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)