December 20, 2009

Dan O'Bannon, 1946-2009.

American screenwriter and film director Daniel O'Bannon has passed away. Perhaps best known for authoring the script for Alien, O'Bannon also wrote the short story comic The Long Tomorrow, illustrated by Jean "Mœbius" Giraud, which became a source of inspiration for the scenography of Blade Runner.

December 3, 2009

Hear Again: Mind Bomb.

Ten years after performing for the very first time (during Mrs Thatcher's first month in office), what essentially was Matt Johnson with a guitar, backed by drum-machines and a host of session players, had morphed into a fully fledged band (two years before Mrs Thatcher's reign ended).

Though ostensibly a supergroup, the The's late 1980s line-up differed in a very important way from such superfluous entities, that are more often than not established to conflate professional musicians' self-indulgence with unsophisticated fans pocketbooks. Johnson, a natural musician playing merely to write without honing his skill much, remained in complete control of his vision, surrounding himself with sympathetic musicians he'd interviewed rather than auditioned.

These highly skilled and experienced hands, playing for the love of playing, not only backed Johnson up, but embellished his ideas, articulating them more fully than he could ever have hoped to do by himself. The result, the The's first album as a band proper, being simpler yet more articulated than those preceding it - without losing the The's distinctive dichotomy of unbridled optimism and tortured anguish.

The eight songs on Mind Bomb (the seventh album recorded by Johnson but only the fourth released) range in style from New Wave, over "white" funk, to jangly Merseybeat, tracing the havoc individual inner turmoil wreaks on the global, collective soul. On bass, seasoned session bassist James Eller, on drums, former ABC percussionist Dave Palmer, and on guitar, former The Smiths guitar hero Johnny Marr - all old friends of Johnson, who'd patiently waited for the opportunity to play together.

Though keeping with the The's open door policy, additional flourishes were also added by session stalwarts like minimalist composer Andrew Poppy, pianist Paul "Wix" Wickens, percussionist Danny Cummings, violinist Gavyn Wright (who'd appear on The Beloved's Happiness a year later), Canadian trombonist Ashley Slater, and bassist Danny Thompson. All surrounding Matt Johnson, the masterminding composer, writing some of the best lyrics - if not music - of his career.

Languidly, almost lazily uncoiling itself in the nuclear dawn with Goodmorning Beautiful, the album launches its full scale assault with Armageddon Days (Are Here Again), a piece of pop the prescience of which has only grown more impressive - and more ominous - with time:

"Islam is rising / the Christians mobilising
the world is on its elbows and knees / It's
forgotten the message and worships the creeds"

With an intro interpolated from Sweet's The Ballroom Blitz, and backed by the full men's chorus of the Ambrosian Singers, Johnson attempts to finally put to rest the notion that some higher power can be invoked to bear responsibility for our actions:

"... God didn't build himself that throne /
God doesn't live in Israel or Rome /
God doesn't belong to the Yankee dollar /
God doesn't plant the bombs for Hezbollah"

Having further pondered the importance and place of faith in The Violence of Truth, the first side concludes with the earnestly bittersweet Kingdom of Rain, a duet with a particularly hurt and bitter Sinéad O'Connor. Seemingly indulging Johnson's penchant for recording with female artists on the verge of commercial breakthrough, O'Connor helps Johnson deliver a cathartic lament over a once vibrant relationship gone cold:

"You think you know about life /
You think you know about love /
But when you put your hands inside me /
it doesn't even feel like I'm being touched /
And you were the boy I wanted to cry with /
You were the boy I wanted to die with /
You move further from my side / year by year
while still making love / dutifully sincere

But as silent as the car lights /
that move across the room /
as cold as our bodies / silhouetted
by the Moon / and I would lie
awake and wonder / is it just me?
Or is this the way that love /
is supposed to be?"

"Our bed is empty / the fire is out
and all the love we had to give /
is all spurted out /
There's no more blood / and
no more pain / in our
kingdom of rain"

The second side rips open with The Beat(en) Generation, the The's greatest hit in Britain, a scathing yet sympathetic assessment of the Baby Boomers, intentionally composed to be as accessible as possible - camouflaging its clear indictment of the Boomers as innocuous pop. However, Johnson doesn't beat his audience over the head with his opinions, avoiding patronising posturing as well as preaching to the converted, fully aware that engaged people already know what the problems are.

Johnson then briefly returns to the relationship that's run its course in August & September, taking on the role of the one left behind, perhaps only imagining a last encounter with a former partner:

"What kind of man / was I? / Who would
sacrifice your happiness / to satisfy his pride?
What kind of man / was I? / Who would
delay your destiny / to appease his tiny mind?
Was our love too strong to die? / Or were we
just to weak to kill it?"

Yet the final two tracks close the album on an uplifting, positive - if not wholly reconciliatory - note, professing an unwavering faith in the redeeming qualities of love. The sensual glissandos now closely associated with the The's sound, attempt to seduce the listener just as Johnson attmpts to seduce with sheer willpower in the electronic blues that is Gravitate to Me, a track co-written with Marr, and a distant cousin to Muddy Water's Manish Boy:

"This world ain't strong enough /
to keep us from each other / for
we are kindred spirits / born
to become Earthly lovers"

As Johnson sings about the peculiar attraction of people we inexplicably feel we've met before and somehow know more than we actually do, Eller's subterranean bass provides depth and accentuates the light groove of what is the album's most electronic and dance floor oriented track.

"There is something in your voice /
Something behind your eyes /
Something inside your heart / that
is beating in time with mine."

Beyond Love, finally, ventures even further in celebrating love's comforting pleasures, to a practically microcosmic level. Life itself, Johnson argues, is an unstoppable force using sexual attraction and the feelings with which we imbue our relationships merely as a means to an end. Life constantly entangles us, mires us in love, simply to perpetuate itself. But the track isn't just a plea for understanding but also greater sensuality:

"There are some things in life /
that you just can't fight / ...
So let's take off our crosses /
and lay them in a tin / and
let our weaknesses become
virtue / instead of sin"

Working with two different producers, Warne Livesey (perhaps best known for his work with Midnight Oil) and Roli Mossiman (former Swans drummer, best known for helping unleash The Young Gods), literally splitting the songs between the two, the album essentially consists of two halves tangled together, like the jumbled thoughts in a particularly over-heated mind. There's frailty, there's obsession, there's guilt, and there's lust, charging the mind bombs we cannot help but harbour, which invariably alter our lives and the world we inhabit once unleashed.

It's an agnostic's album, espousing a spiritual commonsense, a yearning to finally grow up, to reach the next level physically as well as emotionally. Its love songs not encapsulating the unrequited yearning of a pining teenager, but the doubts and mixed emotions of an adult. It's a work in which the line of conflict is drawn between abstract reason and physical nature, centering on the feelings we feel despite ourselves, and cannot flick off the way one turns out a light.

The (literal) two sides of the album are reflected in its sleeve, juxtaposing Fiona Skinner's take on the extraordinary John Heartfield's bayoneted dove, with Andrew Macpherson's just-jeans-and-t-shirt portrait of Matt Johnson - a more intimate and stripped down sleeve than the The's previous Andy "Dog" Johnson designs.

Fusing the sensual and the political, it's an album of a kind that's rarely recorded today, twenty years later, and while its earnestness at times gets uncomfortably close to adolescent histrionics, the quality of the music more than compensates for its lyrical shortcomings. It's pop music created by a musician with a singular vision, for everyone as riddled with guilt and obsessed with life as he was - and perhaps still is.

November 29, 2009

Lighting the darkness.

During December, the month with the shortest daylight hours of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, many households in North-West Europe are decorated with symbolic candlesticks to “banish” the darkness. It's a tradition rooted in the Christian Advent, reaching back to the Middle Ages, though the modern variants of wreaths or candlesticks, with four candles representing each of the Sundays preceding Christmas Day lit in succession, originated among German Lutherans in the mid-1850s.

The tradition of lighting Advent candles (or wreaths) didn't arrive in Sweden until the 1870s, and didn't become widespread until the 1920s, though candles had been integral to seasonal celebrations for centuries. Today electric Advent candlesticks with seven candles in a pyramid shape dominate, and seem to change the entire country's appearance overnight, displayed in practically every home, institution, and workplace from the beginning of December (occasionally earlier) to
St. Knut's Day.

Originally referred to as julljusstakar, "Yule candlesticks", to avoid confusion with the live candle variety, they are a fairly recent addition to the season's decorations. The very first electric Advent candlestick was constructed (but not patented) in 1934 by Oscar Andersson (1909-1996), an employee at the Göteborg warehouse of the Dutch electronics firm Philip

Towards the end of 1929, Philips introduced electric Christmas tree lamps in Sweden. Many of these lamp-sets, designed for 120 V common in urban centres at the time, were returned 'defective' to the Philips warehouse, having been subjected to 220 V in rural areas. Tasked at the warehouse with salvaging the functioning lamps from these sets, Mr Andersson - a technical gymnasium graduate – had the idea to mount electric Christmas tree lamps on an ordinary wooden candlestick (purchased at Grand Bazar for 2 Swedish krona, or roughly 53 cents – the equivalent of C$ 8.80 today).

Displayed in the window of his parent's apartment on Karl Gustav Street in the quarter of Landala, the approval Mr Andersson's invention garnered among passers-by encouraged him to present the electric Advent candlestick to his supervisor. Savvy to its potential, the supervisor brought the contraption to Philips' Stockholm headquarters, where initial scepticism eventually turned into an agreement to manufacture a trial run of 2000 electric candlesticks for the 1939 Christmas season.

Marketed as a “fireproof,” safer alternative to live candlesticks, the
Philips Candlesticks were completely sold out (at 13 krona apiece, or roughly C$ 3.38 – equal to C$ 44.39 today) before Christmas Day that year. Mass-production commenced once WWII ended, and the material shortages caused by it were rectified. By the mid-1990s, around a million electric Advent candlesticks were sold in Sweden annually and could be found in just over 90% of Swedish households.

Intriguingly, the advent of the electric Advent candlestick largely altered its function from a symbolic, religious one, to a practically secular, illuminating one – pleasantly dispelling the darkness for believers and non-believers alike over the past 70 years.

Note: this article originally posted on November 29, 2008.

November 23, 2009

Say No to Violence against Women.

November 25 is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, designated by the UN in 1999 (though marked by women's activists since 1981) to raise awareness of the violence, abuse, and mistreatment women and girls around the world are subjected to. The date was chosen to commemorate the murder of three of the Mirabal sisters, political activists in the Dominican Republic. It also marks the beginning of the 16 Days of Activism to End Violence Against Women, and is part of the UN Secretary-General's 2008 - 2015 campaign to intensify action to end violence against women and girls.

Today, violence directed at women is
one of the most common violations of human rights.
One in three women will be beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime, most likely by a man she knows. One in five women will be the victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime. Half of the women murdered around the world each year are killed by their current or former husbands or partners. Women aged 15 – 44 are more at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, malaria, traffic accidents, and war.

In Canada, 51% of women over the age 16 will be subjected to an act of physical violence in their life time. They are five times more likely than Canadian men to be
seriously injured or killed by their partner, and hundreds are murdered each year. Aboriginal women in Canada are five times more likely to die as the result of violence than other women their age. In the EU, between 40% and 50% of women report some form of sexual harassment in the workplace. Between 500.000 and 2 million people – the majority of them women and children – are sold annually into prostitution, forced labour, slavery and servitude.

According to Amnesty International, an estimated 130 million women and girls alive today have been subjected to
female genital mutilation, while 2 million girls are at risk each year. This particularly sadistic practice is common worldwide, not merely confined to ingrained pockets of ignorance and superstition, as are the thousands of “honour” and dowry killings committed each year by some of the world’s most ignorant and uneducated inhabitants.

The easiest way to demonstrate your support is adding your name to the Say NO - UNiTE to End Violence against Women campaign, a web-based initiative of the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) that's seen 5,066,549 people sign on since November 2007 to a global call to make ending violence against women a top priority worldwide.

Though Canada's Minister of State for the Status of Women officially signed on our government's behalf in November 2008, commenting that “Canada is a world leader in advancing equality for women,” the Conservative government she's a member of meanwhile cut the Status of Women Canada budget, closed twelve of sixteen Status of Women Canada regional offices, eliminated the Court Challenges Program and the Law Commission, and refused to fund women's groups that engage in advocacy, lobbying, or general research.

The day may therefore also be spent inquiring of the minister how preciesly that brand of leadership - eradicating independent organisations that defend citizen's rights, question, analyze, and provide different perspectives to government - has advanced women's equality in Canada and elsewhere. It should be apparent to everyone that this kind of "leadership" Canada's - and the world's - women can do without.

Note: this is an updated version of the article originally posted on November 24, 2008.

November 18, 2009

National Child Day.

November 20th is National Child Day in Canada, enacted a mere 39 years after the UN called upon its members to establish a national holiday celebrating childhood on November 20, 1954, and proclaimed that date Universal Children's Day. It was in fact first celebrated in October 1953, at the request of the International Union for Child Welfare, to promote children's welfare and foster contact and understanding among the world's children. It's also the anniversary of the UN's adoption of the Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 1959.

Convention on the Rights of the Child was signed on the same date in 1989, and has since been ratified by 193 states. Though only two – Somalia and the USA – haven't ratified the Convention, many of those that have (including Canada) haven't fully implemented the Convention in domestic laws, or have done so with numerous reservations. (The Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflicts has only been ratified by 130 states, while the Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography has only been ratified by 135 states.)

This year the
20th Anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child - Celebrating Children's Rights is the theme, meant to raise awareness of the fundamental rights to which children are entitled. In Canada, we may also be reminded that November 24th (four days after National Child Day) will mark the 20th anniversary of the unanimous parliamentary resolution to end child poverty. Especially as Canada's child poverty rate - despite decades of unprecedented economic growth - currently stands at 9.5%.

Out of 784,738 Canadians relying of food banks to survive in March 2009, some 280,900 were children and youth under the age of 18 - an 86% increase since 1989. In First Nations and Inuit communities one in four children grow up in poverty; nearly one in two children of recent immigrants to Canada live in poverty. While the current, Conservative government attempts to address the problem with paltry, monthly handouts it has the gall to call a "child care plan", and lower taxes for parents who can afford to enroll their children in sports, 760,000 Canadian children (one out of every nine kids) live in poverty.

While National Child Day may be a good opportunity to familiarise yourself with what your state's actually signed on to, or reminding your elected representatives of their commitments, the day could also be spent actually listening to a kid (doesn't have to be your own, they're all worth your attention) and perhaps doing what they'd like to do for a change. Give them a break – they get told what to do practically every other day of the year.

Note: this is an expanded and updated version of an article originally published on November 19, 2008.

November 11, 2009

A War to Remember.

On November 11, they were almost halfway, having left Québec nearly two weeks earlier. Volunteers from all across Canada, heading for a theatre of war on the other side of the globe. For some of them, who'd barely traveled outside their home province, it may as well have been the end of the Earth. For some of them, it'd be the last place they'd ever go. They had signed up to defend peace, justice, progress, and civilization itself, against an enemy who — they'd been told — threatened all with his backward religious zealotry and militant aggression. They were the vanguard, the first 1,019 Canadians out of 7,368 (including 12 female nurses) who'd fight for the British Empire in South Africa over the next two and a half years.

The Second Boer War, known as the South African War in Canada, began 110 years ago. Canadians' awareness of this conflict, its causes and consequences, isn't particularly acute — though given our current involvement in Afghanistan, and the parallels between the two conflicts, we could do with a reminder. Especially as we once again find ourselves governed by reactionaries hellbent on reshaping the identity of our nation to one that better suits their jingoist stance — as evidenced by the current Conservative governments new, revised citizenship guide, and its greater emphasis on Canada's military history. Though don't rely on it for mention of Canada's "adventures" in South Africa, given that our exploits there aren't much to brag about.

That war was precipitated by the British Empire, having already annexed the Natalia Republic (today's KwaZulu-Natal) in 1843, setting its eye on the remaining independent Boer republics of the Orange Free State and the South African Republic (Transvaal). Situated between the Orange and Vaal rivers, by 1870 the Orange Free State had yielded impressive diamond deposits, while the Transvaal, north of the Vaal river, was the destination of the Witwatersrand Gold Rush in 1886, following the discovery of the largest gold-bearing deposits in the world. The South African gold may not have been as pure as that produced in Australia and Canada, but it was a lot easier to extract. As for diamonds, they wouldn't be discovered in Australia and Canada until a century later.

The only obstacle between the British Empire and this new sources of wealth were the Boer (black South Africans certainly didn't count). The Boer, descendants of Dutch, German, and French settlers were weary of the influx of mainly British prospectors into their states, and — having gained their independence — certainly not interested in becoming British subjects. The situation came to a head when British colonists launched a disastrous raid into Transvaal towards the end of 1895. Though ostensibly a private enterprise, it had been backed — until the very last moment — by the British government. The Boer successfully repelled the raid, but their predicament was exacerbated further by an unexpected expression of support from the German Emperor.

To the British this was simply further evidence of German meddling in "their affairs", and a perfect pretext for full-blown conflict. As British troops began assembling along their borders, the Boer gambled on a preemptive strike, launching an offensive in October 1899. However, by January 1900, colonial reinforcements from Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, gave the British the upper hand, and by September 1900 the Boer republics were overrun. Refusing to surrender, the Boer engaged in a protracted campaign of irregular warfare, lasting until May 1902.

Canada's Prime Minister, Wilfrid Laurier, initally attempted to steer clear of a conflict which had no bearing whatsoever on Canada's national interests. But a majority of English Canadians were rearing for a jolly good "adventure", with the sole opposition emanating from Québec, and a few vocal English Canadian labour unions and farmers' groups. French Canadians in particular were not only worried of setting a precedent for involvement in future conflicts, but could also sympathise with the Boer — small nations struggling for independece in a sea of Anglos. Laurier eventually bowed to pressure, and agreed to a compromise which saw Canada provide volunteers, equipment and transportation in lieu of conscription.

Though Canadians had participated in the Nile Expedition of 1884-85, this was the first time large Canadian contingents participated in armed conflict abroad. Many signed up beliving they'd fight alongside other Canadians, commanded by Canadians even. As it turned out, the Brits called the shots from beginning to end, minding to quickly get out of the way once the actual shooting started. A scenario Canadians would experience for much of the First World War as well. As it happened, the first significant British victory of the conflict was won by Canadians, in the Battle of Paardeberg. Though as wreaths are placed at the South African War memorial in Toronto, the Boer War Memorial in Montréal, and other points of rememberance throughout Canada, let's remember that this particular "victory" — like most of them — was the result of pure luck.

Having experienced their worst day of losses during the entire conflict (8 dead, 60 wounded) in their very first combat, and bungled a nighttime sneak attack which saw most of the Canadian battalion retreat, two Canadian companies managed to convince 4,019 Boer men and 50 women (roughly 10% of the Boer army) to surrender. The battle could've easily gone the other way. Today there aren't many obvious reminders of this specific conflict in Canada, beyond its most infamous commander — Horatio Herbert Kitchener — being the namesake of many a street, park, school, and public building throught the country, even a city in Ontario.

The Mennonite community once known as Berlin, was violently intimidated to change its name after the racist Field Marshall's death in 1916. No German name would be tolerated by the rabid pro-Empire Anglos — despite the fact that the conflict fought at the time was (ostensibly) against German Emperor Wilhelm II , the first grandchild of British Queen Victoria. But Kitchener is perhaps best remembered as the mustachioed Big Brother staring down from a recruitment poster — like a British Stalin — intimidating citizens of the Empire to go get killed in the First World War, the pointless conflict which spelled the end of the era of empires. (Though we're often told to revere those fallen in that war for their sacrifice to peace and democracy, let's remember none of the participating nations were democracies in any modern sense of the word.)

What is less known is the tactics Kitchener employed in 1900, once the British offensive had failed to subdue the Boer. Apart from a "scorched earth" policy, which saw the devastation of Boer farms and ranches, their livelihoods and livestock destroyed, as well as using Boer prisoners as human shields to protect trains, Kitchener also turned refugee camps into concentration camps. Though similar camps had previously been established in the Russian Empire prior to the first partition of Poland, in the USA to concentrate Native Americans, and by Spain in Cuba and the Philippines, Kitchener's concentration camps are distinguished for being the first to actually be termed such.

The internment of Boer women and children in 45 tented camps (and an additional 64 for black South Africans of various ethnicities who lived in the two independent Boer republics) was meant to deny the Boer "guerillas" access to supplies, food, and shelter. Those interned also served as a means to extort: families of Boer men still fighting received smaller rations than others, causing mass starvation. Combined with poor sanitation, lack of food soon made diseases — measles, typhoid, dysentery — endemic in the camps. Shortage of medicine and medical care quickly led to large numbers of deaths.

According to the Canadian War Museum's resident historian Cameron Pulsifer, any comparison of these camps with the more infamous ones established by the German Nazi-regime is "grossly exaggerated and unfair". An opinion that easily calls into question the point of said museum. Whether or not the British — with ample help from Canadian volunteers — had intended to perpetrate a genocide is beside the point. They waged a war on two independent states for the purpose of annexing their territories and forcibly assimilating their populations. Regardless of the stated intentions, the end result ultimately speaks for itself: nearly 25% of the Boer population, 50% of all Boer children under the age of 16, and an estimated 12% of the black South African populations died in Kitchener's camps.

Starvation, disease, and exposure killed 27,927 Boer — of whom 24,074 were children — and 14,154 black South Africans. Though as no attempt was ever made to keep records of black South Africans, their deaths were likely underestimated. As many as 22,000 of the nearly 107,000 black South Africans interned may have perished in the camps. By comparison, only some 3,000 Boer men were killed in actual combat. Additionally, of the nearly 28,000 prisoners of war taken by British forces, some 25,630 were sent to prisons overseas. While not as purposeful as the Holocaust, it's a genocide that's left a lasting effect on the demography and quality of life in the region.

Why does this matter to us now? Because Canadians participated fully in these genocidal actions, taking active part in the "suppressive" policies during the entire duration of the war. Military fetishists like Pulsifer and his fellows at the Canadian War Museum may lack the courage to admit it, but not one among all these people — men, women, children — ever posed a threat to Canada in any way whatsoever. The Canadian War Museum's obfuscation of the atrocities and war crimes committed by Canadian volunteers is disingenuous and dishonest.

Ironically, once awareness of the appalling conditions in camps had been raised, primarily by Emily Hobhouse, Kitchener allegedly issued a "take no prisoners" order to prevent overcrowding. This only came to light during the court-martial of three Australian soldiers — one of whom happend to be folk hero Harry "Breaker" Morant — put on trial for executing Boer prisoners. Kitchener denied ever issuing the order, promptly signing the death warrants of the Australians. This didn't prevent Canadian scouts from wearing black feathers to indicate they'd shoot any Boer captured under arms. And what do we have to show for our participation in this "grand adventure"? 267 Canadians killed in action, 252 wounded, three Victoria crosses, one scarf crocheted by the Queen, and a springbok on the cap badge of the Royal Canadian Dragoons.

Though the legacy of the Second Boer War also taints the dress uniform of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, whose distinctive Stetson hats and Strathcona boots were first officially sanctioned for use by Canadian South Africa volunteers. Canada also "gained" a Minister of Militia and Defence in South Africa veteran Sam Hughes — a reactionary hothead who not only helped convince Prime Minister Laurier of the necessity of getting involved in the South African war, but would go on to whip up nationalist fervour in the build up to the First World War, goading Canadians to yet again sacrifice themselves in a foreign conflict that had little to do with them.

As we're asked by our parliament this year to pause for two rather than the traditional minute of silence on Remembrance Day, let us remind ourselves of the chauvinist forces that are in fact one of the leading sources of conflict in our world. Let us remind ourselves how easily we can be decieved to lend our support to armed aggression in far away places, against people we don't know and have never met, who pose little — if any — threat to us.

As the martial sentimentalists in our current government and in our society attempt to institutionalise militarism in our country, to ritualise rememberance ceremonies, and imbue them with chauvinist platitudes and historical revisionism in order to turn future generations into willing recruits, let us remind ourselves that in 1899, the (Liberal) government of Canada claimed the overseas expediton to South Africa would not be a precedent. Time has clearly proven otherwise. It is in our power to change that.

November 9, 2009

World Diabetes Day.

The yearly global campaign to raise awareness of the diabetes epidemic culminates on November 14, World Diabetes Day. Introduced in 1991 by the International Diabetes Federation and the World Health Organisation, the date was chosen to mark the birthday of Frederick Banting, the Canadian scientist, doctor and Nobel laureate, who led the University of Toronto team credited with the first practical extraction of insulin.

(The first one to do so was in fact Romanian physiologist Nicolae Paulescu, though his pioneering efforts are largely ignored due to his rather virulent

Although recognized since antiquity, diabetes was only understood at the beginning of the 20th century, when research led to an effective treatment – insulin injections. Prior to that, receiving the diagnosis was a death sentence. However, there is still no practical cure, and while 285 million people will be living with diabetes in 2010, their number is expected to reach
435 million by 2030. Nearly 95% of them will have to deliver their own care.

Accurate estimates of mortality attributable to diabetes is difficult to obtain, but complications caused by diabetes (eye, kidney, nerve, and circulatory system diseases) will likely cause 4.4 million premature deaths (that's eight people every minute) in 2010 - a 5.5% increase over estimates for 2007. More deaths are expected among women than men, as diabetes already is a proportionally greater contributor to female mortality.

Though one of the most common chronic diseases of childhood, diabetes is often misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all. If undetected, among children the disease can be fatal or result in serious brain damage. Currently an estimated 440,000 children live with diabetes worldwide; 70,000 children under 15 develop the disease each year (that's almost 192 kids each day).

World Diabetes Day has featured a different theme each year, though currently Diabetes Education and Prevention has been chosen as the theme for the period 2009-2013, with the campaign slogan for 2009 being Understand Diabetes and Take Control. So take time on Saturday to educate yourself and spread awareness (Canadian activities listed here). It can be as simple as wearing something blue.

Note: this is an expanded and updated version of an article originally published on November 13, 2008.

November 8, 2009

Shelf Aware: The Naked Lunch.

Ceci n'est pas un livre. This is not a book. It looks like a book, feels like a book, smells like a book. Parts of it even read like a book. But a book it is not. It's an art object, William S. Burroughs' (1914-1997) most infamous invocation of the objet d'art that is a book. Its non-linear text can - intentionally - be read in no particular order, beginning practically anywhere.

What narrative there is doesn't so much unfold as writhe, convulsively convoluted, retracing its own tropes. Its short spurts indulge in wordplay, anecdotal slivers of conversation overheard somewhere smoky over the din of some drunken jazz band across filthy alleys upstairs some dingy hotel room, over sirens and noisy neighbours, trains rumbling underground cars roaring overhead. Spoken word snatches of the city soundscape, the buzz and verve of the urban landscape.

Cataloguing Burroughs' obsessions, in particular pharmacological terminology and hustler's jive, The Naked Lunch samples the lingo - not so much a cut-up as a mash-up - reveling in the qualities of highly specialised talk. A word hoard embellished by "routines", like the one about the adolescent who - literally - gets "his first piece of ass" (in a manner that would make Shylock's detractors faint), or the infamous parable about the man who taught his asshole how to talk.

It roisters in all the stuff that comes out of us, is produced by us, in its undisguised form - the naked us - blending maxims, quotations, antiquated expressions, frequently veering from hip to technical jargon within the same sentence. The anarchy isn't solely designed to shock, but to utterly trash bourgeoise notions of "good taste". Burroughs has it out with practically everyone he couldn't abide: pretentious puritans, fanatical fundamentalists, mercenary merchants, rabid racists, and insipid imperialists. All seen fit for flogging.

Curiously, The Naked Lunch also manages to depress the last half-century's global political hot-buttons: consumerism, bigotry, terrorism, xenophobia, drug and disease pandemics. Proving perhaps that the current struggle is always about the past. Despite his obfuscating manner, Burroughs strove to expose readers to the true state of things; the world through the eyes of a gay man attempting to escape in every manner possible the confines of closeted middle American life.

His writing explored the nature of obedience and manipulation, in order to locate the methods of control which perpetuated the sad state of world affairs, and - if not destroy them outright - disrupt them. For without them society as it had been organised couldn't exist. To Burroughs, the church, the state, and the suppression and repression of sexuality represented the primary tools with which populations could be kept subservient.

"Americans have a special horror of giving up control, of letting things happen in their own way without interference. They would like to jump down into their stomachs and digest the food and shovel the shit out."

The Naked Lunch plunges readers into a fast-moving world of constant, frenetic action, lightly mirroring Burroughs' own itinerant existence, rushing from place to place, from hit to hit, vaguely following an ambiguous clandestine entity whose raison d'être is to bring about the collapse of all systems. It stirs up conflict, chaos, panic, confusion, wherever it appears, engaging in evil regardless of its utility. Like an exceptionally malignant virus.

Burroughs had a particular interest in the constraints imposed by language, the way its limitations determine our ability to define reality. It may be universally agreed that two plus two equals four, but what we mean by "two", and what "four" represents says a lot about who we are and where we come from. Burroughs particularly wanted to expose the culinary camouflage we employ to disguise that which would be hard to swallow if we only took the time to examine what we "actually eat and drink". We may call what quivers at the end of the fork chateaubriand, but that don't change the fact it's a piece of flesh ripped from a living creature.

The manner with which Burroughs rouses the reader may be disagreeable - the multiple fetishistic hangings interspersed with explicit homosexual and heterosexual sex, intended as a critique of capital punishment were once labeled "obscene" and "pornographic" - but sometimes the only way to snap people from their stupor is a slap across the face. Which is what reading Burroughs frequently feels like; as painful as enjoyable. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, to get hung up on Burroughs style is akin to complaining that the man who bangs on your door in the middle of the night isn't particularly eloquent when announcing that your roof is on fire.

Regardless of which version of the text one may be reading - the first published in August 1959 by Olympia Press, the first American edition published by Grove Press in 1962, or the 2001 restored text - The Naked Lunch resists interpretation precisely to point out interpretations' limitations, revealing how in order to perceive a cohesive whole certain things must be ignored. Its antiexpressive, antidiscursive antinarrative calls into question both "expressiveness" and "intentionality" in literature, expanding the concept of writing far beyond its formal limits and intentions.

As such, it has been a source of inspiration for all artists venturing outside the "normal" limits of expression - particularly in film and pop music (there are those who blame Burroughs for Cyberpunk, but they've presumably never heard of Alfred Bester). But despite being the origin of "heavy metal" and numerous band names, most of Burroughs' admirers seem more enamoured with his image than his writing.

Hence his impact on popular culture has been greater than his influence on literature, touching even those who've never read him. The idea of Burroughs - a man who stared into the abyss and came back to report on it - always more appealing than the man himself or his writing ever was. The iconic Burroughs is a middle-aged, deadpan expressionless businessman, neatly attired in a three-piece suit and tie, practical haircut, who'd taken all manner of drugs known to man, and spews notions - with the voice of a St. Louis banker - that would make your parents froth at the mouth.

"That's the sex that passes the censor, squeezes through between bureaus, because there's always a space between, in popular songs and Grade B movies, giving away the basic American rottenness..."

The Naked Lunch is the text that created this cult figure, banned and narrowly escaping censorship in a trial that established the American obscenity standards for the following decades. It follows that the work itself is obscured by myth - often embellished and perpetuated by the writer and his cohorts themselves. There's claims the writer was doped while writing, that it was assembled from jumbled sources in a mad rush two weeks before first being printed in Paris, or that it's Burroughs' first foray into cut-ups.

The last is easiest to dismiss, as Burroughs was first introduced to the technique by Brion Gysin nearly a month after the first edition of The Naked Lunch hit the stands. It's possible Burroughs was writing under the influence, but it's not entirely clear of what: drugs, or his unrequited love for Allen Ginsberg. More likely he simply wanted to obscure just how much of his own experience he (consciously) imbued the text with - particularly his personal politics, which at the time leaned more towards the cooperative than the libertarian.

The order of the text's that comprise The Naked Lunch isn't as random as purported either. While the different editions have differed significantly, the main part of the manuscript - some one hundred pages - had been written by early 1957, and remained largely unaltered since. Towards the end of 1956, Burroughs had kicked his habit for the first (but not last) time, and it's the beginning and end - if, indeed, they are such - that bear the marks of three different pairs of hands (Burroughs', Ginsberg's, and Jack Kerouac's) attempting to cobble a book together on at least four different occasions.

The myths are partially a byproduct of the main dish, a particularly runny concoction, threatening to "spill off the fork in every direction" practically all of the time. They may provide the hapless reader with some semblance of cohesion, yet simultaneously threaten to counter what may be the work's intended purpose. Half a century since it was first published, The Naked Lunch remains a baffling and fascinating indelible stain on the American literary landscape, and has become a preeminent classic of Beat literature.

October 26, 2009

Rear View: Patlabor - the Movie.

From grandmaster Osamu Tezuka's Tetsuwan Atomu ("Mighty Atom", or Astro Boy), and Mitsuteru Yokoyama's Tetsujin 28-gō ("Iron Man #28", or Gigantor) - both original manga animated for TV in 1963 - to Gō Nagai's Majingā Z ("Mazinger Z", or Tranzor Z), and Tezuka-apprentice Yoshiyuki Tomino's epic Gandamu (Gundam), robot manga and anime have left an indelible impression on contemporary Japanese culture.

These transforming, combining mechanical warriors, often deployed to save Earth from invading forces, are Japan's answer to America's superheroes. But perhaps because they are mechanistic, and (largely) culturally neutral, they've managed to stomp into the consciousness of audiences worldwide. By the mid-1980s, animated television series based on Japanese concepts, like Voltron, Robotech, Gobots, and - above all - Transformers, provided an astounding boon to robot toys, comics, and merchandise internationally.

Japanese comics are created for a readership that shares very specific attitudes and customs, often virtually unknown outside Japan. Animation, on the other hand, has managed with its broad appeal to open overseas doors otherwise closed to Japanese comics, and have in fact become Japan's supreme goodwill ambassadors. Even when only available in Japanese, anime are usually more accessible than manga, not requiring ability to read Japanese or learning the often unique conventions of printed Japanese comics.

Manga also tend to be produced by a single artist, making them more direct and personal than anime, which are often a collective effort produced by teams, aiming for the broadest possible audience. While Japanese film in general has lingered in artistic and financial doldrums, anime has prospered on the back of the home video boom - to a point at which the Japanese animation industry easily dwarfs that of the EU or the USA - receiving a massive boost from the increased availability of video hardware in Japan in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Original Video Animation films (OVA's) begun appearing in 1983, aimed at the home video market, partially as a response to rising film and TV production costs, but also to the segmentation of the audience, with rising demand for original video material and more specialised programming. OVA's quickly became the niche for animation not mainstream enough to warrant a substantial TV audience, or lacking the budget necessary to produce a theatrical release.

Patlabor first appeared as a seven-part OVA series in 1988, the year most Westerners became aware of anime thanks to Katsuhiro Ōtomo's Akira, and Hayao Miyazaki's masterpiece Tonari-no Totoro (My Neighbour Totoro). Though the concept for Patlabor was one that manga artist Masami Yūki had been working on since the early 1980s, having earned notoriety with a parody of Gandamu, and wanting to further the riaru robotto ("real robot") approach of Tomino's creation - as opposed to the more fanciful sūpā robotto ("super robot") varieties.

Originally conceived as a light comedy set in space, the concept was pitched to a studio in the mid-1980s. Upon rejection, Yūki brought it down to earth and injected more realism with the help of scriptwriter Kazunori Itō, and designers Akemi Takada and Yutaka Izubuchi. The revised concept was picked up by Bandai Visual on the condition there would be a manga tie-in to the OVA series (in Japan, anime frequently act as ads for manga). All that remained was to find a director, and Itō suggested Mamoru Oshii. Despite some initial skepticism whether he could pull off realistic science fiction - given his background in children's fantasy - Oshii joined the group of artists now known as Headgear.

Banding together as a collective, the Headgear quintet managed to retain full control of their creation rather than sign it over to a production company or an animation studio. Though some of the the members have collaborated on other projects, Patlabor was the only one Headgear worked on as a group, ultimately spawning three feature films, an additional sixteen-part OVA series, a TV series, a 22 volume manga, a series of novels, many model kits, CDs, and much, much merchandise.

Essentially an ensemble police procedural (think Hill Street Blues with giant robots), Patlabor is set in the latter half of 1999 (then, a decade into the future), in a Tōkyō where humanoid, multi-purpose machines - basically oversized powered exoskeletons - known as "labors" are employed in all aspects of industry and heavy construction, which in turn has led to the use of labors for unsavory purposes. Consequently, the police has branched out with a new, special section equipped with patrol labors - "patlabors" - to combat labor crime.

The main protagonists are the officers of the Special Vehicles Section 2, Division 2, an outfit stationed on a strip of reclaimed land in Tōkyō Bay with the reputation of being a dumping ground for freaks and misfits. There's the overeager young officer, the nervous salary-man, the trigger-happy jerk, the wizened engineer, his whizz-kid protégé, the spunky yet naïve girl, the quiet giant, and the femme fatale. Presided over by a captain whose Machiavellian streak is obscured by slack attitude (mainly manifested by a rather relaxed choice of footwear), for whom the career-oriented captain of the far more professional Division 1 is an object of unrequited love.

Although this (first) film's plot concerns the suicide of the developer of a new operating system for labors - which may in fact be part of a sinister plan to disrupt Tōkyō's largest re-development and land reclamation project by causing the thousands of labors it employs go berserk - it focuses more on the characters than actual crimes, and Division 2's two youngest members, Asuma Shinohara (the overeager one) and Noa Izumi (the spunky naïve one) in particular. Though the youngest patlabor officer, Noa is in fact the projects oldest character, its heroine ever since development began in the early 1980s, and a member of what was then a rather scant set of strong female manga and anime characters.

Unlike manga, which permeate mainstream Japanese society (in the early 1980s, Japan used more paper for comics than it did for toilet paper), anime isn't something the average Japanese adult spends time watching. Unlike overseas, where anime are an entrypoint for an audience which - more often than not - is adult, the domestic target audience tends to be quite young. Despite this, Headgear deliberately chose a more "mature" style for what essentially was an "adolescent" concept.

Manga artists have always felt a kinship with filmmakers. In fact, many manga artists create stories as if they were making films, often incorporating every camera technique ever invented - many of them dream of directing and of the early days of Japanese animation when practically anyone who could draw could switch careers. Here's where the choice of Mamoru Oshii as director really paid off: this feature allowed him to utilise his considerable skills and further his style of philosophical longueurs interspersed with rapid bursts of ferocious action.

Fairly successful in its tightrope attempt to provide enough information for audiences unfamiliar with the Patlabor OVA's while avoiding boring committed fans to tears, the film's overall mood is more solemn compared to the original series, its palette cooler, less bright. Likely due to director Oshii's inclinations, biblical references rain down throughout the story like frogs on Egypt, while the mechanical action is mainly confined to the finale (hardware aficionados will find much more labor-on-labor action in the Patlabor manga). However, Yutaka Izubuchi's mechanical designs are among the most original and realistic, logically extrapolating on exisitng heavy equipment, and worth glimpsing even briefly.

In between labor battles and extensive dialogue, Oshii takes the audience on a tour of vanishing Tōkyō vistas, eminently commenting on the relentless, seemingly unyielding march of progress - a theme he would return to with similar adroitness in several later features, like his 1995 international breakthrough suto In Za Sheru/Kōkaku Kidōtai (Ghost in the Shell). However, Oshii's restrained and subtle manner also allows for scenes brimming with technical information and acronyms, requiring that viewers remain active; previous knowledge of the OVA's isn't crucial provided viewers pay attention.

Oshii has said the his films wouldn't work without composer Kenji Kawai's music, even claiming that Kawai's music is "half the film". Here the fairly conventional, upbeat soundtrack is complemented by Kawai's more ambient, meditative pieces, making Patlabor an excellent introduction to the style for which he and Oshii would later become famous. Curiously, the cast of voice actors are practically all middle aged veterans, portraying characters who pretty much all are half their age.

Like Japanese poetry, Japanese comics tend to value the unstated, allowing pictures alone carry a story. Mamoru Oshii excels at this seemingly spare approach, occasionally indulging in caricature to reveal the "essence" of a prevalent mood or situation. Though likely a nod toward fans of the original OVA's more comedic slant, the sudden simplicity can be bewildering, with serious exchanges suddenly drawn in an overtly "cartoony" style, or characters depicted as abbreviated caricatures against a hyperrealistic backdrop.

But Japanese manga - and their distant cousin anime - tend to be unashamedly emotional and human, representing the one space where the Japanese are allowed to "drop their mask" and indulge in fantasy. Often created by artists with little formal training, they tend to be very unpretentious, with few aspirations toward artistic excellence and fame. Their main aim is to entertain.

It's always hazardous to set a film in the future, particularly the near future. Though when 1999 did roll round there was little - apart from certain stylistic aspects - that dated the first Patlabor feature. In fact, though the Internet and cell phones are conspicuously absent, the film's environmentalist theme seems quite prescient. Land reclamation in Tōkyō Bay may not have been quite as aggressive as the film depicts, but some 20% (or, roughly, 250 km2) has been reclaimed over the past century.

While massive exoskeletons aren't yet employed in construction, heavy machinery has been known to be used for nefarious purposes - likely making police wish they did have patlabors at their disposal. Certianly, robotics research continues unabated, persistently improving and redefining robot capabilities, interfaces and roles in society. Unmanned vehicles fly over war zones, scour the ground for explosives, allow humans a broader virtual presence, while gaining more parity with them. This film ironically illustrates the folly of giant, humanoid machines, in a scene where a construction labour displays all the efficiency of a kid let loose among building blocks when engaged in the raising of a building.

Until the recent recession rendered it idle, Japan had the world's largest fleet of mechanized workers, with robots even being manufactured by robots in the facilities of Yaskawa Electric - Japans largest manufacturer of industrial robots (the closest existing parallel to Patlabor's Shinohara labor factory). In 2005, more than 370,000 robots worked in factories across Japan - roughly 40% of the world's total, averaging 32 robots per 1,000 human manufacturing employees. A 2007 Japanese government plan called for a million industrial robots to be installed by 2025; that won't likely happen now.

Yet, with nearly 25% of its citizens 65 or older, Japan is banking on robots to replenish its rapidly diminishing workforce and help nurse the elderly. The option to allow millions of workers in from overseas appears utterly unappealing to a society steeped in xenophobia (Japan has the lowest rate of foreign workers among the world's developed economies, at less than 2% of the workforce, compared to 15% in the USA, or 10% in Britain), even paying foreign workers to return from whence they came once recession has rendered them "redundant".

Japanese scientists and engineers, having grown up watching robot cartoons, are more than eager to create humanoid, robotic companions to care for the more than a million Japanese who will be over 100 years old by the middle of this century. Many of their projects tend to be far-fetched, concentrating on humanoid and other impractical designs, that likely can't be readily brought to market. Robots may be cheaper than human workers over the long term, but the upfront investment costs are much higher.

While the first Patlabor film may share a certain amount of technological skepticism with the majority of science fiction films - particularly in its prediction of the impact computer viruses and malicious code cold have - it's no reactionary dismissal of change. Rather, it merely advocates a reconsideration of the past's - and its artifacts - worth. It's brilliance lies not so much in its technical qualities, as it does with director Oshii's respect for the audience.

Oshii and his Headgear colleagues dare to tell a complex and ambitious story without explaining every last detail, trusting in the audience's own ability to work things out. This, ultimately, renders the fact that its anime inconsequential, for beneath the skillfully drawn veneer lies an ambitious, well-crafted crime story in a slightly futuristic setting. It just happens to be animated.


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