Tuesday, 21 May 2019

How to buy a rock

“To try on a ring is to be reminded of one’s complicity. Beauty is often linked to violence in some way," writes J Jezewska Stevens in The Paris Review. Read on: 

There’s a self-contained atmosphere, a throwback sense of endurance, on West Forty-Seventh Street. It’s an attitude that fewer and fewer Midtown streets can claim; most of Manhattan seems to be converging on the sterile luxury of Hudson Yards. But on this modest one-block stretch, bookended by Fifth and Sixth, there are no experience spaces, whitewashed cafés, or glassy high-rises that double as malls. The storefronts are cramped, indifferent, tinged with elbow grease. The famous arcades, where narrow aisles maximize the number of jeweler’s booths, are brassy but austere—at least in comparison to the corporate mansions of Tiffany’s and Cartier. On Forty-Seventh, the whole street buzzes with the modest energy of the hustle, which only serves to heighten the intrigue of the diamonds on display.

When The Daily asked if I’d be interested in writing a piece of participatory journalism inspired by my story “Honeymoon,” I thought immediately of the Diamond District. My friends are getting engaged. They’re married with children. I find myself, like the newlywed narrator of that story (who happens to work behind a jewelry counter), at a stage of life when the idea of diamonds weighs heavily on the mind. I wondered if the District might strike me differently than it did a few years ago, when I used to pass through it on my old commute. I was working then as an analyst and coder on Forty-Eighth. The hours were demanding, and more than once I found myself walking through the District after midnight. I remember the naked mannequin hands, the ghostly grated windows. There was a sense of possibility in the abandoned displays.

Now, in the lunch-hour rush, in the first manifestation of spring, the street is anything but deserted. When I arrive, hawkers in gold chains and jeans hover in doorways. You buying? Selling? Buying? A weary shopper steadies herself against a length of scaffolding to swap a pair of lacy heels for a set of leopard-print flats, while a vendor directs a client around the corner for a meal. Kosher Deluxe! A woman in knee-high black boots, trailed by a beau in Burberry plaid, is immediately engulfed as she tries to cross the street. She’s ushered into Fantasy Diamonds on the corner of Sixth Ave.

The diamond trade has a long and venerable history in New York, and it hasn’t always been centered in Midtown. Until the twenties, the heart of the industry lay just north of Wall Street, on Maiden Lane. Additional outposts prospered on Canal, where a few noble holdouts can still be found today. At the fin de siècle, when financial institutions began to edge their way into the neighborhood, rents rose, and real estate developers broke ground on Forty-Seventh, erecting art deco lofts with the express intention of attracting diamond vendors. After the Nazi invasions of Belgium and Netherlands, a wave of refugees brought a fresh influx of jewelers and wholesalers to the city’s diamond community, which had by this time firmly consolidated in Midtown. Today, as then, the district remains largely Dutch, Belgian, Jewish, and Orthodox; on Shabbat, many of the booths are closed.

A stone’s origins are often elusive. Over 90 percent of diamonds imported to the United States now pass through Forty-Seventh, and as of 2003, according to a piece of Bush-era legislation known as the Kimberley Process, those stones are supposed to be conflict-free. But when a diamond changes hands eight to ten times on the journey from gem mine to display case, this is next to impossible to guarantee. Consumers seeking absolute reassurance are probably best off dealing in the District’s antiques or buying synthetics, though even this can lead to paradox: some argue that in places like the Congo—where entire communities depend on revenue from certified mines, diamond boycotts, or shifts to synthetic stones—this only makes things worse. To try on a ring is to be reminded of one’s complicity. Beauty is often linked to violence in some way.


I visit a few times. The first is on a Saturday. The half-empty arcades turn out to be a boon for a woman shopping alone. On this quiet afternoon, vendors are more likely to speak to an inauspicious customer like myself. As a saleswoman slips an empty band onto my ring finger and sets a grade-D stone into the crown, she leans forward to deliver a trade secret. “People aren’t going to pay attention to you,” she says, referring to the fact that I’ve arrived without an escort. “Don’t you care what they think. You try on your rings.” The advice comes so quickly, and so sincerely, that in my appreciation I almost forget to tell her I’m here as a writer, not a fianceé.

All the women in the arcade are going through the same exercise. We try on empty bands (the most popular choice is white gold) while salespeople use tweezers to settle princess stones into the crowns. Whereas retail outlets like Tiffany’s or Zales might host a greater variety of designs, the same quality stone will come at a substantial markup. (For other reasons to avoid retail chains, look no further than New York Magazine’s exposé on sexual harassment and gender discrimination at Zales, Kay, and other subsidiaries of Sterling Jewelers Inc.) In other words: what we’re really shopping for here are not rings, but the diamonds themselves. The jewels emerge from small manila envelopes, nestled into hole-punched tags that record the clarity, karat, and cut; in any given price range, as the size increases, the quality falls. An honest vendor will set two stones side-by-side on a white index card to reveal a hint of yellow, or offer a magnifying glass to point out a carbon inclusion.

This street-level pluck—vendors coaxing customers, customers bargaining for deals—is the most salient and immediate theater, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. There’s a whole ecosystem thriving above the arcades. Tucked above the shops are diamond setters and cutters and wholesalers, upscale boutiques on upper floors that show by appointment only. From the sidewalk, the entrance to the headquarters of GIA, the premier gem-grading agency, is a notable anomaly: bright lobby, security guards, gleaming elevator bank.

The density and diversity of tradesmen means that everything one needs to make a ring from scratch can be found on this one block. For Peter Germano, who has spent over forty years in the business, this is one of the best parts of both the District and his job. “I just walk down the street,” he says, if he needs a band or setting, or if a wholesaler calls him to assess a stone just arrived from Liberia. It’s casual, brisk, efficient; he can visit on his way for coffee. But beneath the breeziness of these negotiations lies a complex network. “It’s all about relationships,” Germano says. It strikes me that his no-nonsense affability serves him well on these errands—he’s easy to talk to, but he’s not a man with time to waste. When he was just starting out, he tells me, he used to pass a storefront whose display was nearly empty. “And I thought to myself, now that’s success.” The owner paid the premium for prime, street-level real estate only to eschew advertising to passersby, suggesting an indifference to operating costs that today makes Germano smile. “I thought, I want to be as successful as that.”

Germano, who now runs a ninth-floor boutique on the corner of Forty-Seventh and Fifth, also started out at street level (“the street”), though you “couldn’t pay him” to go back. He explains the etiology of the sort of hustle I noted there: rent is expensive. Storefronts trade at twenty to thirty thousand a month, and this puts serious pressure on the salespeople at the counter. Having secured a customer’s attention, everyone is trying to prevent a potential buyer from flipping to what is called a “be back,” someone who promises she’ll come back for a ring but doesn’t. “It’s a sales game,” Germano says, and he insists that the secret is as simple as honesty. Whatever his strategy, it seems to have worked. During his years behind a booth, he managed to curate a loyal clientele. Now he no longer needs to advertise via the arcades. The rent and the view are superior up here, where he depends on word of mouth, not walk-ins.

The claim to uniqueness is ubiquitous in the Diamond District: “He’s not your typical Forty-Seventh Street guy,” Germano’s assistant told me when I called to set up an interview, “you can talk to him.” Meanwhile, in the arcades, vendors are forever warning you against the tricks other sellers will try to pull. But the assistant’s assessment strikes me as sincere. Germano is casual but authoritative, with a disarming fuggedaboutit charisma. Looking around his office, it’s hard not to be taken in by the gallery of cards, pictures, and thank-you notes that fill his walls. Couples have sent photos of proposals on mountaintops and sea-sides. A card eases open to reveal the message: I love my rockstar earrings! (The signature, “J Lo,” is a joke.)

I ask Germano if, with gentrification putting the squeeze on small retailers throughout the five boroughs, he thinks the Diamond District will endure. “Of course,” he says. Then he pauses. There are some empty storefronts up for rent. “You never used to see that,” he says. But for the most part, the District has weathered the decline of retail fairly well. He hands me a thimble-size magnifying glass to detect an inclusion in an SI-2 stone—it’s hard to buy a diamond over the internet. “But online comments help,” he says. “That’s new.” And word of mouth on the web casts a wider net. “We get a lot of people from Ireland, Israel, and the UK,” he says.

When I wrote “Honeymoon,” I did not have the famous De Beers slogan—“A diamond is forever”—in mind. I was thinking about contingency and doubt; about how love, like faith, might be understood as a constant negotiation. I was thinking about how art, like any object of desire, changes depending on where and when we see it in the context of our own lives. I was wondering whether love, like art—or like the Catholic idea of divine grace—also exists as a function of time and setting and chance, or at least more so than we’d like to admit. And if there’s some truth to any of the above, if the matters of the heart are constantly in flux, then it seems to me one has to make the decision to stay in love again and again. It’s a process, rather than a discrete moment when rings are exchanged. Like all processes, it will eventually come to a stop, or else extend forever—in that sense, perhaps De Beers was not so far off. Anyway, we all exaggerate in love. But diamonds, too, I learn, are not without contingencies. They depend on the light, on their cut and luster, the tendency to retain smut. Germano steams the crown of a princess stone dimmed by the oily residue of fingerprints. I am surprised to learn that diamonds can even be repaired. “Of course,” he says.

The charm of the Diamond District, I think, is this: it’s alarmingly easy to talk. Amid the chaos, everyone is carving out a private conversation that feels secret, intimate. People here listen; they make you feel special. Back in the arcades, I see princess stones, oval stones, bands in rose and white gold. A saleswoman asks me how I shop for clothes. Do I look at how they’re made, the quality? Do I turn garments inside out to check the seams? I watch another sell a ring to a family of tourists laden with bags. The wife is debating, and they’re already late for a Broadway show. “As a friend, I’d take it,” the saleswoman says. As a friend! She’s not a friend, I think. Then it’s my turn at the counter, and I fall immediately under her spell. She’s always been a saleswoman, she tells me. She tells me a lot of things. Like any skilled fiction writer, she establishes authority by becoming more vulnerable herself: “Let me tell you something you’d never expect,” she says. Twenty years ago, she worked in cosmetics, and she was on her way to a job interview at Saks when someone stopped her right here on Forty-Seventh. He happened to be one half of the pair of brothers that owns the booth we’re standing at now. She points out the window, toward the street, to the setting of the serendipitous scene. “He asked me, You need a job? Can you believe it? Of course I need a job!” She’d been in the U.S. all of two weeks. “He says to me, I’m looking for someone like you.”

Let me tell you something you’d never expect: This isn’t my first time shopping for an engagement ring. When I was eleven, I went with my father to an Indianapolis mall to buy one for my mother. My parents have—and had—been married for many years. I remember we brought the ring home in a little velvet box. My mother has an academic’s sense of humor—she’s the kind of woman who wears plastic brontosaurus earrings to work. My parents hadn’t bought wedding rings until six years after they tied the knot, and even then only because my grandmother had dropped a bewildered hint to my aunt: “Is it a real marriage,” she’d asked, “if they don’t have rings?” She asked with the same concern she’d once directed toward my mother’s Ph.D. in biochemistry. “When will you have you learned enough that you can teach high school?”

I called my mom to ask what she felt when she unhinged that box to find such a belated, ostentatious gift, a sapphire on a white-gold band. It’s the most expensive item she’s ever owned. “At first,” she said, “when I opened it, I thought, it’s way too much. Too much for little old me.” She thought for a moment. “But then when I saw how excited your father was to be able to give me that gift, well …” She trailed off, and in the silence on the line, I was reminded that perhaps the best way to stay in love is to learn how to accept, to gracefully receive.

Monday, 20 May 2019

Latin, Hebrew … proto-Romance? New theory on Voynich manuscript

Researcher claims to have solved mystery of 15th-century text but others are sceptical

Some say it is a medieval medical manual written in abbreviated Latin and aimed at well-to-do women. Not true, say others: it was written in Hebrew by an Italian physician and clearly shows Jewish women having ritual baths.

Nonsense, others believe: the text was written in Old Turkish, in a poetic style. Or it may have origins in Old Cornish. Or in the Aztec language of Nahuatl, or in Manchu.

When it comes to the Voynich manuscript, a curious and apparently coded 15th-century document now held in the library of Yale University, perhaps the only thing on which academics, cryptographers and enthusiasts can agree is the depth of its mysteries. The beautifully illustrated text appears to have been written in cyphers representing a real language – but what does it mean?

Now a British academic has claimed the manuscript is a type of therapeutic reference book composed by nuns for Maria of Castile, queen of Aragon, in a lost language known as proto-Romance.

Researcher claims to have solved mystery of 15th-century text but others are sceptical

In a peer-reviewed paper published in the journal Romance Studies, Gerard Cheshire, a research associate at the University of Bristol, argues the manuscript is “a compendium of information on herbal remedies, therapeutic bathing and astrological readings” focusing on female physical and mental health, reproduction and parenting.

Rather than being written in code, he believes its language and writing system were commonplace at the time it was written, and he claims the document is the sole surviving text written in proto-Romance.

Though some believe the Voynich manuscript to be a hoax, its vellum has been carbon-dated to the early 15th century, and most scholars accept the text is contemporary. It is named after Wilfrid Voynich, a Polish book dealer who bought it in 1912, but much of the history of its ownership is unknown.

Although the meaning of the volume has tantalised experts since it first came to scholarly attention in the early 20th century – it reportedly eluded both Alan Turing and the cold war-era FBI – Cheshire says he unpicked its mysteries in just two weeks “using a combination of lateral thinking and ingenuity”.

Perhaps inevitably, however, Cheshire’s theory has been met with scepticism among medieval experts.

“Sorry folks, ‘proto-Romance language’ is not a thing,” tweeted Dr Lisa Fagin Davis, executive director of the Medieval Academy of America, of Cheshire’s paper. “This is just more aspirational, circular, self-fulfilling nonsense.”

Cheshire insists his work is anything but. “I experienced a series of eureka moments whilst deciphering the code, followed by a sense of disbelief and excitement when I realised the magnitude of the achievement, both in terms of its linguistic importance and the revelations about the origin and content of the manuscript,” he said.

The identification of Maria of Castile “took a lot of working out”, he told the Guardian by email. “But I had already solved the codex, so I applied lateral thinking and reasoning.”

He argues that the manuscript originated on Castello Aragonese, an island castle off Ischia, and that it was compiled by Dominican nuns as a source of reference for the female-dominated court run by Maria of Castile, the wife of King Alfonso V of Aragon. Maria’s great-niece, he notes in his paper, was Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII.

Cheshire claims the document includes images of Queen Maria and her court conducting trade negotiations while bathing. Italic annotations in the text may have been added by her.

Sceptics of the theory say such eureka moments are nothing new. Dr Kate Wiles, a medievalist and linguist and senior editor at History Today, said a new theory on the manuscript’s meaning happened “on a six-monthly basis at least … there have been at least two in the past year”.

She was not convinced by Cheshire’s theory. “It takes liberties with how we understand languages to work,” she said. “He is arguing for a language built of words drawn from lots of places and periods, but together they don’t create something that is convincing as a workable language.”

She added: “One of the reasons the Voynich manuscript is so appealing is because of languages like hieroglyphics and linear B, which were deciphered. But they didn’t come out of nowhere, they were decades in the making and drew on lots of different scholarly expertise. You can’t just have one person saying: ‘I’ve cracked it.’ You have got to have the field, on the whole, agreeing.”

Asked for his response to those who were unconvinced by his interpretation, Cheshire was bullish. “The journal paper has been blind peer-reviewed and verified by other scholars – that is standard confirmation in the scientific arena. There is no need to persuade anyone, as the solution will be used to study the manuscript by linguists and historians in due course.

“Furthermore, there is no ‘interpretation’ involved, as the alphabet, writing system and language have been fully expounded for others to consistently translate of any word, phrase or sentence.”

He is now inviting others to expand on his work and translate the manuscript in full. The mysteries of the Voynich manuscript have not been laid to rest quite yet.

(Source: The Guardian)

I spent thousands covering my body in tattoos during a bipolar mania episode – but I don’t regret it

Manic episodes can be dangerous, and I would never, ever recommend doing what I did. But I love the body confidence my new ink has given me

In April 2016, I started covering myself in tattoos. I have bipolar disorder, and I was at the start of a manic episode – something which often happens to me around this time of year. Bipolar disorder is categorised by two episodes: mania and depression. Each can last from weeks to months, and both can be just as debilitating.

I was experiencing something called hypomania – a lesser form of mania, but I still felt as though my mind was racing a mile a minute. Mania often includes symptoms such as feeling on top of the world, euphoric, even. However, there are some downsides – such as feeling quick to anger, being very irritable and snapping easily.

Acting impulsively, recklessly, having huge ideas that never quite pan out – such as writing books, applying for jobs, or spending a huge amount of money on something that you later come to regret, are other symptoms. It can also give you problems sleeping, and a constant feeling of adrenaline.

Some of Hattie Gladwell’s tattoos ( Hattie Gladwell )
That’s what I felt when I went into the tattoo shop. Adrenaline. The type you’d get when you reached the top of a super high roller coaster, ready to go down to the bottom. I’d already had three tattoos – but over the course of two months, I was covered in 26. I covered my legs, my stomach, my back, my neck and my arms. It was almost like an addiction, an addiction to the high and adrenaline I was feeling when the needle hit my skin.

It started when I made friends with a girl who was also covered in tattoos – I’d always thought she looked amazing but wasn’t sure if I could go through with that myself, dedicating a lifetime to ink on my body. I’d considered it, and there were times where I was tempted to head to the tattoo studio, but I always chickened out, thinking more rationally: would I regret this?

But when I was manic, I didn’t think about those things. I looked at my friend and thought, I want that. I was self-conscious and insecure, I’d always struggled with my body image, but I saw how people looked at her – they were interested in her, they would compliment her on her ink and she had, in turn, become more confident. I wanted that.

I remember heading into the studio in spring, and asking for a wolf to be tattooed on my leg. I had found the design on Pinterest, and I’d fallen in love with it. I was very happy with the finished piece. I felt immediately more confident – I’d always had a problem showing my legs due to being nicknamed “tree trunk legs” at school for my thick thighs, but this time I wanted to show them off. I was in love with that feeling.

I went back the next week and got the other leg tattooed. And a few days after, my thigh. It didn’t turn out great, I was quite unhappy with it, but even with this mishap, it didn’t stop me wanting more. It was like the feeling of ink sinking into my skin was making me high. I succumbed to the rush of it.

I would scour the internet daily for more and more designs – but as I got more I stopped doing so. Instead, I found an amazing tattoo artist who would regularly post her designs on Instagram, custom to those who wanted it – and I would get inked that way, with original works all over my body. This fed the mania even more, knowing I was covering my body with beautiful, original artwork.

By July 2016 I was covered. And I was happy with what I had done. This was a first for me – mania had often left me feeling negative. In other episodes I had written books which would go on to be rejected, pitched stories which hadn’t been thought through, and I would sign up to things like classes and go on reckless weekends away spending lots of money.

I did have one regret though: I had spent £3,000 of my savings. Savings which I had been building up for a long time. I’d lost it all on covering my body. This did get to me, because I couldn’t help but think if I had just been tattooed over time – and perhaps thought through some of the designs and costs a little more – I could have achieved the desired look while having money to spend on other meaningful things. This was a constant habit of mine during mania: spending a ridiculous amount of money and feeling guilty and ashamed afterwards.

But overall, I don’t regret what I did during that episode – I just know I should have thought it through more clearly, but when you are manic, nothing is clear. Everything in your head is just a big jumbled mess of ideas begging to come to life.

Because they were drawn for me and nobody else, I am more confident in my body. I love showing it off because I love displaying my art. And, in turn, I have become more confident with my size – having gone from never showing off my body to flaunting my ink during the warmer weather. I have grown more comfortable to accepting my shape, and loving who I am.

I do get stares from time to time – mainly from older people who wonder what I’ll look like when I’m older – but I’m happy with my ink and the way I look. Manic episodes can be dangerous, and I would never, ever recommend doing what I did – you may not be as lucky as to only regret the spending of the money.

But that episode, and my decisions to cover my body in ink, made me the self-loving and self-accepting person I am today.

(Source: Independent)

As an owner of multiple ovens, I know the perils of letting photographers into one’s kitchen

James Brokenshire has been feeling the heat over his four ovens – but at least they weren’t as disgracefully filthy as mine

You’ve got to be careful when being filmed in your kitchen. It’s very easy for people to find stuff in there to hate you for. I’ve been on the end of that, so shame on me for having a good old tut at James Brokenshire, who was revealingly photographed in his kitchen for a Sunday newspaper. That said, two double ovens is an awful lot of oven. I’ve got more than one oven myself. Not as many as the Brokenshires, but more than two. And that’s all I’m saying.

Let them eat cake: James Brokenshire and his two double ovens in an image from Twitter. Photograph: Twitter/@JBrokenshire
I have used my kitchen for filming on various projects. I did so wary of the consequences, invasion of privacy etc. But television involves the most horrendous amount of faff, not least the finding of locations. In the interests of avoiding an endless journey to someone else’s kitchen, it is so much easier to get the crew to come to me. Hang the consequences.

And the consequences have been grave. For a Panorama I made about Brexit I cooked for two MPs: Rosie Duffield (Labour, Canterbury, People’s Voter) and Andrew Percy (Conservative, Brigg and Goole, Leaver, Maydealer). I carefully crafted a Brexit-themed lunch, serving up a range of cheap jokes. There was Irish stew, a starter with red lines of red pepper paste piped over the plate and, for pudding, Eton mess.

And all viewers could say was that my oven was disgracefully filthy. I’m not on Twitter, but Rosie helped me out by fielding the abuse for me and passing it on.

In any case, with ovens, it’s not the number of them, it’s the price of the things. I am deeply ashamed of what I was conned into paying for my features galore. It’s all nonsense. Ovens just need to get hot, to a specified temperature, and then cool down. That’s all. Get me model numbers for the Brokenshires’ gear, and then I will properly sit in judgment on them.

(Source: The Guardian)

Nando’s and Asda chicken: Birds ‘stepped on and left convulsing and wounded in scenes of suffering and cannibalism’

Workers given extra training after secret cameras record ‘harrowing shots of painful abuse’

Workers on chicken farms supplying Nando’s, Asda and Lidl have been filmed leaving a bird convulsing after breaking its neck, stepping on the animals necks and throwing sick ones onto piles, footage from an animal rights group shows.

In grisly video taken by secret cameras, dead birds appeared to be left among the living, leading to cannibalism, while workers stepped on and kicked flocks in sheds.

Some suffered red, raw skin from feather loss and many were collapsed under their own weight, another video showed.

The “harrowing scenes of painful abuse” were shot in two separate investigations at farms run by one of the UK’s largest food businesses and endorsed by the Red Tractor scheme.

The company supplies the supermarkets and Nando’s restaurants with whole chickens and chicken products including ready meals and sliced meat.

Dozens of birds are seen in the film collapsed under the weight of their bodies, many flapping frantically in a desperate attempt to lift themselves up. The RSPCA said the condition results from chickens being selectively bred to put on weight unnaturally rapidly.

The videos appearing to show the workers kicking and stepping on birds were shot by animal-protection group Animal Equality in Northamptonshire between January and March after a tip-off about poor conditions.

The group said that after finding bin bags full of dead birds at one farm, the investigators installed a hidden camera.

The footage seems to show workers not only leaving dead or dying chickens convulsing, but also throwing any live ones unfit for the slaughterhouse onto a pile, where they were apparently left suffering for hours, unable to stand up, frantically flapping, the organisation said.

Weeks later, investigators from another group, Surge, said they saw birds with injuries, leg deformities and unnaturally large bodies, and numerous dead birds that appeared to have been left for longer than a day.

“There are also signs of injury, with one showing a large wound,” a spokesman said.

This chick was ‘gasping for breath’ as a result of being bred to grow too rapidly (Animal Equality)
The farms, Evenley, Pimlico and Helmdon, all rear chickens for Avara Foods, which says it is the UK’s sole supplier of chicken, turkey and duck, producing 4.5 million a week.

Animal Equality’s UK director, Toni Vernelli, said: “Headlines about American chlorinated chicken would have us believe British birds live a life of luxury but these harrowing scenes reveal the truth.

“Bred to grow so unnaturally large that their joints and hearts can’t cope, chickens on British farms suffer every minute of their lives.”

The group passed the footage to the RSPCA, Red Tractor and the government’s Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA).

Animal health and welfare is at the heart of Red Tractor standards
Red Tractor spokeswoman
Red Tractor labels require that operators check sheds at least once a day and remove any dead animals as soon as possible.

Dr Vernelli said chickens seen convulsing were likely to be dead but it was not certain, and the convulsions would have alarmed the flock. Breaking birds’ necks is a recommended way to kill any that are sick before going for slaughter, but she said birds that were lame and suffering should have been put out of their misery earlier.

In December The Independent revealed crippled turkeys were found at a factory farm in Lincolnshire supplying Asda, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s, run by the Faccenda Group, part of Avara.

Research from the RSPCA says supermarkets actively encourage consumers to buy chickens that have suffered in industrial-style systems.

A Red Tractor spokeswoman said: “Animal health and welfare is at the heart of Red Tractor standards.  As soon as we were made aware of alleged breaches to our standards, we launched an immediate, independent investigation.

“Red Tractor has conducted on-farm spot-checks. The Animal and Plant Health Agency also inspected the farms and no major issues were found. 

Our members take their responsibilities to animal welfare very seriously
British Retail Consortium
“The footage highlighted some issues in terms of Red Tractor standards and we required all personnel involved with the three farms to undergo additional training including the prompt identification of sick birds, bird euthanasia and behaviour around catching. This training has now been completed and verified by a vet.

“The farms are now subject to a strict programme of unannounced inspections.”

Avara Foods gave The Independent a statement saying: “We take our responsibilities for the birds in our care very seriously, and their health and welfare is of the utmost importance.

Many birds were ‘suffering from lameness’ (Animal Equality)
“We have closely examined the contents of this report to assess compliance against our procedures. Initial findings indicate that, for the farm involved, our requirement to remove any culled or fallen birds as soon as they are identified has not been followed.

“We will take all necessary action to ensure that this situation does not recur. Anyone found not meeting our standards will be subjected to comprehensive retraining and further steps taken if appropriate.”

A Nando’s spokesperson said: “We expect all our suppliers to operate to high standards and we are disappointed. We will be working closely with the supplier to get to the bottom of these allegations, ensuring immediate actions are taken to bring all their sites up to standard.”

Lidl referred to a British Retail Consortium statement that said: “Our members take their responsibilities to animal welfare very seriously.

“Any breaches to animal welfare are totally unacceptable and should be investigated immediately, with swift action taken to rectify any issues.”

We expect high standards and are disappointed
An Asda spokesman said: “We take animal welfare extremely seriously and are investigating with our suppliers,” and referred to the BRC statement.

A spokesperson for the RSPCA, which has prosecution powers, said: “We shared the concerns raised about welfare and our inspectors visited. There were problems with some of the birds’ legs in the footage but staff produced evidence that they had been under the care of a vet and had been receiving appropriate treatment.

“However, we have real concerns about the realities of intensive farming practices which see fast-growing birds bred to provide maximum meat in a short space of time, which can cause severe health problems and lead to suffering.”

An APHA spokesperson said: The local authority, as the appropriate enforcement agency, may initiate prosecution action for welfare offences. We do not comment on individual cases.

(Source: Independent)

One word: Bitch

I can tell who’s calling me from across the room by the pitch of their bitch. Fati goes up on the i so that it’s almost a shriek. Hieu gets a little gravelly, dark and full, bitch as precursor to some good gossip. Blaire says it flat, matter-of-fact, like a name. Franny says it like a bell, a sweet call to fellowship. I love my bitches. I love being bitched by them. It’s an insult we’ve spun into coin.

The femmes and queers I have known have saved my life. The deep wells of care from femmes; the ingenuity of queer love. Bitch is the passport to that nation. Or maybe it’s the national anthem, how we sing our love to each other. Maybe it’s our language.

When I am bitched by the homies, there is no threat on my life. There is no car following me as I hightail it home, bitch flung out the window, faggot close behind. There is no accusation like back in high school when bitch was a charge made by a fellow boy who could smell the girl in you, or a boy who loved/hated your girl-body or a boy whose only tongue was violence. I used to be scared of coming off bitch-made. You know: scary, sissy, punk, femme. All those words that I now wear as crowns lurked in the corners of boys’ mouths. I was terrified, trying to exact my walk and perfect a boy-tongue, scared someone would see through my act and spot the bitch in me.

I ran from bitch. I didn’t want to claim what they said about me. It wasn’t like nigga, a “bad word” I had felt at home in since I was small. On the porch with my granddad and his niggas, they spread that word among each other with love, it was a word that meant “all of us.” But bitch? Bitch was the femme streak I knew I had to hide. I loved being a bitch in private, always more at home in the bad-bitch lyrics of Trina and Lil’ Kim than the real-nigga poetics of Weezy. In my own little room with my own little boombox, my bitch strived, my body moved, knees bent, back arched, swinging an imaginary twenty-inch weave with no fuxs. I was the baddest bitch in the world. But only in private. Only a bitch by myself.

I can’t point to when it changed exactly. Outside of the theater of high school, I slowly started to play the role of myself. My circles became filled with women and queers of all kinds, real bitches who invited me into myself. I was puzzled at first, being called “girl” and “bitch” with no malice, finding a home in a word that had meant danger. Now, I stand firmly within my bitch-nigga body and it feels like I’ve always been here. How? This doesn’t feel like an act of reclaiming language, because when was this word mine? I ran from it, drowned in it, but later, by grace, was knighted by it. Is that reclamation? Black folks are not the inventors of nigga, but we are the ones who turned it into endearment. Faggot is not of queer making, but we can find honey in that rock. I don’t think I’ve ever reclaimed a lick of language, but I’ve made gardens out of my prisons. I’ve found community among those who have been marked, damned, and hunted. Together, we have made prayers out of their curses, spun love from what they spat at us.

Still, language is dangerous business. What is love to me is still a bruise to some. My friend Dominque would have my head if I called her the n-word. In a word like bitch, do I have any claim at all? I’ve seen the looks I get when I answer my phone and “Hey, bitch!” a friend right back. Who owns language? Does my man-shaped body have any hold on a word that is a violence thrown at women? Where do I get off using “bitch” to capture my love for my menfolk friends? This is the danger that I live for, the bad words with definitions forever in flux, words that show us how tonal and relational English can be. Bitch, in another man’s mouth, a knife. In mine, sugar. In mine, a knife if some stranger hears it. And here is where I make an intention: to never use bitch the way it’s been used against good bitches, to drain the poison from the wound until it’s just another door to the body, a door from me to you, my good bitch.

(Source: The Paris Review)

Sunday, 19 May 2019

LGBT school lessons protests spread nationwide

Schools across England have received letters opposing the teaching of relationships and sex education (RSE) and LGBT equality, the BBC has learned.

Protests started in Birmingham and letters, predominantly from conservative Muslims, have been sent to a number of schools elsewhere.

One campaigner said relationship lessons due to start in schools in 2020 "proselytise a homosexual way of life".

Supporters of the lessons said there was a "lot of misinformation".

Protesters are opposed to the teaching of LGBT equality in schools
Letters opposing the lessons have been sent to schools in Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Croydon, Ealing, Manchester, Northampton and Nottingham, BBC Newsnight has discovered.

Some have also been sent from Christian parents in Kent.

Mainly Muslim families have been protesting outside Anderton Park Primary School in Birmingham after pupils were given books featuring transgender children and gay families.

Protest leader Shakeel Afsar: "All we are concerned [about] is we are having our children come home with material that contradicts our moral values."

Another protester, Amir Ahmed, said: "It's not about gay lesbian rights and equality. This is purely about proselytising a homosexual way of life to children."

When asked if he believed children could be "recruited to be gay", Mr Ahmed said: "You can condition them to accept this as being a normal way of life and it makes the children more promiscuous as they grow older."

He added: "Whether they become gay or not, they can still enter into gay relationships.

"They want to convert you, they want to convert your morality and that's just wrong."

Anderton Park headteacher Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson said she had spoken with parents, but days later leaflets circulated accusing the school of "lying" and having a "gay ethos".

Protesters have insisted they are not homophobic, but the BBC has seen Whatsapp groups with large numbers of contributors in which some people use homophobic language.

Labour MP Wes Streeting, who is openly gay and co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims, said: "When you are standing alongside people talking about the proselytising of children, a homosexual agenda, promiscuity, I'm afraid you're homophobic."

Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra said there had been a lot of misinformation about the lessons
Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra said there had been a lot of misinformation about the lessons
Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, an imam from Leicester, said he was "disappointed" with the reaction of the protesters.

He said: "We really need to calm down and think very carefully, it is a very very sensitive topic."

Shaykh Mogra said Mr Ahmed's use of the word "proselytising" was very unfortunate, adding: "I don't believe there is an active effort on the part of LGBT communities to try and convert me and others to become gay people. It's something you don't choose into or opt out of.

"There is a lot of misinformation. It is not about promoting [homosexuality], it's about making our children aware.

"The whole driver for this is not the promotion of the LGBT agenda, it's about inclusivity and to ensure the bullying of such communities is ended."

Aaliyah Hussain said there is not a fight between religion and equality
Aaliyah Hussain, of Women Empowered against Racism, Injustice, Sexism and Extremism, said she had come across concerns in Bristol from parents and schools.

She said some children have been withdrawn from school and there are threats to remove others.

Ms Hussain said the "anxiety" is caused by the spread of information on social media, but it was "absolutely not the case" that this was division between religion and equality.

She said: "It's very dangerous to go down that road.

"This idea that it is religion versus equality is a misnomer because Muslims believe in equality and freedom as well."

The Department for Education said: "Pupils should be taught about the society in which they are growing up.

"These subjects are designed to foster respect for others and for difference, and educate pupils about healthy relationships."

Compulsory relationship and sex education lessons are due to start in all secondary schools in England from September 2020.

(Source: BBC)

Taiwan becomes first in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage

Supporters celebrate as legislation is passed giving gay couples right to marry

Taiwan has legalised same-sex marriage, the first of any Asian state, with the passage of legislation giving gay couples the right to marry.

Lawmakers on Friday comfortably passed part of a bill that would allow gay couples to enter into “exclusive permanent unions” and apply for marriage registration with government agencies.

Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, who campaigned on a platform of marriage equality, tweeted after the vote: “We took a big step towards true equality, and made Taiwan a better country.”

Thousands of gay rights supporters gathered in heavy rain outside parliament in the capital, Taipei, to watch a live broadcast of the proceedings. Supporters shouted “First in Asia!” after the article was passed.

“What we have achieved is not easy,” said Victoria Hsu, the founder and executive director of the Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights. “The law will not be 100% perfect, but this is a good start and this is a major step to end discrimination based on sexual orientation. Now the law says everyone should be treated equally no matter who you are, who you love.”

Two years ago, Hsu’s team represented the LGBT activist Chi Chia-wei in a lawsuit that led Taiwan’s constitutional court to rule that the denial of marriage rights to same-sex couples was unconstitutional.

Judges had given the government until next Friday to pass legislation. As the deadline approached, three bills were introduced for voting on on Friday, the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia.

Two other versions backed by conservatives avoided the word marriage and described same-sex partnerships as a “same-sex familial relationship” or “same-sex union”.

The government’s bill, the most progressive of the three, is the only one to offer some adoption rights to same-sex couples, allowing spouses to adopt the biological children of their partner. Same-sex couples cannot co-adopt. Lawmakers were still debating adoption rights on Friday.

Cindy Su, one of thousands of gay marriage supporters gathered outside parliament, told the crowd: “We are just a group of people who want to live well on this land and who love each other.”

Hsu said she and her partner had made plans to register as a married couple as soon as the law went into effect on 24 May, at the same office that rejected their attempt to marry five years ago. The department of civil affairs said that, as of Thursday, 151 couples had made appointments to register on that day.

Taiwan, whose annual gay pride parade is the largest in the region, has long been a hub for LGBT activism. Advocates called for other Asian nations to follow its lead.

“We hope this landmark vote will generate waves across Asia and offer a much-needed boost in the struggle for equality for LGBTI people in the region,” said Annie Huang, the acting director of Amnesty International Taiwan. “This is a moment to cherish and celebrate, but it has been a long and arduous campaign for Taiwan.”

In a referendum last year, citizens overwhelmingly voted in favour of restricting the definition of marriage in Taiwan’s civil code to between a man and a woman.

Tsai said earlier that she recognised the issue had divided “families, generations and even inside religious groups”. She defended the government’s bill as the only one to respect both the court judgment and the referendum.

Tsai’s ruling Democratic Progressive party (DPP) has a majority in parliament, occupying 68 of 113 seats. Instead of amending the existing civil code, the bill creates a new law under which same-sex marriages will be regulated.

The Coalition for the Happiness of our Next Generation said on Friday that it “regrets and condemns” the parliament’s decision, describing it as a “malicious misinterpretation” of the referendum result.

Others warned of a backlash. “The cabinet’s bill ignores the referendum results and that is unacceptable,” said Lai Shyh-bao of the opposition Kuomintang party, who proposed one of the bills backed by conservatives.

Activists said they would continue to push for more rights, such as recognition of transnational same-sex marriages, where one partner is from a country that does not recognise gay marriage.

“We will just enjoy this victory for today, and continue our fight tomorrow,” Hsu said.

(Source: The Guardian)

Only 80,000 koalas remain in the world, rendering them 'functionally extinct'

Australia's cutest marsupial is now "functionally extinct."

Experts at the Australian Koala Foundation announced on May 10 that they believe no more than 80,000 koalas are left on the continent.

That's not zero, of course, but functionally extinct means a species' population has declined so much that it no longer plays a significant role in the ecosystem (for example, as predators of other creatures). That's now true of koalas.

Deforestation, warmer weather, and droughts have all hampered the critters' ability to survive and thrive.
No more than 80,000 koalas remain in the wild, according to the Australian Koala Foundation. Anna Levan/Shutterstock
Koalas' severe decline is part of a larger trend: A growing body of evidence suggests the planet is amid a sixth mass extinction. A recent report from the United Nations found that up to 1 million species could disappear, many within decades, thanks to human activity.

About 80% of koalas' natural habitat has disappeared, and the animals are also threatened by dogs and cars, which kill 4,000 of the marsupials every year, according to the AKF.

Pinpointing exactly how many koalas are left in Australia is a challenge for scientists because of the continent's size and the koala's nomadic nature. But the scientific evidence points to one conclusion: Koala numbers are decreasing rapidly.

A 2011 study found that koala populations in inland regions of Queensland and New South Wales declined by up to 80% from 1995 to 2009 because of heat waves and droughts caused by climate change.

Five years later, another study estimated that koala populations across Australia had declined, on average, 24% over the past three generations and would continue to shrink over the next three. In Queensland, that study calculated, the percentage of koala population loss was 53%.

The cause of most of this decline stems directly from human activities. The Conversation reported that koalas' primary threat is habitat loss, since their eucalyptus forests are being destroyed by pollution, farming, urban development, and deforestation.

Climate change caused by rising carbon emissions is also playing a role in these creatures' extinction. According to the World Wildlife Fund, climate change has led to more heat waves, droughts, and forest fires that kill off koalas' preferred habitats.

And as koalas' habitats continue to shrink, their chances of recovering from extinction decrease.

What's more, koalas' eucalyptus diet ensures that the leaves at the top of the forest canopy get pruned, The Conversation reported. Without that leaf consumption, far less light would filter down to the forest floor, and that would have consequences for the flora and fauna close to the ground. The flammable eucalyptus canopy would also get thicker, raising the risk of more frequent and intense forest fires.

Can koalas be saved?
If a species' population falls below a certain threshold, the existing animals can't reproduce enough to create a subsequent generation. In certain cases, inbreeding occurs, which can threaten the health and viability of future generations.

According to The Conversation, some koala populations in Australia's urban areas are already suffering from excessive inbreeding.

The AKF has called for the Australian prime minister to "take the reins" by enacting the Koala Protection Act, which prohibits selling, killing, or possessing the species and would protect eucalyptus trees.
A zoo keeper offers eucalyptus leaves to a baby koala named Boonda at Wildlife World in Sydney, June 28, 2011. Tim Wimborne/Reuters

Koalas already have some protections — they're classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature — but roughly 80% of the remaining koala habitat in Australia is on privately owned land, meaning the land could be open for further development.

"I know the Australian public are concerned for the safety of koalas and are tired of seeing dead koalas on our roads. It is time for the government to respect the koala and protect its habitat," Deborah Tabart, the head of the AKF, said in a press release.

In 2011, the Australian senate completed an inquiry into the status, health, and sustainability of Australia's koala population. Though the conclusion was that koalas were in trouble, almost no legislation has been passed to save koala habitats since then.

The AKF's press release said that "no one has written anything to protect the Koala in the last six years of Government."

"Our tourist icon is ready to leave, and no, zoos are not the answer," Tabart added. "Saving their habitat is."

(Source: BI)

One word: Understand

On an international flight many years ago, I sat beside an old Eastern European man who spoke no English. He occupied the aisle seat and communicated with me by tapping my shoulder when the attendant came by, or by extending an open palm to pass my trash to her. We were eating a meal silently and, I thought, companionably in the near-dark, hunched over our trays, when he reached over and took my dinner roll. He didn’t make eye contact with me. He simply unwrapped my roll, took a bite, and then went on to eat the whole thing.

There was nothing ambiguous about it. The dinner roll was on my tray, and he’d already finished his own. Had he assumed I was done with my meal? But I’d had a fork in hand. At least half of my pasta remained.

It would be easy to riff on the idea that he took my bread because he was a man, or white, or because I was Asian and a woman. That it had to do with entitlement, with a pattern of taking. But that wouldn’t feel true, not in this case. It would feel only like the sort of thing I was supposed to say.

So what was I left with? Not much, I admit. The conclusion that other minds are impenetrable. That reasons are never fully known.


When someone says in conversation, “I understand,” I’ve never felt that they understood much. It’s my hunch that the people who say “I understand” to me, in fact, understand the least. If only they understood that they didn’t understand, we would all feel less alone. If you remove the letter s from the word understand, you can rearrange the letters to spell the word redundant. One small slash of the pen, and you reveal that the whole word is useless.


The problem is that people like to express understanding of common life events. It makes sense; birth and death are universal, illness, evolving and deteriorating love, parenthood are nearly so. We all have some knowledge of these subjects. We want others to know that we also know. Human connection is the point of life.


The birth of my son, not to speak of the recovery afterward, was so difficult for me that for nearly a year after, memories of the two-day labor would continue to flash through my mind, unbidden, briefly blacking out my desire to live. It wasn’t just that I was forced to confront an elemental pain—the anesthesiologist placed an epidural in my spine three separate times, but it brought no relief—or that without repeated interventions of modern medicine, both my son and I likely would have died. It had something to do with living on that thin, pulsing edge for hour after hour and feeling that I was about to, even meant to, die. I have not really spoken about this with anyone, not other mothers, not my closest friends. Although I don’t think of myself as someone who is easily harmed by speech, I am afraid of hearing two simple words. If, at the hospital, my husband had told me that he understood, he would have torn our relationship in two. Instead, he cried.

This is where people misstep: they express understanding of a specific, private experience you have not yet been able to sufficiently describe—an experience you yourself may not yet understand. I recall watching an art teacher correct an abstract painting of mine, painting over a section of detailed work with his large, white brush.


Recently, at the neighborhood playground, my son was scooping up bark in his hands and adding it to the growing pile on the bottom of the slide, an activity that gives him a sense of accomplishment, which in turn gives me a thrill. How easy it is for him to feel he’s acted upon the world.

A girl of three or four approached him and said something, and when he ignored her, she came up to me. She spoke too softly and had the loose enunciation of young children—in which they approximate words more than they hit them—so I said, “Excuse me?”

She mistook my confusion. Her eyes were huge and sorrowful. “I don’t speak your language,” she said. She continued to look at me, her gaze very direct in a way I liked.

Laughing, I said, “But you do.”

We quickly cleared up the matter. She wanted to go down the slide. She found the idea of hitting a pile of bark to be unacceptable. I swept the bark off the slide, my son cried, and then we all continued on with our lives.

Remembering it later, I marveled at the complexity of her thought process. Our neighborhood is predominantly Latino. Earlier I’d heard her speaking Spanish to her older sister, but the little girl’s attempts to communicate with me had been in English from the outset. When she thought I hadn’t understood her, she assumed I spoke a third language, one she could not access. At what age do we grasp the existence of whole worlds in other people’s minds? At what age do we grasp the notion of barriers?


In Mandarin Chinese, the commonly used terms dong (懂), mingbai (明白), liaojie (了解), and lijie (理解) can all be translated to the English “understand,” though which term you use is related to tone, context, familiarity, and abstractness. The breakdown of the terms can be illuminating. For example, mingbai is composed of the words ming, “bright” or “clear,” and bai, “white,” and conjures a sense of clarity. The written character for dong contains the radical, or written component, that means “heart”—often found in words that deal with feelings and thoughts. Lijie and liaojie both contain the word jie, “untie.” And the written character for jie (解) unfolds further. If you start at the upper right and work clockwise, you can identify the pictographs 刀 (knife), 牛 (ox), and 角 (horn); the word is said to have originated from “cut off the ox’s horn”—to dissect or open up.

In English, the word understand itself resists easy understanding. Its opacity is interesting, too. Stand under? When I stand under a bridge, I have no particular feelings or insights, except the vague sense that something large is looming over me, blocking my view of the sky. Romeo stands under Juliet’s balcony, Cyrano and Christian under Roxane’s, and a prince far below Rapunzel’s window. Let’s say they at least want to understand the person above them. But doesn’t their positioning—under, rather than face-to-face—make us question whether the under-stander in fact understands anything at all?


“Tunnel!” my son shouts. This word is pronounced “nunno” and must be exclaimed rather than spoken. A block and a half from our house, there is an underpass. Above it are train tracks. On walks, my son likes to linger here, in the shade of the concrete overhang. I try to hurry him along; pigeons have roosted along the top edges of the abutments, and the sidewalk beneath them is a scramble of feathers and bird shit. I have stumbled upon dismembered birds—the work of raccoons or feral cats. But my son, he likes it here. Maybe children are good at under-standing. He seems to know something about this spot that I do not.


The etymologist Anatoly Liberman posits that the Old English understandan is a blend of the synonyms forstandan, “stand in front of,” and undergetan, from whose root the modern concept of “getting someone” still lingers. If we give up our preoccupation with the specific preposition “under,” we are left with this fuzzy notion: I stand near you. I am close to you.

But sometimes I say, “I understand,” and what I mean is, “Please stop talking to me.” Usually the person doing the talking is saying the same thing, over and over, in a hundred different ways, and I am trying to signal receipt—I’ve got it, you have handed it over to me—so that the onslaught will stop. But often it does not stop. My mother is telling me she’s unhappy; doctors won’t listen, she has a hard time walking, her houseplants are failing to thrive. An in-law describes aging. The details are in flux, but the fear is constant. The conversations loop and replay. Everyone is saying, “Hear this. Hear me.” But I just say, “I understand.” It’s a way of walking away, of adding distance while still standing in the same exact place. Maybe I don’t want to understand. Maybe I suspect a gutting awaits me at the end of that road. Or maybe, as we age, the desire to understand fades a little, while the need to be understood grows larger and ever more pressing.

(Source: The Paris Review)

Saturday, 18 May 2019

Robes of Buddhist monks

My latest on the robes of the Buddhist monks on the occasion of Buddha Purnima in today's Kannada Prabha newspaper. Here's the link:

The village where scarecrows help keep the community alive

In the tiny village of Nagoro, deep in the mountains of Tokushima Prefecture, western Japan, the wind howls down a deserted street where not a living soul is to be seen.

Yet the street appears busy, dotted with human-like figures. Outnumbering people 10 to one, these life-size dolls are the work of one woman, who in a bid to counter the emptiness and loneliness felt in Nagoro, a village decimated by depopulation, has been creating a community of stuffed companions.

Nagoro, around 550 kilometers southwest of Tokyo, has become known as the valley of dolls after local resident Tsukimi Ayano began placing scarecrows on the street to inject some life into her depopulated area.

“Only 27 people live in this village but the number of scarecrows is tenfold, like 270,” the 69-year-old doll maker says.

Tsukimi Ayano dances among some of her dolls displayed in a local school. | AFP-JIJI
It started 16 years ago when the dexterous Ayano made a scarecrow and dressed it in her father’s clothes to prevent birds eating the seeds she had planted in her garden.

“A worker who saw it in the garden thought it really was my father and said hello to it. It was funny,” recalls Ayano.

Since then, Ayano has not stopped creating the life-size dolls. Each is made with wooden sticks, clothed bodies stuffed with newspapers, hands and faces detailed by stitching in stretch fabrics, and heads topped with knitting wool for hair. To give the dolls life, she applies pink color to their lips and cheeks with a make-up brush. Ayano says it only takes three days to make one of the adult-sized dolls that are now scattered all around the village.

At the local school, she has placed 12 colorful child-sized dolls at desks, positioned poring over their books as if taking part in a class. The school closed seven years ago as there was no one left to teach.

“Now there are no children,” she says sadly. “The youngest person here is 55 years old.”

Tsukimi Ayano, a resident of Nagoro in Tokushima Prefecture, makes the head of a life-size doll, which she will add to the approximately 270 others displayed in her village. | AFP-JIJI

Down the street, a family of scarecrows sit on a bench in front of an abandoned grocery shop, while another, dressed as an old farmer, window-shops next door. Near the bus stop, a group of of figures appears to be gathering as father doll pulls a cart full of children.

While never humming with people, the Nagoro that Ayano remembers was once a well-to-do place with some 300 residents and laborers supported by the forestry industry and dam construction work.

“People gradually left. … It’s lonely now,” she says.

Nagoro’s plight is replicated across Japan, as the world’s third-largest economy battles a declining population, low birth rate and high life expectancy. The country is on the verge of becoming the first “ultra-aged” country in the world, meaning that 28 percent of people are aged 65 or above.

Tsukimi Ayano’s life-size dolls sit by a roadside to welcome passesby in Nagoro in Tokushima Prefecture. | AFP-JIJI

The latest government report shows that 27.7 percent of a population of 127 million (one in four people) are aged 65 or older and the figure is expected to jump to 37.7 percent by 2050. According to experts, around 40 percent of Japan’s 1,700 municipalities are defined as “depopulated.”

After World War II, when forestry and agriculture were the main economic drivers, many Japanese lived in rural villages. But young people started to leave for Tokyo in the 1960s, says Takumi Fujinami, an economist at the Japan Research Institute.

“The economy was booming in Tokyo and industrial areas at that time. They were the only places people could earn money, so a lot of young people moved there,” Fujinami says.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pledged to revive regions outside Tokyo by pumping in tens of billions of yen, but this is not enough to stop young people from leaving their hometowns to work in Tokyo.

“In order to combat depopulation, we need people moving into depopulated areas. But recovering the population is extremely difficult,” he says. “Instead, it’s important to increase income or improve working conditions for young people in rural areas.”

Life-size dolls look on from a bus stop in the tiny village of Nagoro, Tokushima Prefecture. | AFP-JIJI

As an example of conditions, he mentions that companies in rural areas tend to have fewer holidays than those in Tokyo.

“We need to create communities where young people can make a long-term living,” Fujinami says, adding that subsidizing them to move in is not enough.

While there is little evidence of citizens returning to Nagoro, Ayano’s dolls have attracted visitors from as far afield as the U.S. and France.

“Before I started making scarecrows, nobody stopped by. Now many people visit here. I hope Nagoro will become lively again and many people come here for sightseeing,” she says. “I don’t know what Nagoro will look like in 10 or 20 years … but I’ll keep on making dolls.”

(Source: JT)

As PhD season beckons graduate students, this novel is a graphic reminder of the hell of academia

Tiphaine Rivière’s ‘Notes On A Thesis’, translated from the French by Francesca Barrie, is a reminder of all that can go wrong, and probably will.

The post-graduate admission season is upon many college graduates once again, as millions of hopefuls across the world – and India – wait with bated breath for their acceptance letters to PhD programmes and graduate school, while others get ready to embark on their research stints. For students looking for a sneak preview of what might – and the operative word is “might” – lie in store, there is no better time to pick up Tiphaine Rivière’s 2016 graphic novel, Notes On a Thesis, a no-holds-barred case study of the modern PhD student’s journey.

It tells the story of 20-something Jeanne Dargan, the embodiment of impostor syndrome –a persistent mental roadblock for some students which causes them to disbelieve or downplay their achievements. The text opens with an incredibly insightful scene of the schoolteacher’s reaction to a professor’s response to her PhD thesis proposal. “Fed up” of her unrewarding job, she is over the moon when he offers to be her academic supervisor. After celebrating for all of about 30 seconds, she asks her partner if he minds “checking the email” in case “someone’s pranking [her]”. He confirms the news, and the celebrations continue.

‘No dream job’
Jeanne’s reaction to the news is fascinating – her immediate instinct is to second-guess her achievement. This is just the first of Rivière’s many insights into the mind of the self-doubting, first-time academic. More broadly, her narrative is a humorous dissection of the idiosyncrasies, apathies, and double-standards that plague academia and its machinery.

Rivière’s text is a masterful exposé of the sad state of modern academia. She uses self-deprecating humour (the favourite of millennials everywhere) and piercing irony to expose its thankless and isolating nature. She also reveals the colossal gap between students’ expectations of entering academia, and its tiresome reality. For Jeanne, what started as a passion project quickly becomes the bane of her existence. This text, as if waving its arms and shaking the reader’s shoulders, screams that in reality, “a PhD is no dream job”.

While the graphic novel has been translated from French to English, the translator, Francesca Barrie, retains the sharp wit that is characteristic of French voices. Indeed, it is difficult to tell it is a translated work at all. At the same time, because this is a graphic novel, Barrie faces the challenge of fitting each translated rendering within the constraints of the pre-existing speech bubbles. Even so, Barrie delivers superbly, and the dialogue feels contemporary, and rolls off the tongue.

Indeed, Barrie does readers everywhere a favour with her translation; this is a work of fiction all college libraries will gain tremendous value from. Her translations perfectly complement Rivière’s visuals, which are rooted in iconic French landmarks.

A morbid refrain
Jeanne’s particular case of impostor syndrome is followed by an almost irrational urge to throw all her weight behind the project, perhaps inspired by the author’s real-life experience of writing her own PhD thesis in three years. Yet, the novel is so much more than an autobiographical chronicling of a thesis-writing journey. Rivière undercuts the text by illustrating the dangerous streak of manic perfectionism in young researchers today, which gives rise to deep anxiety and depression. She critiques this idea of the modern academic subject being programmed to robotically soldier on past each deadline, until they snap.

Jeanne’s “not a day more” spiel, right on cue at the end of almost each section, serves as a morbid refrain that bookends this obsession. Even though the text is a scathing critique of academia and its people, it is not only empathetic towards Jeanne, but also towards figures like professors and the people in charge of funding, for they have their own constraints. Similarly, it shows how professors lose sight of their priorities after achieving success in their field.

The novel comes to life with the rich visual detail Rivière injects into every page with composites of various forms, like Jeanne’s notes and schedules, screenshots of emails with professors, scans of student IDs, and of course, various types of bureaucratic paperwork littered throughout. The illustrations are made in an easy-breezy, cartoony style, and the characters’ expressions are punchy and larger-than-life.

The devil is really in the details with this novel. Each page is laid out uniquely and given a distinct visual style. The backgrounds allow the characters to pop, as they are often solid colours, or feature monochromatic, fuzzily drawn details. This creates visual depth in the panels and anchors the characters in the foreground. The drawings are simple, yet animate both the body and mind of each character, coasting the eye along the page.

As the narrative gets darker in theme and plot, the colour scheme follows, with the muted yellows being replaced with darker shades of blue in the second half. The striking visual metaphors capture Rivière’s unique understanding of the world of academia, and force the reader to stop and reflect. In fact, the amount of reflection Jeanne does almost lifts off and out of the page, forcing the reader to introspect as well.

Between the lines
Rivière’s linework and spacework push the form and elevate Notes On A Thesis above your average graphic novel. Traditional rectangular panels are dissected, switched out for circular ones, or sometimes ditched altogether. She also uses gutters in ingenuous ways for us to read between the lines.

The way Rivière uses space in this text heightens the reader’s understanding of Jeanne’s interiority. For example, the reader feels like they are sitting alongside Jeanne in a scene where she crouches in a corner with her thoughts. Both the reader and Jeanne become small as the room suddenly grows in size, now occupying the entire page.

Her final paper presentation is represented as a maniacal swimming session where she is literally whirling through words and gasping to come up for air. The author also takes us through each “hurdle” of the highly exclusive academic fortress that is the BNF, the national library of France, “a second home for all Parisian PhD students”. This is a microcosm of academia itself, and its illustration emphasises its exclusionary nature.

So intimidated is Jeanne by the students in her first lecture that they are represented as tigers. They transform into kittens in the following panel only after a student asks an intellectually low-stakes question about the nature of their assessment, as Jeanne realises “they’re just babies after all”. Rivière also captures the sense of inadequacy fuelled by painful small talk between colleagues around research topics. Such people literally eat up her speech bubbles while bombarding her with theirs.

It’s so bad that Jeanne literally holds up a mask to converse with a peer, while putting a gun in her mouth behind it. While she borrows book after reference book, she gets little work done. Her initial drive is no match for the temptation of procrastination. This is embodied by the visual representation of her thesis, drawn as a warped set of buildings, which later take on a monstrous, kraken-like form.

For the students, the drive to succeed literally changes them forever, and is a kind of unique trauma inflicted on their bodies, as well as their brains. The first PhD students the reader meets are overworked and feel purposeless. One student is pictured visiting a shrink, because they “feel like a fraud”, yet another nod to impostor syndrome. The more seasoned students look disturbing. Overcome with physical and mental fatigue, they look like the undead.

Their resignation is indicated by speech bubbles that drip downwards like melted wax, as if they will fall off the page. At various points in the text, we see Jeanne’s ID from over the years. The image of her in her final year resembles the after picture of a serious drug addict.

Through the point-of-view shifts in the text, Rivière demonstrates the often divergent concerns and experiences of the side characters relative to Jeanne. These uninterested professors, lazy doctoral officers, and oblivious loved ones curb and curtail the passion of young researchers. They ensure that the PhD quest is a maddening one, and Jeanne is discouraged by them time and time again. Rivière uses these characters to vividly frame the unglamorous and thankless portrayal of the path to academia.

For student readers, the actions of these characters may feel so familiar at times that they may just invoke the image of their real-life counterpart. For example, we all know a Pauline, Karpov’s teaching assistant, a teacher’s pet who make overbearing jokes with the professor and feel that exam grades give a “good idea” of one’s “true intelligence”.

Advisor from hell
Krapov, Jeanne’s supervisor, represents the indifferent, problematic academic more interested in securing grants than listening to a student’s ideas. Despite being a visionary on Kafka, he has hardly any interest in Jeanne’s work. He offers her some generic improvised remarks in their first meeting, and essentially, no feedback: “It would be wrong to constrain you with limiting directives at this point”.

This scene is humorous due to the dramatic irony Rivière created by the shift in points-of-view with Krapov and Jeanne’s thought bubbles. It also exposes an archetype of academia – the bad advisor. This is someone who will not help you develop your thinking at all. Such critically absent advisors leave the burden of a good thesis solely on the shoulder of the student, adding to their woes. This novel navigates these tensions with its ironic moments, like the one where Jeanne is drawn as a puppy crying for Karpov’s attention.

For anyone undertaking an intensive academic project, Notes On A Thesis should be required reading. It is a first-of-its-kind look into the deep personal and emotional toll of undertaking an academic endeavour like the PhD dissertation. At the same time, the themes will be familiar to all, for each of us has been Jeanne at some point in life – plagued by self-doubt, slaughtered by deadlines, hounded with questions by loved ones who don’t understand, and crushed under the massive weight of uncertainty.

Rivière leaves the novel darkly open-ended, leaving the reader to deal with the political apathy located in newly issued funding cuts and to dream about “what’s next” in their own life. Even though Jeanne completes the thesis, the historical figures of Franz Kafka and Arthur Schopenhauer ensure that the reader does not interpret the ending as hopeful.

We are not left with an introspective notion or a world brimming with possibilities, but an image of the latter as an uncaring void forever implicated in the dangerous phenomenon running through it: the fight for one’s passion, the pressure to always have a plan, and the bane of answering the question: “What’s next?” – all of them sentiments in which Indian readers will definitely see shades of their own experience.

Notes On A Thesis, Tiphaine Rivière, translated by Francesca Barrie, Jonathan Cape, London.
(Source: Scroll)

Objects of despair: Drones

There was a big magazine story several years ago—I don’t remember where—about drone pilots who worked at an air force base in Nevada’s desert. The pilots spent their days in a windowless control room at this complex, which was some distance outside of Las Vegas, operating drones in Iraq—or maybe it was Afghanistan. I can’t seem to remember any of the details precisely. At the time, drones were still novel, and the central thrust of the article seemed to be the ethically troublesome fact that a strike could be enacted from a distance of 7,500 miles. One detail I remember clearly was that the base was deliberately remote, so that the pilots, after their shifts were over, were forced to drive several hours back to civilization. Whoever was in charge decided that humans who had been at war should not be allowed to simply zip home and eat dinner with their families, or grab drinks with friends. They needed time alone in their cars to decompress and segue back into ordinary life, to transform from soldiers into civilians.

After reading this article, I tried to write a short story about a drone pilot who worked at this base. The story took place entirely during his drive home, and was largely interior, unfolding in the character’s mind. It was the kind of premise that interested me at the time. I envisioned a claustrophobic moral drama unfolding against the desert landscape as the car hummed across the interminable highway and the sun went down, turning the mountains the color of blood. But in the end, I couldn’t finish the piece. I could not imagine myself into the pilot’s head. Had he truly been at war? Or had he spent the afternoon in a Naugahyde recliner, pressing buttons?


This is the enduring question of foreign policy in the age of the drone: Are we at war? A strike kills six civilians in Yemen. The headline scrolls across the ticker on an airport flatscreen, appears on a news app amid the noonday quiet in a corporate office park. There is little or no context, little or no commentary. Outside, the sky is a clear and endless blue. The drone embodies the remoteness of modern warfare, but more than that, its thoughtlessness. It is the symbol of wars that are without leaders, of conflicts so diffuse and underreported they seem to have no face, no soul. Drone is a type of bee that is believed to be entirely mindless. It also describes the monotonous hum that machines make—or humans, when they are speaking like machines. Both meanings reflect our era of perpetual war, which is so unvaried and automatic that it can transition seamlessly from one presidential administration to the next, radically different one. (As the bumper sticker on my neighbor’s car puts it: AMERICAN FOREIGN POLICY DRONES ON.) At the time, I thought my failure to write the story was due to an epistemological problem—that I, a civilian, could not understand the psychological demands of war. But the problem was actually ontological. I was looking for consciousness in the byways of bureaucracy, searching for thought and conviction where there was none.

Drones, of course, serve many other purposes besides strikes. They are used for mapping, farming, and surveillance. Children are often given drones as toys, which is strange. Parents who would never dream of giving their child a toy gun or military figurines allow them to play with drones. We insist that the toys are not modeled after the weapons, even though they share a name. Children are not dropping bombs; they are filming, exploring, collecting information. But this is merely doubling down on the rhetoric of contemporary warfare—we are not killing, we are policing, mediating, surveilling. The myth of American exceptionalism has always relied on conflating war with the more mundane work of regulation and monitoring; it’s only recently that our technology has caught up to our dogma.

News footage is increasingly shot by drones. In fact, the machines are so ubiquitous on major networks that it’s easy to forget how recently they appeared. I can still remember when CNN first acquired one, on the fiftieth anniversary of the civil rights march in Selma—mostly because Jon Stewart memorably satirized their obsession with the gizmo. Throughout the anniversary coverage, the reporters offered very little commentary on the march’s historic significance. Instead, they kept gushing about the drone, cutting to the drone, showing endless aerial shots of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, as though perspective could substitute for insight. There was a certain irony to the fact that these antics appeared on CNN, a network that claims, more than others, to be impartial, and which Stewart himself frequently criticized for its lack of substantive analysis. In mocking the drone, he was making a joke about objectivity—the idea that news anchors, if armed with enough data, could soar above partisan conflicts and assume a moral authority. In reality, all they could offer was a bird’s-eye view.

In the future, I think all news footage will be shot by drones, and will unfold in total silence. There is already one network of this kind in Europe. It features footage from different locations around the world, on rotation. There is no commentary, no pundits, only a small box in the corner providing the location and the date. My sister, who lives in Albania, had it on one afternoon when I was visiting her. “I find it so soothing,” she said, then left me in front of the television while she put her children down for a nap. I sat there for almost an hour, watching aerial shots of protests in Romania and floods in Southern California and crowds gathered outside the Vatican, waiting for an appearance by the Pope. It was soothing. There is something sublime and hypnotic about seeing the earth from above. Before drones, satellites and helicopters provided such views, but this God-like perspective was never so abundant, nor accompanied by such elegant silence. As I sat there, I fell into a kind of trance, such that the images began to seem removed not only spatially but temporally. At some point, I understood that I was in the future, long after our planet had been obliterated, watching scenes that had taken place many centuries in the past; I was watching the final dramas of a fallen civilization.

What I was experiencing was delusion. It was the kind of hallucination induced by acid trips, madness, and extreme sleep deprivation, in which a person often feels that he is floating above his own body, looking down on it from above. Charles Lindbergh experienced something like this during his flight across the Atlantic, after remaining awake for over thirty hours. At one point, he felt as though his consciousness had become completely untethered. “For immeasurable periods,” he wrote, “I seemed divorced from my body as though I were an awareness, spreading through space, over the earth and into the heavens, unhampered by time and substance, free from the gravitation that binds men to heavy human problems of the world.” This is an account of human consciousness leaving a body, leaving a plane. It is an account of a man becoming a drone.

Drones satisfy our desire for transcendence. They extend our senses beyond their normal range. They tempt us to believe that we can rise above the particulars of our historic situation and perhaps even abandon the limits of subjective consciousness. For this reason, the drone has long been linked in my mind with the algorithm, another mindless technology that ascends to a scale unfathomable to humans—the petabyte, the exabyte—allowing us to obtain what we believe to be divine objectivity. Literalists will protest that unlike algorithms, drones are not truly thoughtless—there is still a human controlling them, albeit remotely. But this is merely a provisional technicality that cannot survive long. Last year, Google partnered with the Pentagon to create machine-learning algorithms that would aid drones in counterterrorist operations. The algorithms were built to scan video footage taken by drones and identify targets for strikes, making decisions that are currently made by pilots. Critics of the technology argued that it would lead to fully autonomous, weaponized AI. In the end, thousands of Google employees signed a letter protesting the collaboration, which resulted in the contract getting cancelled.

This kind of collective action necessarily calls upon the intense subjectivity of human interests. It requires waking from an automatic existence and attempting, as Hannah Arendt put it, “to think what we are doing.” Modern warfare, like all modern enterprise, is increasingly subject to the dominant myth of the information age: that insight and moral clarity will appear—like some emergent property—from the deluge of data we have collected. But thought does not arise from information any more than consciousness arises from the complexity of a computer. There is no ghost hiding within the gears—the homunculus piloting the machine is us.

(Source: The Paris Review)