Wednesday, 30 December 2009

On the road (3)

Where you from? asked the lady in charge of the internet at the bus station in Itajaí. When I told her she said that she was familiar with my accent, she had heard it from missionaries.

How do I get to the Niemeyer museum? The lady at the tourist information in Curitiba made it sound like a long and rather complicated undertaking. I decided to walk into the direction she had indicated. At the Praça Tiradentes (surrounded by quite some signs advertising the services of dentists) I was supposed to find a city sightseeing bus but it had just left and so I asked an elderly man how far the Niemeyer Museum was? On foot about fifteen minutes from here, he said, at a leisurely pace. I knew by then that this probably meant a good thirty minutes at a rather brisk pace - and I was right. Unfortunately, the Niemeyer Museum happened to be closed from 25 December to 31 December!?

Standing in front of the museum, I could see the sightseeing bus speeding by - I have so far never seen a sightseeing bus at such speed, the tourists on the open top deck appeared to desperately cling to their seats, I was glad I had not joined them.

A shopping mall near the Praça Tiradentes had toilets for men, women, and families.

The back pocket buttons of my pants are loose, my shoes are falling apart. I walk into a tailor shop, the lady in there puts herself immediately to work and asks for one real after she´s done ("para um cafezinho", she says). The shoemaker thinks that my shoes were made in Italy. Zimbabwe, I tell him. Good work, he comments. We chat for another couple of minutes. He says they will be ready by two o`clock. He didn´t recognise me when I showed up at twenty past two but the shoes were ready.

Curitiba also meant: a quarter pounder at McDonalds, a Subway sandwich, Chinese food, sushi (twice), mousse de maracuja in the Confeitaria Neuchatel (the waiter said it was a complicated story how the confeitaria got its name; the waitress said, well, the owner had once been to Neuchâtel) and visits to bookstores. Books are expensive in Brazil, in one store they had a table with special offers for 9.90. I leafed through some of them, on the front page of one the original price was mentioned as 5.90. I asked whether it cost 5.90 ot 9.90. Everything on that table is 9.90, the lady said. I did not buy it.

Monday, 28 December 2009

On the road (2)

I am aware that quite some men seem to love making contact in public toilets at train and bus stations yet it eludes me what kind of kick these guys at the bus stations in Lages and Florianópolis expected by trying to get a glimpse of my dick while I was standing at the urinal trying (unsucessfully, of course) to pee ...

When I got to the beach in Bombinhas, I suffered a shock: I had so far seen photos of over-crowded beaches but had never experienced such a scene in reality where one could hardly put one foot in front of the other. I decided to leave the place immediately that however was not an easy task for buses on Christmas day do not run frequently from Bombinhas to Itapema and when they eventually run then they move a few meters every couple of minutes. Once in Itapema I found the hotels considerably more expensive than in Florianópolis and decided to move on to Itajaí which, I was told, was not a tourist place. The first night my room cost 85 Reais, the second 119 Reais. The reason given was "temporada alta".

The next day, I went to see the famous Balneario Camborio. The man in his fifties sitting next to me on the bus introduced himself by saying that he worked as a mechanic at Brinks, a company originally from Chicago, he explained (he was suprised that "Brinkis", as he pronounced it, was unknown to me), and showed me his card to prove it. Where should I get off for the beach? I asked. He would show me where, he said. And so together we got off. He mentioned that he lived around the corner. When we reached his home, a five story apartment block, he asked if I wanted to come up for a juice? Was he gay? I wondered. Was this a trap? I was just about to excuse myself when he rang the bell, stepped back to the pavement and conversed with a woman on the second floor. Your wife? I asked. He nodded. I followed him up to the second floor where I was introduced to Sueli, who hailed from Mato Grosso and told me to be careful in the border region of Paraguay, and their two-year old daughter. João prepared the juice (a tasty carrot-orange-lime mix), I exchanged a few words with Sueli and played with their daughter. When the juice was ready, João turned on the TV, we sipped our drinks and chatted for a while. Did I want another one? No, thank you, I now feel like exploring the beach. "Vai com Deus", he said. The beach was almost as crowded as the one in Bombinhas (I later learned that there are many beaches in Bombinhas but all of them "bem lotadas" during the festive season) and full of colorful umbrellas. Not my idea of a beach.

On Fox news, a passenger of the Northwest flight from Amsterdam to Detroit that a young Nigerian had tried to blow up said that while the whole thing happened (he sat three rows away from the Nigerian) he did not really feel scared but later, at home, it really hit him. It was worse to imagine what happened than actually experiencing it, he said.
A security expert on the same program: we spent billions of dollars and we could not stop this guy. It seemed beyond his imagination that money could not be the solution.

How long do I walk to the beach from here? Ten minutes? Fifteen, the guy from the hotel said. After I had walked for fifteen minutes in the direction indicated, I asked again. Ten minutes? The two guys smiled, twenty are more likely. They were right. In the end, the original fifteen minutes had turned into close to forty-five.

The most used words in Brazil are probably "talvez" (maybe), "pode ser" (can be) and "legal" (cool). Given the fact that when Brazilians are confronted with a law their natural impulse is to find a way around it, it seems rather peculiar to use "legal" for "cool".

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Through different eyes

I wrote on the board one of my favourite lines from the German thinker Theodor Adorno: "The highest form of morality is not to feel home in one's own home." I explained that most great works of the imagination were meant to make you feel like a stranger in your own home. The best fiction always forced us to question what we took for granted. It questioned traditions and expectations when they seemed too immutable. I told my students I wanted them in their readings to consider in what ways these works unsettled them, made them a little uneasy, made them look around and consider the world, like Alice in Wonderland, through different eyes.
Azar Nafisi: Reading Lolita in Tehran

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

On the road

Since Friday, 18 December, I`m on a bus trip through Southern Brazil.

The time table said that the trip from Santa Cruz to Caxias do Sul would take 2 hours and 50 minutes. Well, it took 4 hours and 15 minutes.

Sitting on a bench on the main square of Caxias, I was approached by a young woman who asked me to participate in a survey for a chain of drugstores. That is probably not for me, I said, I am a tourist. Ah, where from? Switzerland. She smiled and said she was from Torres. Did I know Torres? I said I did. Where will you spend the New Year? I don`t know yet. Well, Torres is the place to be, she said, it has the third biggest firework in Brazil. By the way, Caxias is great. I am here with my husband. Just the two of us. His daughter from another woman is with her mother. So it is just him and me here. Fantastic. We both work. Here it is easy to find work, in Torres it is very difficult ... Okay, gotta go, see you. And off she went. Such chatting - that may seem somewhat personal to a European - is fairly common in this country for Brazilians simply love to chat, with whom is secondary.

I walked around the center of town, got hungry and had a not very good "pastel". I returned to my hotel, asked for a place where they served good "pastéis" and then had a good one. Later, again on a bench on the main square, I watched the world walk by. Caxias has a center that I instinctively liked, it has a big city flair but is still not too big and that makes for good vibes. At 18 hours sharp, it was sunny and warm, loudspeakers in front of the cathedral filled the air with "Ave Maria" - it felt terrific.

A guy in the Internet Cafe was convinced I was from Uruguay. When I told him I was from Switzerland, he just laughed and said for him I was from Uruguay. I assume this has to do with my Portuñol, a mix of Spanish and Portuguese mainly spoken at the border of Brazil and Uruguay. No, I have not picked it up there, I have developed it myself and added a Swiss German accent.

Brazilian men, when saying hello or good bye, often tap other men on the shoulder, Brazilian women often kiss you on the cheek. In a bookstore, a woman in her thirties suddenly turned around and bumped into me. "Desculpe", she smiled, tapped me on the shoulder and left the store. She was beautiful, I would have preferred a kiss.

On the bus to Lages, my neighbour explained that he had lived for 30 years in Porto Alegre but was originally from Santa Catarina. People in Rio Grande do Sul are arrogant, he whispered.

In Lages, a gentleman in the hotel elevator, after he learned where I was from, told me he was from Santa Cruz and started to speak German to me.

In the bus from Florianópolis to the island, a young man behind me threw up - I was lucky that his vomit was all over the floor and not on me.

At the island junction, people were standing in line for the bus to the South of the island. When it finally arrived, many young men literally stormed it. One youngster pushed me, I got hit on the head, lost my sun glasses, stumbled. A young women with her son on her knees shouted at them ("são terríveis, são mal educados") and offered me the seat next to her.

After my first night at the Praia da Armaçaõ, my arms were covered with mosquito bites. The dona of my pousada said that only yesterday the government had anounced that there was no dengue on the island. Until then I had not worried.

Monday, 21 December 2009


"Petropolis" ist ein ganz tolles Buch: flüssig geschrieben, anschaulich erzählt und spannend geschildert. Es verschafft einem Einsichten in teils groteske und sehr menschliche russische und amerikanische Befindlichkeiten, die einen immer mal wieder – es ist dies nämlich ein ungemein witziges Werk – laut auflachen lassen.

"Petropolis" beginnt so: "Im Herbst 1992 hatte Ljubow Alexandrowna Goldberg beschlossen, ihrer vierzehnjährigen Tochter ein ausserschulisches Betätigungsfeld zu schaffen. ‚Kinder der Intelligenzija hocken nicht nachmittags zu Hause und frönen der Idiotie’, erklärte sie. Am liebsten hätte sie Sascha am Klavier gesehen, aber Goldbergs hatten kein Klavier, und in den beiden vollgestopften Zimmern, die Sascha und ihre Mutter bewohnten, war nicht mal genug Platz für den Gedanken an ein Klavier."

In der Folge wird Sascha, die mit ihrer Mutter im sibirischen Gulag-Aussenposten Asbest 2 lebt, ungewollt schwanger, dann als Kunststudentin in Moskau aufgenommen (es geht dabei zwar nicht mit rechten Dingen, doch sehr lebensecht zu und her) und kommt schliesslich als Mailorder-Braut nach Phoenix, Arizona, entflieht ihrem Amerikavisum-Aufenthaltsbeschaffer nach Chicago, wo sie in privilegierten Umständen als Quasi-Sklavin gehalten wird und schliesslich für ein angemessen glückliches Ende der Geschichte in Brooklyn landet, wo sie auch ihren nach Amerika abgehauenen Vater aufstöbert.

Soweit die Rahmenhandlung, die natürlich nicht allzu viel darüber aussagt, weshalb sich dieses Buch zu lesen lohnt. Warum sich die Lektüre aber ganz unbedingt lohnt, mögen ein paar willkürlich ausgewählte Textausschnitte illustrieren:

An diesem Morgen hatte ihre Mutter ihr sogar schon ihren kostbaren Kaffee spendiert, allerdings im Gegenzug verlangt, sie solle während des Vorstellungsgesprächs auf keinen Fall:
mit offenem Mund wie ein Karpfen an die Wand glotzen
an den Haaren herumzwirbeln
Fingernägel knabbern
sondern vielmehr:
die Knie zusammenhalten
die Zunge im Mund lassen

Zu den Nationalfeiertagen brachten die Eltern Geschenke, meistens Wodka und Pralinenschachteln, die entweder so angeschimmelt oder so zerdätscht waren, dass sie für Ärzte oder Klempner nicht mehr taugten.

Den ganzen Sommer lang hing die Sonne jeden Abend bis elf am Himmel über der Stadt und zahlte ihre Winterschulden ab.

Die Wohnung ist russisch eingerichtet, Tapeten mit Blümchenmuster, an einer Wand hängt ein roter Perserteppich und vor den Fenstern viel Tüll und Spitze, in einer Ecke steht eine schwarze Porzellanvitrine. Rita wirkt wie ein Insekt in einem Käfig aus düsterer Opulenz.

"Und wo bist du her?", fragt Lika.
"Asbest 2. Das ist in Sibirien, bei Prostuda."
"Irrer Name."
"Tja, na ja, der ist einfach eindeutig. Mehr als Asbest ist da nicht."

"Kennst du das Gebet von früher?", fragte Alyssa.
"Nein, Liebes, sie kommt doch aus der Sowjetunion! Ist das nicht toll?" Mrs. Tarakan klang wie eine Naturwissenschaftlerin, die soeben herausgefunden hatte, dass Saschas Hirn grösser als erwartet war.

"Ich hab keine Fragen", flüsterte Sascha.
"Doch, hast du."
"Ach, kannst du Gedanken lesen?"
"Die ganz primitiven schon", sagte Jake und rollte an ihr vorbei aus dem Raum.

Heidi schüttelt den Kopf. "Victor, das geht so nicht", kommt sie Sascha zu Hilfe. "Du kannst nicht einfach dein altes Leben verlassen und ein neues anfangen. Du bist nicht Buddha. Menschen haben Bindungen. Menschen kümmern sich um die Dinge."

Anya Ulinich
Die große Reise der Mailorder-Braut Sascha Goldberg
dtv, 2008

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Tao Te Ching

I open it at number five on page five. I let my eyes run across the words. I let my brain process them. I let my heart feel them. Number five is like the rest. There is no good or evil, no Sinner or Saint. There simply is what is and that is it. You can use that to be and that is enough. Don't talk about it or question it. Just let it be. Just be.
It still affects me and it still makes sense. It still moves me and it still rings true. That is all that matters. The truth. Does it ring true it does. I can feel it.
Number six. The Tao is the Great Mother the Great Father the Great Nothing. It is empty and inexhaustible. It is always present you can use it or not. Does it ring true it does.
Seven. Infinite and eternal. It was never born and will never die. It is just there. It wants nothing and it needs nothing, it is just there. Stay behind and get ahead. Detach and become. Let go of all and you will be full. Let go of all and you will be full.
Eight and nine say the good is like water that nourishes without trying. They say in thinking keep to simple, in conflict be fair. They say don't compare or compete simply be yourself. They say fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill, keep sharpening your knife and it will dull. They say chase after money and your heart will never unclench. Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner.
These things, these poems, these words, these meanings, they make sense to me. They do not tell me to do anything or be anything or believe in anything or become anything. They don't judge me or try to convince me. There is no righteousness or pretension. They don't fight me or insult me or tell me I'm wrong. There is no Authority and there are no Rules. They are just words strung together on a page sitting and waiting patiently for me to accept or reject them. They don't care if I do either or bother nothing at all. They will never tell me I'm wrong. They will never tell me I'm right either. They just sit there.
James Frey: A Million Little Pieces

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Brazilian Cemeteries

It has been mostly raining since I arrived in mid-August in Southern Brazil. One of the few exceptions was the very hot Sunday of 1 November (36° Celsius) when Ricardo, a native of Santa Cruz do Sul, drove John (from Bakersfield) and me to the "interior" which in our case meant a ride on dirt roads into the middle of nowhere where we also came across two cemeteries - one showed a very colourful mix of styles, the other was more of the traditional European kind with one tombstone already displaying the date of birth and the photograph of a woman who however is seemingly not yet buried there. Extraordinary planning, I'd say.

Copyright @ Hans Durrer

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Santa Cruz do Sul

This is how I decided to frame the top of the Cathedral of São João Batista in Santa Cruz do Sul on 12 December 2009.

Copyright @ Hans Durrer

Sunday, 13 December 2009

On children's books

You enjoy good writing? Try Janet Malcolm. It does not matter what she writes about, I will read it. Not least because I always come away with new insights. Here's how her article "Advanced Placement, The wicked joy of the 'Gossip Girl' novels" begins (The New Yorker, 10 March 2008):

As Lolita and Humbert drive past a horrible accident, which has left a shoe lying in the ditch beside a blood-spattered car, the nymphet remarks, “That was the exact type of moccasin I was trying to describe to that jerk in the store.” This is the exact type of black comedy that Cecily von Ziegesar, the author of the best-selling “Gossip Girl” novels for teen-age girls, excels in. Von Ziegesar writes in the language of contemporary youth—things are cool or hot or they so totally suck. But the language is a decoy. The heartlessness of youth is von Ziegesar’s double-edged theme, the object of her mockery—and sympathy. She understands that children are a pleasure-seeking species, and that adolescence is a delicious last gasp (the light is most golden just before the shadows fall) of rightful selfishness and cluelessness. She also knows—as the authors of the best children’s books have known—that children like to read what they don’t entirely understand. Von Ziegesar pulls off the tour de force of wickedly satirizing the young while amusing them. Her designated reader is an adolescent girl, but the reader she seems to have firmly in mind as she writes is a literate, even literary, adult.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Beautiful Pictures

Daichi Koda's pictures are beautiful.
To show beauty is what he is aiming for.
Even when confronted with terrible situations he looks for beauty.
For beauty, he believes, can be found in every situation.
This is not to diminish pain and sorrow.
This is to say that pain and sorrow and beauty may be present in the same situation.
To find this beauty, he pays attention, and he takes his time
For to photograph, he believes, is to meditate.

See for yourself:

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Drinking Laws & Culture

In the course of our work we obtained a certain amount of information about the law and practice relative to liquor licensing law in other countries. A number of our consultees drew our attention to the fact that in some countries, such as those in southern Europe, there appear to be very liberal regimes but with few obvious signs of public drunkenness or disorder among local residents. We have given careful consideration to such evidence as we have about the law and practice in such countries. However, we are of the view that great care must be taken before one can safely proceed on the basis that a system which appears to operate successfully in one country can simply be replicated here with the same results. In our opinion cultural backgrounds and norms probably play a much larger part in determining social behaviour than any laws regulating the sale and consumption of alcohol, and we therefore doubt whether it can safely be assumed that what works in, for example, Italy or Spain will necessarily work here.

On the other hand, we have obtained some assistance from an examination of current, and proposed, law and practice in countries where, so far as we can determine, cultural and other considerations are not significantly different from those in Scotland. We have already made reference to the Republic of Ireland and to the Isle of Man. We have also had regard to current proposals for reform of licensing law in England and Wales. For some time those proposals were to be found only in a White Paper issued by the Home Office.

However, in November 2002 legislation which builds on the proposals in the White Paper was announced in The Queen’s Speech, and since then we have been following the progress of the Licensing Bill with interest. In addition, we have become aware of certain practices which are followed in the Province of British Columbia in Canada.

Source: The Nicholson Report

Monday, 7 December 2009

Press Photography & Magic

On 7 December 2008, Spiegel Online published this shot here:

Copyright @ AP

The caption said: „GM-Boss Wagoner, Chrysler-Boss Nardelli, Ford-Boss Mullay and Union-Boss Gettelfinger (from left) at the hearing in the Capitol: "Problems structurally caused".“
The context that the article provides is this: the American automobil industry is in trouble. It demands money from the government, Nobel Prize Laureate Paul Krugmann does however not believe in a recovery. The problems of these corporations, he argues, are structurally caused and cannot be solved by injecting money. Barack Obama however wants to help the automobile industry.

Now, what does the photo show? Four men who present themselves as attentive listeners: Interested, pensive, considerate. They act like this for the photographer. It is of course possible that they do not simply act but actually feel that way - yet the photo cannot show it. Are they so attentive because they had been publicly berated for coming to Washington by private jet? Or are they so attentive because they are impressed by what the senatores have to say? We cannot know that, we can only speculate. What we however know is this: what the context insinuates (the willingness to listen, concern, unassumingness etc.), the photo cannot show, it can only be ascribed to the photo.

In order to not fall into the traps laid out by press photos, we need to become visually educated. No, I'm not arguing for yet another training that helps the trainer to make a living. I'm simply saying that we should pause and look and think when we are shown a photo. In this case, what we see is this: four attentive looking men facing a camera. That's it.

It is useful to keep in mind that a photo is a photo is a photo: a two-dimensional reduction of a three-dimensional physical reality that neither smells nor sounds and that has always been only as real as a picture on a page can be. At the same time however - and that is what makes them so intriguing and special - photos radiate something magical. As Maureen Dowd penned in the New York Times: "…in Hollywood, couples who have chemistry on screen often don't like each other off screen, and ones who are involved off screen often don't have any chemistry on screen."

In order to become visually literate, we shouldn't strip photos off their magic for this would mean to strip them off their essence. Instead, we need to acknowledge their magic. For being aware of the photo's magic allows us to take an informed decision: whether or not we want to succumb to it.

PS: Not everybody believes in (or is impressed by) the magic of photographs: While conducting a workshop on "Thinking Photography" in Nykarleby, Finland, I used William Mitchell's famous example (take a photo of your mother and try to cut out her eyes) in order to demonstrate that we think of photos as having a life of their own. "Impossible, isn't it?" I said when one of the female students replied: "No problem for me. Everyone in this room knows that I'm presently having quite some problems with my parents. Only last week I cut up photos of them in order to make a collage."

Saturday, 5 December 2009

In Pakistan

Damals versuchte die pakistanische Regierung die Stämme zu überreden, Angehörige der Taliban nicht mehr aufzunehmen. Wir gingen zu einem Haus, das der Clan als Jagdpavillon benutzte. Ungefähr ein Dutzend Männer, alle in grauen Gewändern und mit der unvermeidlichen AK-47 bewaffnet, sassen im Kreis auf dem Boden eines leeren Zimmers. Der Häuptling trug einen weissen Turban. Als wir ihn fragten, ob er die Absicht habe, Musharraf zu gehorchen, reagierte er amüsiert, als ob wir ihm einen Witz erzählt hätten.
Mariane Pearl: Ein mutiges Herz

Thursday, 3 December 2009

In Afghanistan

Tutti dicono che gli stranieri sono oggi benvenuti in Afghanistan. Non è vero: l'ostilità degli afghani verso tutti quelli che, specie non invitati, passano dal loro paese è vecchia e profonda.
Tiziano Terzani: Lettere contro la guerra

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

The British Way

We are told that Blair made war because he wanted not to look as weak as Michael Foot. Did none of his close circle feel they had a duty to warn him that to kill and maim over a million people was extravagant ambition? Therein was enacted what the right wing political philosopher Leo Strauss calls 'the noble lie', the right of leaders to lie to the masses, aided and abetted by a small elite of the chosen ones privy to the truth.

The Iraqi academic Sami Ramadhani says his countrymen have no interest in this inquiry. They have felt and seen what happened. Ordinary Britons too have a clearer view than assumed by these people in high places. We should have had ordinary Iraqi and British citizens on the panel and sharp lawyers too. They might have disarmed the slip sliders and pushed collective responsibility.

L'etat was never just Blair. But that isn't how Albion does things. The British way is to suppress any incipient social rebellions by making sure something is seen to be done, and also that nothing really changes.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: I'm beginning to feel some sympathy for Tony Blair. We should have had ordinary Iraqi and British citizens on the inquiry panel, The Independent, 30 November 2009

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Air China B738

From time to time we read in the mainstream media that a plane had to unexpectedly land because of smoke in the cockpit. Or because of an engine shut down in flight. Or because of a medical emergency. Whoever relies on information provided by the mainstream media will think such occurrences to be exceptions. While statistically that may well be so, reading The Aviation Herald (, that reports on incidents and news in aviation, will however give you quite another impression. In addition, you will also find quite peculiar stories such as the one posted on Friday, 27 November 2009, under the heading "Incident: Air China B738 over China on Nov 24th 2009, money disappeared". Here it is:

An Air China Boeing 737-800, flight CA-1103 from Beijing to Hohhot (China), was enroute about 30 minutes into the flight, when two police officer in plain clothes noticed a passenger eyeing other passenger's luggage. The passenger stood up, walked to some luggage and returned to his seat about one minute later. The airplane continued to Hohhot for a safe landing.

The police officers asked all passenger to look after their luggage and check, whether the contents were complete. One passenger stepped forward stating, that money were missing out of his backpack stored in the overhead luggage compartment.

The police officers therefore arrested the passenger they had noticed earlier during the flight. The man tried to mislead police by presenting two false identities to them. Police assumes, that the man had committed more thefts on previous flights. The two police officers in plain clothes had been dispatched to stop frequent thefts, that had been reported in the recent weeks.

And these are the comments by readers:

Wow, how many police departments would bother to send anyone, let alone 2 officers, on a flight to conduct surveillance for theft! Good one.

I love police action and when they take down the bad scum of the world!

Air China seems to have had some bad pr around this lately. I wasn't there, but this looks a little staged to me.

Seems for unlikely that they would happen to be on the particular flight this was happening on. Unless the other lefts were on this particular flight or route then I also think it was staged. The Chinese are notorious for propaganda stunts such as this.

ha. its funny how no one trusts any news out of china. i wonder how aware of that their government is.
If it is true it's great to hear. but does sound quite unbelievable to me.

Given the population of China, it would seem plausible that they have the manpower to place officers on all flights. I'm still in awe of the cast size for the 2008 Olympics opening ceremony.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Who are we?

Peoples and nations are attempting the most basic question humans can face: Who are we? And they are answering that question in the traditional way human beings have answered it, by reference to the things that mean most to them. People define themselves in terms of ancestry, religion, language, history, values, customs, and institutions. They identify with cultural ethnic groups: tribes, ethnic groups, religious communities, nations, and, at the broadest level, civilizations. People use politics not just to advance their interests but also to define their identity. We know who we are only when we know who we are not and often only when we know whom we are against.
Samuel P. Huntington: The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Skis in the desert

This is how the British army was sent to war in Iraq while Tony Blair and friends stayed in England:

Operations were so under-resourced that some troops went into action with only five bullets each. Others had to deploy to war on civilian airlines, taking their equipment as hand luggage. Some troops had weapons confiscated by airport security.

Commanders reported that the Army’s main radio system “tended to drop out at around noon each day because of the heat”. One described the supply chain as “absolutely appalling”, saying: “I know for a fact that there was one container full of skis in the desert.”

From: 'Iraq report: Secret papers reveal blunders and concealment', The Daily Telegraph, 21 November 2009.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Brazil in the media

"On October 22nd Geyse Arruda was escorted from the campus of Bandeirante University, a private college in a São Paulo suburb, her thighs shrouded by a lab coat, watched by several hundred jeering fellow students. Her offence? Wearing a dress so short as to constitute 'a flagrant lack of respect for ethical principles, academic dignity and morality'. How could this happen in the land of topless carnival dancers and buttocks swaying on the beach?" asked The Economist on 12 November 2009 and explained: "Tolerance coexists uneasily with prudishness. Brazilians are a religious people. Many of the churches frown on carnival as a time of loose behaviour and marriage-breaking, a fight that the Catholic church has waged for centuries."

Are Brazilians really a religious people? Well, how would one measure that? And, what about the claim that tolerance coexists uneasily with prudishness? That actually sounds more like The Economist were describing the people of its homebase, the English ...

The problem with this article however is another one. The reporter, like most reporters, has very probably not been present when the incident he or she wrote about occurred. In other words, what we got to read about this case was based on hearsay and what we got to see was based on video-images - and these are often even less reliable than hearsay for pictures, contrary to popular belief, do not provide evidence.

But hey, were there really several hundred fellow students jeering? And if so, why? And how come that a camera recorded it? Could this have been an orchestrated event by, for example, a small group of conservative zealots to get media attention?

It is simply absurd to use this totally insignificant incidence - everybody who has ever set foot on Brazilian soil knows that this is totally atypical for this country - as a pretext for arguing that in Brazil "tolerance exists uneasily with prudishness". There is zero basis for such a claim. And this means that one really shouldn't read The Economist when trying to understand Brazil.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Hans Albrecht Moser

Es liegt schon einige Zeit zurück, dass ich "Vineta" von Hans Albrecht Moser gelesen habe. Vor vier Jahren war das, in Istanbul. Letzthin habe ich einige der Stellen wieder gelesen, die ich mir damals angestrichen hatte. Hier sind einige von ihnen:

Die Welt ist ein Betätigungsfeld und weiter nichts.

... den guten Geschmack: ich lernte ihn als selbständigen, vom Moralischen unabhängigen Wert erkennen.

Es liegt in der Natur des Glaubens, die Tatsachen in seinen Sinn umzufälschen, und der Glaube, richtig zu erkennen, geht schliesslich jeder Erkenntnis voraus.

Mit unseren Welterklärungen wird uns mehr genommen als gegeben. Sie erklären nichts, setzen nur an die Stelle des Geheimnisses eine Gewohnheit zu denken.

Der Bildungsstoff, der uns angeboten wird, wird immer grösser, um so strenger müssen wir also auswählen, was davon für uns wirklich bestimmt ist.

Ist es nicht ein verhängnisvoller Irrtum zu glauben, wir könnten unser Ziel erreichen und damit unsern Sinn erfüllen, indem wir wissentlich leben, wie wir nicht leben sollten?

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Freeing oneself up

Years ago, in Bangkok, Thailand, I used to spend the first Sunday afternoon of the month at the nearby headquarters of the World Fellowship of Buddhists where meditation practice was taught in English by monks from Wat Pah Nanachat, the International Forest Monastery in Northeast Thailand. I particularly remember a speech by Ajahn Sumedho, an American monk, who ended it by saying: Should you have come to the conclusion that what I have been telling you sounds interesting to you then you most probably have got me completely wrong. Because a lot of things are interesting. But that is not the point. 

What you need to ask yourself is whether what I have been telling you is helpful for you. To look for what is helpful is indeed good advice. Helpful for me is for example this insight by Richard Rorty (in Cultural Otherness): "… the emphasis falls less on knowing than on imagining, more on freeing oneself up than on getting something right."

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

A cultural faux pas

During a trip to Senegal, Maya Angelou called Samia, a friend she had made in Paris several years before, and was invited over for dinner. Passing a room where people apparently clung to the wall to avoid standing on the rug, Angelou became incensed. "I had known a woman in Egypt who would not allow her servants to walk on her rugs, saying that only she, her family and friends were going to wear out her expensive carpets. Samia plummeted in my estimation."

Keen to challenge her host's hauteur, she walked back and forth across the carpet. "The guests who were bunched up on the sidelines smiled at me weakly." Soon afterwards, servants came, rolled up the rug, took it away and brought in a fresh one. Samia then came in and announced that they would be serving one of Senegal's most popular dishes in honour of Angelou: "Yassah, for our sister from America… Shall we sit?" And as the guests went to the floor where glasses, plates, cutlery and napkins were laid out on the carpet, Angelou realised the full extent of her faux pas and was "on fire with shame".

"Clever and so proper Maya Angelou, I had walked up and down over the tablecloth… In an unfamiliar culture, it is wise to offer no innovations, no suggestions, or lessons. The epitome of sophistication is utter simplicity."
From The Guardian, 14 November 2009

Sunday, 15 November 2009

A white lie

A white lie is not a lie at all. It is where you tell the truth but you do not tell all of the truth. This means that everything you say is a white lie because when someone says, for example, "What do you want to do today?" you say, "I want to do painting with Mrs. Peters," but you don't say, "I want to have my lunch and I want to go to the toilet and I want to go home after school and I want to play with Toby and I want to have my supper and I want to play on my computer and I want to go to bed."
Mark Haddon: The curious incident of the dog in the night-time

Friday, 13 November 2009

Uma pessoa feliz

Uma pessoa é feliz quando faz o que lhe dá prazer e quando vive uma relação de amor-amizade com alguém. Essa definição, que considero verdadeira, nunca se realiza. A gente não está nunca fazendo só o que gosta. A vida nos obriga a fazer muitas coisas desagradáveis, a engolir sapos. Eu mesmo tenho, em meu estômago, vários sapos vivos, não digeridos, que continuam a mexer e a coaxar. Além disso, essa relação de amor-amizade só acontece em momentos ou períodos curtos. Ela é logo interrompida por uma série de fatores indesejáveis que nos tornam intolerantes, irritadiços, rabugentos, distantes. Essa transformação aparece na mudança da música da fala.
Rubem Alves: Coisas da Alma

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Watching the world change

Like probably quite some others, I feel somewhat overfed when it comes to 9/11. So why then would I read yet another text about it? Well, I'm interested in photographs, and in photojournalism, and especially in the stories behind the photographs, and when I came across reviews of David Friend's "Watching the World Change" I became curious and remained so page after page of this truly fascinating work.

The author, David Friend, formerly Life's director of photography, is Vanity Fair's editor of creative development. Moreover, he is a good writer, a tireless journalist, and, very probably, a workaholic - the research alone that went into this book is immense and impressive.

Remember the image of George W. Bush at Ground Zero? The one where "...he stood in a windbreaker on the smoking heap at Ground Zero, flag pin on his lapel and bullhorn in his mitt. He embraced Bob Beckwith, a sixty-nine-year old firefighter from Queens ..."? One of Bush's longtime media advisors opined that this image "will be the most lasting and iconic image of {his} presidency", the editor in chief of the New York Daily News believed this scene to be unscripted, a strategist, who worked on John Kerry's campaign, thought it calculated, and Luc Sante, the culture critic and photo historian, also believed it to be scripted for "with Bush you never get a moment that is not stage-managed."

"Compelling ... Surely the most original treatment so far of the cultural impact of the day", Frank Rich of The New York Times is quoted on the back cover and, yes, that is most probably true, but, what's more, this is absolutely singular journalism (well-told, detailed, and with a keen sense for narrative flow) that not only demonstrates how we - by taking, looking at, distributing, and sharing pictures - are trying to give significance to what surrounds us but also proves that it is not the (dramatically structured and enhanced) story that makes good journalism but the accurate and sympathetic rendering of how people deal with what happens.

9/11 was probably the most photographed event of our time. This is one of the impressions that you get when spending time with this book. I know, we live in a world of pictures, yet it would have never occurred to me that so many people took pictures - videos and stills - on that day. "A French documentary filmmaker, a Czech immigrant, and a German artist - New Yorkers all - each happened to have cameras rolling and focused on the World Trade Center when it was attacked. Moments later, artist Lawrence Heller, who had heard the first jet slam into Tower One (the north tower), picked up his digital video camera ... People photographed from windows and parapets and landings. They photographed as they fled: in cars, across bridges, up avenues blanketed in drifts of ash and dust. They even photographed the images on their television sets as they watched the world changing, right there on the screen." And there was, for example, Patricia McDonough, a professional photographer, who, after taking quite some pics that would later appear in Esquire and other magazines, thought that photography "suddenly seemed superfluous", loaded her bike bag with disposable gloves and water bottles - "I had a lot of Red Cross training, CPR classes, I have preternatural calm in disasters" - and rushed to help.

"Astoundingly", Friend comments, "dozens of photographers continued to shoot even as they sensed that their own lives were at risk - when clouds of debris, from the falling towers, mushroomed up and down the streets." But what did people compel to take photographs in such a situation? Sure, answers may vary but quite some people probably "had to photograph it and then look at it in order to validate that it actually happened", as curator and writer Michael Shulan opines. Yet despite the many pictures that were shot on 9/11 and the following days (by TV-cameras, tourists, workers, passersby), it was by no means easy for professional photographers to go about their work. Christopher Morris, for instance, says: "I got on the scene, got past the barricades, and was immediately seized upon by the police. It was impossible to shoot. Everybody hated photographers. We were like pariahs."

One of the reasons that so many pictures were taken on that day is that it was possible: 50% of Americans live in homes with a digital camera; up to 2006, 50 million working cell phones in the US had cameras in them, I learned. David Friend thinks that the week of 9/11 was the beginning of the digital age, part of which is digital newsgathering. In the words of Nigel Pritchard of CNN: "You were no longer tied to a piece of cable and a satellite truck. We could go anywhere and broadcast with a battery pack." Modern technology (digital cameras, phone lines, fiber-optic cables, the internet, satellites) has made it possible that "in a matter of minutes, everyone with a monitor, almost anywhere in the world, was able to access similar footage shot only moments before", as Friend explains.

In the days following 9/11, there were hardly any pictures published (in the US) that showed body parts, blood covered survivors or people jumping from the windows of the World Trade Center. This self-censorship, as Friend elaborates, might have occurred because "editors, to some degree, might have felt protective of their own. beholden to people they considered members of nothing less than an extended family - vast, grieving, and interconnected (...) In short, they just couldn't bear to have anyone see them this way." Another reason surely was, as Time's director of photography, Michele Stephenson, says, that "there was not a lot left of them."

But what about photos of jumpers, why didn't we get to see these? Joe Scurto, for instance, saw "at least a hundred people jumping. The were coming down like rain." Well, there is one that has come to be known as The Falling Man, taken by veteran Associated Press photographer Richard Drew; "the most famous picture nobody's ever seen", as Drew says. As Friend sees it: "Nowadays ... news organizations tend to play it safe, having been subsumed by media conglomerates that give less credence to exposing harsh realities than to turning a profit, entertaining mass audiences, and satisfying skittish advertisers."

There are also bizarre things to be learnt from this great book, for instance, that the Stars and Stripes flag that the firemen raised at Ground Zero has disappeared. Or the story of an ad agency copywriter and a photographer who were flipping through Time magazine (the cover photo was shot by the photographer), when a man came running towards them, grabbed the magazine and, landing on a double-page spread, announced that these were his images. And, when the ad guy pointed out that his friend had shot the cover, said: "Ahh, you're the one who beat me out of the cover."

Not bizarre at all, but very interesting (and wonderfully instructive) I've found this:
After the attacks on the Twin Towers, all commercial flights across American airspace had been immediately suspended. All of a sudden, the air was clear of contrails (thin stripes of condensation the many jets that cross the continent leave behind) and visual and meterological data produced over the three days the planes were grounded indicated "that North America's temperature swing (the range between the average daytime high and the average nighttime low) widened by an appreciable three to five degrees Fahrenheit ... this suggested ... that contrails, over the years, have tended to tamp down temperatures (a phenomenon called global dimming), possibly hiding what could be even more severe ramifications of global warming."

Above all, this tome impressively demonstrates what it means to live in a world dominated by pictures. Friend writes: "Most of us hardly realize how pictures serve as a nourishing undergrowth in the recesses of our lives. The weather forecast that helped me choose what I would wear today was created by meteorologists interpreting sequences of still photographs. The security cameras in my office building, my local bank, the various public spaces I traverse each day, are recording me in a steady stream of surveillance shots. My computer stores images and exchanges them with other electronic devices. My cellular picture phone ..."

Finally, taking pictures and looking at pictures is personal. And thankfully, this is a personal book. Not in the sense that David Friend is pouring out his soul but in the sense that he tells you how he goes about his work: "I phoned a friend in London to see how he was coping, to offer support ... On September 11, my friend, an executive at eSpeed [a Cantor subsidiary in London] hand been on a conference call with his counterparts on the 103rd floor of Tower One. Over the course of his call, he had listened to what he remembers as the 'turmoil over the squawk box,' as colleagues spoke about some sort of explosion. Later came sounds that he now claims are too nightmarish to describe."

In the same vein he writes about how his then thirteen-year-old daughter Molly reacted to the news that John Doherty, the father of her friend Maureen, had not returned from the World Trade Center: "Over the week that followed, Molly would periodically go to the dining room sideboard, open the left-hand drawer, and take out a framed photo she kept there of nineteen sixth-grade girls from the Ursuline School, including Maureen and Molly, posing in their finest dresses." And about how he himself attempted to come to grips with post 9/11 reality: "I stared at the framed photo beside the prayer book. It showed my sister, Janet, brown eyes twinkling, her young life gone in a single stroke, in a car crash, in 1997. Yet I felt through the photograph that her absence was somehow a presence, and that she must be busy. This nurse, who used to work on a children's bone marrow yard in Seattle, would have been swamped that week. Watching her smile on the nightstand, I thought Janet must be ministering and offering guidance and compassion, now that heaven was packed."

David Friend
Watching the World Change
The Stories Behind The Images of 9/11
Picador, New York

Monday, 9 November 2009

The Berlin Wall

One rarely happens to be where world news, and sometimes history, is made. Yet, in such a situation I found myself twenty years ago, when the Berlin Wall came down. I was sitting with a friend in a pizzeria when our waiter, an Italian, all of a sudden and totally excited, shouted: "Mauer auf, Mauer auf" — "Wall open, wall open." Being Swiss, and therefore not given to a spontaneous overflow of feelings, I calmly explained to my German friend that such a thing was not possible and that we should better stay and finish our meal. Only later, when the place was deserted and we were the only ones left, did my friend and I decide that maybe the waiter, despite being Italian and thus, most likely, given to wild exaggerations, might have been right and the wall had indeed been opened.

When we eventually arrived at one of the border crossings, it was four o'clock in the morning and, except for an occasional Easterner heading across, not much was going on anymore. In the nearby bars, however, emotions were running high — I remember men trembling and shaking, and with tears in their eyes. Impossible, not to be moved. The next day, the Easterners queued to get their 100 German mark "welcome money," they queued for bananas — quite obviously a rarity in the East — and the queued to get into the sex shops.

Such was, roughly, my experience of the wall coming down. I did, however, see one more wall coming down: this time on television. It was recorded live and, therefore, difficult to control — a young man from East-Berlin, strolling down the Kurfürstendamm in the Western part of town, was asked how he liked being in the free world? "It's the same as in the East," he replied, "West-German marks will buy you everything." Watching it happen on television, I had a feeling of excitement and fun, like being at a really good party. It certainly was very different from what I had felt the night before — then it had seemed somewhat incomprehensibly unreal whereas now, on television, I had the strange sensation that this was more real than what I myself had experienced.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

On things changing

Mr. Jeavons asked me whether this made me feel safe, having things always in a nice order, and I said it did.
Then he asked if I didn't like things changing. And I said I wouldn't mind things changing if I became an astronaut, for example, which is one of the biggest changes you can imagine, apart from becoming a girl or dying.
He asked whether I wanted to become an astronaut and I said I did.
He said that it was very difficult to become an astronaut. I said that I knew. You had to become an officer in the airforce and you had to take lots of orders and be prepared to kill other human beings, and I couldn't take orders. Also I didn't have 20/20 vision, which you needed to be a pilot. But I said that you could still want something that is very unlikely to happen.
Mark Haddon: The curious incident of the dog in the night-time

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Addiction is a decision

I sit and I listen. I sit and I think. I don't ask any questions and I don't say a word. I would like to stand up and scream bullshit this is all fucking bullshit, but I don't do it. I don't believe that addiction is a disease. Cancer is a disease. It takes over the body and destroys it. Alzheimer's is a disease. It takes over the body and the mind and it ruins them. Parkinson's is a disease. It takes over the body and the mind and makes them shake and it wrecks them. Addiction is not a disease. Not even close. Diseases are destructive Medical conditions that human beings do not control. They do not choose when to have them, they do not choose when to get rid of them. They do not choose the type of the disease they would like or in what form it is delivered, they do not choose how much of it they would like or at what time they would like it. A disease is a Medical condition that must be dealt with using Medical technology. It cannot be dealt with using a Group or a set of Steps. It cannot be dealt by talking about it. It cannot be dealt with by having Family Members attend three-day seminars about it or by reading books with blue covers or saying prayers about serenity.
Although genetics and a genetic link may be undeniable, everything about us is genetic, and everything about our physical selves is predetermined by a genetic link. If an individual is fat but wants to be thin, it is not a genetic disease. If someone is stupid, but wants to be smart, it is not a genetic disease. If a drunk is a drunk, but doesn't want to be a drunk anymore, it is not a genetic disease. Addiction is a decision. An individual wants something, whatever that something is, and makes a decision to get it. Once they have it, they make a decision to take it. If they take it too often, that process of decision making gets out of control, and if it gets too far out of control, it becomes an addiction. At that point the decision is a difficult one to make, but it is still a decision. Do I or don't I? Am I going to take or am I not going to take? Am I going to be a pathetic dumbshit Addict and continue to waste my life or am I going to say no and try to stay sober and be a decent Person. It is a decision. Each and every time. A decision. String enough of these decisions together and you set a course and you set a standard of living. Addict or human. Genetics do not make that call. They are just an excuse. They allow People to say it wasn't my fault I am genetically predisposed. It wasn't my fault I was preprogrammed from day one. It wasn't my fault I didn't have any say in the matter. Bullshit. Fuck that bullshit. There is always a decision. Take responsibility for it. Addict or human. It's a fucking decision. Each and every time.
James Frey: A Million Little Pieces

This is the way I see it: Addiction is both, a decision and a disease. Sure enough: to drink or not to drink is a decision. Yet once the alcoholic has started to drink, the alcohol takes over, and from that moment onwards the alcohol is in charge and decides: drinking has turned into a disease, whether in a medical sense or not is beside the point for the alcoholic is surely dis-eased. What for me is important in this excerpt is the emphasis on personal responsibility - I completely share it.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

The Chinese View

According to Joseph Needham, the Chinese - despite all their sophistication - made little progress in science because it never occurred to them to think of nature as mechanism, as "composed" of separable parts and "obeying" logical laws. Their view of the universe was organic. It was not a game of billiards in which the balls knocked each other around in a cause-and-effect series. What were causes and effects to us were to them "correlatives" - events that arose mutually, like back and front. The "parts" of their universe were not separable, but as fully interwoven as the act of selling with the act of buying.
Alan Watts: The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Just for today

Just for today I will try to live through this day only, and not tackle my whole life problem at once.

Just for today I will be happy. This assumes to be true what Abraham Lincoln said, that "most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be."

Just for today I will adjust myself to what is, and not try to adjust everything to my own desires. I wiil take my "luck" as it comes, and fit myself to it.

Just for today I will try to strengthen my mind. I will study. I will learn something useful. I will not be a mental loafer. I will read something that requires effort, thought and concentration.

Just for today I will exercise my soul in three ways; I will do somebody a good turn, and not get found out; if anybody knows of it, it will not count. I will do at least two things I don't want to do - just for exercise. I will not show anyone that my feelings are hurt; they may be hurt, but today I will not show it.

Just for today I will be agreeable. I will look as well as I can, dress becomingly, talk low, act courteously, criticize not one bit, not find fault with anything, and not try to improve or regulate anybody but myself.

Just for today I will have a programme. I may not follow it exactly, but I will have it. I will save myself from two pests : hurry and indecision.

Just for today I will have a quiet half hour all by myself, and relax. During this half hour, sometime, I will try to get a better perspective of my life.

Just for today I will be unafraid. Especially I will not be afraid to enjoy what is beautiful, and to believe that as I give to the world, so the world will give to me.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Legalising drugs?

From the World Drug Report 2009, published by the UNODC:

The strongest case against the current system of drug control is not the financial costs of the system, or even its effectiveness in reducing the availability of drugs. The strongest case against drug control is the violence and corruption associated with the black market. The main problem is not that drug control efforts have failed to eliminate drug use, an aspirational goal akin to the elimination of war and poverty. It is that in attempting to do so, they have indirectly enriched dangerous criminals, who kill and bribe their way from the countries where drugs are produced to the countries where drugs are consumed.
Plans for drug “legalisation” are diverse, and often fuzzy on the details, but one of the most popular alternative models involves taxation and control in a manner similar to tobacco and alcohol. This approach has appeal of ideological consistency, since all these addictive substances
are treated in the same way. The practice of banning certain addictive substances while permitting and taxing others is indeed difficult to defend based on the relative harmfulness of the substances themselves. Legal addictive substances kill far more people every year than illegal ones – an estimated 500 million people alive today will die due to tobacco. But this greater death toll is not a result of the licit substances being pharmacologically more hazardous than the illicit ones. This greater death toll is a direct result of their being legal, and consequently more available. Use rates of illicit drugs are a fraction as high as for legal addictive drugs, including among those who access the legal drugs illegally (i.e. young people). If currently illegal substances were made legal, their popularity would surely increase, perhaps reaching the levels of licit addictive substances, increasing the related morbidity and mortality.

Is the choice simply one of drug-related deaths or drugmarket related deaths?

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Der Sinn des Lebens

Es gibt Bücher, die kann man eigentlich nicht besprechen, weil sie derart treffend formuliert daherkommen, dass man den darin dargelegten Gedanken eigentlich gar nichts mehr hinzufügen mag. Zu diesen Büchern gehört "Der Sinn des Lebens" von Terry Eagleton, erschienen 2009 bei Ullstein in Berlin. Am besten stellt man dieses Werk vor, indem man den Autor selber zu Worte kommen lässt - und so sei es denn auch, doch bemerkt sein soll zuallererst noch dies: "Der Sinn des Lebens" ist ein scharfsinniges, witziges und hilfreiches Buch, das sich philosophierend am Leben, und nicht an der Theorie darüber, orientiert: ein gescheites, anregendes und - für einen Professor für Englische Literatur - erfrischend un-akademisches Buch, das hiermit wärmstens empfohlen werden soll, weil man darin so Sätze findet wie:

Nicht jede Frage kann zu jeder Zeit gestellt werden. So hätte etwa Rembrandt nicht fragen können, ob die realistische Malerei durch die Fotografie überflüssig wird.

Weshalb sollten wir glauben, dass es für jedes Problem auch eine Lösung gibt?

Sicher haben die Menschen in vormodernen Zeiten sich ab und an auch gefragt, wer sie sind und was sie hier tun. Nur bewegte sie diese Frage offenbar weniger als etwa Albert Camus oder den frühen T.S. Eliot. Und das hat viel mit ihrem Glauben zu tun.

Was den Glauben angeht, reist die Postmoderne lieber mit leichtem Gepäck. Sie glaubt so manches, aber sie hat keinen Glauben.

Weshalb sollte es nur einen Sinn des Lebens geben? Wie wir ihm mehr als einen Sinn zuschreiben können, so könnte es auch mehr als einen ursprünglichen Sinn haben, sofern es denn überhaupt einen ursprünglichen Sinn hat.

Und wenn nun das Leben einen Sinn hätte, der ganz und gar nicht unseren Vorstellungen entspräche? Vielleicht hat das Leben einen Sinn, aber die Mehrzahl aller Menschen, die jemals gelebt haben, hat sich darüber getäuscht. Falls Religion falsch wäre, träfe genau dies zu.

Für die meisten leidenschaftlichen Sinnsucher zählt vor allem die Ausbeute. Für Liberale und Postmoderne zählt dagegen der fröhliche Lärm des Gesprächs, der in ihren Augen wahrscheinlich das Maximum an Sinn ausmacht, das wir überhaupt zutage fördern können. Der Sinn des Lebens liegt in der Suche nach dem Sinn des Lebens. Vielen Liberalen sind Fragen wichtiger als Antworten, da sie Antworten für unangemessen einschränkend halten. Fragen haben etwas frei Fliessendes, Antworten hingegen nicht. Es kommt darauf an, den Geist für vielfältige Fragen offenzuhalten statt ihn mit einer faden, eindeutigen Antwort zu verschliessen. Es stimmt zwar, dass dieser Ansatz nicht sonderlich gut funktioniert, wenn man zum Beispiel fragt: "Wie können wir genug Lebensmittel dorthin schaffen, bevor die Menschen verhungern?" Oder: "Könnte man durch diese Massnahme rassistische Morde verhindern?" Aber vielleicht haben Liberale ja Fragen höherer Art im Sinn.

Der Sinn des Lebens ist nicht die Lösung eines Problems, sondern eine bestimmte Art zu leben. Er ist nicht metaphysisch, sondern ethisch. Er ist nichts vom Leben Losgelöstes, sondern das, was das Leben lebenswert macht - das heisst eine bestimmte Qualität, Tiefe, Fülle und Intensität des Lebens. In diesem Sinne ist der Sinn des Lebens das Leben selbst, auf eine bestimmte Weise betrachtet.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Reading photographs

When looking at a photograph, the gut reaction comes first — I like. I don't like. This pleases me. That doesn't. Often, there it stops. It might occur, however, that we want to go further, that we feel we want to explore a picture.

Example one: I have known Werner Bischof's photo of monks walking under tall trees along the walls of a temple while holding umbrellas to protect them against the falling snow for quite some time. Judging from the temple's architecture and the monks' robes, it was shot in the Far East. I have always felt drawn to that picture, mainly, I believe, for its meditative quality. There has never been a need, or a desire, to know more than what was revealed before my eyes. The fact that this picture is close to me has not only to do with Bischof's eye for the good moment, it has also to do with me, with my way of looking at the world which, of course, is largely determined by my background. Having grown up in Switzerland, snowfall, to begin with, arouses familiar feelings in me; moreover, having spent considerable time in the Far East and being interested in Buddhism, I look at Eastern monks with sympathy.

Then one day, while reading about photography, I started to become curious and wanted to know more about this picture. I consulted literature. In one book on Bischof the caption read "In the court of the Meiji temple, Tokyo, Japan 1952," in the other "Shinto priests in the garden of the Meiji Temple, Tokyo, 1951" — I could have done without them. According to the authors of these two books, Bischof had been very attracted to the Far East and felt passionately about it. This fascination, I believe, can be felt by anybody, even by people who do not know of his attachment. However, I cannot really be sure — for I am biased because I share Bischof's enchantment with the Far East. Having thus discovered common ground, I wanted to learn more about this fellow Swiss who had travelled the world, and I detected a "Weltanschauung" for which I have a lot of sympathy: "He objected to the behavior of great and powerful men and of dominant institutions. He demanded a great deal of our generation, and demanded no less of himself. He wanted to use the language of form to influence the evolution of the world, for the good of all of men," said Arnold Kübler, the founder of Du-Magazine. It goes without saying that the affinity I feel for Bischof's convictions made me look at his photos increasingly empathetically.

Example two: I was in my teens when the photo of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the naked little Vietnamese girl running from a Napalm attack, came to my attention — it hit me instantly. The emotions that this picture then conveyed have not changed, essentially, that is — I still feel moved, sad, and angry, but above all, I feel pity when looking at it. It is a picture that holds a tremendous fascination for me, and eventually led to several visits to Vietnam. I remember vividly the strong sensation of history, here it was, on this very road, that came over me when travelling from Saigon to Tay Ninh. The photo was taken in 1972 by the Associated Press photographer Huynh Cong "Nick" Ut who then "took the little girl to a hospital where the quick treatment saved her life." This is good to know, not least because one is often left wondering how a photographer could have possibly taken pictures when he should have helped. Today, Kim Phuc — 75 percent of her body was scorched with third-degree burns — serves as unpaid goodwill ambassador for UNESCO. Her photo — I cut it out of a newspaper some years ago, put it under glass and into a frame — is still with me. It is there to remind me of the emotions and beliefs of my youth.

For the full text go here

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Life Stages & Addiction

Life stages, like adolescence, are part of a broader category in the addictive matrix—the situation or environment the individual faces. One of the most remarkable illustrations of the dynamics of addiction is the Vietnam war (...) American soldiers in Vietnam frequently took narcotics, and nearly all who did became addicted. A group of medical epidemiologists studied these soldiers and followed them up after they came home. The researchers found that most of the soldiers gave up their drug addiction when they returned to the States. However, about half of those addicted in Vietnam did use heroin at home. Yet only a small percentage of these former addicts became readdicted. Thus, Vietnam epitomizes the kind of barren, stressful, and out-of-control situation that encourages addiction. At the same time, the fact that some soldiers became addicted in the United States after being addicted in Asia while most did not indicates how important individual personalities are in addiction. The Vietnam experience also shows that narcotics, such as heroin, produce experiences that serve to create addictions only under specific conditions.
Stanton Peele: The Diseasing of America: How we allowed recovery zealots and the treatment industry to convince us we are out of control

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Arranged, staged and manipulated

On 19 October 2009, the New York Times published an interesting piece by Errol Morris on photo-fakery and the FSA. Here's how it begins:

James Curtis, a professor emeritus at the University of Delaware, in 1991 published a revisionist history of FSA photography, “Mind’s Eye, Mind’s Truth: FSA Photography Reconsidered.” Curtis’s thesis was simple. “The bitter reality” of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographs was not the result of clinical, photographic field work: “The realism was deliberate, calculated, and highly stylized.” According to Curtis, many of the most famous of the FSA photographs — Walker Evans’ interior of the Gudger home in Hale County, Ala. (which appeared in Evans’s collaboration with James Agee, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”), Arthur Rothstein’s “Fleeing a dust storm” and the most famous photograph of all, Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” — were all arranged, staged and manipulated.

For the full text go here

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Working on it

One of the most thoughtful texts I've ever read is the inspiration below. Unfortunately, it is also one that I most easily forget not least because I usually prefer to be where I'm not, in regards to time, and in regards to place. Yet since, in the words of the writer Jan Cornelius, "I'm working on it", I herewith post it now for the second time ...

Look to this day,
For it is life,
The very life of life.
In its brief course lie all
The realities and verities of existence,
The bliss of growth,
The splendour of action,
The glory of power
For yesterday is but a dream,
And tomorrow is only a vision,
But today, well lived,
Makes every yesterday a dream of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well, therefore, to this day.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Fotos sind Dokumente

Marcel von Arx, ein aufmerksamer Beobachter und der Autor von "Der Esposo", einem Text, der von seinem Aufenthalt als Begleiter seiner Ehefrau in Quito, Ecuador (sie war dort für die Schweizer Regierung tätig) berichtet, und vertraut mit meinem Interesse an der Sprache der Bilder, schickte mir letzthin dieses Zitat zu - es stammt aus "Srebrenica - Notizen aus der Hölle" von Emir Suljagic.

Allerdings ist dieses Bild nicht nur wegen der zwei Männer wichtig, beide habe ich gekannt und wirklich jeden Tag getroffen, sondern wegen eines dritten Mannes, der sich, ohne zu fragen, in das Bild geschlichen und verstohlen in die Ecke gestellt hat: Seine Augen drücken aus, dass ihm jeden Moment einer der beiden auf dem Bild oder der dritte, der den Fotoapparat hält, sagen könnte, er sei unerwünscht und solle verschwinden. Aber er steht da mit seinen schmutzigen und lockigen Haaren, in einer aus einem Schlafsack genähten Jacke, in "Totenschuhen", schlechtem, ebenfalls aus denVorräten der humanitären Hilfe stammendem Schuhwerk, und dunkelblauen, erdverschmierten Hosen.

Er steht in der Ecke und lächelt, vielleicht lächelt er seiner Familie zu, sicher, das diese das Bild nie sehen wird, aber als ahnte er, dass es das einzige Dokument, der einzige Beweis seiner Existenz ist. Auf diesem Bild ist er namenlos, er ist nur ein Unbekannter, ein Eindringling, weil er sich eine Fotographie für zehn Mark nicht leisten kann.

An diese Menschen denke ich, an diese Gestalten ohne Namen, ohne Identität, die zu anonymen Nummern geworden sind. Wieviele sind es, wie viele von ihnen sind eines Tages nicht erschienen, wo sie am Tag zuvor noch gewesen waren, und haben uns nicht gefehlt, weil andere ihren Platz eingenommen haben, die ebenfalls verschwunden sind. Sie sind still verschwunden, so still, wie sie gelebt haben, als hätten sie nur aufgehört, auf dem Markt umherzugehen und mit hungrigen Augen all das anzuschauen, was sie sich nicht kaufen konnten.

Friday, 16 October 2009

A Sociological Understanding

Ever wondered how suicide attacks by Islamist movements can be explained?

Domenico Torsini ("A Sociological Understanding of Suicide Attacks") suggests that they

"... can be explained by following the consequentialist version of rationality, however modified (P1+P2+P3+P4+P5/P5'+P6/P6'). To begin with, we have to focus on the political and cultural context in which organizations act (Bloom, 2005; Elster, 2006; Gambetta, 2006b; Pape, 2006). This means that the situational mechanisms made up of the influence exercised by specific political opportunities and resources on emergent organizations have to be clarified (Della Porta, 1995; Della Porta and Diani, 2006; Hafez ..."

Well, maybe not ...

PS: Thank you, Trevor, for letting me know about this.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Photography & Truth

We do not want photographs to be fakes; we expect them to not deceive us, we want them to be real, and we want them to be true.

We do of course know that sometimes they are not and that they often do not show us the way things really are. This does not mean that we accept to be lied to — though it happens anyway. Remember George Bush, Jr, on Thanksgiving 2003, when, with the American troops in Iraq, he was showing off a plastic turkey to the cameras? Or, more recently, at the Olympic Games in Beijing where — courtesy of the political leadership — a nice looking young girl was moving her lips for the cameras — she looked the part but couldn't sing — while the voice of another, less beautiful girl could be heard?

The problem here is that, a few months or years from now, we will (if we knew it at all) have forgotten this contextual information and that only the images will stay with us. "Image outlives fact," the photographer Lisa Kahane pointed out. Propagandists know this, we should too.

However: Our longing for the truth, and nothing but the truth, is limited. Most of the photos published after the terror attacks in Madrid on 11 March 2004 were doctored, severed limbs, for instance, were removed. We do not mind such manipulation, in fact, we approve of it. Sure, photos in newspapers should reflect reality but, hey, they should not interfere with breakfast.

The full text you will find here

Monday, 12 October 2009

In the desert

... we took the Toyota to a filling station to refuel and there, standing next to the pumps, was a giraffe.
I stared at it incredulously. 'For God's sake! What the hell ...'
The giraffe bent its neck and looked down at us with mild eyes. 'What's the matter?' asked Byrne. 'Haven't you seen a giraffe before?'
'Not at a filling station.'
Byrne didn't seem in the least surprised. 'I'll be a little while here. This is where we start the distribution of our message.'
I nodded wordlessly and watched the giraffe amble away up the main street of Agadez. As Byrne opened the door I said. 'Hang on. Satisfy my curiosity.'
'What about?'
I pointed. 'That bloody giraffe.'
'Oh that. It's from the zoo. They let it out every morning and it goes back every night to feed.'
'Oh!' Well, it was an explanation ...

.... I said 'The most incredible thing today was that bloody giraffe.'
'Civilized people hereabouts,' said Byrne. 'Don't like to keep things in cages. Same with camels.'
'What do you mean?'
'Well, a Tuareg-trained camel is worth more than one trained by an Arab, all other things being equal. A Targui is kinder about it and the camel responds. Real nice people.'
Looking up at the stars that night I thought a lot about that ...

.... A camel, I found, is not steered from the mouth like a horse. Once in the saddle, the Tuareg saddle with its armchair back and high cross-shaped pommel, you put your bare feet on the animal's neck and guide it by rubbing one side or the other. Being on a camel when it rises to its feet is the nearest thing to being in an earthquake and quite alarming until one gets used to it ...

From: Flyway by Desmond Bagley.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

On drinking alcohol

Drinking small amounts is compatible with a healthy lifestyle. For some people, it can confer benefits to health. Drinking 1-2 units a day on a regular basis may reduce the risk of heart disease in men over 40 and in women after the menopause. However, it is also perfectly healthy not to drink alcohol at all.
Scottish Plan For Action on Alcohol Problems 2004

Thursday, 8 October 2009

On writing fiction

In 2007, Janet Malcolm, my favourite writer, had the following to say about fiction writing - and that explained why my various attempts to write a thriller have failed.

QUESTION: You possess so many of the novelist's tools - the ability to imagine yourself into the experiences of others; descriptive flair; a talent for narrative; all those incredible metaphors - yet you've said that you're "incapable of writing fiction." What is it that you lack?

MALCOLM: Yes, I can imagine myself into the experiences of others, but I cannot imagine anyone who does not exist. At least not when I am writing. At night, when I am asleep, I can imagine all kinds of characters and events. In our dreams we are all novelists and short-story writers. But in our conscious thoughts, only a few of us can make the leap from actuality to fiction.

For the full text go here

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Broder & Biller

Letzthin, auf Spiegel Online, bin ich auf eine wunderbar amüsante, anregende und informative Buchkritik - Henryk M. Broder besprach da Maxim Billers Selbstporträtbuch "Der gebrauchte Jude" - gestossen. Wäre schön, es gäbe mehr davon. Hier ein Auszug:

Das Telefon klingelte, am anderen Ende der Leitung war eine weiche, melodische Männerstimme, die wie die Moldau unter der Karlsbrücke dahinfloss. "Ich bin in der Stadt, wollen wir uns treffen und zusammen etwas essen?" Das muss Anfang der achtziger Jahre gewesen sein, ich selbst war noch nicht lange in Jerusalem, gab aber gern mit meinen Ortskenntnissen an.

"'Philadelphia'", sagte ich, "es gibt nichts Besseres. Oder das 'Dolphin'". Beide Lokale lagen in Ostjerusalem. "Das ist mir zu gefährlich", sagte Maxim, "bleiben wir lieber im Westen." Der Westen der Stadt war damals kulinarisch noch nicht weit entwickelt, man ging entweder in das "Atara" oder zu "Fink's". Ich ging lieber in eine der Kaschemmen auf "Mahane Jehuda", dem Jerusalemer Markt, wo man gut und billig essen konnte, allerdings in einer recht anspruchslosen Umgebung. "Ich würde gern zu einem Italiener gehen", sagte Maxim.

Auf so eine Idee konnte nur ein Tourist kommen. Man musste entweder vollkommen ahnungslos oder ein fanatischer Zionist sein, der alles, was in Israel angerichtet wurde, automatisch gut fand, um in Jerusalem italienisch essen zu gehen. Außerdem gab es nur einen Italiener in der Stadt, das "Mamma Mia". Aber ich wollte nicht unnett sein und gab nach.

Ein paar Stunden später saßen wir im "Mamma Mia", Maxim, Itzig und ich ...

Der vollständige Text findet sich hier

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Learning to see

This is an excerpt from my latest book review: The Education of a Photographer, edited by Charles H. Traub, Steven Heller, and Adam B. Bell (Allworth Press, New York) that was just published by Soundscapes, Online Journal on Media Culture from Groningen, The Netherlands.

Then there's "Photography at the Crossroads," a magazine article from 1951 by Berenice Abbott in which she makes the point that photography — among other things — is essentially concerned with "realism — the real life — the now." Right, I couldn't agree more: the essence of photography is to be present. Let me give you two quotes from this piece that I've found particularly inspiring:

"Many photographers spend too much time in the darkroom, with the result that creative camera work is seriously interfered with."

"Let us first say what photography is not. A photograph is not a painting, a poem, a symphony, a dance. It is not just a pretty picture, not an exercise in contortionist techniques and sheer print quality. It is or should be a significant document, a penetrating statement, which can be described in a very simple term — selectivity.
To define selection, one may say that it should be focused on the kind of subject matter which hits you hard with its impact and excites your imagination to the extent that you are forced to take it. Pictures are wasted unless the motive power which impelled you to action is strong and stirring. The motives or points of view are bound to differ with each photographer, and herein lies the important difference which separates one approach from the other. Selection of proper picture content comes from a fine union of trained eye and imaginative mind."

In "Untitled", an essay by Cartier-Bresson, I came across this: "Photography implies the recognition of a rhythm in the world of real things." I take this to mean that to be a good photographer one needs to understand that the real world is in constant flux. And, to discover the movements (the rhythm — how wonderfully put!) of this flux. Very true indeed!

And then there is this smart statement by Susan Meiselas: "A lot of people buy cameras and film, and a lot of people buy photo books of a certain kind. The obvious example is the "Day in the Life of" series. Now, what's the problem? Why aren't people interested in what we documentarians are passionate about? Why are we in such a small ghetto?" Good question, isn't it? Actually, I liked her response even more: "We have to find ways of taking people someplace they don't expect to go."

The full text you'll find here

Friday, 2 October 2009

Heroin & conventional wisdom

Conventional wisdom among clinicians and researchers in the field of drug abuse and addiction is that heroin addicts seldom, if ever, overcome addiction without treatment. Occasionally researchers have speculated that there may be something akin to spontaneous remission among addicts, but until recently it was thought that the numbers and percentages of such recoveries were very small (5-15%) and insignificant. New evidence suggests that the rate of natural recovery may be much higher than expected. Furthermore, new studies suggest that addicts who do not go to treatment recover at approximately the same rates as those who do go to treatment.

Dan Waldorf & Patrick Biernacki
Natural Recovery from Heroin Addiction: A Review of the Incidence Literature (1980)

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Praised be the generalists!

The other day, my friend Trevor, a PhD-student at La Trobe, sent me these excellent quotes:

The monomaths do not only swarm over a specialism, they also play dirty. In each new area that Posner picks—policy or science—the experts start to erect barricades. “Even in relatively soft fields, specialists tend to develop a specialised vocabulary which creates barriers to entry,” Posner says with his economic hat pulled down over his head. “Specialists want to fend off the generalists. They may also want to convince themselves that what they are doing is really very difficult and challenging. One of the ways they do that is to develop what they regard a rigorous methodology—often mathematical.

“The specialist will always be able to nail the generalists by pointing out that they don’t use the vocabulary quite right and they make mistakes that an insider would never make. It’s a defence mechanism. They don’t like people invading their turf, especially outsiders criticising insiders. So if I make mistakes about this economic situation, it doesn’t really bother me tremendously. It’s not my field. I can make mistakes. On the other hand for me to be criticising someone whose whole career is committed to a particular outlook and method and so on, that is very painful.”

For the full text, go here

Monday, 28 September 2009

On Brigitte Bardot & being French

Today, Brigitte Bardot turns 75, and I turn 56 - I doubt that she knows about this coincidence (if there are any, that is). The other day, there was an interesting article about her in The Guardian, accompanied by a few quotes of which I especially identified with this one: 'It is sad to grow old but nice to ripen'. Here's an excerpt:

Perhaps, Bardot's most formidable asset, in the typical French fashion, was that she didn't care. When Jane Birkin made Don Juan with her in 1973, she was stunned: "[Brigitte] never wanted to do a film that was outside France because she didn't want to leave her dear France. She seemed to have no ambition whatsoever, which made her a very curiously attractive creature because she was never seeking any sort of approval. To the contrary, it didn't seem to matter at all. She just didn't care. "

"She was indifferent to the power she had," says French writer and playwright Paul Fournel. "She didn't really want to be an actress, a singer or a sex symbol, but it just happened that way. She had such a physical presence. She had a way to manage her beauty, which was very forward-looking. The woman she was in 1956 was already the woman post-1968. She was so modern that way." Nicole Farhi agrees: "She loved living barefoot without a care in the world, and certainly without a care of what people might say about her. All this is very French."

For the full text go here

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Look and see!

It could be said, then, that the best answer to "What is everything?" is "Look and see!"
Alan Watts: The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Das Ende meiner Sucht

"Das Ende meiner Sucht" von Olivier Ameisen ist ein unbedingt lesenswertes Buch, das davon berichtet, wie der Autor, ein erfolgreicher Arzt und Wissenschaftler, seinen Weg aus der Alkoholabhängigkeit gefunden hat. Dabei hat Ameisen eine aussergewöhnliche Entdeckung gemacht, die bisher von den meisten im Bereich der Suchtherapie Tätigen nicht zur Kenntnis genommen wird. Dies erstaunt nicht, denn radikal neuen Erkenntnissen sind immer schon Steine in den Weg gelegt worden. Doch der Reihe nach:

Olivier Ameisen ist Alkoholiker und hat so ziemlich alles versucht, was an gängigen Angeboten zur Suchtbekämpfung vorhanden ist - Psychopharmaka, Rational Recovery, Meetings der Anonymen Alkoholiker (AA), Aufenthalte in Entzugskliniken - zudem betrieb er Sport und Yoga, doch nichts davon hielt ihn für längere Zeit vom Trinken ab. Dies lag nicht daran, dass er zuwenig motiviert war. So schreibt er:

"Das Konzept von Rational Recovery (RR) sprach mich sehr an. Die zentralen Voraussetzungen sind, dass Alkoholismus keine biologische Erkrankung ist, sondern ein Verhaltensproblem, das der Betroffenen mit seinen eigenen mentalen Ressourcen überwinden kann. Nach meiner Erfahrung erwiesen sich jedoch die "innere Macht", die bei RR eine so grosse Rolle spielt, und die "grössere Macht" (das hat der Autor falsch verstanden oder es ist ein Übersetzungsfehler, die AA-Literatur spricht von einer "höheren", nicht von einer "grösseren" Macht) der AA als ohnmächtig angesichts der überwältigenden Macht meines von Angst getriebenen Verlangens nach Alkohol. Entweder fehlte es mir entschieden an Willenskraft und/oder Spiritualität, oder meine Form des Alkoholismus hatte eine fundamentale biologische Komponente, die man mit Medikamenten würde angehen müssen."

Olivier Ameisen hat, wie viele Alkoholiker, sein Leben lang an Unzulänglichkeitsgefühlen gelitten und war sich "vorgekommen wie ein Hochstapler, der demnächst enttarnt werden würde. Schon lange bevor ich mit dem Trinken angefangen hatte, hatte ich Therapien gemacht. Ehrlich gesagt, hatten sie bei meinen Ängsten nicht viel geholfen." Sprach er mit Medizinern oder mit AAs über seine Ängste, meinten sie meist, diese würden verschwinden, wenn er mit dem Saufen (die deutsche Übersetzung spricht dauernd vom "Trinken", doch was Ameisen tat, war ganz klar "saufen") aufhöre. Doch dem war nicht so. "Ich litt an Ängsten, lange bevor ich Alkoholiker wurde. Aber alle, die mich wegen meiner Alkoholsucht behandelten, ignorierten diesen Punkt, wie oft ich ihn auch wiederholte."

Das Saufen wurde, trotz vieler dramatischer Versuche gegenzusteuern, schlimmer; die Abstürze wurden dramatischer - er brach sich Rippen und Handgelenk (für einen begabten Pianisten wie Ameisen eine ganz besondere Katastrophe) - , verfügte aber immer über genügend privilegierte Verbindungen, um jeweils wieder glücklich aus dem Schlamassel herauszukommen. Dabei gehört es zu den Stärken dieses Buches, dass es ungeschminkt benennt, was es zu benennen gilt: "Die Wahrheit ist, dass kein Abhängiger/keine Abhängige so viel Zeit zum Entzug bekommt, wie er oder sie braucht, sondern nur so viel, wie er oder sie sich leisten kann," Und: "Da es keine bewährte Therapie gibt, liegt der Hauptnutzen einer Entzugsklinik darin, dass sie dem Süchtigen die dringend nötige Pause vom Alkohol oder einer anderen Substanz oder Verhaltensweise bringt." Sicher, das auch, doch den wirklichen Hauptnutzen hat der Klinikbetreiber, für den der Entzug oft einfach nur ein Geschäft ist. Wer nachliest, wie Ameisen aus der Klinik Clear Spring ("das Ritz unter den Entzugskliniken") verwiesen wird, weil seine Versicherung die 500 US-Dollar pro Tag nicht mehr zahlte, hat diesbezüglich keine Illusionen mehr.

Es ist ein Wunder, dass Ameisen aus seiner Abwärtsspirale schliesslich herausfindet. Dass er es schafft, hat mit ganz verschiedenen Faktoren zu tun, doch entscheidend damit, dass er durch einen Artikel in der New York Times auf ein Medikament namens Baclofen stiess, welches das Craving unterdrückt. "Verlangen oder Craving ist ein schwer fassbarer Begriff, weil er körperliche, emotionale und mentale Symptome umfasst, die in Wellen über Stunden und Tage hinweg auftreten. Für mich war es eine brutale Tatsache des Lebens. Im schlimmsten Fall, das haben Forschungen gezeigt, ist das Verlangen nach einem Suchtmittel wie der Hunger eines verhungernden Menschen: Die gleichen Hormone werden freigesetzt und die gleichen Gehirnregionen aktiviert. Das Nationale Institut für Alkoholmissbrauch und Alkoholismus (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, NIAAA) hat festgestellt, dass das Verlangen nach Alkohol sogar schlimmer sein kann als Hunger oder Durst und dass, wenn der Alkoholismus den Betroffenen im Griff hat, das Gehirn Alkohol als lebensnotwendig ansieht."

Baclofen, ein Mittel, das gegen Muskelkrämpfe verschrieben wurde, soll das Craving unterdrücken können? Ameisen hat es im Selbstversuch getestet, und ja, es hat gewirkt. Ein paar wenige Ärzte haben es bisher an Patienten ausprobiert, und ja, es hat gewirkt. Nein, nicht bei allen. Denn auch wenn man, wie Ameisen das tut, Abhängigkeit als eine biologische Krankheit versteht, muss ein Patient zuallererst immer noch ausreichend mit dem Saufen aufhören wollen. Zudem: 12-Schritte-Programme und andere Verhaltenstherapien wird es nach wie vor brauchen, denn diese sind vor allem nach 6 bis 18 Monaten Abstinenz am wirksamsten.

Fazit: eine in vielerlei Hinsicht empfehlenswerte Lektüre, nicht zuletzt, wegen Sätzen wie diesen: "Mir war seit Langem klar, dass Alkoholiker und andere Abhängige nicht mit dem üblichen Mass an Mitgefühl und Fürsorge rechnen können, wenn sie medizinische Hilfe brauchen." Und: "Die Wahrheit lautet, dass meine Mutter und meine Geschwister nichts hätten tun können, um mich von meinem schweren Alkoholismus zu heilen, Was ich von ihnen brauchte und was die Angehörigen aller Suchtkranken nur so schwer in einer Weise geben können, dass der Suchtkranke es annehmen kann, waren Liebe und Mitgefühl."

Dr. Olivier Ameisen
Das Ende meiner Sucht
Verlag Antje Kunstmann, München 2009

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Transatlantic Differences

Remember the debates about (North) American and European mentalities when G.W. Bush was in office (unelected - I'm still convinced or is this just my wishful thinking?) and many commentators seemed to believe that the U.S. and Europe drifted apart because of Cheney and Rumsfeld etc.? I happened to believe then and I happen to believe now that North American and European mainstream attitudes are signifîcantly different whether Obama or Cheney is in power. A recent article by Mary Dejevsky in The Independent highlights an interesting aspect of these differences. Here's an excerpt:

"The point is that, when on "normal", the needle of the US barometer is not only quite a way to the political right of where it would be in Europe, but showing a very different atmospheric level, too. For there is a mean and merciless streak in mainstream US attitudes, which tolerates much more in the way of inequality, deprivation and suffering than is acceptable here, while incorporating a large and often sanctimonious quotient of blame.

This transatlantic difference goes far beyond the healthcare debate. Consider the give-no-quarter statements out of the US on the release of the Lockerbie bomber – or the continued application of the death penalty, or the fact that excessive violence is far more common a cause for censorship of US films in Europe than sex. Or even, in documents emerging from the CIA, a different tolerance threshold where torture and terrorism are concerned.

Some put the divergence down to the ideological rigidity that led Puritans and others to flee to America in the first place; others to the ruthless struggle for survival that marked the early settlement years and the conquest of the West. Still others see it as the price the US pays for its material success. What it means, though, is that if and when Obama gets some form of health reform through, it will reflect America's fears quite as much as its promise. And it is unlikely to be a national service that looks anything like ours."

For the full text, go here

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Brazil, the smallest big country in the world

Brazil is the smallest big country in the world. Although it is the fifth largest nation on the planet, four times the size of Mexico and more than twice that of India, the Brazil where most Brazilians live, work and play forms only a small fraction of the country's total landmass of 8,509,711 sq. km (3,285,618 sq. miles). One in four people crowd into five metropolitan areas in the southern part of the country.
Together, the southern and southeastern states contain more than 60 percent of Brazil's population yet account for only 16 percent of the country's geographic area. In effect, 98 million Brazilians live in an area slightly smaller than Alaska, while another 66 million populate an area the size of the continental United States minus Texas. What Brazil has is space - enormous regions of vast, empty space.
Insight Guide Brazil, 2000

Friday, 18 September 2009

Pictures that I like (8)

In Paese @ Antonia Zennaro

When I recently came across the homepage of Antonia Zennaro, a young photographer living in Hamburg, and studying at the Danish Journalism School in Aarhus - for her impressively international CV, go to - I was especially fascinated by her Italian pics that seemed to originate from another era. The one shown here was taken in 2006, in San Giovanni di Fiore, a mountain village in Calabria. It was Sunday, and Antonia, who had to do an assignment for the photography course in Rome that she was then attending, was walking through the village streets looking for possible pictures. Her big format camera (a Sinar) caused a lot of interest and so, in Antonia's own words, "there were no troubles to take a picture of a family with neighbours. The mother had to hurry because the food was in the oven, but in the end she gave me the time to get this moment."

I not only like this picture, I also like Antonia's description of how it came about for it is indeed the people portrayed who, by giving their time, made the photo of this moment possible.