Friday, December 05, 2008

Waltz with Bashir


I wrote a review on Waltz with Bashir on my Jerusalem Blog, for those interested.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Marx on the 73

An idea for a short story/film:

Karl Marx is sitting on the 73 bus, on his way to the British Library. He is deep in thoughts when a group of gorgeous 17-year old Somali girls board the bus and take every seat possible around him (some of them sit on top of each other). They're wearing veils and make-up, and constantly play on their mobile phones, and shouting in an East London accent.

He is thinking:
-The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation into a mere money relation.
The girl in front y are saying: My room is getting refurbished!
-Ah yeah?
-Yes I'm gonna paint in gold!

He is thinking:
-only in so far as it is itself a product of labour, and, therefore, potentially variable in value, can gold serve as a measure of value.
She is saying:
I love what you did to your eyebrows.
Ah yeah
Coz you know, before you were a bit ugly, with those round eyes you have.

Marx continues to grimace:
- In the eyes of each other we are nothing but exchange-values.

another obscure visual sign

Only Goths (or rollerbladers) can put their feet on the seats.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Thinking about the financial crisis

I am taking this opportunity to think out loud. I don't know much about finance: what I know I learnt mostly in the past month. Beyond the prospects of a recession or even depression, there are questions of history and politics that I am thinking about.

In the last fifteen years' debates on globalisation and its discontents, I can't remember anyone mentioning finance as a serious issue. The evils of multinational corporations, the harsh realities of migration, imperial wars and neo-colonialism, the spreading epidemic of neo-liberalism: all these are well familiar by now. Certainly the transfer of wealth and dispossession were discussed. But not the implications of an unregulated global financial system. We all have been looking at the real effects: the degradation of our environment, the exploitation of people, resource depletion. But the greatest Ginnie of them all, the global credit bubble and its financial weapons of mass destruction, seemed to have escaped us.

In retrospect, it comes as no surprise that financial systems were among the most daring in this brave new world. Unlike goods or workers, capital weighs nothing and does not need passports to cross borders. It's transparent, fluid, and always eagerly received. There are fewer and fewer limits on its circulation, and the limits that are still in place have been circumvented by the new forms of non-state money - the whole array of innovative financial products that very few seem to understand, and whose total value is now more than ten times the size of the global economy.

Speed is a key factor, and one of the things that make this crisis different from previous ones. Today all it takes is a laptop and a wireless broadband connection to trade in the world's stock exchanges. With so many people online, and very few out of reach of a mobile phone, the effects of information and news are almost immediate. Crises unfold in hours, rather than in weeks. Stampedes become deadlier.

Deregulation enabled the financial sector to consolidate its grip on capital. Money always passed through bankers' hands, and was very much created by them. But in the last twenty years their aspirations grew and grew. If you wanted to become filthy rich, the best way was to be a banker, a solicitor, or a real estate developer. My guess - I do not have the numbers to back it up - is that more and more, bankers and their associates, not industrialists or retail magnates, are the alpha males of the capitalist class.

This is important at a moment of crisis. Governments say they are bailing out the banks because without them, this economic system would collapse. And it is no doubt true that the capitalist economy cannot function without the financial sector. But the bankers' main point is different: it is to ensure that they don't lose out. There is an obvious contradiction there, and the issue is far bigger than yearly bonuses. The crisis is still unfolding and could get much worse. To expect governments in liberal states to protect the large public, or even the middle class, is to expect them to turn against the bankers - an unlikely scenario. At times of crisis the state does not turn against the most powerful class; it follows its orders. Certainly not in our day and age - when the demise of trade unions left no real opponent in the ring.

But even if governments wanted to do something about it, it is questionable if they could, because of the global nature of the Ginnie: no one government could put it into the bottle. There were indications of this in the last few weeks, when capital outflows brought states to their knees within days (Iceland, Hungary, Ukraine, Pakistan). The frightening weakness of global frameworks is exposed, they are slow and ineffective, with endless discussions and concerns over loss of national sovereignty. At the same time, the strongest global players - the world's banks, insurance companies and co. - are making the notion of sovereignty a sad joke.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Two days ago I saw a couple shoplifting. I used to have this somewhat-glorified image of the professional shoplifter as cool and nonchalant, like magicians, with a sleight of hand, expensive merchandise ending up in their bags. Poof! Now you see it, now you don't. But whenever I saw shoplifters in shops they didn't look anything like that. They were nervous and hysterical, their movements obvious and hasty.

First I saw this guy, looking almost elegant with his faded jacket, walking around in circles in front of the shop. His eyes were full of fear and agitation. Then I noticed the woman who was going in and out of the shop, bringing goodies in her coat. He was on the verge of losing it, but she kept going inside, bringing more and more. I think it was expensive perfume they were after. No sleight of hand involved, just take and take, grab and grab , before it's too late. They were just taking advantage of the toilet break of the security guard who I believe could not care less.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

For the past week, the British mainstream media has been busy discussing a story of foul-language prank played by two BBC radio broadcasters. I don't buy the newspapers but I see them lying on the streets, and read the headlines as I cycle passed shop fronts. So these are the front pages: Will the broadcasters they be suspended? will they resign? will they... whatever? I don't even know what the whole fuss is about (I guess the use of words like fuck and cunt before 8pm).

I cannot express my amazement at this trivial pursuit while on the edge of a precipice. Here we are on the verge of a deep recession, possibly a depression, the collapse of an economic paradigm, and this is what they talk about? Here we are, with a new report backed by Virgin and other companies saying we are five years away from peak oil - but let's talk about foul language, and BBC policies, and celebrity bad boys.

Is this burying heads in the sand? A symptom of denial? Or a truly provincial navel-gazing attitude? I'm not sure.

Monday, October 27, 2008

obscure visual signs: do not chop off the tram seat you're sitting on


Zurich provided me with some very interesting signs, more to follow

Notes from Zurich

It wasn’t a good start. I was late for a job interview and we were still circling above the airport. “There has been an… incident in Zurich airport ” said the captain, clearing his throat “we will be landing 40 minutes late”. Later as we approached I could see the crashed aircraft on the ground, a few metres from the runway, and the emergency vehicles parked around it, but no special motion: the story was over, and as far as I could judge, it ended badly. To compensate passengers for the delay, the aircrew walked smiling through the plane offering an extra round of little Swiss milk chocolate. I declined.


------------------------------------------------


On the guesthouse website the neighbourhood was described as "young and unconventional", so I guessed streetwalkers and gentrification, and I was not wrong. Arriving at night I noticed the cozy designer bars, as well as the red-light parlour just opposite the hotel. In the morning, searching for an squatted art gallery called “the massage parlour”, a guy approached me on the street corner. “Kokain?” he said bluntly. I was never offered cocaine on the street. I didn’t think I look the type. To begin with, I can’t afford it. But maybe in Switzerland it’s different.

---------------------------------------------

In the municipal tourist brochure I find pages and pages of adverts for prostitutes, "non-professionals, absolutely beautiful ... exciting modes and very young Callgirls". I am surprised, but then I think again. Calvinist societies seem to be liberal when it comes to sexwork: this should not be mistaken with broad-mindedness or progressiveness. The legalisation of the sex trade seems symptomatic of societies obsessed with regulation and control, it allows the state more efficient taxation and supervision. Especially where every citizen is an honorary policewoman. – Later on, the guesthouse owner, a widely-travelled arty character in her 50s, says to me of the red-light parlour across the road: prostitution is not a problem, but then you always worry, you can never be sure: are they legal here?


---------------------------------------------


Like in many other places in Europe, everybody is complaining about the immigrants, taking the jobs, bringing wages down, driving the cost of living up. In Switzerland they’re talking not about Polish or African people, but Germans. It’s been a few years that Switzerland joined the Shengen treaty, and now labour is crossing the border almost freely. Switzerland resisted this for many years, but eventually, the idol of capital demands its sacrifices.


--------------------------------------


The traditional, conservative image of Switzerland is important for its brand image. But the events of this month showed that this is perhaps no more than an image. The major Swiss banks UBS and Credit Suisse have sunk together with the global ship, no safer than anywhere else. The bubble did not fail to visit Zurich. Swiss exposure to East European “emerging” economies is estimated at 50% of the country’s GDP. In plainspeak: Swiss banks gave loans to companies in Hungary, Ukraine and other countries, equal to half of Switzerland economy. This appears now as quite stupid.

But in praise of Swiss citizens it has to be said that they are demonstrating against this carnival. In Zurich I saw a demonstration against the UBS bailout (the bank received some $6 billion from the government). Where are these demonstrations in the rest of the world? How is it that millions of people are letting governments gamble away with their money with such ease?

The events of the past month have unfolded so quickly that I assume people did not have yet time to digest whatever is happening. And the numbers sound so great that they stop meaning anything. But they mean a lot. Up to 4 trillion dollars were raised within a couple of weeks to save the banks. What happened to fiscal restraint? I guess it wasn’t that important after all. Was the money there all along? Then why didn’t they use it for education, health, poverty reduction, the environment?

This crisis is sure enough to bring real misery to billions, and I dread to think of the implications of a sudden banking collapse. A global run on the banks: it could still happen. So governments try to save the banks, fine, but what about changing the rules? What about some changes in personell? What about claiming something in return? For the moment, the rules are not changed: the same leaders, the same bankers, the same music, spend and loan. In the UK, the same banks that have been saved by taxpayers are now forcing the same taxpayers to sell their homes to pay back £1,000 loans.



Wednesday, October 22, 2008

In Zurich

Earlier this evening I watched people in the Supermarket. They were making choices, silently, observing their options, contemplating slowly, comparing prices and packaging. But this was the wine section, or the meat. It was the chocoloate section.

I brought dahl and rice with me on the plane and cooked dinner in the guesthouse: a pete-style dahl, with tomatoes and coconut cream, and then I added this strange UFO-style swiss orange squash. I have a kitchen here and even cumin and ground corriander are provided .

For evening entertainment, I'm reading the automatic earth and I don't know what to think. These guys think we're over: that this is the big one. Last drinks for Capitalism. It looks like they know a thing or two on how the business work. The basic line is: this is a fictional economy, and all novels have an ending.

This is not unfamiliar stuff. You know: the contradiction of exponential growth in a finite world. The fiction of value - you know, the credit card in your wallet? it's plastic. - I knew a day of reckoning will come, when people realize, it's just plastic, and paper - it's worthless, meaningless. How long can this monopopy game continue? well, as long as we all believe in it, it will, and until we run of the last jungle spot to build a hotel on. I was hoping we still have a while to go before we reach these points, even with peak oil and all that. But the guys on the automatic earth think we're nearly there. Soon we'll reachthe no-return point when the system stops believing its bedtime stories.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

3 special poridge haikus for the financial meltdown

solace, solace, so
staring into the abyss
stirring, round and round

+ + +

Not liquidity
tahini is the answer
for morning panics

+ + +

as screens go bright red
and bankers choke on croissons
go long on rolled oats
.

Monday, September 22, 2008

UCLA

I stumbled into the Young Library at UCLA, carrying two heavy suitcases of books to return. I stopped at the sofas near the issue desk.
"Are you English?"
The man addressing me in a loud voice had very few teeth, John Lennon glasses, and a long grey hair. He was slouching and his feet were on the small table in front of him.
"Are you English?" he asked again.
No, I'm not. But I live in London.
And where are you originally from?
Israel.
"Ah, Israel..." he grimaced, emitting a sigh of obvious disgust.
Maybe he realized that was rude, because he then said
"But at least in some ways you're progressive, I hear you openly recruit gays to work in your MI5".
I replied that I deserved neither credit nor blame for the Shin-Bet recruiting policies.
"Of course not! Because you don't work for them, you work for the Mossad! Ha! Ha!"
He walked off pleased with himself, muttering long sentences to no one in particular.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

There's no place like OM

Having arrived to California, signing up in a yoga centre seemed inevitable. I took a 10-class pass and tried six different teachers. Yoga in LA is quite unlike yoga in London. Here are my conclusions:

Thank you (not) for the music - almost all the teachers arrive with their ipods and play music throughout the class. It ranges between new age chanting with electronic drums in the background, sanskrit mantras in an American accent - all the way to James Blunt "You're Beautiful", which really felt like an aerobic class. Most horrible is music during the final relaxation pose, shavasna - it's the "corpse pose", damnit, and corpses don't have i-pods.

Chanting - all classes involved at least three OMs in the beginning and end, but some went further to chant long mantras. I am not especially fond of chanting, especially in a language I do not understand. I did notice however that my OMs in the end of the class were far deeper and longer than the ones in the beginning. I guess I got into it.

Yoga and capitalism - how can a system of thought and activity preaching wholeness, equanimity, and detachment from the material life, be so popular in the motherland of greed? On the face of it there is a contradiction there. One teacher described her former life as a TV producer and how now she found peace in her body, escaping the race of ambition and achievements. But I think that on some level there is no contradiction. The new-age super-individualistic focus on self-fulfillment sits well with both Yoga and late capitalism. As one yoga teacher said at the end of the class: love yourself, so others can love you as well.

You can see that I found much to object to, but still I had to admit at the end of each and every class that the teachers were professional and excellent. Anyone doing yoga knows that the class depends on the teacher, and all of them maintained good flow and attention to the students.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Library

The day we arrived, we circled the library twice and found all doors closed. The sun was making eyes squint, and the whole place was very quiet. A small red brick villa - but was it really here? Finally we found the servants' entrance, and rang the bell (it is permanently locked; a librarian has to let you in and out). The door opened, and we descended into the scholarly basement. Our air-conditioned summer has begun.

Downstairs, in the big reading room, there are only a few windows and no direct day light. Continue down the corridor, to the scholars' carrels and the secondary books stacks, and you are underground, florescent lights, and squeaking floor. It feels like a military bunker, or a prison. At the end of this short walk is the lounge, room with Vanity Fair magazines, a fridge and microwave and free tea and coffee, even free pop corn. All the scholars have their lunches there. We smuggle ourselves outside to the garden - carrying our lentil salads, rice and plums - strip ourselves from the wooly jumpers (it is very cold inside) and cover our eyes for protection from the burning colours.

The green lawns are huge, and they stupidly water them in the middle of the day. There are also water features, and a heavy tree whose name I do not know, but I think of it as the baobab. It's thick arms and fingers run a long way from its stem, and the fruits are painfully heavy when they fall (no picnics underneath it then). The librarian has arranged a table for us on the terrace on the other side of the garden (they are very forthcoming here), and we sit, the three of us, and talk, on eighteenth century march songs, on families, on unemployment in France.

The whole place is deserted. Sometimes somebody ventures in from the street; a woman with her dog; even a whole kindergarten once. But usually there is no one, except for the mystery Hassidic man that is sitting on the fence with his back to us, very far away (sometimes I think I am imagining him, but then he moves to reassure me of his existence). And yes, there is the libray cat (his pet food paid by the University).

The library was built in a real-estate gamble in what was to be Los Angeles's better quarter; but history ruled otherwise, and the area sunk into poverty from which it is unlikely to ever recover. Perhaps this is the reason for the constant locking of the library doors; it feels more like an outpost than a welcoming public institution. I wonder what happens when the revolution comes; will the angry neighbours burn the early modern manuscripts, smash the Eric Gill sculptures, and have barbeque on the lawns?

The place has privilege written all over it; the story is typical. First, a ruthless man carves an empire of wealth from railroads, oil or mining. Then, his descendants ensure an honourable reputation for the family through Culture, (with a capital c: European culture), championing classical music and paintings, books and libraries, universities and concert halls. And from then on, generations of scholars and artists will bask in the benevolence of the great man. A three step plan from exploitation to finesse, from the hard realities of the world to the genteel pursuit of knowledge and art. But what role do we play – the scholars who come and enjoy this privilege for one summer? Apologists? Collaborators? Lucky winners (not only free coffee and internet; somehow we fooled the rich to support our cause)? I am not entirely sure. When I think about it, this bastion (or bunker) of knowledge, with its back to its poor neighbours, brings out the unease I feel about the prospects and meaning of scholarship. But then again, the red-brick building at the centre of a large empty park, a strange construction of eclectic qualities, usually feels more like a ruin than a palace.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Valero

We could have chosen not to hire a car: there is a surprising number of cyclists on the road, and public transport from our house to the library is reasonable. But a car makes it much easier to go to the beach and Pasadena and other places after work. It's a strange experience: I've hardly driven in the past six years.

One of things I noticed first was the Valero gas-stations. I immediately thought of Valero I know from Jerusalem, the rich Sephardi banker who had offices near Jaffa gate around 1900. The great charity of Mr. Valero is often mentioned in contemporary accounts, as well as the fact that had a black slave, who converted to Judaism (the writers saw no contradiction between these two facts). I wondered if the Valeros hit the big times in California.

Well, I followed this up and found that no, there is no relation between the two Valeros - except for their Spanish roots, and the early modern history of Spanish religious persecution and colonialism. The gas station corporation is named after Mission San Antonio de Valero (known better as "the Alamo") in Texas. I found a Valero village in Spain south of Salamanca; perhaps the Jerusalem Valeros and San Antonio used to be neighbours.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

heretical musings on the British class system

Ever since I have come to the UK I have been intrigued by the British class obsession. It is hard not to be: class is the defining fissure running through British society, the primary category of identification, usually coming before region, religion, or ethnic origins. But I always felt that the class discourse is somewhat fake; or rather, that class had become an "ethnic community", defining origins rather than a socio-economic category referring to one's wealth, income, and occupation. "Class" is not really about class, it's about family roots, cultural attachment, accent, a sense of identity and history. These things often relate to economic realities, in the same way that in other places, ethnic identity can determine one's socio-economic status - but not necessarily. The most tasteless example of the weakening correlation between British “class” and socio-economics is a research from last year, which found half a million Britons who defined themselves as "working class" while earning above £100,000 a year; three out of ten bank managers saw themselves as working class.

This is not to say that Britain has become a classless society. If anything it is the opposite. Income inequality is the highest in
Western Europe. Almost three decades of "free market" rampage have resulted in greater wealth, but also in bigger gaps between regions and income groups. In relative income terms, the rich are getting richer, while the poor and the middle income groups lose out. The wholesale annihilation of the manufacturing industries contributed to the development of an urban underclass whose chances of long-term employment are meagre (the non-working working class). Immigrant workers seldom fit into the stereotypical class system, but they are often the ones taking the lowest-paying jobs and working in the worst conditions. On illegal or semi-legal workers one hears only when they die in dozens in criminal accidents (the invisible working class).

Ultimately, the British class obsession serves the interests of the richest, as it obscures economic changes with a nostalgic attachment to long-gone realities. Look at the numbers and you will see: middle-income households are being squeezed; poor families face real hardship as food and fuel prices skyrocket; and the richest are constantly improving their position. Britain has become more affluent in the last thirty years, and even the poorest are in some ways better off. But this has come at the price of accumulating a mountain of household debt in mortgages and credit cards that paid for New Labour cornucopia; at the same time, the realities of income have shifted in favour of the richest 30%, who now control about 60% of income. Framing this story through the sentimental clich├ęs of upper, middle, and working class does not help to understand it.

Friday, August 01, 2008

The end of flying

Almost a year ago I participated in the Heathrow Climate Camp. I never got to write a long blog entry about it - having to move house and the PhD write-up took higher priority. I still have my notes from last year; I hope to do something with them one day.

The declared goal of the camp was to stop the construction of a Heathrow 3rd runway, and to draw attention to the damage of aviation to the climate. The battle on the runway is still not concluded.

Most of the talks I went to in the camp did not deal specifically with aviation, but when speakers referred to it, it was clear that ending aviation as we know it is essential to stop climate change. At the same time, airplanes were taking off over our heads every 50 seconds; we were sitting in the heart of fly-mad Europe, cheap airlines heaven, tickets at 1p to places you never heard of.

Despite all the enthusiasm and optimism that activists' gatherings often generate, I could not imagine the aviation industry shutting down because of environmental concerns. In 'business as usual' scenarios, emissions from airport expansions would offset a considerable amount of the emissions cuts planned in the UK, if not all. But I could not see any chance of governments taking steps to prevent this. I could also not see a chance of convincing a large enough section of the population to stop flying.

I know a couple of people who decided to stop, or severely limit their flights due to global warming concerns. I respect and admire their choice, but never believed this is a viable course of action. Citizens of rich countries were never going to give up the right to fly. Governments were never going to make their voters angry in such a way.

But flying as we have known it in the last decade is going to come to an end. High oil prices have come to the rescue. 25 airlines have closed in the last year, and still more will follow. Fuel price hikes have taken all their profits away; no airline can make a profit at oil prices above $100 a barrel. British Airways are changing their plans so that they can survive at $150 p/b: this means less flights, higher prices, and emphasis on business class. But what happens when oil reaches $200p/b - and it will, in the next five years? Flying again is becoming a luxury that only upper middle class families will be able to afford.

Peak Oil - the end of the cheap oil era, the stagnating and falling oil production around the world - is not going to save us from climate change, or end this car-based-civilisation; much can go wrong. But aviation is about to become a dead horse. For environmentalists, focusing on an industry going bust does not make much sense anymore (still it would be good to prevent spending public money on expanding airports that will never be used - and the chances to stop Heathrow's 3rd runways are better than they were last year). Instead I believe activists should focus on other things: fighting the comeback of coal; pushing renewable energy, and public transport; and perhaps most urgently, stopping food-based biofuels.

What is important however is that the end of flying is understood for what it is: not a temporary hardship, caused by evil speculators and oil companies. Neither it is, as some would put it, a problem of 'geological constraints', the fact that we are running out of a natural resource; rather this is the logical result of a reckless way of living; a civilisation which is consuming all it can for short-term profit; a cannibalistic system which burns what it finds today and thinks not about tomorrow.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Little Armenia

The flat in L.A. is close to an area known as "little Armenia" (there's a big sign to tell foreingers). There's lots of shops with Armenian signs on them. Sometimes, if I don't look carefully, I think it's Thai - just down the road is "Thai Town", so it's a bit confusing.

It's strange to go into these Armenian grocery shops. The feeling is very, very familiar, it reminds me of Jerusalem, or of the Turkish shops in Hackney. In the groceries I find vegetables, yogourts and cheese, bread, olives, tahini... and across the street, Burekas (pastry full of spinach/cheese/potatoes), Lahmajun, and yogurt drinks.

When I grew up in Jerusalem I used to think of Armenians as different, foreign to the region - mainly, I suppose, because they're Christians. I imagined them as some kind of European people that happened to find themselves in the Middle East. Considering my own east-European ancestory, it now seems like a projection. In those shops I see how ridiculous to think of Armenians as foreigners. The language sounds like Turkish to me (I'm sure they would disagree). They look and talk like Arabs from Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, or some Jews, or Turks.

But sometimes people in the shop speak Russian - I guess they come from proper ex-Soviet Armenia - and then I get even more confused. Suddenly the shop becomes like one of these Russian immigrants' shops in Jerusalem.

The game of identities is ultimately limited. If there's anything common between all these places/peoples of Eastern front, (our West Asia), it is the inevitable melange, in Los Angeles or Beirut, that even after a century of ethnic cleansing and indoctrination continues to defy homogeneity. This may be a feel-good conclusion, but I don't care.

PS: Armanian beer rocks - nice, full bodied, slighlty bitter lager, all the way from Yerevan

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Los Angeles. America

What can I say? Everything is as you would expect it to be. The palm trees are tall. The toilets' flushing containers are huge. The car parks never end. The coffee is weak. The sun is strong. The people always ask me how I am. The sidewalks (pavements) are wide, but few people walk, and they seem to be mainly Mexicans and, in fewer numbers, white trash drunks.

California is over-familiar from all those US culture industry products, so there is hardly any room for surprise. It's the world as we know it, even if we've never been here. On some level it is reassuring but it also causes anxiety. I constantly expect movie scenes to happen on the Freeway, or waiting in the queue in the bank, when exactly does the mass-shooting start?

Strangely, I feel at home. I don't know why. I don't think it's only because of all those movies. I think it's mainly about the climate, which is pretty close to the Middle East as you can get.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

I'm in Los Angeles


Will be in Autopia for the next two months.

Monday, June 30, 2008

It's Dr. mink from now on

Today I had my phd examination and yes, I am now officially Dr. Mink.

I want to quote from the acknwoledgments of my thesis:

Finally, I want to dedicate this work to my many London friends and housemates, without whom I could not have undertaken and completed this project. You gave me a home, cooked me dinners, stood by me in rough times, and shared my moments of joy. You not only taught me much, from fixing bicycles, [and changing locks] to cooking dahl, but also gave me a chance to challenge my once-firm beliefs about the world; an invaluable experience for everyone and especially for those in the field of intellectual production. This is for Sara, Fiona, Michael, Tanya, Guiller, Soraya, Caterina, Justyna, Pillar, Blu, Kali, Amy, Gary, Saul, Luke, Natasha, Pete, Elvina, Renneck, Greg, Chris, Jenny, Oscar, Eleanor, Paola, Medina, Latifa, Sammy, Mario, Iris, Mada, Rowyda, and many others, with gratitude, solidarity, and love.



Thursday, June 19, 2008

Dinner

Sometimes the workers of cafes take special care to destroy left over food; to frustrate attempts to live off this waste; to dissuade you from opening their bin-bags. They retrace their steps: unwrap the humus wraps, open the sandwich packaging, empty the sealed salad trays. After spending much time preparing these food items, they now destroy them, or rather, create a big pile of couscous, bread, and chopped salad.

Whether this is a company policy or a local initiative of the branch boss - you do not know. You suspect the reason is "health and safety": these corporations fear that someone could sue them for catching some disease from eating their leftover sandwiches (one hour out of date, one hour out of the fridge). A number of people have suggested this but there could also be other reasons - some people leaving a mess when digging for food, or perhaps some basic spite against freeloaders.

Other people would perhaps call in the branch to enquire, and ask the workers: why are you doing this? Were you told to? Do you mind leaving it for people who eat it? - the workers are after all only workers, not corporate pawns, but this is not your style. There is the cafe in its working hours, where you would not venture by; and there is the closed cafe after seven, where you search for food. The two worlds cannot meet.

Today, again, you encounter this depressing sight of a heap of discarded food. But this is such an infuriating sight that it makes your leisurely adventure into a mission. It is simply wrong, to throw away so much food, but making it inaccessible is criminal. And so you dig in. There must be something you can find. And of course, there is: with so much packaging and wrapping it is simply impossible for the poor employees (probably dying to go home) to unpack each and every salad. You take them out, one by one: two ham and cheese baguettes; a hummus wrap; a bottle of freshly squeezed orange juice; a small tub of yogurt with honey and forest fruits; two sandwiches with free-range chicken; two small side salads, one of green beans and the other of courgette and feta cheese. All had to be shaken a bit from couscous, but still in their wrappings, still ready to be eaten. You look over your bounty with pride; saved from the landfill, despite everything. Food scavenging is such an empowering experience. On the way back to college, you look at your reflection at the bank windows, and notice that, for the first time today, you smile.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

10.00-12.30: Analysis

Write using quantifiers what it means, when


a) lim f (x) = ∞,

x->∞

b) lim f (x) = b,

x->∞

c) lim f (x) = ∞
x->∞


The exams period presents to invigilators the question of difference in the high education system. Put simply: the exams papers are of a standard rectangular shape, and so are the answer booklets. One finds oneself often in the same class room day after day, filling the same forms, announcing the same announcements. All exams are the same for us, but the students are different. The computer science people never resemble the medieval history crowd (crowd may be a bit exaggerated term in the case of medieval studies). As an invigilator one has a lot of time to stare at a group of people and you inevitably starts to think of gender, race, and social reproduction through choices of learning. When it gets really boring, you start playing the equal opportunities (affirmative action) officer, counting categories: male/female, black and white, pensioners and below 30.

The college is relatively a progressive one and was established in order to make university education accessible to people who could not afford to take three years off. All classes are in the evenings and most courses are part-time, so people with jobs and families can take them. As a result, it represents better than other colleges (you believe) London's population in its diversity. From your position as a bored invigilator collecting haphazard impressions you can establish that women make a third to two thirds of students, and that "people of colour" make typically a third to half of classes, like they do in the metropolitan. But this of course varies from one exam to another. In this mathematics exam this morning eight out of twelve were black (African) or Asian (i.e. from the Indian subcontinent). Only one woman student out of 12.

When it comes to race, these generalisations are crude as some black people are third generation British, while the "whites" are - very often - Greek or Lithuanians who have not been here long. And how do you count Turkish people? Does being Muslim make you black? Are Jews white enough by now (they weren't a century ago)? The whole thing is quite tasteless. But then, unavoidable. Difference exists in society, and it informs people's choices. Black students, for example, are more likely to take science and business classes, and less likely to take English and History. It's been interesting to follow the Polish immigration through the invigilations: four years ago there was barely one polish student, but in last week's psychology exams they made some 15% of the class, all of them women (yes psychology is overwhelmingly women students). The fact remains that British History students are white, older, and have English names. And so the generalisation that immigrants and their children go towards "useful" or "practical" subjects. Is learning "un-useful" things like Art History derived from privilege, then? Or does it (still) represent a discourse which excludes most Londoners?

These thoughts starts to resemble a sociology exam, so you return to look at your book on Family and Court in Late Ottoman Palestine.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Invigilator's diary (2)

Let n be a positive integer, and let p be a prime. State
Legendre's Theorm for determining the exponent ep
of p in the canonical representation of n! Hence find the
canonical representation of 17!.


Three mathematics and statistics exams this morning. I was invigilating with a crystallographer who started her PhD this year. After years of supervising exams with so many crystallographers, and still I can't quite understand what they do. I guess it has something to do with crystals.

She came from Sri Lanka. "Such a waste of paper, all these exams" I said. I'm always annoyed by the amounts of paper that goes to waste at the end of the exams; and by those students who insist on writing with a gap of three rows between each of their lines. "And there's not even a recycling bin in this room".

As it was a science exam we were distributing notebooks and graph papers. She told me she used to do invigilations as an MSc student in Sri Lanka, and there they would only give the students one graph paper. "We would tell them that they have only one page, that they should be very careful not to make mistakes because we cannot give them extra paper, the university cannot afford it. We would repeat it about three times. But then there would always be someone pleading for an extra paper, and we would give them one."

"But here we give them out as if they were nothing. And the students take it for granted, as if it is only natural that they are allowed to use three papers for one question".

Friday, June 06, 2008

No bread? Let them drive to the supermarket instead

Yesterday was a black day. The Rome emergency summit on food prices ended with a watered-down statement, some peanuts thrown at the global poor, and nothing that could actually stop the price escalation. More specifically, nothing on stopping, limiting, or even re-considering grain-biofuels.

It is hard, if not impossible, to assess the exact impact of biofuels on the recent doubling of wheat and rice prices. This is how I see it, from the reading I've done: biofuel demand pushed maize prices, and this had a knock-on effect on other agricultural commodities, something like a balling game. Hysteria builds up, governments become worried about feeding their citizens (otherwise they will overthrow them) so they block exports of grains, and this drives prices even higher.

True, other factors play as well: more people in Asia eat meat, and meat eats grains. Climate changes have caused a 10-year drought in places like Morocco and Australia; and the rising price of oil makes everything more expensive. And then there's the speculators: they smell the blood and circle above the commodity market, making a profit from bread-queues and empty stomachs. Yes, whatever we do, we have a problem, and it is not going away. But one thing is clear: the answer is not to burn the food we've got in fuel tanks.

How did this happen? Firstly because of US and EU subsidies and mandates, which saw 100 million tonnes of corn diverted into fuel last year. But with oil at US$ 138 a barrel, it may well be that biofuel subsidies are not necessary. That is, it might be profitable anyway to turn corn (or wheat, or rice, or any other grain) into fuel. It needs to be stopped now, and taking the subsidies away will not do. We need a moratorium on grain-based biofuel. We can't allow the world's car drivers to compete with the world's poor and hungry. This is the biggest food crisis we've ever seen, and it's only beginning.
Do you agree with the statement "Operations management can 'make or break' any business"? Explain why.

It's the fifth year that I am supervising exams in college. It's been an element of constancy in my life which otherwise has been far from constant. In almost each exams period, every year April to June, I found myself moving home. But then this exams job gave me something to do, a job to attend to. Amid confusion and transience, spending hours in quiet concentration in Bloomsbury can do no harm. And then there's this strange novelty, of having to be somewhere every morning at 9.30am.

The predicament of the freelancer laptop-nomad is the flexibility in time and space. It may appear sexy on adverts but we who have been doing it for a while know it feels like ball and chain leg shackles. Wouldn't it be great to have a normal job where you go in the morning and forget about it in the evening? Well, probably it wouldn't, but still for a few weeks in spring time it's great. Just leaving home at 9am makes one feel a beneficial member of society. Parents taking their kids to the nursery, office people on the way to work, cyclists and more cyclists, the smell of shampoo and eyes still half closed.

Friday, May 02, 2008

On my last day in London I was waiting in the queue at the chemist. In front of me was a man in his late twenties, lean, and unshaven. Too busy or too poor to care how he looked; or perhaps it was the black dust in the air outside, the long hours on the bus, the pains of a Hackney morning, that made his look seem out of synch.

The chemist handed him a paper bag with his medication. He opened it hastily, took out a small bottle of cough syrup, and drank it all. He seemed relieved.

I am in Jerusalem/Tel Aviv for the next month. Will mainly write on my Jerusalem Blog.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt....

Now this is not the right place for this - I should be posting it on my Jerusalem (middle east) blog - but it is very satisfying to watch - nothing like smashing up a tyrant's statue (or poster). Plus, it is Passover next week, where we celebrate the emancipation of the Egyptian proleteriat through mass exodus and direct action. At least that's my take on it.

This is from the Mahalle, a big industrial centre north of Cairo, where workers have been taking industrial action and meeting with state violence. There are a number of underlying issues but the most urgent one is food prices inflation. We are going to see more images like this in 2008 and 2009, not only in Egypt.

Via Arabawy.

Notice how everybody takes the mobile phone out to get a good picture of the dethroned king.


Forty five words (the last paragraph of my abstract) are all that separates me from the completion of my phd. That, and an elaborate bureaucratic procedure as well as an oral examination some time this summer. For those who keep checking this blog, thank you for sticking in with me, I hope to be writing more soon.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Two nights ago somebody threw a big stone through the window of the Research Students room in college. Must have been a frustrated PhD student. It smashed the window and also damaged the screen of the computer I use, leaving a black blot where the Gmail chat window usually pops-up.

College IT are very efficient and they came today to replace the screen. I asked what's going to happen with the old one, after all it's only a small patch, and if they were throwing it away, I would be happy to take it home.

The IT woman was nice and asked her manager, who said, we can give equipment to students, but before that we have to test it. And this one is faulty, can't you see? Sorry we can't give it to you.

The invincible logic of the health-and-safety society.

Monday, March 24, 2008

London ain't no place for teddy bears (3)


Another day, another teddy bear finds itself on the streets. This one actually looks more like a monkey . Whatever it is, I found it next to the new Banksy graffiti work on Essex Road.
Lots of people stopped by to look at the graffiti, but no one paid attention to the poor furry animal.


As you can see, someone installed a perspex sheet to protect this subversive piece of art, and probably make sure they can sell the wall and make a lot of money one day.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Bread and Oil

I have been planning to post here abut the dangers of biofuels, but haven't got round to it. In the meantime, my article on bread, fuel and the Middle East is on the Oil Drum, for those interested.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

London ain't no place for teddy bears (2)


Another bear hits the grim reality of London. The number of teddy bears sleeping rough in the streets of the Metropolitan has grown much in the last decade, said GLA officials yesterday.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

More porridge haikus

Porridge makes me pee
More than coffee, more than tea
What this has to be?

+ +

reuse last night's rice
Suddenly, fat white worms float
within your morning

+ +

Saturday, January 26, 2008

A googled Friday

When you leave the pub it's late and you don't have much time to catch the bus. The street is dark and unfamiliar. Even after five years here, the West End has remained a largely unknown territory. You pass advertisement agencies, Italian restaurants, closed cafes. You know well not to trust your sense of direction: the treacherous layout of this city frustrates expectations for logic and happy endings. So you have made sure to print a map from the google website before you set off for the gig. When you reach a junction, you take it out: your instinct says forward, the map says left. The map wins.

Above, a window opens, a missing voice is growling, something hits the ground. You do not look, you quicken your pace. You avoid the strangers of a Friday night: the stagger of heavy walking, the pointless anecdotes delivered in a high shrill voice ("cut a long story short!"). Suddenly you feel like you dropped something. You turn to look. There, on the ground, is a folded piece of paper, your map.

You should be nearly there but just to make sure, you turn back and pick the paper up. You open it to reveal a map, a google map, almost identical to yours, only the scale is enlarged. Your current location, in Great Thitchfield St, is marked with an X.

You will contemplate about coincidence and the Google-ization of human experience, as you wait for the bus. Throughout the twentieth century London has been encountered, understood, loved and hated through the A-to-Z street-map guides, and their simple strong logic: the combination of street name and post code resulted in a singular position. In mathematics, this is called a single-valued function. The real variable was the size of the A-to-Z guide: small ones could go into every pocket, but demanded strong eyesight and sometimes long meticulous observation. Big ones were heavier and bulky. Some people strapped it to their bikes. Others forgot it at home. All this is gradually made unnecessary: with access to the internet and a printer, and the details of address are being abstracted and obscured, an ephemeral paper replaces the London bible.

On the other side of Oxford Street, a young girl crouches and vomits.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Short term let

Since quitting squatting, I've had to become acquainted with the London renting market, in its least appealing sector, the short-term let. It appears that there are tens of thousands of tiny "studio flats" which are rented out for few weeks or months for ridiculous amounts of money: £300 per week for a soul-less shoebox (with wi-fi!). There are enough people in this city who need a place, have the money and don't know any other option. How can this take place in a city where thousands of houses stand empty? The logic of capitalism may be flawless, but it still doesn't make sense.

The other option, when a short-term place is needed, is subletting a room in a flat where one of the housemates is away.

Mink: Hi is this G? I'm calling about the three-week short term let, can I come and see the room?
G (young, American and just woke up) Yeah, sure. How old are you?
M: 33 (I don't know why I say this. I am 34).
G (put off): Ergh.. What kind of music do you like?
M: Excuse me?
G: What kind of music do you listen to? Our house is like really about music you know.

I try to think. There was a time I used to listen to music, when I had a real home and my own room. I used to listen to Drum and Bass and Gypsie music on my computer while writing my phd thesis. But since April I moved house 10 times, my hard drive died, and music disappeared from my life.

Actually, last night I listened to music. It was the Muppet Show soundtrack, I found it in the kiddie cds in the house we are cat-sitting at the moment. I even replayed three times Fozzie Bear's cover of Simon Smith and his Dancing Bear.

Somehow I have a feeling the Muppet Show will not go down very well.

M: hmmm all kind of music.
G: ok let's see if you know these bands. Black Dagger?
M: No
G: Clarence Dude?
M: No.
G: OK listen... I'll text you later about coming to see the flat
M: But you don't have my mobile number.
G: That's fine. Take care

Annoyed of this band-based discrimination, I start humming the song again:

I may go out tomorrow if I can borrow a coat to wear
Oh, I'd step out in style with my sincere smile and my dancing bear
Outrageous, alarming, courageous, charming
Oh, who would think a boy and bear
Could be well accepted everywhere
It's just amazing how fair people can be

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Coal is the new black

On new year's day, Robert Rapier won a thousand dollars. Rapier, an American oil engineer working in Aberdeen, had arranged a bet that oil prices would not reach $100 a barrel in 2007. As Rapier emphasised countless times on his blog and on the energy website the Oil Drum, he thinks oil should be $100 per barrel and more, because it is depleting much quicker than people realize, and we need to start adjusting to this fact; he just didn't think it would happen so fast.

In January 2007 prices were around $60, and Rapier thought that only a major disaster would make him lose (rapid production decline, or another US war). He was wrong: by November oil made it to $90 without any major catastrophe. The price hike had something to do with speculation and short gasoline inventories in the US, but mainly with what they call the "fundamentals" of the market: growing demand, and very tight supply. For regular visitors to Rapier's blog, like myself, the daily news of ups and downs of oil prices read like a thriller. I didn't want him to lose: he's a decent guy. "I feel like watching a car crash in slow motion" he wrote at some point, when losing seemed inevitable. He won, but with a whisker. On the second of January 2008 the psychological barrier of $100 dollars per barrel was breached.

In "normal" times, there would not be much in common between minks and Mr. Rapier. He works for a giant oil company. He believes in the law, and is not averse to capitalism. He shoots animals on holidays. His view of the world is judged, it seems, more by science and numbers than by words and the Arts. But these are not normal times. Under the double pressures of resource depletion and climate change, new alliances are formed; new understandings are reached. We all find unexpected fellow travellers; we all have to reach out of our bubble, out of our comfort zone. I find this aspect of environmental politics inspiring.

So what happens next? The exact arrival moment of oil-depletion awareness to the mass media and public is impossible to predict; and so are its implications. But one thing I have become convinced in recently is that the next big challenge is coal. Unlike petroleum and natural gas, coal is plentiful; it is found in many more locations around the world, "safer" countries, that is safer to the western energy-Moloch. Coal is about to make a big comeback. It is already happening: after 30 years, the UK is planning to build a new coal-powered power plant.

Coal will be used more and more for power generation; in the West, and in India and China. It will also be increasingly used for transport. The black stones can be made into liquid; this alchemical procedure was first used by Nazi Germany during the war, when its oil supply was cut off. Then it was used by Apartheid South Africa, attempting to ensure self-sufficiency in the face of an increasingly hostile world. This shady past is not a good start. If liquidised coal becomes seen as a panacea, these are bad news.

Coal is bad because its CO2 emissions are higher than oil or natural gas. Since according to the UN inter-governmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) we are within reach of the 2 degrees tipping point in global warming, beyond which the future is bleak, turning to coal would effectively mean an end to the climate change targets. The other old-school mass scale "solution" is nuclear power plants, with much lower carbon footprint, but they are hugely expensive and take longer to build. Coal really will have no serious competition in terms of price, the energy reward, availability and reserves.

So is the fight against Climate Change lost? In a recent lecture I attended "CO2 capture and storage" was presented as a real and only hope. That is, we'll be burning coal, but somehow the emissions will be captured and stored in a safe place - like former oil fields. The oil companies, after making a lot of money by getting the Ginnie out of the bottle, are hoping to make some more by putting it back. The technology does not yet exist, yet the lecturer was confident it is within reach. I dislike such promises, more so when the future of the planet is at stake. Furthermore, even if "Capture and Storage" works, I have an aversion to the idea; it means more or less business as usual. True, if coal will be used anyway, then capture and storage is better than nothing. But it is a temporary fix to a problem which cannot be solved without a major social and economic change. If we continue to burn our resources, to consume our world, we'll just hit the wall of consequences a little later. Coal is also a finite source, and if 9 billion people will use it, it will not last very long, however plentiful. In energy terms, the only long term solution is to move to renewable sources. It's simple, no? What is not renewable, will run out.

I believe that anyone interested in environmental politics has to prepare to fight the comeback of coal. There is an alternative: using less energy, and from sustainable sources. This will mean an economic slow down, which may not sound nice to those who believe in the round robin of over-production, consumption and perpetual growth , but they too will have to realize that one day the music will stop, and we will find ourselves sitting on funny plastic ponnies that can't go anywhere.

The scope of the oil depletion/climate change challenge means that we have to pursue broad alliances, and leave behind ideological puritanism. At the same time, we have to insist on the basic reasons for the looming catastrophe: not a natural phenomena but a human-made disaster, not geological constraints but a direct result of a wholly unsustainable way of life.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Out on the streets

I expected cellophane wrapped flowers and messages to appear at the spot the next day, but they never materialized. The street corner where it happened, and where I thought I could still see the blood stains for some days, remained unmarked and nondescript (the flowers, I learned later, were left outside his council bloc home, on the next street). The other London ritual associated with violent death was, however, inescapble. The yellow and black CAN YOU HELP US notice boards appeared in both ends of my new street, crying MURDER. In the strange and awkward police language they tell of a large street fight on Saturday before Christmas. "One male has since died, and another male has received severe wounds". Notice the passive form of the sentence, so popular in British English, and the almost zoological description of the victim.

The local papers have their own lingo, succinct and blood thirsty. "Teen Dies in Party Brawl" (Hackney Gazette) "26th Teenage Victim 2007" (Evening Standard; there was to be a 27th). Because of the holidays, the headlines remained in front of the shops for many days.

It is not the first time for me in London to come close to violence, or even to murder. The street is a quiet one; it feels much safer compared to some places I've lived in, but this is no more than a feeling. Violence is always a possibility, throughout the city. Like every Londoner, I have learned that in some situations it is best to look the other way, move to the other pavement.

On that night I came back and there was something wrong in the air: the sound of angry voices of teenage boys. Passed the street corner and from the neighbourhood club I could hear loud good hip-hop music. It felt alright again. But an hour later the music suddenly stopped, and all I could hear were the angry voices. When I went out to put the recycling, I saw a group of kids chasing two or three other kids. There were hatred and fear in the eyes. This was not a game.

Once before I had seen a young man in his twenties chased by a group of 10-15 teenagers. I can still see the look in his eyes: the raw panic of a hunted animal. I was cycling down Cable Street, and just passed the big mural commemorating the street fight against the Fascists in the 1930s, when I passed a man running from his cheering pursuers. I saw them catching up with him, bringing him down to the floor, and the kicking started. I cycled away, as fast as I could. I would have probably called the police but I didn't have my mobile. The next day I looked in the papers for a mention of the incident. There was nothing.

This time, again, I went inside and closed the door behind me. I wondered if any of the neighbours called the police. Shortly afterwards there was a siren, but only one. Nothing happened then, I thought, just some kids having a fight. The police always make a big hu-ha whenever they arrive, it's part of their tactics. Always more than one car, never a single siren. But the next day the street was blocked. A sixteen year was stabbed to death.

The street remains quiet as it was before. Old men in the morning on their way to the local clinic. Fathers and mothers taking their kids back from school in the afternoon. A couple of council estates; one gated-community and a building of converted over-priced "lofts". Turks, Africans, English and other tribes; and a very tall tree, and a pile of rubbish, just next to the police notice board, which will probably go soon.