Walled Nativity

Thanks to the "230-mile, six-metre high wall, topped with barbed wire and lined with guard towers, that encircles Palestine -- and Bethlehem," the Three Kings wouldn't have made it to Bethlehem in 2007. That's the message behind a nativity scene made by the Amos Trust. It's the manger scene we've come to expect, with one exception: there's a wall between the holy family and the assembled worshippers.

But that gag just scratches the surface. The pieces in the scene are all made from olive wood by craftsmen living in Bethlehem, and all proceeds will be donated to Palestinian projects.

Via Cursor.

Give the gift of roadkill.

MSNBC reports that a British company is producing plush roadkill toys, just in time for the holidays. First off the production line is "Twitch the Raccoon," who comes with his own body bag. But, wait, there's more:
A zipper on each side of the toy allows the owner to remove Twitch's internal organs and stuff them back in again. A truck-tire print runs across its back.
Via HuffPo.

Rap Analytics

Vance at the Walker Design blog points out this (typo-riddled, but nonetheless hilarious) site that uses charts and graphs to analyze rap lyrics and themes.


WaPo Fuels Obama/Muslim Rumors

In a truly bizarre piece in today's Washington Post, staff writer Perry Bacon, Jr., devotes more than 1,400 words to rumors that Barack Obama, a longtime member of a United Church of Christ congregation in Chicago, might be a closet Muslim. The story, which uses the word "rumor" or "rumors" nine times and quotes conservatives including Michael Savage, Rush Limbaugh, the website Human Events, and Jeffrey Kuhner, the editor of Insight (the conservative magazine that began the now-debunked rumor that Obama studied at a madrassa), seems at times to support, rather than merely report upon, internet claims that Obama is "a 'Muslim plant' in a conspiracy against America." Obama's Kenyan grandfather was a Muslim.

According to "rumors and emails circulating on the internet," Bacon writes, Obama, like actual Muslim Keith Ellison, will be sworn in as president if elected on a copy of the Koran. Bacon then cites a Pew survey that finds 45 percent of respondents were less likely to vote for a Muslim candidate. Of Obama, who lived in Indonesia as a boy, Bacon writes, "It is not clear whether that negative sentiment will affect someone who has lived in a Muslim country but does not practice Islam."

Via Crooks & Liars.


SPAM suit canned

After five years of legal wrangling, the U.S. Patent Office's Trademark Board has dismissed a complaint by Austin-based Hormel Foods against Seattle email services firm SpamArrest for using the name of its famed spiced-meat product. The 63-page ruling, dated Nov. 21, found that Hormel failed to show how SPAM's "fame has carried over to computer software designed to eliminate unsolicited commercial electronic mail, or that consumers would associate such software with the source of petitioner's Spam and Spam-derivative products and services."

SpamArrest, reports the Rochester Post-Bulletin, is the only non-Hormel company that can now legally use the name, but the decision may affect "dozens of similar cases" the Board is scheduled to consider, including brands like Spam Eye, Spam Fighter, Spjam, Spamoxie, Spamtrap, SpaMiles, Spamhippo and SpaMitzvah.

Hormel is considering an appeal.


More Party Animals

An ass and a lumbering elephant? Are these the metaphors we want to limit our political parties to? They've served us well -- except, in recent years, for the Republicans' raging elephant, perhaps -- but More Party Animals suggests our political system needs more variety.

This movement (and t-shirt selling enterprise) offers a range of new animal icons, in patriotic red, white, and blue, leaving it up to us -- it seems -- to come up with the parties behind them. Not a bad notion at all. (My more cynical side wonders if the group is offering alternatives: The GOP could trade its pachyderm for, say, a flock of sheep. And those can't-say-no-to-Iraq Democrats? How about a bunch of starred-and-striped pussies?)

Via The Unconvention.


The 2008 TED Prizes go to...

Following in the footsteps of Bill Clinton, Bono, Cameron Sinclair, Edward Burtynzky and others, a new slate of winners has been named to received $100,000 to make a wish come true. The 2008 TED Prize winners include:

Neil Turok, chair of the mathematical physics department at Cambridge and founder of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences,

Dave Eggers, author of novels including A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius; founder of the youth writing program 826 Valencia, and co-founder of McSweeney's and Voice of Witness,

Karen Armstrong, former nun, religious historian, and author of books like A History of God and The Bible: A Biography.

The Wall

As street artist Filippo Minelli hits the West Bank partition, National Geographic offers a pre-Christmas reflection on the route into Bethlehem Mary and Joseph couldn't make were they around to try it in 2007:
This is not how Mary and Joseph came into Bethlehem, but this is how you enter now. You wait at the wall. It's a daunting concrete barricade, three stories high, thorned with razor wire. Standing beside it, you feel as if you're at the base of a dam. Israeli soldiers armed with assault rifles examine your papers. They search your vehicle. No Israeli civilian, by military order, is allowed in. And few Bethlehem residents are permitted out—the reason the wall exists here, according to the Israeli government, is to keep terrorists away from Jerusalem.

Bethlehem and Jerusalem are only six miles apart (ten kilometers), though in the compressed and fractious geography of the region, this places them in different realms. It can take a month for a postcard to go from one city to the other. Bethlehem is in the West Bank, on land taken by Israel during the Six Day War of 1967. It's a Palestinian city; the majority of its 35,000 residents are Muslim. In 1900, more than 90 percent of the city was Christian. Today Bethlehem is only about one-third Christian, and this proportion is steadily shrinking as Christians leave for Europe or the Americas. At least a dozen suicide bombers have come from the city and surrounding district. The truth is that Bethlehem, the "little town" venerated during Christmas, is one of the most contentious places on Earth.


Beyond Bullets: A Top War Correspondent on the Human Side of the News

The stories Janine di Giovanni captivate: A New Jersey-born war correspondent now living in Paris, she’s stared down government guns -- quite literally -- during a coup attempt in Ivory Coast, walked among towering walls of corpses after a cholera epidemic in Rwanda, spent four days "mopping up blood" after a NATO bombing raid in the Balkans, and in 1992, dropped her notebook to hold an elderly woman as she died near the front line in Sarajevo.

But more than the tales, it's her tone that moves me. Sometimes matter-of-fact -- shockingly so, considering the suffering and violence she’s seen -- and sometimes emphatic with emotion, Di Giovanni's isn’t the voice of the adrenaline junkie. It’s that of an engaged human being who happens to work in the news media.

One of Europe’s top war correspondents, Giovanni has reported from nearly every major conflict zone: Iraq, Nicaragua, Rwanda, Chechnya, Somalia, Palestine, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, among others. Now the married mother of a young son, she admits she no longer takes the kind of "nearly suicidal" risks she once did. Coming to the Walker Art Center on November 27 in conjunction with the exhibition Brave New Worlds, she’ll speak about her work covering some of the world’s most volatile conflict zones. In a phone call from Paris last week, she shared her thoughts about courage (a trait she says she doesn’t possess), why local-only news coverage isn’t good enough, and her belief that to find compelling news stories we needn’t look to far-off lands but to our own neighborhoods.

Paul Schmelzer:
You were one of three journalists to witness the fall of Grozny. You have reported everywhere from Iraq to Israel to Rwanda. You were there for the first Intifada. You ended up banned from Russia and blacklisted by the Bosnian Serbs?

Janine di Giovanni: Yes.

PS: So you truly have had a front-row seat for some of history’s major events, and I’m wondering how that long view of history helps you see individual news stories of the day -- meaning, here in the States, people who have your same, essential job are talking about Hillary Clinton’s laugh or Mitt Romney’s latest stump speech. Do you have a different perspective on the news?

JD: You know, last night I was cooking dinner and I was watching about the cyclone in Bangladesh and I just though, My god, eight thousand to ten thousand people have been killed. And it’s still uncounted; they’re counting more people. Two nights ago, it got top of the news. Then it’s second, then it’s third, then it doesn’t even get pictures. It’s a very complex thing because, in fact, I understand on one hand that someone in Minnesota or New Jersey or Leeds, England, can only take so much of incredibly intense stories about the world’s suffering before they get compassion fatigue.

But as a reporter on the ground it’s incredibly frustrating. But American papers and papers in Minneapolis aren’t the only ones guilty of this. I worked for The Sunday Times, one of the most prestigious papers in Britain and has one of the biggest circulations, in the early ‘90s during the war in Sarajevo. And it was very hard to get stuff in the paper about Bosnia because it was the time Princess Diana was going nutty, going cuckoo. The public was simply more interested in her day-to-day madness than in the madness that was going on in a city that was in a medieval siege less than two hours by plane from them. Of course, individual people did care and wanted more news but the general public kind of looks at it and kind of flashes off.

I remember being in Rwanda in August 2004, and there was a terrible cholera epidemic, which struck down in the town of Goma some of the Hutu refugee camps. And it was this terrible thing, because it really was like a kind of biblical revenge for the massacre of the Tutsis. I’d walk through the camps and someone would drop at my feet, start puking green stuff and die. And there were bodies piled up – I’m not kidding. I’m nearly 5'8" and they were, I’d say, about one-and-a-half times my size, lined up down the road as far as I could see, dead bodies. Walls and walls and walls of dead bodies. The first couple days, I was utterly horrified and completely devastated by this, and then, after a few days, this strange kind of thing happens where you just start walking by it. And this intense suffering: you can only take so much of it.

So what I’m saying is, while I find American television endlessly mindless and when I go home to visit my mother in New Jersey and I turn on all the New York networks, I’m so horrified at the amount of shopping and the consumerism -- which, actually, is quite different from life in Europe. But I do understand. It’s not the way I choose to view the world, but I can see how someone living in a suburb trying to raise their family doesn’t really ant to know what’s happening in Pakistan right now or what’s happening in Darfur.

But as a reporter who has the ability to do that -- although, I have a small child now and I don’t take the kind of risks I used to, and I’m really honest about that, because some of the things I used to do were nearly suicidal -- I think if a reporter can do that, then they have a responsibility to do that, because it’s almost like a wakeup call to people who are living very complacent lives and unexamined lives. If anything, what my goal really was and is is for someone living somewhere in a small town or a small community or in Paris or in London or New York and to read it and think: Thank God I wasn’t born in Darfur or in Rwanda or in Chechnya or in Bosnia or in Baghdad, that I have the life that I have. Because it suddenly, at least in my case, puts my woes and my complaints and my petty grievances really in perspective.

PS: The difficult thing about planning to interview a writer like you is you have a good eye for a story and you’ve probably had more time to consider your own experiences and write about them in a better way than your off-hand comments to me might be. But I was really moved by your Nieman Reports story about the role of courage in what you do. I know you don’t’ want to be seen as a hero, you don’t want to have "bravery" as a term ascribed to you, but from the outside it seems like you must be a special kind of person to take the risks you used to take. How do you see yourself in the third person?

"My goal is for someone living in a small town or in Paris or in London or New York and to read it and think: Thank God I wasn’t born in Darfur or in Rwanda or in Chechnya or in Bosnia or in Baghdad, that I have the life that I have."

JD: I guess I don’t see myself as brave or courageous. Like most people, I have normal fears. I have fears of stupid things -- of spiders, of the dark -- and courage to me is what I said: My dad or my brother battling cancer or my dear friends who are going through chemotherapy, or more importantly, not me who can get on a plane and get out of somewhere, who always has that option to leave. It's local reporters who really can't. I'm always really embarrassed if someone thinks I'm courageous, because I’m not. Yesterday my son drank a bottle of cough syrup. And, we're having these terrible strikes in Paris. There’s no taxis, there's no transports, there’s no buses, there's no metro. The hospitals are on standby. I had to get him to an emergency room and there was no way to get him there. And me, who used to be so calm under pressure, I just really panicked -- and then I called the fire department and they brought him there.

My husband always remembers something. It was during the coup in the Ivory Coast in 2002 and my husband and I never work together, but it just happened that one time that were together at this place where there had just been this big battle between government troops and rebels. And there was this guy, a rebel who was very badly wounded. He had gunshot wounds on his upper thighs, and he was lying on the ground and he grabbed my leg and was begging me to help him.

I knelt down and was trying to give him some first aid, when I looked up and there was this government soldier with his gun pointed at me, and he said, "What are you doing?" I said, "I’m getting this man to the hospital." He said, “You're not taking him anywhere. He’s a rebel and he’s our prisoner." And I said, "I am taking him to the hospital, because, by the Geneva Convention, I have the right to take a wounded man to the hospital, combatant or non-combatant."

And I then looked up and this guy was looking at me and I realized he didn't have the safety catch on his gun. And he was an Ivorian soldier; these guys blow people away very easily. He got to my stubbornness. And also I wasn't going to leave this guy there. And I just said I'm taking him to the hospital. And then my husband came with these other French guys and dragged me away, kicking and screaming. And they were just like, "You are an idiot. You’re so stupid. This is Africa! What are you doing?" And I just said: but that man is suffering. It wasn’t an act of courage; it's just what you would do.

"It wasn't an adrenaline thing. I simply felt I couldn't get a story sitting in a hotel room."

My husband brought that up the other day. He said, "I was so angry at you, but yet I was so proud of you because I never would’ve done that." I’m sure they killed that man. I know it. It might've been two minutes later, it might've been ten minutes later, but they killed him.

I think that’s where the line gets drawn: Are we reporters or are we social workers -- or are we human beings? Yes, I'm a reporter, but that was another human being who was suffering. When I did most of those insane things I did, like the bombing raid in NATO where I lived in a trench for four days and mopped up the blood in Chechnya and Bosnia, I was kind of on autopilot, I have to say. Because if I actually thought about it now, I now realize why no one would go with me anywhere. It was really hard for me to find people. I’d say, "I have access to this commander who can take me to a front line." Most people are like, no thanks.

It wasn't an adrenaline thing. I simply felt I couldn't get a story sitting in a hotel room. Some people can and they're brilliant at it. Some people can read the wires and write amazing stories. I can't. I really need to sit on the ground and talk to people, and I need to talk to them for a long time ' and I need to feel it. I can't write about something unless I’m passionate about it.

PS: You've said one of your heroes is Nicholas Kristof, who’s one of mine as well. I remember he was criticized a couple years back because in the course of reporting on Cambodian sex slavery, he basically bought two young girls out of slavery. You've said you view the role of the journalist as someone who bears witness, but beyond that, what is the responsibility: is it as a journalist, a reporter, a detached being or a human being?

JD: I'd like to say the truth, but what is the truth? I'll tell you another story and maybe that will illustrate it. During the siege of Sarajevo in 1992, I'd heard there was an old-people's home on the front line that had been abandoned by all the workers, and that these old people were freezing death, lying basically in their own shit, unable to eat and taking care of themselves, and they were just dying. And I got in a car with this guy called Kurt Schork, who is now dead, who was this incredible war correspondent for Reuters, who was killed when we were all working in Sierra Leone in 2000.

We got in his car and we drove down Sniper's Alley -- freezing cold, December 1992 -- crossed the airport road, heavy fighting, and got to this old-people’s home. An old guy had been shot by a sniper minutes before trying to cut wood to keep the place warm, and they had moved his body out of the way. When we went inside, there were all these people who had did in their beds. They had died that day. I started going through the rooms counting them. I can’t recall how high I got but it was a shocking number of people. I was standing by one bed writing in my notebook, when suddenly this arm reached up from the bed and it was a woman. And she wasn't dead yet. So I dropped my notebook. She was saying, "Zima, zima" -- "winter, winter"-- and she was sub-zero cold.

I dropped everything, pulled off my coat and tried to do what you would've done or I think anyone would've done, which is try to keep her alive. I was talking to her very quietly, even though she couldn't understand me, and trying to stop her from dying. But she was dying; she was in the last phases of dying. I was sitting on the bed with her and kind of just holding her in my arms.

I suddenly felt the presence of someone else in the room, and I looked up and there was this reporter, who shall go unnamed, but actually he wrote about it. It was a guy from the Washington Post, and he was writing in his notebook and just standing back and watching us and writing. And then he disappeared. He later wrote in his book about it that he was shocked to see me do that. Shocked, but touched, because all of his journalistic training had taught him not to do stuff like that... But, how can you just be a vulture and go to a place like that and impose [on] people’s lives and then take their stories and disappear?

PS: I read yesterday that Reporters without Borders is saying that 206 journalists and media assistants have been killed in the Iraq war. That's three times more than the World Wars combined. And like you said before, on-the-ground reporters can’t get out. 80 to 90 percent of those people are Iraqis.

JD: We use what we call "fixers," who are local journalists out of various countries. Everywhere I go I feel like I owe stuff to these guys. I'm so indebted to them. They've become much more than my fixer. They're my friend, my little brothers or sisters, my mother. These guys are the heroes. They're truly the people that deserve credit but never get it. I'm really glad the New York Times now puts at the bottom, "With reporting by Mona Mahmoud." So often they're the ones that are going out and doing everything and getting paid, but kind of know they're never going to get out of there -- and are at such risk. If the militias knew they were working for Americans or British or foreign publications, their lives are in great danger. I remember recently, I think it was the International Women's Foundation or something gave a courage in journalism award to a group of Iraqi women reporters, and they stood up and gave their speech. They said, "We are just journalists. We're not soldiers, we're not combatants, yet we're targeted all the time." So that figure you just read to me is really chilling and makes me feel incredibly sad.

PS: Back to stateside: here in the Twin Cities, like a lot of cities in the U.S., there are major cuts at newspapers, buyouts, firings and all that stuff. Here in our two-daily town, we're down to one person at a D.C. bureau that used to have five and many years ago eight, and they’ve said there will be no editorials on national or international issues. What do you think the effect is if a paper in a top-30 metropolitan city like Minneapolis doesn't have original reported national news or international news? Is it OK to get it from the wires?

"How are readers going to ever be informed of something by the Reuters wire? While those wire-service reporters are great and they do their jobs fantastically well, we all know what they do: They’re chained to their computers."

I think it’s really a crime. Say I was the foreign editor, and you don't have a budget for it, I do understand that. But on the other hand, how are your readers going to ever be informed of something by the Reuters wire? While those wire-service reporters are great and they do their jobs fantastically well, we all know what they do: They're sitting in front of a -- they’re chained to their computers. They don’t have time to go out and talk to people on the ground as much. And then someone in Minneapolis is rewriting that copy. It's a real disservice to the public.

And I would say there are ways of getting original copy. I teach journalism -- an international reporting class -- at Sciences Po, which is a quite prestigious French university here. I tell all my students when they say, Oh I want to be you: OK, this is what you do. You pick a country that you're interested in. You learn as much about it as you possibly can. You do tons of research, and then you go there and you be a stringer. And that's how you get started. The foreign editor in Minneapolis could find some 24- or 25-year-old who is willing to get paid peanuts -- I’m not saying this is ethical, but this is how people start out -- to get some good colorful copy. That's how they learn to become good reporters, and it's how you get good stuff.

If you look on the ground in Afghanistan or Iraq, those reporters are not my generation. My generation, people post-Vietnam -- I'd say my generation is the last of the breed of reporters that had budgets to go places and cover the whole world and could roam around. It’s an old-fashioned beat that doesn't exist anymore. If you look around at the kind of reporters in Kabul and Baghdad, they’re kids. They're young. They're great, but...

Having said that, budgets everywhere are being cut. There's a big change in journalism, which makes me really uncomfortable, which is the Internet. People don’t buy newspapers anymore. They get their news in a quick hit, through podcasts or reading blogs. I still buy newspapers. I live in Paris, and it’s a culture where people do sit in a café and have a coffee and read the newspaper in the morning. But I also so it because I want to support -- I want to keep the industry going. Because it's such an important thing to have foreign correspondents, because, in a way, without sounding corny, we're the eyes and ears of people that are working full-time jobs in Minneapolis who are doctors or lawyers or teachers or cleaners. We're supposed to be bringing back a story for them.

PS: What are the stories you don't think are being covered well.

JD: I'd say, off the top of my head, Congo. Vicious, vicious human rights abuses going on there. Some have been reported lately by the New York Times, like the rape of women with bayonets – you know, kind of beyond-hideous, post-colonial wars.

Child soldiers: you know there was that best-seller by Ishmael Beah that brought the public attention to what's going on, but I still think that needs to be looked at more. I did a lot of work on child soldiers in Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast and Liberia, and it's one of the things that haunts me the most. And also I think, Africa gets ignored unless it's the cause of the moment. If it's Darfur and George Clooney is going there, then people look at it. Or Angelina Jolie is in South Africa or something, or Oprah Winfrey is opening a school for girls in Ethiopia. All those are fantastic, and I think when Paris Hilton or Britney Spears goes somewhere a lot of people sneer. Well, I don’t because I think, OK, they may be hideous people, but who cares? They’re raising awareness and that’s really important. I think Africa gets ignored.

Don't get me started on the Palestinian/Israeli thing, because that's just really difficult to reporter. It's a really, really hard story to get right and to keep going reporting because, let's face it, it’s a war without end, a conflict without end, without resolution, without hope. I think a lot of stuff in the Middle East aside from Iraq doesn't get focused on: Syria, Lebanon.

It could even be stories like: I live in France and there's a real problem here with immigration and with immigrants being basically shuffled out to the suburbs around big cities and their great feeling of isolation, their feeling that they're not blending into communities, their feelings that they never get the good jobs or the good apartments. That, to me, a real important story because it's people who are voiceless.

I'm sure there are plenty of those stories in Minneapolis too. You don't have to go halfway around the world. Sometimes the stories that really need telling are right in your back yard. One of the most moving stories I did, I think, on 9/11 wasn't in Afghanistan or Iraq. It was in my mother's hometown in New Jersey, which got hit really badly by 9/11. They had the highest percentage of people killed in the Twin Towers of any bedroom community of New York. I wrote a profile of the community and how it was actually grief-stricken and how it pulled together. I talked to the widows and the parents of the survivors, but more importantly I talked to all these people whose lives have changed for-ever by seeing those towers go down, and they just decided -- it was a wake-up call. You don't have to witness the all of Grozny to get the point across, you know?

My brother died last year because he didn’t have health insurance. He was diagnosed with lung cancer two weeks before he died. How does that happen in a country like America? And he wasn't a black man from the projects. He was a kid from a good family who just kind of had lost his job and didn't have health insurance, and kept getting shuffled along in the terrible medicare system because the doctors didn't give a damn because he didn’t have money. Eventually, they got around to giving him an MRI and he was riddled with cancer and he was dead. I would like to see a story about how people live in Minneapolis, in St. Paul, in Chicago, in Iowa City, in Philadelphia without health insurance. I haven't read that. I'd like to read about people coming back from Iraq who aren't getting jobs and are kind of being shunted aside. And I'd like to read about single mothers who don't have good daycare centers.

It doesn't have to be bullets and disease.

For more, read an interview with di Giovanni at the Walker blogs.


Turkey Terminology, Demystified

Don't be misled by the label on your Thanksgiving turkey this week. My friend Tom Elko of Minnesota Monitor looks into the USDA-defined terms you'll find at the market. I, for one, was surprised:
Before you pay more for that happy-go-lucky free-range bird that spent its days wandering over hill and dale eating nuts and berries off the ground, you should know that the USDA has a less romanticized idea of what qualifies as free-range.

For the USDA to designate a bird as free-range, the producer must demonstrate to the agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside. When I visited an organic free-range turkey producer in Michigan earlier this year, access to the outdoors meant a caged-in area attached at one end of the barn, perhaps 40 feet wide and 20 feet deep. In the barn, 10,000 toms stood breast to breast.

Cage-free means just that, and little more. Cage-free is not free-range as the birds aren't given access to the outdoors.

When I asked a certified organic turkey farmer what was involved in raising organic birds, his response was "a lot of record keeping." More importantly, organic turkeys can only consume organic feed. In the Midwest, feed mostly comprises ground corn and soybean meal.

Turkeys with no artificial ingredients or added colors that are minimally processed may be labeled natural. Natural is not the same as organic.

The USDA does not allow hormones in poultry production, so the label "no hormones added" cannot legally be used unless it is followed by a statement reading "Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones."

Turkeys that are labeled "fresh" have never had their internal temperatures below 26 degrees, but individual packages of raw poultry meat labeled "fresh" can be anywhere from 1 to 2 degrees below 26 degrees within inspected establishments according to the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service.


Dog Days, Bogotá

When Minnesota photographer Alec Soth and his wife adopted their daughter, Carmen Laura, five years ago, they spent two months in Bogotá, Colombia, as the paperwork was processed by the courts. When they left, they brought with them two books. One was literal: Carmen's biological mother had created a collection of poems, letters and pictures for her baby. She inscribed it: "I hope that the hardness of the world will not hurt your sensitivity. When I think about you I hope that your life is full of beautiful things." The other, which wouldn't be published til much later, took those words as its mission. It contained photos Soth shot during that trip so his daughter could know her birth culture.

Magnum blogs recently ran and interview between Soth and his intern, Carrie Thompson, on the book, Dog Days, Bogotá. Straightforward, yet poetic -- like Alec's shots -- here's an excerpt:

CT: Tell me about the dogs, how did they become so important?

AS: I was aware of the street kids in Bogotá. I mean, it is a hard thing to ignore, but I was especially attuned to it because of the adoption experience. But I was uncomfortable photographing these kids. So I photographed street-dogs instead. I guess they were a stand-in for the kids.

CT: So do the dogs have different types of personalities in your eyes - like young street children?

AS: Great question. In a way, this gets at why I was uncomfortable photographing the kids. I mean, I wasn't seeing them as individuals; I was generalizing them as a group. I don't like doing that. The dogs are all a little different, but I'm using them largely as an idea.

CT: It seems like you are searching for something in these images, was there something you were looking for? [...]

AS: Yeah, I feel like I was looking for something...I'm just not sure what it was. But, of course, it all has to do with my daughter. Since we weren't given too much information about her background, the whole city became charged with her presence. I guess I was looking for signs of her and her background.


Jesus, the Earth, and Ann Coulter

The University of St. Thomas' campus recycling web page features the quoted wisdom of environmental thinkers and spiritual leaders like Jesus, Wendell Berry, Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama, Senegalese ecologist Baba Dioum and Aldo Leopold. A curious inclusion:
"God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees. God said, 'Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It's yours.'"

-- Ann Coulter, Fox-TV: Hannity & Colmes, 20 Jun 01


Assholier than Thou

As a Catholic boy, I can say it:

What's up with the jackasses at Notre Dame, the Catholic -- and therefore, I'd hope, Christ-like -- university who are wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the words, "Gay? Go to hell"? A sophomore at the school offers context and her opinion:
...When several of us went up to a couple of the men trying to see what their point was, their reply was that they were trying to take the attention away from the "Gay? Fine by me" shirts. How did these shirts do this? How do they portray a message besides one of judgment and prejudice? Regardless of personal opinion, we learn in the Catholic teachings that man is not perfect, and one of the many lessons that Jesus teaches is that one should not judge others for no one is perfect. Since these men were using the Catholic religion for their reasons, they should follow one of the most popular doctrines of the Catholic religion: We should accept others as they are and not judge, for who are we to judge?...
Amen, sister.


KQRS and the mea culpa that wasn't

When KQRS morning show DJs implied that a high suicide rate among native American teens was the result of incest, station managers were quick apologize. To make amends, they promised to hire native American interns and invite members of the Red Lake Chippewa and Shakopee Mdewakanton communities as guests during the state's top-rated morning show. The move earned managers praise from the Star Tribune for their "swift and expansive response."

But a new billboard, pointed out by Minnesota Lawyer Blog, suggests the station perhaps wasn't so contrite in its apology.

In addition to its vaguely racist billboard announcing "We insult you in English" (a reference to the morning show's past jabs at Somali and Hmong immigrants?), this one seems to boast about the station's legal bills.

The gag, I guess, is that they need high listenership (and the ad revenue that comes with it) to afford their harried lawyers. But as the Disney-owned station is loaded, my guess is their motives are more cynical. The ad is a bid for more attention from the vocally anti-intellectual, those who tune in just to hear rudeness that, we're to believe, is quasi-libelous. KQ, in short, wants to keep cashing in on the decline (or sustained bottoming-out) of civility in America. Yee-ha.

Shock jocks invented hot air, and time will tell if the escape of said gas is what we mistook for an apology from KQRS. When we hear an on-air mea culpa, Clyde Bellecourt yukking it up with Tom Barnard some morning, and an announcement about its new roster of native American interns -- or a billboard advertising all three -- that'll be the first step toward trusting the station's sincerity.



We're late getting to this, but... Now that it's out on DVD, I'm watching the first season of Flight of the Conchords, the hilarious HBO series about two witless Kiwi folk musicians trying to make it in New York. If you haven't seen it, do. Or check out the band's parody music videos on YouTube or tonight's Fresh Air rerun of Terry Gross' interview with Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie (co-creators of the best band in the whole wide room.)

Here's their foray into hip-hop as Rhymenocerous and Hiphopopotamus ("They call me the Hiphopopotamus / Flows that glow like phosphorous / Poppin' off the top of this esophagus / Rockin' this metropolis"):

D.I.Y. or DIE

Filmmaker Michael W. Dean is selling DVDs of his 2002 documentary for only eight bucks apiece, but given what it's about -- do-it-yourself artists making a go of it outside the corporate/institutional sphere -- it's fitting that he's giving the entire thing away on YouTube.

In D.I.Y or DIE: How To Survive as an Independent Artist an array of artists across disciplines, including Fugazi's Ian MacKaye, J. Mascis from Dinosaur, Jr., writer Lydia Lunch, Craig Newmark of Craigslist, and Minutemen co-founder Mike Watt, discuss everything from self-publishing and independent record labels to spirituality and scrapping to put food on the table.

Killian MacGeraghty, who uses his van as a furniture mover by day and a gear-hauler for his Bay Area band The Gun & Doll Show by night, sums up the gist of the film. Asked why he's a DIY artist, he answers, "Well the main reason is to make sure it gets done. And then later on, I guess you fall in love with it."

Here's the first of eight installments of the film.

Via Laughing Squid.


After an incredibly long windup, the nonprofit Twin Cities news site MinnPost.com is up and running. And just one day later, it has a competitor: MinnToast.com, which rejiggers its namesake's "thoughtful approach to news" slogan for its mantra.

Junkmail Poetry

In my junkmail filter now is a piece of spam headlined, "If you treat your filly as a goddess, why not become a God in her bedroom?" Impersonal and with quirky semantics, spam is about the most impersonal form of persuasion out there, but oddly poetic sometimes (as that header for the product MegaDick suggests). And illustrator Linzie Hunter examines both aspects with a new gallery of Photoshop renderings of spam subject lines. [Via Laughing Squid]

Chinese Pop Art

Painted porcelain soda cans by Chinese artist Lei Xue


Buddha's Lost Children

Last night, looking for a movie that was in Thai with English subtitles (for a change), I went to see Buddha's Lost Children, a visually powerful documentary about the Golden Horse Monastery near Thailand's border with Burma. In an area plagued by poverty and drug addiction, abbot Phra Khru Neua Chai Kositto takes in orphans and trains them to be novice monks, often sparking an unbelievable transformation of shy, malnourished boys into happy spirited young men. A mythic figure, Phra Khru Ba is a heavily tattooed Buddhist monk, a former Thai kickboxer who exerts tough love with a smile -- and often atop a horse (the monastery keeps 120, rescued from slaughterhouses). The film features three boys, including one -- the ebullient 4-year-old Boontam, who can't walk -- that Phra Khru Ba is convinced might be the reincarnated Buddha.

It was a truly amazing film: a moving, funny, eye-opening and triumphant documentary, and I'd urge you to see it. It's screening tonight only at Minneapolis' Bell Auditorium and in 16 other American cities. (Proceeds at the Bell go to the Golden Horse Monastery, which subsists only on donations.)


More on Rirkrit's Thai pad

Chiang Mai-based architect Aroon Puritat writes in to share another photo of the house he designed for (and with) Rirkrit Tiravanija in the northern Thai provincial capital. And Bangkok-based architect/writer Rachaporn Choochuey offers her perspective on the structure, reminding us of Rirkrit's work in architecture (including his 1997 installation of a 1:2 scale model of Philip Johnson's Glass House in the courtyard at MoMA). She says Rirkrit's is "the first real 'contemporary' Thai house":
Rirkrit told us that the idea of the house is to have very simple concrete building, elevated from the ground - the least touch. The exisiting site has a lot of trees, they did not want to cut any of them. So the building is inserted in the site in a zigzaging manner among the trees around. The main space is this big, simple, rough but very strong courtyard of the house where the main activities (the kitchen, the library and the entrance). The veranda running around the courtyard, connecting everything around together is very crucial part here... Altogether, the space is very relaxing but strong...


Signifier, signed: Jonathan Lethem

My side project Signifier, Signed -- in which I ask celebrities to sign not their own autograph but my name -- sputters along.

An addition, just unearthed in my umpteen boxes of mail-art, is a copy of Jonathan Lethem's early dystopic sci-fi novel Amnesia Moon. I met the author, who wrote better-known novels like Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn, at a reading at the now-defunct St. Paul bookstore Ruminator. He gamely signed my name in his novel -- and refrained from calling me a dick -- before putting his own John Hancock on the first page of the Minneapolis Public Library's cellophane-covered first edition of Fortress of Solitude.

If anyone stumbles across that can you let me know so I can grab a snapshot? That'd be swell.


The Fast Lane and the Dirt Path: Corporate Media, Democracy and the FCC [Audio]

In "Rich Media, Poor Democracy," communications scholar Bob McChesney wrote about how democracy tends to be the first casualty in the collision of big media and big money. As keynote speaker at the Nov. 3 Citizen Media Forum put on by Twin Cities Media Alliance, he continued the theme in a discussion about "journalism's freefall" and the challenges and triumphs of the fledgling media reform movement, which has grown exponentially since he founded its top advocacy group, Free Press, in 2002. One of the biggest feathers in the movement's cap is the massive public campaign in 2003 that stalled the Federal Communications Commission's attempt to relax media ownership rules. Another is the halting of attempts to ban "network neutrality," the policy that ensures all web users get the same level of access as anyone else.

But both of these successes are again threatened. Under new chair Kevin Martin, the FCC is scrambling to relax longstanding rules governing media consolidation. It announced, with only one week's notice, that the final public hearing on media ownership will be held in Seattle this Friday, Nov. 9. By year's end, the Commission may change the provision that prevents the same company from owning both a TV station and newspaper in the same town. And net neutrality remains under fire, thanks to the telecommunications and cable industries that want to replace an equal-access Internet with a two-tiered scheme that McChesney calls a "fast lane" and a "dirt path."

On Saturday, he spent a few minutes discussing these important policy crises and their impact on democracy.

Paul Schmelzer: Two things I wanted to ask you about are the FCC ownership vote and net neutrality. But let’s start with the FCC. What is the story there?

Bob McChesney: The FCC under Kevin Martin has reopened a review of its media ownership rules, as it’s required to by law. And he agreed, and the FCC agreed after the last time the rules were thrown out in the court system, that to make sure it’ll past legal muster this time they would hold at least six public hearings on what people think of these rule changes. The last one is coming on November 9 in Seattle. Chairman Martin of the FCC is making it clear that he is determined to change the rules – he’s been public about this – as quickly as possible, as dramatically as possible, and really has no concern whatsoever with following the spirit of the process where the public hearings hold any value. He’s given in almost every case minimum possible notice to the community that’d they’d be having hearings. The last two, literally a week's notice. And these are supposed to be hearings to solicit public opinion from across the board. They’ve tried to put them during daylight hours when working people can’t get away from work. And he’s made a mockery of the process.

Some people say, "With the democratic control in Congress, won’t this get stymied?" In all likelihood it will, and in all likelihood there’s a good chance the courts with throw it out again, because it’s such a blatant violation of the spirit of the law.

But my sense is that there’s tremendous pressure on the Bush administration and therefore on the Republicans on the FCC to scrap these rules to allow the big media owners, who really depend on being able to gobble up local media monopolies, to get their way. They’re calling their debts in, so to speak. I think they’re going to try to ram this through and then negotiate it in Congress and get some of the deals through. They understand it’s completely bogus what they’re doing -- legally, ethically, morally. But it’s all about power politics and delivering the goods to very wealthy and powerful campaign donors and funders.

PS: Kevin Martin hasn’t said what his proposal would be, but it’s understood that he’ll probably be relaxing cross-ownership rules. But is it true that he hasn’t laid out a plan, and if so, what are people responding to?

BM: They won’t lay out a plan, and they’ll give the bare minimum amount of time for the public to see what exactly it’s proposing, if any time at all.

PS: So people are having hearings about media ownership in general, but no specific proposal.

BM: They’re saying, “What do you think about consolidation? What do you think about media in your community?” Which isn’t actually bad; it’s just open-ended. I"f you could have a clean slate, what do you think a healthy media environment—what policies would get you there?"

And what Kevin Martin is hearing everywhere, overwhelmingly, [is that] people are dissatisfied with the current state of media in their communities. There’s way too much commercialism and concentration, and if anything, they want policies that are going to encourage more local owners, more diverse ownership, and generate some sort of coverage on radio, television and related newspapers that’ll actually serve communities rather than just be a service to advertisers and corporate headquarters in some far off land.

PS: So who is Kevin Martin? Everyone knows Michael Powell [former FCC chair and son of Colin Powell], but Kevin Martin is not really known to many people. He was kind of a buddy with Powell. He’s a Republican member of the Commission, right?

BM: He was on the commission in 2003, and he made his name working for the Bush-Cheney presidential campaign in 2000, and he has very clear political ambitions. Generally speaking, when you leave this position at the FCC, either you have political ambitions, you try to go into political office – in which case, feathering the nest of major potential funders is a smart move – or you do what Michael Powell did and most members of FCC have done in the past: you go to work for the industry and make a seven-figure income capitalizing on your public service. So that’s his fallback position. If he can’t raise enough money to be a U.S. senator from North Carolina, he can make a million dollars-plus a year working for AT&T or Comcast or one of these big companies he’s theoretically regulating in the public interest.

PS: It’s been argued by some that this probably has to do with the pending purchase of the Chicago Tribune by Sam Zell. What I’ve heard is that this will serve him well in a market like Chicago. Basically, doesn’t the Tribune own WGN, the paper, all these different things? This would benefit him.

BM: If the rules change that are being proposed, he’d be at the top of the list of beneficiaries. There’s a lot of others there, but he’d be at the top of the list. It would be in reverse alphabetical order.

PS: Net neutrality: Can you tell us what it is and why we need to worry?

BM: Net neutrality is the principle that all websites are created equal – that if you start a website, you’ll have the same shot of getting through the system as a website owned by Microsoft or Rupert Murdoch. The genius of the Internet was never technology; it was always policy. It was the policy of network neutrality. It wasn’t built into the technology. It was something that was required by US telecommunication laws. It was a hard-won victory. And the big telecom, telephone and cable companies that now provide 98 percent of the broadband service in the United States hate it, because they basically want to make their websites come through faster – or websites that pay them off come through faster. If you don’t pay them off you get put on the dirt path. So they’re trying to get rid of net neutrality, that core founding principle.

They got the Bush administration FCC, under our good friend Martin, to renege on net neutrality in 2005, but we’ve been able to forestall it through a number of fights. But in the next two years, it’ll go one way or the other, and it’s absolutely imperative that we lock in the idea that all websites are created equal. Otherwise, we’re just going to have a supercharged digital version of a corporate oligopoly built into the technology now, not even just the marketplace.

PS: Give me a real-world example of what that’d mean.

BM: If you get rid of net neutrality, it means there will be a fast lane and a slow lane on the Internet. So there’s going to be really a tiered service. It’s built into the model that there’s a fast lane and a slow lane; there’ll be a digital divide. So you’ll pay more to get the fastest possible service at your end as a consumer. But the real measure will be: when you want to go on and buy a book, you aren’t going to have that many options, because the fast-lane options are going to be people that cut in with the phone or cable company and give them a piece of the action. For somebody to compete with them they've got to cut in a better deal with the phone or cable company or they’re going to be on the dirt trail – or banned altogether.

And I think we should also understand there’s a real political implication here. In Canada, where they don’t have net neutrality, the dominant cable company banned the website of the union when they had a strike, so people couldn’t see what the union had to say.

And I think we know already in the United States, that the phone company and the cable company have voluntarily participated in spying on the citizenry illegally. We have no reason to trust them whatsoever. Even if they were the most wonderful people on earth, you should never give a couple of institutions that much power over your free speech and free press. And they’re not the most wonderful people on earth, so case closed. It’s just a non-starter.

The National Conference on Media Reform, sponsored by Free Press, comes to Minneapolis June 6–8, 2008.

Photo via Grade the News

Gap announces "Sweatshop Free" labels

After the Observer exposed child laborers in India making goods destined for holiday shelves at Gap Kids stores in the US and Europe, the Gap is announcing it'll begin using "Sweatshop Free" labels:
According to Bhuwan Ribhu, a lawyer from [Global March Against Child Labour], the US conglomerate set out a series of ambitious proposals including a move that would see it relabelling its garments to allow the consumer to directly track online exactly where they are made.

The system would closely mirror the highly successful RugMark programme which has largely eradicated child labour in India's carpet industry.

rBGH profits sour at Monsanto

Monsanto recently predicted that profits from its genetically modified bovine growth hormone will drop by 16 percent in 2007. "Pressure in the dairy business" -- that is, farmers who are responding to the pubic's concerns about the safety of rBGH (aka Posilac) -- were cited for the downturn.


Morgan (Super Size Me) Spurlock joins forces with Shopocalyptic holy man Rev. Billy for a new documentary on the commercialization of Christmas. What Would Jesus Buy? follows prankster-preacher Rev. Billy in his cross-country crusade (including his stop at the Mall of America for a "shopping intervention") as it explores consumption, sweatshops, and debt -- all in Jesus' name. It opens at theaters in New York ad LA on Nov. 16, and hits the midwest (including Minneapolis' Lagoon, on Dec. 7) in early December. Watch the trailer.

More: Rev. Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping and Buy Nothing Christmas.

Fear gear

Scary times call for... ingenious outfits?

Aya Tsukioka says she got the idea for her new clothing line from the ninja, stealth martial artists who can blend into any surrounding. She's created a kimono that folds out to make a full-sized vending machine, inside which its wearer can hide; a purse that expands to a photorealistic manhole cover; a kids' backpack that mimics the design of a pay phone.

The designs, while impractical, nod to very real fears in Japan. But according to the New York Times they don't necessarily fit reality: Crime in Japan, at just one-seventh the rate in the US, is actually trending downward.

But the camo couture also speaks to a Japanese trait of laying low, rather than fighting back, as Americans might. "It is just easier for Japanese to hide," Ms. Tsukioka said. "Making a scene would be too embarrassing."

0aaladejbbn.jpgFor Muslims in an era of post-9/11 fear and stereotyping, survival garb might include something more overt but with room for secrecy. Artist Azra Aksamija, an MIT architecture Ph.D. candidate studying with Krzysztof Wodiczko, has created the Dirndlmoschee (Dirndl Dress Mosque). Designed after the daily outfit still worn by some women in Austria, the piece includes a silk scarf that can be used as a veil, an apron that converts to a prayer mat, and a belt that holds a compass on a caribiner (for finding the direction of Mecca) and prayer beads.

Her Survival Mosque is site-specific for the United States. The burka is covered with the stars and stripes, but a closer look reveals much more:
The mosque is self-sufficient; the prayer rug is supplying its own energy source via photo-voltaic solar cells. It also carries different liturgical and practical features such as washing solution for ablution and for cleaning when a Muslim get spit on, ear plugs against insults, American constitution proofing rights of American Muslims, weapons and amulets, a loud-speaker with speech on tolerance held by President George W. Bush, ablution slippers, Quran, educative books and diverse communication devices. The Survival Mosque can be transformed and camouflaged into interactive bags, which communicate with each other via blue-tooth technology. The bag-speakers reflect paranoia spreading messages regarding terrorism, but they can also function as muezzins; calling for prayer at particular prayer times.


Big for Burma

I read yesterday that 100 brave monks in Burma were again out praying on the streets in protest of the junta.

This one, by Kenny Random, is for them.

Cities 97: Clear Channel Springsteen Ban is Bunk

Imagine Clear Channel banning music from its stations for political reasons. Not hard to do since the radio conglomerate distributed a list of singles it suggested not be played at its stations, including John Lennon's signature song, in the weeks following the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Now, according to Fox News, the company has sent an edict to its classic rock stations barring them from playing tunes from Bruce Springsteen's latest, the politcally charged album "Magic."

While Fox's Roger Friedman doesn't suggest political motives, the blog Down with Tyranny does: "Clear Channel is a big-time and very consciously right-wing power player with a goal of changing American pop culture. They have done all they could to stifle progressive voices and to dumb down and trivialize the culture."

In the Twin Cities, Clear Channel owns seven stations -- K102, KFAN, SCORE 690-AM, KOOL 108, Cities 97, and KTLK. Cities 97's music director, Thorn, says the Fox report is "hogwash": "First, corporate never tells us what to play, and second, we're playing it already." The station is currently having a ticket giveaway for Springsteen's upcoming concert here.

He says the title track is the most biting, but he doesn't see why it wouldn't get played on his station. "Yeah, it's critical of the administration: Yay! Most of the country is critical of the administration."

If any song could be deemed less-than-Clear-Channel-worthy, it might be the first single from the album, "Radio Nowhere."

"That song is kind of talking about how bad radio is," he said, "and it's it's getting a quarter of its play from Clear Channel."