- to put it mildly -- from the book for which he is best known.

"A Civil Action," published in 1995 after more than eight years of reporting and writing, turned the story of a complex, protracted environmental lawsuit into a mesmerizing page-turner. "Whether in truth or fiction, I have never read a more compelling chronicle of litigation," John Grisham wrote.

That book gained much of its power from Harr's up-close observation of the plaintiffs' lawyer, Jan Schlichtmann, who became its central figure. Harr got so far inside his story that when the charismatic, egomaniacal Schlichtmann went broke and started sleeping in his office, the writer bunked in the room next door. Who needs bridges to the past when your subject is a few yards away, pleading with a witness on the phone at 6 a.m. while you groggily take notes?

Harr was there in part because he was broke, too. When he'd negotiated an $80,000 advance for "A Civil Action," he'd been a modestly compensated magazine writer at the now-defunct New England Monthly. His editor, Daniel Okrent, tried to talk him out of the project.

"You'll find yourself scrounging for quarters hidden in car seats," Okrent warned him.

Some years later, Harr called Okrent from a rest stop on the Massachusetts Turnpike to confess that his old boss had been right. Even after scrounging the available car-seat quarters, he still lacked sufficient funds to pay the toll.

But Harr was right, too, Okrent says: The obsessive perfectionism with which he pursued his story produced "one of the great nonfiction books of our time." The hardback edition of "A Civil Action" didn't sell spectacularly, but the paperback did, and a $1.25 million movie deal allowed Harr to pay his debts, fix a leaky roof and prevent his chimney from falling in.

Before the book was published, however, Harr had no expectation it would make any money. Desperate for cash, he needed another project right away.

Which didn't stop him from being his obsessive, perfectionist self.

In 1993 his eye had been caught by a newspaper article about a long-lost Caravaggio that had turned up in a Jesuit residence in Ireland. In 1994 he embarked on a story about it for the New York Times Magazine. The Times sent him to Dublin, where "The Taking of Christ" had been identified by Sergio Benedetti, a restoration expert at Ireland's National Gallery.

After spending a couple of weeks in Ireland, he told the Times that he needed to go to London and talk to experts there. Fine. After he got back from England, he allowed as how he really should go to Italy and see Francesca Cappelletti, the graduate student who'd done so much to trace the painting before Benedetti stumbled across it.

Not fine.

"They said, 'Wait a minute, this is just a magazine story," Harr recalls with a laugh. He settled for transatlantic phone calls.

A few years later, while in Rome on a fellowship, he called Cappelletti to sound her out about a possible book. They ended up taking a more than seven-hour train ride together, to the town in southern Italy where she was teaching. Harr peppered her with questions -- eliciting, among other things, the story of her marriage and divorce. She wept. He tried to be sympathetic, but never stopped taking notes. By the end of the trip, he knew the book would work.

He'd have to learn Italian, of course: Cappelletti spoke English, but many others with whom he'd need to talk did not, and your true obsessive won't settle for translators. But his biggest difficulty would be reconstructing her search for the painting.

Unlike the trial in "A Civil Action," he hadn't been there .

Take, for example, the archival find made by Cappelletti and a colleague, Laura Testa, in a hill town called Recanati eight miles from the Adriatic coast. The two women had talked their way into a trove of family documents controlled by a dotty old aristocrat, Marchesa Annamaria Antici-Mattei, whose ancestors had been Caravaggio patrons. The Mattei archive was in the dank and dimly lit cellar of a decaying palazzo. Handling the family's leather-bound account books, Harr writes, Cappelletti "felt as if she were touching history."

But he couldn't touch it himself. By the time Testa drove him to Recanati, the Marchesa had died and the palazzo had been locked up. The best he could do was peer into the cellar, through the bars of the ground-level windows, trying to imagine the moment when Cappelletti and Testa discovered the first recorded mention of "The Taking of Christ."

"I wanted more and more and more," Harr says, recalling his frustration at having to rely on the women's memories. "Francesca and Laura go to Recanati in this rickety old car of Francesca's sister, and it's a six-hour drive -- what do they talk about? If I'd been there, in the back seat, I would have been scribbling away."

The more you listen, the more you can sense his longing to be in the past -- in order to re-create it perfectly.

"Jonathan is one of those writers who would report a story for the rest of his life if he could," says Harr's close friend Tracy Kidder. He's a perfectionist when it's time to write as well, says Robert Loomis, his editor at Random House: He'll work and rework the text, trying to ensure that the prose is evocative without being flashy and the pacing is just right.

Several sections in "The Lost Painting," for example, give the reader bits of Caravaggio's life story without unduly interrupting the contemporary narrative. When he ran out of time on the book, Harr says, he was working on another such flashback. He still worries that omitting it was a mistake.

Heaven knows he's not the first writer haunted by perfectionism -- but he's certainly got a bad case. Ask him where it comes from and he'll tell you he thinks it is "driven by fear: fear of being wrong, fear of looking foolish or dumb or inept."

You want to know more. Why did he become a writer in the first place? Where does the fear come from? You don't have much time left, so you ask the question this way: If you were writing a book on Jonathan Harr, what are the key points you would need to reconstruct?

Well . . .

There'd be the childhood that's not too interesting "and then: bang. Something happens at age 8." His mother ran off with her political science professor, "and basically I didn't see her for 15 years."

There'd be the fact that at age 12 he settled on his future career. Was it the complete "Sherlock Holmes" he'd devoured? The teacher he'd had -- her name was Betty Bowdoin -- "an absolutely wonderful woman who taught kids to write"?

She's dead now, so that bridge to the past is broken.

There'd be his hopping around the world with a Foreign Service father and, while in Washington, working as a congressional page. (Once, on a dare, he called the House into session 45 minutes early.) There'd be his dropping out of college and writing poetry and driving a cab and trying to write a novel and getting messed up with drugs and alcohol ("I was sinking fast"). There'd be his straightening out, thanks to the woman who would become his wife, and getting his first real writing job, with an alternative newspaper in New Haven.

We've only scratched the surface here, you think. Surely you'll need to debrief Harr's family and his friends in Northampton, Mass. Perhaps you should follow him back to Rome, where he's heading a couple of days after his National Gallery talk. Maybe you could track down Francesca Cappelletti and get her views . . .

But wait a minute. This is just a newspaper story! You've got hours, not years. You're not Jonathan Harr.

You have to let it go.

link to the original posting

link to Jonathan Harr's website at Random House Publishing

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Geldof's Year (by Bob Geldof, the Guardian)

Note of the caption: Make Poverty History project, related information available on; merchandises are available here.

2005 was supposed to be the year of Africa. Tony Blair committed Britain to ambitious targets on aid and debt relief. Museums staged major exhibitions dedicated to the continent's art. And one of the biggest popular movements ever - spurred on by a very big pop concert - called on eight world leaders in a Scottish hotel to make poverty history. But what, in the end, did it all achieve? Bob Geldof looks back on a year of 'world-saving bollocks' and argues that whatever his critics say, we really did change

Wednesday December 28, 2005

The reappointed German development minister shook her purple-dyed hair. "The Floyd ..." she managed, her tone hushed with awe. "Amazing. I never thought ... How did you ever get them together again?" Her voice trailed off into reverie. Her officials, too, shook their heads in shared wonder.

"Eh, minister," I slurped between my spoonfuls of delicious soup 'n' sausage. "What do you think the German position will be on the EU Doha proposal? And can you also give us some insight into your new government's position on the Gleneagles aid commitments?"

"Annie Lennox," the minister murmured. "Oh my God. The passion ..."

Two weeks ago the new German government reiterated its support for the Gleneagles G8 commitment. The French government set in, train the facility that will allow it to raise new funds to pay for its share of Gleneagles. And the Norwegian parliament passed into law the British proposal for an international finance facility that will raise new funds for universal immunisation throughout Africa, a key piece of the G8 promise. Last week the G8 debt deal was ratified by the IMF board and Europe agreed a process for holding itself accountable to its aid promises.

Thus the world changes. Or can be changed. If you want to change it.

The politics of emotion can take you only so far. All the tears in the world have never kept a human being alive. Practical action does that. Cash and politics. Charity and justice. Morality and realpolitik. Oil and water.

But if you are going to do it, if you are serious, deadly earnest - sick of the nightly pornography of poverty trailed pruriently across our teatime television screens, aware through long, tiring experience of the shortcomings of human pity and sympathy, and if you believe that poverty is unnatural in a world of unsurpassed wealth - then it becomes incumbent upon you to try to change it if you can; to recognise that ultimately poverty is political, and therefore you must engage with the process as it is. Not as you imagine it to be, or as you would wish it to be, or even as you think it should be - but as it is. You must engage with the power and the persons and institutions and methods that wield that power. It can be a tiresome process, but ultimately that is irrelevant if that person you saw last night on the television can just stop hurting for one second. If that child is allowed a future. If that mother would just stop crying for her lost children.

There are those who will stand outside the tent peeing in, there are those who will be inside the tent peeing out - and then there are the others who will stand inside the tent peeing on the ground where they stand. And the reason for that is simple. Sometimes, by being momentarily allowed inside the tent, you can help to change it. By peeing so wantonly, so copiously, you can stink the place up so much that they want you out - at a reasonable price. Sometimes you can harness the process, to do the unassailable good. And sometimes - rarely, but sometimes - it delivers. That happened this year in our country, and we should be proud.

It's been a good year for Africa. At least, given the criminally low norm, better than any in the past. Gleneagles delivered, in Kofi Annan's words, "the greatest summit for Africa ever". President Obasanjo of Nigeria, speaking at the UN, called it the "great leap forward". World Bank and Nobel-winning development economists hailed it as the first serious attempt to deal strategically with structural poverty in Africa. Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, called it "stupendous". All of this may or may not be true; that remains to be seen. But what is clear is that given the disgraceful results of September's UN summit, called to discuss progress on its own millennium development goals that it turns out were hardly mentioned, and the equally pathetic mewling and sniping that constituted debate at the Hong Kong trade negotiations earlier this month, Gleneagles glows even brighter by comparison. Whatever it was, one thing it clearly was not was a "disaster for the world's poor", as one Dave Spart-like "activist" hilariously called it.

Gleneagles agreed to 50 of the 90 proposals outlined in the report by the Commission for Africa, set up by Blair to recommend how Britain should take a lead on the issue. Some, I'm told, have written that there was no intellectual underpinning to Live8. Well, I sort of think, "They're poor, they don't have to be, let's stop it," seems adequate, but since I persuaded the prime minister to analyse the economic decline of Africa for the 21st century and come up with an achievable political and economic plan to finally stop it, and since he then put together some of the smartest and most powerful intellectuals, politicians, academics and businesspeople from the G8, Africa, China and elsewhere to do just that, and since I sat on that commission for almost a year, and since it produced a radical document that was praised by experts, analysts and activists alike, and since Blair bravely accepted it as UK policy for our G8, and since it therefore became the de facto political and intellectual underpinning of the entire bloody project, and since it is available in every bookshop in all its 500 page detail or in a more readable Penguin paperback or a schools edition or online and was heavily discussed in all newspapers ... what the jaysus are they crapping on about?

But what did Live8 actually achieve? Primarily by its size, ambition and support, in raising the single greatest lobby for a political platform ever achieved, it forced on the top table of world politics a hitherto economically unacceptable package of benefits for the poor of Africa. Africa was the focus of the entire year that began with the formation of the Commission for Africa, using the opening shot of the Band Aid 20 record to alert a generation unborn when we began all of this 20 years ago. In 1985, because of the political deadlock of the cold war, we could only deal with the symptoms of deadly impoverishment: famine, illness, dislocation, orphans etc. But now we could begin to address the structures of poverty: politics, economics, infrastructure, capacity, governance; the things that in theory should prevent the former.

Dull gruel, but still, it seemed something a new generation in the UK was prepared to try. The Make Poverty History (MPH) coalition brought together 60-odd agencies, development geeks of all shades and opinions, and a solid core of the big, serious NGOs, a sprawling assemblage of intent that began to gather a vast army of co-campaigners around the world.

I had thought that once Blair had been forced to adopt the Commission for Africa proposals as UK policy, and with the formation of the MPH coalition and the commitment of the BBC to broadcasting 42 programmes in or about Africa, that that would be it. Here was the policy, the lobby, and through the television, the means to spread understanding of this sublime continent in whose name we were acting. But it wasn't.

During discussions about the comprehensive spending review, which determines UK expenditure, Brown and then Blair suggested we would "eventually" arrive at a figure for overseas aid of 0.7% of our budget. This was a great breach of faith as they had promised a specific date, equal to the French commitment of 2012, and now they were dodging it. I (self-importantly) huffed and puffed and castigated B 'n' B for their "guff and grandiose schemes". Hurt feelings, massive protests, letters of outrage - and they announced 0.7% by 2013.

But if this was happening here, nothing was happening elsewhere. The British negotiators of the G8, the "sherpas", told me almost on a daily basis they were getting nowhere. The MPH coalition was planning what would turn out to be a massive rally in Edinburgh. But MPH seemed to be making minimal political impact outside the UK.

Bono and Richard Curtis had been nagging me to do a Live Aid 2, but I didn't want to. I thought we'd done enough. I didn't know if I had the necessary will or energy any more. It wears you out and down in every sense. And any repeat of Live Aid could never match the original that had proved so powerful in memory.

What changed my mind was the bleak picture that the sherpas drew as the spring wore on and as Bush seemed immune to the prime minister's blandishments. Bono had told Condoleezza Rice that he would get 10,000 kids to ring the White House every night of U2's US tour. Rice calmly replied that the White House "could take the calls". It was clear that something huge had to be done so that it became politically impossible to refuse us. Something that would affect the capitals of all these leaders, that would start their national media discussing the subject and in turn would get their electorate saying, "Why don't you do something?"

Sir Michael Jay, who led the British negotiating team, has said publicly that without Live8 there could have been no deal. That the entire tone of discussion changed as each concert, in each capital, was announced.

Gleneagles delivered precisely the aid increase asked for in the Commission for Africa report. A doubling of aid from $25bn to $50bn in graduated steps until 2010, when there will be a review towards a potential doubling again to 2015. Anyone who tells you they would have believed that possible a year ago is a liar. Anyone who tells you the leaders should have done more is probably right, but that wasn't the view of many of my African colleagues on the Africa Commission. Their point was that the African economies, infrastructure and capacity are so weak that the continent, tragically, could not initially absorb more than what was asked. The point is the G8 did what was asked. And the truth is that they did it cos we did it.

The G8 also finally agreed to cancel - not relieve but cancel - the unpayable debt of 18 of the poorest countries to the IMF, World Bank and African Development Bank. This was Brown's initiative, with Tony Blair calling in favours from George Bush, whose officials had championed debt cancellation but who initially wanted it done without additional financing. Two days before Live8, when it was clear there would be a million people on the streets of Philadelphia, Bush announced a new initiative on malaria and confirmed America's commitment to double aid to Africa.

All of this sounds great, but what does it mean in human terms? Well, it's vast. But the caveat is that having promised these initiatives, they must now be realised and delivered. Blair, seemingly as jaded as the rest of us by all these highfalutin commitments, made the assembled leaders sign their Gleneagles Communiqué, thus in effect turning it into a contract. These commitments must be rigorously monitored and reported on. A promise by the powerful to the weak is the most solemn and binding oath one can make, for to break it is to kill the vulnerable. And we've had quite enough unnecessary dying already.

One thing that gives me confidence that we can force the G8 to keep these promises is the strong social, cultural and political legacy of this year. Live8 was like a steroid injection. The One campaign in the US has been super-sized. It now has 2 million activists signed up, regularly writing to Bush and to Congress. The Canadian Make Poverty History campaign doubled in size in a few hours during Live8; 250,000 Canadians are targeting candidates in the January election there. In Japan, this kind of campaigning is unknown, but 4 million people are now wearing the white band there. There are now campaigns in more than 80 countries. In the UK, all the major parties are now formally committed to 0.7% and David Cameron has made "fighting global poverty" one of his six priorities.

When these promises are achieved, this will be what happens. Five million more people will be alive every year; 20 million more children will go to school; 6 million Africans will get anti-Aids drugs within the next five years; 600,000 children who would have died from malaria annually will live; a staggering 280 million will be free of debt slavery for the first time in their lives.

Isn't that beyond fantastic? Isn't that extraordinary? And precisely because the consequences are so enormous, it must be made to happen.

Trade was never on the agenda for Gleneagles. The sherpas had such a difficult time trying to negotiate the aid and debt deal that they simply had no time to deal with the complex wrangling on trade. Despite that, the commission was clear on the key issue of trade. It called for an end to rich countries' agricultural subsidies and endorsed the core demand of Make Poverty History and the Trade Justice Movement, that rich nations must not use aid to force African economies to open up to major multinationals, against whom weak economies could not compete. This broke new ground.

Of course, unlike with aid and debt, all of this is verbal piety - and if they meant it at Gleneagles, why didn't they do something about it in Hong Kong, where rich countries served up thin gruel for the poor? Africa has only 1% or 2% of world trade. It is incapable of competing and possesses no threat to the other 98%. It should be considered differently and engaged in an exercise of economic positive discrimination.

But by now you will be bored. You will have noted that all I have talked about is policy. What about the gig? The bands? That brings me to one of the criticisms directed at me - that there were no black or African acts on the bill.

This, while well meaning, displays a lack of understanding of the whole campaign. It was not a concert; it was a campaign. It was not a cultural event; it was a political device. It was not about music; it was about poverty. Live8 was not a celebration of Africa, or a presentation of its culture to the rest of the world. Others can do that. That is not my interest. In a world that has never been wealthier, my interest is stopping people dying because they are simply too poor to stay alive.

To change political policy you have to create a giant lobby for change. To get to the greatest number of people around the world, we had to use the biggest selling artists in the world, nationally and internationally. For all their great musicianship, African acts do not sell many records. People wouldn't watch. Networks wouldn't take the concert. Live8 is nothing to do with my personal preferences in music; the issue is too important to be left to musical indulgence - mine or anyone else's. Death beats culture every time if only on the basis that when everyone dies there's no one around to make culture any more.

Having said that, why didn't those critics watch the Johannesburg concert? It was one of the nine Live8 gigs transmitted internationally and simultaneously. Surely that satisfied their narrow criteria. As for black acts - did no one see the US concert? And how depressing that after an entire year of discussing the issues, some only understood Live8 as a numbers count of black faces.

When I invited my righteously indignant critics to create an event to their liking, in say Regent's Park, and offered to incorporate it into Live8, answer came there none. Indeed, when Peter Gabriel suggested we adopt his Eden Project World Music gig in Cornwall I readily agreed.

Unfortunately, my point is borne out by the fact that 3 million were live spectators to Live8; there were 2,000 in Cornwall. More than 3 billion watched Live8; few saw or watched bits of Cornwall. The Live Aid and Live8 DVDs are the biggest and fastest-selling DVDs ever, now totalling millions of sales; Cornwall has sold a few thousand. That is not to be smug, triumphant or condescending; it is simply to make the point behind my cold, pragmatic thinking around what Live8 was for. If those critics promote an African concert in the future, I wish them well - and can I have some free tickets? But Live8 wasn't and could never be about that.

OK. The other things people said.

An African concert was cancelled in favour of Live8. Not true. We moved the site to where we could get a global feed and allow Mandela to address the world. Which we did and he did.

They said Live8 sponsors included Nestlé, Rio Tinto, BAE Systems. Not true. None of those were involved.

They said George Bush's Millennium Challenge Account ties aid to cooperation in the "war on terror". Not true, as a simple check of the facts would have shown.

They said I instructed the bands not to criticise Blair or Bush. Not true. I couldn't care less what bands say or do.

They said I was forced to bow to pressure for African acts by incorporating the Jo'burg gig and the Eden Project. As I've explained, that's not true either. But let me be very clear: I would never bow to that sort of thing. I would have cancelled the lot rather than indulge in musical correctness.

They say I do all of this stuff for my career. Which one? I'm well-off (touch wood). The business stuff is great, thank you very much. I've just finished a mini-tour with my band, brought out an anthology of solo albums and will make a new record next year. I'm fine, thanks. I get plaudits hurled at me with obscene frequency, so my self is already over-aggrandized enough. No, I genuinely could do without all the grief, the numbing boredom of the endless briefings, reports, meetings, abuse, stats, smarming, word-watching, tie-wearing, brown-nosing and general crap that goes with all this "world-saving" bollocks. The thing is, I don't know why or how, but I can do this stuff. And in being able to do it, it would be the most grotesque irresponsibility to then turn away and write another song or something. It is unimpeachably boring - but somehow it works.

Behind all of this bitter carping is the corrosively cynical view that none of this works. That because they, as critics, do nothing, nobody else should even try. Well, they're wrong. You can alter policy. The individual is not powerless in the face of either political indifference or monstrous human tragedy. Let me say it embarressedly, cornily, almost guiltily. Let me try to say it without sounding like some pious twat. You can change the world. And millions upon millions of you did that this year. This stuff works. Sometimes.

Blair and Brown should get praise for an incredible achievement. They personally wanted this to happen. They were committed to it. They expended political capital and took big risks. They did their job and they did it well, whatever other stuff you may agree or disagree with. This one is down to them and to the UK in general. I don't believe it would have happened elsewhere.

It seems that at last the original proposition I articulated 20 years ago, that to die of want in a world of surplus was not only intellectually absurd but morally repulsive, has been utterly agreed with by a towering majority, and reluctantly accepted by the leaders of the rich world. That, ultimately, is what happened this year. It is clear that the majority of people of the world who participated in the greatest civic movement ever created through Make Poverty History and Live8 did begin the process of ending structural and endemic poverty in Africa. It's a small beginning for sure, but it has begun.

But I'll end with this truth. Although I am exhausted and bone weary in every sense, all of those 20 years of boring you and myself to death about this stuff would have been worth it for a single life. For just one person, it's been worth it - Birhan Woldu. When we saw that little scrap of humanity on The Cars' film 20 years ago during Live Aid, when we saw that silent scream, the soundless agony of that tiny thing, when the phone lines collapsed with pity for her - and then to see her now, beautiful, dignified, elegant, intellectual, dynamic, hopeful; a young woman worried about passing her agricultural exams on the Live8 stage, then I really, properly mean this: all of it was worth it for just her. For that single life. And in her is everything every person is and can be and must be allowed to be, and therefore every death, every loss is a great loss, an incalculable loss, a diminishment, an impoverishment.

This year, all of you started keeping 5 million Berhan people in east Africa alive. Not bad. Not bad at all.

· To help make the G8 keep its promises, please go to

link to the original posting

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Boogie Noches (By Benjamin Kunkel, the New York Times)

Note of the Caption: photographed by Matt Shonfeld (it came with the New York Times article, but the editor lists the photographer’s on-line archive)

link to the caption

Note from the blog editor: It is one of those days that I see something out-of-date but interesting, and feel obligated to put on somehow related articles together. After all, the logic could have been crooked long ago as you may find. Two additional links are about the newly-elected president in Bolivia coming from the farming backgroud to gain the governing power (from the Nation), and how Latin Americans in the United States see the States (from Mother Jones).

November 20, 2005

Not long after we had arrived in Buenos Aires, we crossed one of the bridges connecting the Puerto Madero district to the rest of the enormous eastward-spreading city and began to stroll along the quay. It was a bright, clear afternoon, blustery in that housecleaning way of early spring, and the city appeared to be populated exclusively by young people. (Later we discovered the university nearby.) In New York it might be fall, but here it was spring; my good friend and I may no longer be a romantic couple, but for now we were traveling companions; and I might have plenty of other work to do, but for the moment my job was to report on the night life of Buenos Aires. Duty compelled me to dine at fine restaurants, dance all night long with my beautiful ex-girlfriend and keep the bottles of malbec coming. And all for the sake of the story.

I was already having a hard time believing my luck when Catherine and I spotted several Argentine bills skittering across the brick-paved quay. We gathered up the money and began to look around for the worker or student whom the wind had just robbed. But we saw no one worriedly patting his pocket or nervously inspecting her purse, no one scanning the pedestrian path for a half-dozen fugitive bills in large denominations. For several minutes we stood there holding up the money and looking around for its rightful owner. And then we began to feel foolish in the way of any pair of blond gringos waving lots of money around a South American capital and waiting for someone to take it off their hands. Eventually we resigned ourselves to our good fortune and pocketed the 430 Argentine pesos.

The amount is equivalent to about $140, but that tells only half the story. Until December 2001 - when Argentina's government, which had been borrowing money and signing bad checks, defaulted on its massive foreign debt - the country's peso was pegged to the American dollar at a ratio of one to one. After the default, it took four pesos to buy a single dollar. The currency collapse led to riots and foreclosures and factory closings; it culled many families from the middle class and had businessmen lining up outside soup kitchens. It has also had the effect of making a tourist's paradise out of what had nearly been a first-world country.

A bit guiltily, we took our windfall and treated ourselves to a delicious three-course lunch. We drank a bottle of almost chewily rich Mendoza wine, served slightly chilled to moderate the sweetness, and then took a long nap back in our hotel, Faena Hotel + Universe.

Alan Faena is a sort of celebrity developer, an Argentine Donald Trump (with better hair), bent on turning the abandoned warehouses of Puerto Madero into so many luxury condominiums and boutique hotels.

It's hard to imagine that any of these can be more luridly opulent than the Faena, which was designed by Philippe Starck.

Once a big grain warehouse of stolid brick, it now contains a gym and hammam; a cabaret (about which more later); an all-but-bookless "library" bearing a very close resemblance to a bar; two restaurants serving the cosmopolitan fare known to Argentines as comida urbana, or urban cuisine; a brimming lap pool (where one rainy afternoon we saw a troupe of synchronized swimmers in bathing caps practicing for the Veuve Clicquot party to be held that evening); and - just for us - a snow-white suite with blood-red velvet drapes and, in the center of the room, a rotating silver-glass entertainment system somehow reminiscent of an unsheathed dagger.

Presumably these are the amenities that qualify the Faena for the status of a universe. But it's the central hallway that immediately strikes you as the most impressive and impious thing about the place. The narrow hall with the tall ceiling and the clerestory windows would already remind you of the nave of a church, even if it weren't for the panes of red and green glass with fractured flowers of symmetrical air bubbles at their hearts. Doormen admit you into the nave as ceremoniously as if you were a pair of medieval cardinals who had purchased a mess of indulgences.

We peeked into the bistro. I suppose it's one thing to sit in a white leather throne at a white table in a white room, beneath a huge chandelier composed of many pendant tears, and to eat a nice bloody cut of tender Argentine steak and to wash it down with some lip-smacking premier cru. But how does it feel to have the heads of white plaster unicorns mounted above each table? "If I saw the ghost of Gianni Versace in there right now," I said to Catherine, "I wouldn't be surprised."

"Maybe seated with Liberace?" she said. "And wearing a bathing suit, but with the pope's miter on his head?"

We encountered few other guests, and so our curiosity as to what sort of person would pay for such unreality (about $300 to $500 a night in this bankrupt country) remained unsatisfied. However, the confidential and effusive tones in which several employees thanked us for being so polite to them suggested that this sort of person may not be especially nice.

Each guest at the Faena is assigned a rotating team of "experience managers." And I declare that if I were God himself, and wanted to hire someone to greet Spanish- and English-speaking inductees to heaven and give them advice on how to spend eternity, the experience manager Romina Nicolino would be my first choice. Not many are born to work in the hospitality industry, but Romina - beautiful, smiling Romina - made us feel that there was nothing she preferred. Looking at us with a twinkle in her eye, as if there were something a bit scandalous and very pleasant about us that she already knew and we would soon discover, she called up the Gran Bar Danzón and lyrically spelled out for the hostess my somewhat ungainly German surname: "K como 'kilo,' U como 'Ursula,' N como 'Nene,' K como 'kilo,' E como 'Eva,' L como 'Lola."' Then we were off in a taxi, both confessing our love for our experience manager and permitting ourselves to hope that she loved us, too.

We didn't love her the less, either, when we'd settled at our table at the Gran Bar and were tucking into our risotto with coconut milk, goat cheese and smoked corn, and our marinated red mullet with baby shrimp croquettes. Though the bar itself, with exposed cinder blocks and a revolving, soft green strobe, was done in a style of generic hipster minimalism, the prices were Argentine, so that the salt of a bargain was sprinkled over everything we tasted.

"Night life" we took to mean dancing, and Wednesday night is a night of "after office" parties. These begin directly after work, and most of the revelers head home by 2 or 3 in the morning, early by the standards of Porteños, as the inhabitants of Buenos Aires are known. By Friday we would be staying out all night, and now was the time to begin working on our stamina.

"After office" takes place in some of the coolest clubs. There is Opera Bay, in Puerto Madero, with its great white wings of beveled concrete heaped above several communicating dance floors that were lighted from below in chartreuse; there is Museum, in the grittier San Telmo, where a constellation of spinning mirror balls presides over a long, three-tiered arcade in a Beaux-Arts style; and then there's Asia de Cuba, near Opera Bay, which has a carved dragon entwined around a pillar in the middle of the dance floor, like the muscular serpent in certain Flemish depictions of the Fall. The music wasn't bad either, especially at Asia de Cuba, where decent house sounds - thumping, monumental and intricate - pulsed and washed through one's deafened mind.

The only trouble with the "after office" party is that it's lame. I wouldn't suggest going to one unless you are an upwardly mobile young Argentine guy who enjoys dressing like Alex P. Keaton and standing around with your buddies ogling some of the women, whom you vastly outnumber.

We had imagined Argentina as a nation of beautiful people and excellent dancers. And for those beautiful, dancing Argentines we had brought our fanciest clothes and best moves. But they weren't dancing! "I don't know if dancing's what they're into," Catherine noted pointedly. The clubgoers who were not standing in separate encampments of men and women were mostly unfortunate couples whose faces had become stuck together.

Being disappointed and also, by this point, having enjoyed many cocktails, I said, "Man, all these Argies know how to do is suck face." Fortunately, not too many young Argentines, many of whom appear to spend a lot of time at the gym, understand idiomatic English.

The savior of the night was the famous (to the natives) Argentine pop star Charly Garcia. Back at the Faena he was warming up with his band in the red velvet lair of the cabaret. In spite of the capacity crowd (some of whom were curiously shouting, "Viva de porno!"), Catherine and I, with our mysterious good luck, were admitted to the show free, just in time to watch the curtain rise, revealing a middle-aged man wearing thick nerd glasses, headphones and a luxuriant mane of black-and-silver hair. Then Garcia began to sing, in English. The song, to judge by the ecstatic reaction of the crowd, must be one of his greatest hits:

"In another part of the world I can be free / In another part of the world I can be me."

Cooler by far than the kids we'd seen milling around and making out on Wednesday night were the middle-class people of every age and description gathered, on Friday, at La Viruta. This milonga-tango club is held several times a week in a dim room, not unlike a department-store basement, in the shabby-chic neighborhood Palermo Viejo. The coolness of everyone was not apparent until the music struck up and people began to dance.

We'd been told that the tango was no longer really a living art. Clearly these young and old tangoers, sober or a little drunk, well and not so well dressed, hadn't heard the news. Catherine and I and our new friend Matt (his band had recently disbanded, and he'd left his bartending job: Buenos Aires these days attracts all sorts of young people at loose ends) sat at a crumb-dusted table and watched with fascination, turning into something like joy, as an obese elderly man with drooping eyelids, a Roman profile and surprisingly nimble feet took in his arms a hot young thing in tall heels and a fishnet blouse. This pair was joined by a handsome and skilled couple in their 50's, his denim shirt half-unbuttoned, her tiny skirt hiked almost to the point of indecency.

We watched as the couples executed their steps and swivels, their dramatic twirls and pregnant pauses, pressed tight and upright against one another, with nothing much in common besides a look of almost somber concentration. I particularly liked the young woman with the liquid hips, in her flowered dress, and that sly-looking older man with his sober dark suit and rockabilly pompadour. But the milonga seemed above all a democratic affirmation, both casual and intense, of the beauty of each and all of its participants. Really, it was like nothing we Americans have ever seen in our own country. Walt Whitman, you would have thought, was their national poet, not ours.

Still, we weren't quite ready to give up on the clubs and devote ourselves to the tango. We met up with our other new friend, Chloe (who'd temporarily quit the British film business to learn Spanish), and made our way to a Palermo boîte bearing the name Club 69.

It was electro-cabaret night, and Catherine and Matt and Chloe and I, along with the Argentine couple we'd picked up en route - such is the way of the city in the small hours - were soon standing on the dance floor. Meanwhile, onstage, women in metallic bondage regalia and men in suit jackets and shiny underpants pranced and thrusted before a Mao-size video image of Liza Minnelli. Evidently she was the goddess of this cult, which we were pleased to join. Good electronic dance music induces a sort of violent mysticism; the mind is forcibly emptied, the ego is suppressed by the beat.

Soon the go-go dancers were sporting enormous purple crests in place of hair, and Liza Minnelli had given way to abstract red-and-violet Navajo patterns blossoming in endless iterations, and I was drenched in sweat after dancing for hours. So had everyone else in this club, so much hipper, gayer, crazier and no doubt more under the influence than anyone we'd seen so far.

We didn't want to leave but had heard that it was important to check out the club Pacha. And so our party (without the Argentine couple, who had melted away into the night) piled into a cab at 6 a.m. We were afraid of arriving too late, though we needn't have been. There on the Rio de la Plata, at the northern edge of the city, with the sun nudging up over the water and the country of Uruguay discernible as a faint disruption of the horizon, was a big hacienda of pink stucco with a Spanish pantile roof, emanating trance music and spilling partygoers into the dawn: Pacha.

"How can they keep at it?" Chloe wanted to know. As for the four of us, we kept going because, I guess, our last night as a group had now turned into our last morning. We danced and danced, and raised up our arms with the rest of the crowd when the beat dropped, and jumped up and down when the light swept over us. We danced among ourselves, and with the drooping flowers of Porteño youth, until the music stopped and the D.J. hung up his headphones.

For a long time, Buenos Aires has been both ridiculed and admired as a European capital marooned in South America. You might say that these days "the Paris of the South," as it is known, is the only Western European city in which the dollar is still strong. But now it was time to return to the Northern Hemisphere, where the dollar was not so strong, and it was not spring, and my friend and I would no longer be a couple. Moreover, it seemed to me I would be returning to New York with a cold; already I felt that distinctive scratchiness at the back of my throat. It seemed I was too old to be a club kid treating several nights of each week as a portable rave. But I didn't want to give up any of my remaining hours to sleep, and when Catherine crawled into bed, I went to take a look at the ocean.

On my way there, I passed sunbathing old men, picnicking families, floating swans and bounding unleashed dogs. The cement promenade was covered with political graffiti and overlaid with the smoke of grilled meat. This was the realest-looking scene of any that I'd witnessed, and I thought how unreal our time had been here, in cheap, dirty, proud and delirious Buenos Aires. Before long I was standing on the shore of a very brown Atlantic Ocean, on a shingle not of pebbles and sand but of broken concrete and mangled rebar and pieces of scrap wood. In F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel "The Beautiful and Damned," Gloria, 25, remarks that there is nothing that she wants "except to be young and beautiful for a long time, to be gay and happy, and to have money and love."

That's all.

link to the original posting

the promised links:

Bolivia's Home-Grown President(by Daphne Eviatar, the Nation)

How Latins View the US (By Alvaro Vargas Llosa, Mother Jones)

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Swinging and Nothingness (by Leland de la Durantaye, the Village Voice)

Note to the caption: the cover of Tête-à-Tête: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre by Hazel Rowley (Harper Collins)

link of the caption and book info

Swinging and Nothingness -
Leave it to Beaver: For Jean-Paul Sartre centenary, think of Pascal's spiked girdle

December 23rd, 2005 5:40 PM

"You know, I don't tell the Beaver everything," whispered Jean-Paul Sartre to Michelle Vian three years before his death. The Beaver was Simone de Beauvoir. The name was not a term of abuse. Sartre, born 100 years ago, had good reason not to tell the Beaver everything. There was much that was better left unsaid.

Though Sartre indeed did not tell the Beaver everything, the reader of Hazel Rowley's new book Tête-à-Tête: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre (Harper Collins) might wish that he had told her a bit less. Much of what he told her, and she him, had to do with love—or something like it. In a manner not unlike that crystallized centuries earlier, Sartre and de Beauvoir formed dangerous liaisons with the innocents around them. They lifted them up and let them fall for their amusement—or something like it.

Philosophers are supposed to see the world with clear eyes; with clear philosophical eyes, we can note that Sartre was a troll. He was five feet tall. Neither handsome nor dashing, nearly blind in one eye, and scornful of even the most basic conventions of bourgeois dental hygiene (mossy is a word that comes easily to mind). And yet he got girls like he was in the Beatles. As strange to the American mind as escargot is the French custom of beautiful young woman finding brilliant older men attractive merely for being brilliant—and then sleeping with them!

In October 1945 Sartre gave a lecture entitled "Is Existentialism a Humanism?" The answer was no, and the crowd went nuts. A Parisian newspaper described the scene: "A young woman with radiant blue eyes drinks in Sartre's every word. Another collapses in adoration before him: she has just fainted!" (Even after death, "the small man," as his friends called him, would make others fall at his feet. Twenty thousand mourners attended his funeral in 1980 and in the crush a cameraman fell, before the Beaver's terrified gaze, into the philosopher's grave.) Existentialism did not become a humanism, but it did become a way to get girls. If we are truly free and every moment is contingent, why not share your essence with my existence? Helping Sartre pull the strings of his desire was de Beauvoir. Rowley's book highlights various, and in some cases rather vile, machinations of the philosopher king and his philosopher queen with the young entourage at their feet. The tales of their amorous intrigues make disturbing and disappointing reading.

As everyone knows, tête-à-tête is French for "head to head" and means "face to face." Rowley's Tête-à-Tête is as much "head to head" as "face to face." Sartre failed the agrégation, the hyper-competitive national examination one must pass to teach in the French school system, the first time he took it. Studying with de Beauvoir, he passed it the second time around—and did so with flying colors. Only one student seems to have performed better that year—de Beauvoir herself. The future author of The Second Sex didn't, however, receive the first prize—that went to Sartre. The two brilliant young students became closer and closer. They told one another their most painful memories and their most hopeful dreams, what they thought of Leibniz's metaphysics and of the smell of rain. The relationship that developed between the two was tender and rich. It was also competitive and cruel.

As Tête-à-Tête shows, in his numerous affairs Sartre showed a strong preference for beautiful rather than smart women. The 17th-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal is said to have expressed intense annoyance one day when someone in his presence chanced to say, "I just saw a beautiful woman." He was not interested in beautiful women, beautiful men, or people talking about either. He was interested in the life of the mind, and he didn't see what the body had to do with it. Like Sartre, Pascal was blessed with stunning rhetorical resources. He realized that he had the greatest trouble preventing himself from enjoying the effects of his hypnotic verbal power. And so he did what any good Jansenist would do: He had a girdle affixed with iron spikes made for him and when he would receive visits would wear it under his clothes. When he caught himself becoming too pleased by his own entrancing eloquence, he would cross his arms tightly against his thin body and press until the vanity subsided.

Descartes is the author of the most famous sentence in French philosophy: Cogito ergo sum. Pascal is the author of the second most famous one: La vraie philosophie se moque de la philosophie, "true philosophy cares nothing for philosophy." Whether that is true, it seems to care nothing for beautiful women or biography.

While traveling from East to West Friesland in 1621, the then 26-year-old Descartes defied and confounded a band of sailors bent on murdering him for his money. Are we to understand the cogito differently in the light cast by such an anecdote? And what should Pascal's mortification of the flesh or Sartre's indulgences of it matter to philosophy? They change our vision of the man. We admire a man who overcomes pirates—with the force of reason! We hold in uneasy awe a man capable of pursuing vanity into the deepest recesses of his clothing and person. And we hold even a great and courageous man responsible for shabby deceptions and contraceptions (despite his assurances, Michelle Vian became pregnant the first time the two slept together—and yes, he told the Beaver). But are we to understand the being that is or the nothingness that is not any differently as a result?

Hegel had a clever way of dealing with historical personages he didn't know what to make of—he made history responsible for them. Such figures as the terrific and terrible Napoleon were "world-historical" individuals who, though they seem to be wreaking relentless havoc and creating unjustifiable chaos, are actually, unbeknownst to them, advancing the interests of history. They are pawns in its slow game. French philosopher and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu said that he made his intellectual way by trying to do and say the opposite of what Sartre did and said—all the while admiring him intensely. Bourdieu credited Sartre with enshrining the "myth of the intellectual" (Bourdieu wrote a book called Homo Academicus where he gave taxonomic specifications). As the phrase indicates, it is only a myth. Thinkers were for Bourdieu always deeply entrenched in history, and the world of the mind and the world of the body were never, he claimed, far apart. And yet, he added, this "myth of the intellectual," which no one so well as Sartre embodied and embedded, was "one of the ruses of historical reason," one of the means by which Hegel's history progresses.

Phrased more crudely, what do beautiful women, iron spikes, and pirates have to do with "true philosophy"? Everything and nothing seems the only philosophical answer. Nothing because philosophy is about the essential and not the accidental, about the life of the mind and the rules of reason. Everything because philosophy is also the discipline whose task is the life truly led—and that is a life, for good or ill, with spiked girdles, high-seas adventure, and beautiful women.

Leland de la Durantaye is an assistant professor of English and American literature and language at Harvard University.

link to the original posting

Saturday, December 24, 2005

The high-low trend continues on Rodeo (By Booth Moore, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer)

Note of the caption: The famed shopping strip is now less billionaire’s boulevard and more suburban shopping mall. (Richard Hartog / LAT)

December 23, 2005

AMONG the many symbolic moments in the history of Rodeo Drive, this was one for the books: Last week, bebe, the women's clothing maker known for $36 rhinestone camisoles, opened a mega store on the former site of Frances Klein Estate Jewels, the elegant boutique where Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra shopped for diamonds and sapphires.

It wasn't exactly shocking. For years, Rodeo Drive, the famously intimidating Beverly Hills shopping area, has been steadily and deliberately changing its vibe, welcoming a growing contingent of ordinary shops and even requiring "sensitivity training" for sales clerks at luxury emporiums. Last year's $18-million makeover changed the look of the place to become less billionaire's boulevard, more suburban shopping mall. And, especially during the holiday weeks, the street has been packed with shoppers.

Yet to some in the L.A. fashion world, when bebe joined the lineup, it marked the end of an era: Gone for good was the fabled time when a glamorous crowd lingered in shops unique in the world. Now Rodeo Drive is yet another place for all of us to pick up designer knockoffs and jeans.

"I don't understand bebe on Rodeo Drive," said Vincent Boucher, a celebrity stylist. "When you can get it at Anywhere Mall, USA, it's kind of like, 'Why?' I'm not a snob, I like high and low, but just not there."

The high and the low are peacefully coexisting on famous shopping streets around the world. Like Rodeo Drive, Chicago's Miracle Mile, New York's Madison Avenue, London's Bond Street and Tokyo's Ginza district all have lower-tier retailers along with the expected lineup of global luxury brands, such as Gucci, Prada and Fendi.

"You used to be able to go to Europe and see brands and products that you couldn't see anywhere else," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at market research firm NPD Group. "Now you go over there and see the same brands you see at a mall in Middle America. As the world becomes a smaller place and the online shopping experience expands, we are seeing a dilution of the high-end market. So, for these shopping areas to survive, they must become more diversified."

The high-low development also mirrors shoppers' changing tastes, Cohen said. Now it has become more than acceptable, even fashionable, to pair a designer bag with a bargain pair of pants or a Target cashmere sweater.

"The experience of luxury is changing and the city has to move with that," said Michael Robinson, spokesman for the Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce. "There was a sense in the past of Rodeo Drive being too exclusive. We are finding with this new phase to the street that we can retain luxury not only from an economic standpoint but from an experiential standpoint."

Once upon a time, Rodeo Drive had so much real stardust it didn't need the extra frosting of Baccarat chandeliers. Throughout the 1960s, '70s and '80s, it was the address for excess, home to a who's who of luxury, including Christian Dior, Hermès, Giorgio Armani and Chanel, which opened in Beverly Hills even before New York City. Gucci had a private, second-floor salon for special customers who needed a key to get in. Bijan catered to kings and presidents with over-the-top items, such as $19,000 ostrich vests and mink-lined jean jackets. In 1978, Merv Griffin even hosted a TV salute to the street, where Saudi princes reportedly used to shop with two limousines in tow — one for family, the other for purchases.

Back then it was open season for celebrity spotting on Rodeo Drive. From 1961 until it closed in 1989, Fred Hayman's Giorgio Beverly Hills was practically a clubhouse for Lucille Ball, Ali MacGraw, Elizabeth Taylor and Doris Duke.

Hayman helped establish the street's snob appeal by persuading designers to create exclusive designs for his store, and offering such luxuries as an oak bar for noontime pick-me-ups, a pool table to keep husbands occupied and a vintage Rolls-Royce to transport camera-shy clients.

But on a recent afternoon during the busy holiday season, there was nary a star in sight. The typical shopper's uniform was a track suit and sneakers, Cheesecake Factory doggie bag optional. The new, wider sidewalks, mid-block crosswalks and transplanted palm trees only contributed to the overly manicured feeling you find at modern malls like The Grove.

"When you haven't shopped here before, you get images of 'Pretty Woman,' where they won't let Julia Roberts in the door," said Eleni Langas, a psychologist visiting from Sydney, Australia. "I expected it to be more luxurious."

The turning point for Rodeo came in 1993, when the Western-themed Guess? Ranch opened, selling Guess T-shirts and jeans, postcards and bubble gum cigars. The store, which had tepees for fitting rooms, was credited with bringing a new kind of customer to the recession-weary thoroughfare.

A steady stream of down-market labels followed. In 1995 BCBG opened its first store, now a 5,600-square-foot flagship. In 1997, Tommy Hilfiger arrived, constructing a 20,000-square-foot white behemoth. (The store closed three years later and is now a Brooks Brothers.) In 1999, the contemporary women's label XOXO opened on the street.

There's been a flurry of openings in the past year. In November, Coach leather goods set up shop, followed this month by De Beers LV, the diamond-mining giant that's attempting to become a high-end jewelry brand.

Of the original Rodeo Drive entrepreneurs, only Herb Fink, who owns the boutique Theodore, is still in business there. Jerry Magnin no longer owns the Polo Ralph Lauren franchise, and Hayman left retail in 1998, leasing his property to the global luxury goods firm Louis Vuitton.

Carroll & Co., haberdasher to Clark Gable and Fred Astaire, moved two blocks over to Canon in 1996 to make way for Tommy Hilfiger. In the past few years, Hammacher Schlemmer came and went, and the 99 Cent store was rumored to be sniffing around for a spot.

"Certain retailers were disappointed to hear bebe was coming to the street because it wasn't known historically as a big luxury brand," said Chuck Dembo of the Beverly Hills real estate firm Dembo & Associates, who does many Rodeo Drive deals.

Rodeo Drive still has its luxury contingent. Last year, Roberto Cavalli and Michael Kors opened stores and Prada unveiled its $30 million Rem Koolhaas-designed epicenter.

Next year, the openings will continue the high-low trend: Omega watches, Dior Homme, David Yurman and Graff jewelry will be added to the retail mix, and Harry Winston will open a new flagship next door to bebe.

"I love most all the stores on the street today," said Hayman, 80, who has retired to Malibu and a full social schedule. "And maybe the others will humanize the street a bit more. We can't be too elitist."

Monthly rents are averaging $25 a square foot, up from $10 a square foot a decade ago, Dembo said. Ideally, a store's rent should represent 10% of its sales, so if your rent is $700,000 a year, you should be making $7 million in sales. Dembo guesses that most Rodeo Drive stores are profitable, though for some, that's not the point.

"It elevates a brand to be associated with a higher level of importance in the marketplace," said Cohen of the NPD Group. "You can't buy that kind of publicity."

Part of the result is a topsy-turvy situation where stores along Rodeo Drive feature the most expensive designs fashion has to offer, just steps away from places that sell the knock-offs.

"We just got these in," a saleswoman at BCBG said, opening a shoebox to reveal a pair of $185 moccasins with grosgrain bows. "They look just like Yves Saint Laurent." And sure, enough, a gander at the shoe selection down the street at the Saint Laurent boutique reveals a similar bow-tied style, for $285.

At bebe, an oversized black-and-white stripe mohair sweater is a steal at $69, compared to a similar one shown on the Christian Dior runway that sells for $1,295 at the Dior boutique across the street.

Bebe's Chief Executive Officer Greg Scott said his brand may have been defined by imitation in the past, but that the Rodeo Drive store is a symbol of change to come. "In the last 10 or 20 years, we might have been more inspired by others," he said. "Now we really want to be more inspired by our design team."

Bebe has more than 220 stores nationwide and is heavily mall-based. The Rodeo Drive store features merchandise not found anywhere else, including an $800 Swarovski crystal baguette handbag and $500 Swarovski crystal-heeled shoes, which have been top sellers. "Now, we're representing two lifestyles — the less is more and the more is more," he said

Along with this new spirit of democracy has come a new emphasis on customer service, which is just as friendly whether you are shopping for a $25 charm bracelet at Guess? or a $1 million Neil Lane necklace next door at De Beers.

"Rodeo Drive is famous for the kind of attitude that it costs money just to look in the windows," said Langas, the Australian tourist, who was initially reprimanded for taking a photo inside the Sergio Rossi shoe store, only later to have the manager give the OK.

At bebe, a saleswoman was situated near the front door to explain the store's layout: logo sportswear on the third floor, casual wear on the second floor; black tie garb, suits and accessories on the ground level.

At Fendi, sale information was readily offered: "40% off ready-to-wear, select shoes and accessories."

Further up the street, it was Hermès 101. "These are our famous scarves," a saleswoman said, unfurling a colorful design on the glass counter. "They are 100% silk."

You don't say.

link to the original posting

Wake up and sell the coffee (by Simon Garfield, the Observer)

Note to the illustration: “Are we in this Starbucks or the one down the street?” (Man to woman.) [ID: 51337, Published in The New Yorker April 22, 2002]

link to the illustration

Note from the blog editor: It’s the early evening of the Christmas’ eve 2005. As browsing through stories whether about Christmas or not, I decided to go back to some of the saved stories from past. I have been debating what Christmas seems like for me and for this blog, and this coffee piece from I saw few weeks ago came up. I think the whole idea of Northwest America still grows in me. That is what I was looking for when I need some comforting about this western holiday fighting for whatever I am. I also would like to list some coffee shops I have my heart to them. Ooops, I am going on more coffee shops in Portland, and I realized that I can keep going on and on, but I have to stop. Enjoy the dinner table dramas!

Espresso Roma Cafe - Eugene
825 13th Avenue East
Eugene, OR 97401 [US]
caption site / caption link

Stumptown Coffee Roasters
128 SW 3rd Ave
Portland, OR 97204 [US]

Jack's Stir Brew Coffee
138 W. 10th St. (West Village), New York City [US]
between Waverly Pl. and Greenwich Ave.
caption link

Grand Central Bakery - Irvington Location
1444 NE Weidler Street
Portland, OR. 97232 [US]

We used to be a nation of tea drinkers.(blog editor note: The article is from the Observer from the UK.) Now, with a coffee house on every corner, caffeine is our daily drug of choice. But is the bean habit bad for us? Simon Garfield goes on a 20-shot binge to experience the highs and lows of the new ristretto republic

by Simon Garfield
Sunday October 30, 2005

I began writing this article after five cups of good coffee, and it turned out to be one of the best articles I had ever written. It had fluency and style, and a narrative drive that gripped the reader from the very beginning and wouldn't let go until every fact had been digested and every bon mot admired.
Unfortunately, when I read it again after another four cups, I couldn't be bothered to go on with it, and in fact I could hardly concentrate on anything. I was just irritable, and I began to dislike the people I was sitting with in my local Starbucks, all those au pairs with their whiny kids and people writing their novels on laptops. It was 3pm. I wanted to trip up those rampaging children, I wanted to go to the toilet, but above all I wanted to sleep. I could have slept for a while despite the caffeine, but I would have woken up a few hours later in a sweat, so I stuck it out for the day, looking for someone to snap at. Coffee does that to people: the sudden high, the brief period of delusory creativity, the plunging low, the tiredness and anxiety and headaches. And then it does it all again the next day.

The reason I had drunk nine cups - some of them double-shot varieties, which nudged the total to as much as 1,500mg of caffeine, three times my daily intake and about one-seventh of the fatal dose - was in the interests of health journalism. I had begun to feel bad about the amount of coffee I was drinking, and wondered whether I should cut down. I looked at the dregs at the bottom of my large cup and thought, 'That can't be good.' My teenage children had also begun to have the occasional cup at home, so I began to worry about them.

But then I read some newspaper stories and I started to wonder if we all shouldn't be drinking much more. Coffee had gone from being vaguely bad for one's health to vaguely good: it could reduce cancer risks and other fatal diseases; it provided more antioxidants than fruit and vegetables. Each month the medical and nutritional journals contained a new bit of research about the effects of caffeine on rats, and most of it seemed to be good news, and not all of it was funded by the coffee industry. But the older journals told a different story, often something scarier, about negative effects on the heart. And that was just caffeine; coffee contains about 2,000 other compounds that may either shorten or prolong our lives. After thousands of years, no one seemed quite sure what the coffee bean did to us, apart from drive us in increasingly large numbers into coffee shops and improve our ability to make the perfect ristretto at home. Shouldn't we by now have a clearer message about what it was doing to us over a lifetime?

In the short term, the effects of coffee are simple to measure: one merely has to binge. I begin at the Monmouth Coffee Company in Covent Garden, where the founder and owner, Anita Le Roy, makes me a recently sourced rich Ethiopian single-estate using the drip-filter method. It smells and tastes delicious. We sit in one of the wooden booths, next to a German couple drinking latte. Le Roy began in the coffee business in the late Seventies, and her company is now regarded as one of the most adventurous and ethical coffee importers in the UK. Le Roy sells about 11,000 drinks each week from her stores in London's Covent Garden and Borough Market, but this is only a fraction of her turnover, most of which is sold as roasted beans. Each week she roasts about 1,600 kilos. She drinks only one strong cup each day herself, two if she's on holiday; more makes her speedy and blurs her thoughts. 'We do get people in who say they haven't been well, and wonder whether coffee is OK for them, and I tell them that a lot depends on where it's from and how it's treated. The qualities of instant coffee are the worst beans you can find.' She advises her staff against drinking too much when working, and they wear masks when handling shipments of raw green beans, but she has seldom encountered a customer who has dangerously overdone it. 'Occasionally someone will ask for a six-shot latte, and we tend to joke with them, asking if they are sure, rather than refusing it.'

We chat for a while about coffee dependence. 'Addiction' was widely considered to be an inaccurate term in relation to caffeine; the withdrawal symptoms were mild; most people can give up caffeine in a period of a fortnight with no lasting ill-effects and only resistible cravings; it was very hard to overdose on coffee to a fatal degree, as nausea, irritability and frequent toilet breaks take hold long before risky levels are reached; and even allnight exam students seemed to know their limit. However, Le Roy has witnessed the effect of withdrawal on one of her colleagues. Despite the vast amounts of coffee produced in Ethiopia and many other areas of Africa, one of her British shippers finds it hard to get a proper cup of coffee on her travels. 'It's not in their culture,' Le Roy says, 'so after a couple of days she gets bad headaches.'

A few feet away from Le Roy's Covent Garden store is a branch of Caffe Nero, where I began to sift through some of the medical research. Caffe Nero, with its panini tostati and light-brown decor suggesting the sun rising over Nicaraguan plantations, recently announced a doubling in its annual pre-tax profits. It has about 230 coffee sites in the UK, with at least 40 more on the horizon. This compares with 425 Starbucks at the end of last year and 370 Costa Coffee shops. The UK coffee chain market is now worth about £450m, more than double its value in 1999.

I sit on a high chair at a high table, and consider how McDonald's' wild expansionary mode slowed when the nutritionists began asking health questions. The data on coffee was more complex. Two years ago, a team of researchers at the Chemical Health Hazard Assessment Division of Health Canada in Ontario conducted an extensive review of recent medical studies into the health effects of coffee, including general toxicity, effects on the heart, impact on young people and the pregnant, on bone strength, and general behavioural consequences in adults. Their 30-page report cited more than 200 papers, many with diverse titles, such as 'Caffeine and the Calcium Economy Revisited'; 'Childhood Caffeine Tic Syndrome'; and 'Cross-Adaptation and the Influence of Caffeine on the Adaptive Response of Bone-Marrow Cells of Mouse'.

The team's conclusion? A big fat shroud of continued uncertainty. Many of the medical papers seemed to talk over each other like drunks at a party. There were a few aspects on which they agreed: coffee raised blood-sugar levels and could be a diuretic, with heavy consumption increasing the risk of dehydration. They found that those who drank a lot became tolerant to its effects. They stated that decaffeinated coffee would eradicate many of the effects of caffeine, but only if the decaffeinating process didn't add more chemicals than it took away. The experts said that while coffee did make you more alert, it would not really sober you up, much less get rid of the effects of alcohol. They said that the half-life of caffeine (the extent of its activity) was four to six hours. And they all agreed generally on how caffeine affected the brain. Caffeine dampens the neurotransmitter adenosine, which acts as a calming and mildly pain-relieving force upon the body. When adenosine is muffled, brain activity may be temporarily boosted, thus increasing what we perceive as alertness and arousal. But with an excessive presence of caffeine (which enters the brain almost immediately) the blocking of adenosine function frequently results in anxiety and hypersensitivity to pain.

The 'review of reviews' concluded that women wishing to become pregnant, and those who already were, should limit their intake to below 300mg per day (two or three strong cups), and that even small quantities induced anxiety in primary-school children (evident from the caffeine present in chocolate and soft drinks).

Much of the literature under consideration was written at a time when coffee was assumed to be a bad thing. This trend can be said to date back to the 17th century, when London women claimed it made men impotent; but in our lifetime the negative image became starker in the Seventies, when several reports suggested a link between high coffee consumption and high cholesterol levels (and this at a time when high cholesterol was the defining marker for heart disease, a view that has now been adjusted). But this link was only visible in cases where the coffee was boiled - the traditional Scandinavian way - and was barely detectable in people whose coffee was made by filtering or different methods. A link was also detected between coffee and bladder cancer, but when similar studies were conducted among those who drank coffee but didn't smoke, the link disappeared.

By my third or fourth cup at Caffe Nero, I remember the interview I had conducted earlier this year with Sir Richard Doll, the epidemiologist who had first demonstrated the link between smoking and lung cancer, and who died in July. I had remarked on the little kettle and coffee jars in the corner of his small office, and I told him that almost all the doctors I had come across drank a lot of coffee. I asked him whether there were any health risks. He said, at the age of 92, 'It's never worried me. The studies are unclear.'

Then I move into Soho for more coffee. By the time I settle at Bar Italia I have reached a state of buzzy nirvana, the caffeine turning me into a great admirer of boxer Rocky Marciano (big poster by the Gaggia machine) and footballer Alessandro Del Piero (framed shirt at the end of the bar) although I had never been half-keen on either of them before. After picking up an Italian sports newspaper with the crazy hope of being able to understand it, I think I should eat. I end lunch at Pizza Express with the Caffe Reale, which consists of baby figs in cinnamon syrup accompanied by mascarpone and a coffee of your choice. I choose a cappuccino, and begin to feel slightly unwell.

The counter-effects set in quite quickly - mild paranoia, slight heart palpitations - and it is all I can do to make my way back to my local Starbucks on the bus. I am restless, but I also crave mental excitement, anything to keep the high going.

The following day, after a troubled night, I selfadminister a sudden withdrawal. This is illadvised; after drinking coffee almost every day for at least 10 years, a steady reduction - say from two cups to one for the first fortnight - would have been better than cold turkey, especially after such a splurge the day before. I had hoped that the splurge might actually keep me going for a day or two after the event, in the same way that people are pulled over for drunk driving the morning after a drinking session. But I was wrong. My head feels as though someone has replaced much of my brain with felt, certainly enough to make concentration difficult. I am also lethargic, and as the morning wears on and my adenosine receptors find it difficult to understand where its caffeine has got to, I also develop a numbing headache.

After painkillers - the sort that, unlike many types, did not contain caffeine - I begin to consider the literature on the long-term health benefits of coffee. As the coffee industry grew, scientific good news was seized upon joyfully by the public relations departments of coffee growers' associations in the developed world, no matter how fuzzy the research. One such PR company, working for the British Coffee Association, sent me an email full of positive attachments from recent research. Much of it really did brighten my day. There was the study published earlier this year in Japan's Journal of the National Cancer Institute that suggested a possible connection between coffee drinking and a lower risk of liver cancer. The research was conducted among 334 Japanese men and women, and when all other easily identifiable lifestyle factors (including hepatitis) had been evened out, it was found that those who drank three to four cups per day were about half as likely to develop liver cancer as those who didn't drink coffee at all. The researchers reported that their work repeated the findings of animal studies (and correlated with the beneficial effects of coffee on other liver diseases such as cirrhosis), but they acknowledged that their cohort was small, and wished to see their results repeated in larger studies and in other populations.

Meanwhile, a report in the British Journal of Nutrition earlier this year concluded that because of the recent results of coffee research there was now enough evidence to classify coffee as a 'functional food': that is, a food that is seen to enhance the quality of life. The beneficial effects of caffeine had been noted in small-scale trials of those with Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's, and two larger studies have also produced good news. Last year, research published by the Harvard School of Public Health and the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston found that habitual coffee drinkers substantially reduced their chances of developing type-2 diabetes, the type diagnosed most often after the age of 40 and frequently associated with obesity. The work involved an eight-year observation of more than 40,000 men and 85,000 women, and during this period 1,333 new cases of type-2 diabetes were diagnosed in men and 4,085 in women. But it was found that those who drank more than six 8oz cups of caffeinated coffee a day reduced their risk of contracting the disease by 50 per cent (men) and 30 per cent (women).

The second study, which in August prompted breathless but misleading headlines suggesting drinking coffee was better for you than eating fruit and vegetables, was delivered to the American Chemical Society by a team of researchers at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania. This found that coffee provided more antioxidants - the enzymes that help prevent cellular damage from free radicals and may limit the growth of tumours, heart disease and rheumatoid arthritis - than any other source in the regular adult diet. In an analysis of more than 100 food items, adults in the survey absorbed about 1,300 mg of polyphenol antioxidants from coffee, compared with 294mg from tea, 76mg from bananas and 48mg from corn. What this also exposed, of course, is that the adults were not consuming enough antioxidants from other rich sources such as grapes, cranberries or nuts, and the researchers were keen to point out that coffee hardly provided the vitamins, minerals and fibre readily available at any greengrocer.

In an attempt to make sense of this barrage of optimism I visit Dr John Stanley, a biochemist and nutritionist at Trinity College, Oxford. Dr Stanley has worked for Nestle (a leading coffee producer) and the UK's Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff), and currently runs a consultancy called Lincoln Edge Nutrition, which attempts to provide independent advice and information to the food industry. One of his clients is the Coffee Science Information Centre (Cosic), a conglomerate of coffee-marketing associations throughout Europe. 'I am paid by Cosic to keep abreast of the science, but I am independent,' he says. 'I spend most of my time defending them from unwarranted attacks that are not based on serious science, and a smaller proportion of my time saying to them, "Hey, you'd better take this one seriously."'

Dr Stanley's view of coffee science is predominantly sceptical. He argues that the technology required for meaningful heart analysis has only been available widely in the past decade, and ways of measuring genetic information in the past few years; accordingly, too many claims for coffee are based on methodology that makes it difficult to compare like with like. Besides, we all have our own metabolic rates, and a fast metaboliser may tolerate far more coffee than a slow metaboliser. There have also been too many extrapolations from animal studies into the possible effect on humans. 'If you test 10,000mg of caffeine and find terrible things it does to rats,' Dr Stanley says, 'you have to ask, who's going to consume it?'

He is also concerned with the number of 'studies of associations', often retrospective studies that can never rule out the possibility of determinant dietary or social factors other than coffee consumption. 'In my opinion, there's a lingering risk of not very high magnitude associated with coffee and pancreatic cancer, but that may well be explained by some confounding factor. There is equally a lingering beneficial effect associated between coffee and colonic cancer. But one should adopt a consistent criteria.'

Inevitably, the good news is beset by caveats; the molecular complexities of just one component in coffee may carry both beneficial and detrimental indicators for our health. The distinct antioxidant effect of caffeine - which should protect against heart disease - originates from the presence of chlorogenic acid, which is believed to be responsible for the bitterness in coffee. Studies have suggested that this compound is responsible for the higher levels of plasma homocysteine in coffee drinkers, which is a traditional risk factor in heart disease and has been implicated in increasing the risk of dementia and Alzheimer's.

Of all the current research, he is enthusiastic about the possible protection caffeine may provide against type-2 diabetes. Much more interventionist research needs to be conducted, he says, but he has little difficulty in plotting a chemical mechanism in which caffeine may work against the disease, partly because it relates to research he conducted a few years ago. Adenosine stimulates glucose production by the liver, and a type-2 diabetic produces too much; it follows that inhibition by caffeine of the adenosine function may also inhibit the liver's capacity to produce glucose.

I hear similar advice from Dr Sarah Jarvis, a GP in Hammersmith who follows the coffee debate closely and who appears regularly in public health forums. In her surgery she has found that, as with many health issues, her patients become particularly concerned about their coffee drinking when the issue is raised in the media by a celebrity. Last year, when Tony Blair received treatment for his irregular heartbeat and Bill Clinton blamed his friend's hospitalisation on 'too little sleep and too much coffee', Cherie Blair announced that she would try to reduce his caffeine intake. Dr Jarvis noticed that her patients immediately began to think about an issue that had seldom concerned them before.

'People look for easy changes in their lifestyle,' she says, 'and there was a hope that if they cut out coffee it will be a quick fix and they won't have to exercise or change other things.' She has found that few of her patients drink the recommended daily intake of water (one-and-a-half to two litres), and is concerned that a reduced coffee consumption will not be compensated for with other fluids. 'I would also not recommend to anybody, including people with heart disease, that they have any need to reduce a moderate consumption. But I am also not proposing that people with a high risk of diabetes should start drinking more coffee.'

Dr Jarvis follows the one common line that is detectable from most of the experts and the bulk of the literature: up to 450mg of caffeine per day (four to five cups) will not be harmful to the average adult, 300mg is a safe limit for pregnant women, and young people shouldn't be encouraged to start drinking too early. Too much was clearly a bad thing, she says, 'but so is everything, including water'.

And beyond that, it is only certain that coffee science is even now in its infancy, and we are still at that stage where the only reliable experiments are those we perform on ourselves.

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