Concussion thoughts

I was going to say I have become an expert in concussion – but that would be stretching it a bit. But if you get a concussion, and it involves being off work for nine months, you do get more interested.  How the hell did it happen?  The short answer is I don’t know. I woke up in St Luke’s Hospital, just north of Central Park. People were cutting my clothes off. I was in no pain, and immediately realised I’d had some kind of accident. The nurse asked me my name – managed that – my age – managed that – and then the year.  Hmmm. Was it 2011? Like a good boy not wanting to get it wrong, I chose not to answer.

I heard her say I had “come down hard on a corner” and that’s mostly what I know. I was probably cycling down the loop road, past the Lasker Pool at the top of the Park. My bike must have slid over – rapidly – my shoulder and elbow were grazed – and the main impact was on my right forehead – my helmet was cracked and slightly crushed at that point. (The helmet being cracked is good – it’s supposed to do that – to distribute the impact.) I got my medical records later. No one else was involved. I was on a corner. I was unconscious for up to a minute. I can’t remember anything from five minutes before the accident to thirty minutes after – although apparently I was conversing with people, although in a strange, persistent way. (This kind of amnesia is common as well – yes, strange that you can’t remember BEFORE the accident – but as I said, not unusual.)

I saw this video from the Tour de France – while this cyclist is on the level, notice how his back wheel slides out on the road marking – and notice how he hits his right forehead. I must have done something similar:

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Islam or anti-Islam?

Debate on Islam/Islamophobia. I hope to contribute to a constructive, but maybe difficult conversation. This is following on from several conversation with a friend Bennett Beanit.  Also see link to debate on HuffPost below.

My thoughts:

Dear Bennett

Thanks again for sharing the video – it’s prompted me to put down my thoughts on this issue at greater length.

I think primarily I see our differences on this debate as a difference of emphasis – not so much a difference over facts. I too am disturbed by threats made against Salman Rushdie; the fact that there are in practice restrictions on what we can print, perform, display re Islam in the West; the fact that Muslim terrorists have carried out serious attacks in many places – from 9/11 to Iraq – some of them deliberately fomenting civil war. I deplore religious intolerance in countries like Saudi Arabia and I am deeply disturbed by fairly widespread questioning of the holocaust, statements by extremist groups denouncing Jews and so on. I don’t dispute that these things happen and I am disturbed by them. I am troubled by groups affiliated with Al Qaeda carrying out attacks, holding hostages, and terrorizing populations in Africa.

But there are further questions that I think need to be addressed. One is – how serious are these threats to the Western way of life? Second, is this a particular problem with Islam? And third, how big a danger is the spread of anti-Islamic sentiment – and who is spreading it?

I’m not going to deal with the first one at length, except to say that, in the big picture, I don’t think radical Islam is a fundamental threat to Western democracy. I also think that Islamic terrorism, while serious and appalling in its impact on its victims, is not – statistically-speaking – a massive threat. In fact I think it’s a threat that has been exaggerated. Continue reading


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German children in World War II – a dark history

berlin child soldiers 1945   It began when I came across this picture online. I think it was taken by a Russian photographer after Berlin fell to the Russians (presumably sometime at the beginning of May 1945). Child soldiers had fought in panzer units in France and Hungary, and many children were recruited in a last-ditch attempt to defend the German capital.

When I look at this photo I see four boys, with four different personalities – showing a variety of fear, defiance, curiosity, sullen acceptance, anxiety to engage. This is all in my imagination. The propaganda that the boys had been exposed to described Russians as sub-human; they had probably been told they would be killed by the Russians on capture; German films had also described how captive German women had been mass raped by the advancing Russian forces (many were). So God knows what they were thinking as they stared at this Russian photographer. What horrors and atrocities had they already seen – and perhaps participated in? And what was to come?

Were they taken to Soviet labour camps to die there of starvation and disease? More than 1.5 million German prisoners in the Soviet Union were never heard from again. Or were they set free? Having worked for the UN and following the numerous reports about child recruitment in Congo and Sri Lanka (for example), I’d thought of child soldiers in modern terms – but of course it’s not a new phenomenon.

This web entry describes some of the history of the Hitler Jugend – and how large numbers of children ended up in combat. According to this report, they had a reputation for fighting fanatically and fiercely.

My interest has also been piqued by the superb new film calle “Lore” which depicts the plight of ordinary (non-combat) German children as their country collapsed at the end of the war – forced to travel across country, near starvation. It brings home the confusion, terror, dislocation and danger faced by children of all nationalities – including those in Germany – amid the chaos of war.

In the months after the end of fighting, many Germans suffered from severe malnutrition, as the Russians, in particular, refused to send food from the area of Germany that they occupied – which was the nation’s breadbasket. But prisoners in American and British captivity also suffered from brutality – tens of thousands died of starvation and exposure. Many were brutally beaten and kept in appalling conditions – it’s a history that isn’t often reported. Below is the text of an article from the New York Review of Books about this treatment of German prisoners – and the knock-on effects on the general German population. Continue reading

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AIDS – the eerie ghost behind Conrad’s Heart of Darkness


This is simply an eerie coincidence – but it’s a coincidence I can’t help reflecting on and feeling. Here’s the coincidence: Joseph Conrad travelled up the Congo river by steamship in the early 1890s to pick up a sick employee (with the company Conrad worked for) who died during the return trip. He based Heart of Darkness on these experiences.

During that very same period, it’s quite possible that the ancestor of the human HIV virus crossed over from animals and was spread – along the Congo river, by steamship.

OK – taking a step back. Here’s what lies behind this. My information comes from “The Viral Storm” by Stanford Univ. biologist Nathan Wolfe, who’s an expert on the spread of epidemics.

First, on the known origins of the human HIV virus:

“Our understanding of HIV is more advanced than our understanding of the origins of probably any other major human virus….the pandemic form of HIV is a chimpanzee virus that crossed into humans. There is no debate within the scientific community on this point. The cumulative evidence with regard to how it originally entered into humans is also increasingly unequivocal. It was almost certainly through contact with chimpanzee blood during the hunting and butchering of chimpanzees.”

Second: location, timing and what assisted its spread:

“In 1892 steamship service began from Kinshasa to Kisangani in the very heart of the central African forest. The steamship service connected populations that had been largely separated, creating the potential for viruses that previously might have gone extinct in local isolated populations to reach the growing urban centers.”

Wolfe writes that, based on a sample from an infected women in Kinshasa dating from 1959, researchers established that the ancestor of the human virus “split from the lineage sometime around 1900 and certainly before 1930” in DRC – ie it crossed into humans at this time.

Thirdly – the wikipedia entry on the background to the writing of Heart of Darkness:

“About eight and a half years before writing the book (published 1899), Conrad had been appointed by a Belgian trading company to serve as the captain of a steamer on the Congo River. Upon arrival at his station in the Congo, he found that the steamer he was to command had been damaged and was in need of repair. Yet the next day he headed up river on a different steamer that was captained by another. When that captain became ill during the journey Conrad assumed command. At the company’s inner-most station they picked up its agent, Georges-Antoine Klein, who died on the return trip. Conrad himself became very sick and returned to Europe before serving out the full three-year term of his contract to the trading company.”

I’m not suggesting that the illnesses that Conrad and Klein had were HIV infections, (although it can’t be ruled out entirely) but the fact that the virus was being spread by the very same means that Conrad was using – ie a steamship up the Congo river – I find eerie. As if the darkness spread out, eventually, to the whole world.

Postscript – recent research has established that AIDS reached the US from Congo, via Haiti – and quite possibly it was linked with the UN involvement in Congo after the fall of Patrice Lumumba, and its peacekeeping operations there – (interesting tangent: spearheaded by Secretary-General Dag Hammaskjold, who was later probably assassinated while trying to broker a peace deal for the country – his plane was probably shot down, possibly organized by a conglomerate of Belgian and British mining interests).

Extract from a short article describing the resent research:

“Relying on previous genetic research and African colonial records, Dr. Pépin showed that H.I.V. was carried from Kinshasa to Haiti in the 1960s — most likely by one of the thousands of Haitian civil servants recruited by the United Nations to work in the former Belgian Congo after colonial rule collapsed.”

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Tom Wolfe – Back to Blood – is he right that status rules human behaviour?

Let me start these thoughts by saying that there have been few times when reading a novel that I have been so excited, so dazzled, so full of amazed awe as when I started reading “Bonfire of the Vanities.” Here was something that was extraordinarily alive, fascinating, penetrating, deadly accurate, humorous, dynamic etc etc. I hadn’t been to New York then, but I had the impression of really being taken right into a world – the court lawyers, struggling with a ridiculous workload, the lawyer sitting on the subway, intent on projecting strength; the black American preacher with his spellbinding elocution and smarts; a mayor standing up and facing the callous, ravenous press. It all seemed brilliant to me – and I don’t take that back at all, even though I haven’t returned to read Bonfire of the Vanities. He seemed to me, and still does, one of the finest writers of his generation – somebody who knew people, what was going on – who’d actually seen it – and researched it himself – famously standing and observing what he was going to write about in his white suit.

He was so smart, and so perspicacious he was scary – you couldn’t outsmart him, second-guess him. That was how I felt. And what breadth and penetration in that novel! – from the underworld, cops on the beat – to the financial masters of the universe, and the absurd world of modern artistic events. He’s always been pretty good at that – and usually very funny. I still remember “Huck Thigg” the designer from Bonfire.  And his new novel, Back to Blood has some moments – actually it spends (too much) time on modern art – but the “defucked” scene in which a somewhat ageing conceptual artist pulls sausage like objects out of her vagina is a pretty good scene.

My God he is good at the “scene”- I think of two from A Man in Full – possibly one of his best novels – when the main character goes to try to quell a rampant stallion, despite his gimpy knee – and the same character being stripped down and humiliated by a merciless financial investigator. Wolfe has a marvelous ability to take a motif and play with it – an excellent case is “saddle bags”  – the signs of sweat that appear on financial investigator’s victims’ clothing if he’s done his job well, from A Man in Full.

Through all this, and increasingly, I’ve felt that Tom Wolfe has very little compassion for almost all his characters and has a very dark view of human beings and their motivations. As a very spiteful review of his latest novel, in the NY Review of Books, says, he focuses above all on the perceived obsession of human beings with status. I can’t remember the exact reference, but he was influenced at Yale by the theories on this by a social psychologist (or some such) when he was a student.

In Back to Blood the disenchantment, the emphasis on status obsession, is even more virulent than ever – to the book’s detriment unfortunately. Continue reading

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Is “Homeland” stoking anti-Islamic prejudice?

Updated comment on beginning of third series:


Homeland – watched first episode of the third series – it’s free online. While I enjoyed it – it’s well acted, and is dramatic – the continuing emphasis of the series disturbs me. I’ll preface this by saying I am all in favour of a drama series that looks from the perspective of the CIA – that’s interesting ground and worth exploring. What concerns me is that this is effectively a pro-Drone series. I have yet to see (in several episodes) a single nuanced view of Islam that does not equate it with the Other, terrorism, fanaticism and extremism. This is a world in which the Islamic other is neatly and comfortably eliminated by ruthlessly efficient CIA operations. This is a world in which the fundamental assumptions of a War on Terror and the CIA mission that backs it is not questioned, or examined. That disturbs me. In a series about the CIA I don’t want to be presented with already entrenched (and false) stereotypes about Islam – but I do want an examination of not just the psychological aspects of working for the CIA (which this series does rather well) but of the moral and political (in the broad sense of what is good policy) dynamics involved in that work. I have so far seen no evidence that this series does that.


Thoughts about the TV series “Homeland”.

I’ve only watched three episodes of this – the very first two, and the first of the second series – so I’m wondering what people who have seen more think. I understand it’s hugely popular, and it’s certainly a gripping series – well acted – Damian Lewis is phenomenal, and Clare Daines is very good – playing a perhaps too unsympathetic character.

I was entertained, but disturbed by the episodes I saw – and left uneasy. And one aspect of that, I realise, is that ALL the portrayals of Islam in those three episodes as I recall it – veer toward the violent, the brutal, the weird and the alien. From Brody’s experiences in captivity – by an Islamic militant group, who apparently force him to bludgeon his fellow soldier to death, and torture him – to the Islamic woman who comes to see Brody and presumably suggests some kind of terrorist action – to Brody himself – the segments where he prays, and handles the Koran. His wife is totally horrified when he says he’s a Moslem – and “can’t believe” his remark that the Koran shouldn’t have been knocked to the ground – to scenes of violence in the Middle East, menace on the streets, in jail etc etc. (Oh yes, there’s also the depiction of the despicable Saudi prince – who basically pays professional sex slaves to be at his disposal.)

It’s not that I’m opposed to dealing with these subjects – including Islamic extremism – but when ALL the references are on these lines – ALL the segments on Islam relate to terror, violence or weird alienness – I begin to wonder – couldn’t the writers have taken a more balanced approach to this? I’m old enough to remember the Cold War – and in those days, the “enemy” was usually some stereotypical, cold Russian – now it’s almost always a “Moslem fanatic”. It seems not only to me a lack of imagination, but a lack of insight and perspective – not to mention raising the obvious danger of contributing to prejudice about Islam.

What to others who have seen more of the series think about this?

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The Swiss painter and death

I’ve been very struck by the paintings of Ferdinand Hodler – a famous Swiss painter. Died 1918. Lived part of his life in Geneva.  Two things. Incredible landscapes – the use of colour brings me back to look at them again and again – simple views of the lakes, mountains and clouds around Geneva. The second – an extraordinary, confronting, very powerful series of paintings of his lover Velentine Godé-Darel – who was dying of cancer. The series shows her lying in bed ill, then dying, then dead. Incredibly stark. She had his child, which was adopted by Hodler’s wife after her death.

A selection of the paintings below – some taken from a book with my own camera, couldn’t get great quality – but they give a sense. The paintings were recently on exhibition at the Neue Galerie in New York – and are usually exhibited in Switzerland.

IMG_3877Dents du Midi in Clouds 1917Lake Geneva with Mont Blanc at dawn. 1918

IMG_3883dying valentineIMG_3885death bed

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West Bank thoughts

I’d been to the West Bank – over 30 years ago, yikes! – as a volunteer teaching English to Palestinian students in Bethlehem. Remember being terrified of teaching for the first time, making up the rules of English grammar as I went along (was teaching trainee teachers, who were mostly kind, but sometimes justifiably sceptical). First time back, apart from a quick visit to Jerusalem. Seemed more crowded – less open land – which probably makes sense – since the Palestinian population has increased, and there are vastly more settlements now – several hundred thousand settlers.

Was filming there for the UN – usual problem – trying to find a character we could hang a story around. I’d been told Murad was interesting – been in jail for 2 years for protesting against the settlement near his village (Tqoa). But when I first saw him, amongst a group of animated young Palestinians (the UN is supporting a youth/democracy project there) I thought, ‘no, ain’t going to work.’ He seemed quiet, maybe shy. Not the talkative type. Wouldn’t work.

But then a slow smile on Murad’s face as they talked about his exploits – in this case, at his most recent protest, he had willingly faced being dragged around by Israeli soldiers. I like the way males here can be playfully physical with each other – a lot of touching, a kind of stroke/push thing with the hand on the head – a lot of it with Murad. Clearly the character. A bit like the lion, slow to rouse, a slow smile – but held in respect – as well as affection.

Murad, helping paint a local school.

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Sing or sign?

At the UN I was asked ‘could I film the deaf Finnish rapper for two days and do a longer piece on him?’ I’d missed him when he’d passed through the UN in New York. The assignment was to go out to the University of Minnesota to catch the last two days of his US tour. I was keen. Not only could I (in my fevered imagination) become an MTV-style videographer for a couple of days – hanging out “back-stage” and all that (aargh – shades of This is Spinal Tap and setting the volume to 11 and all that, but still irresistible) – I also wanted to try out my new Canon 5D rig for the first time..

The rapper, called Signmark, talking to a deaf audience about his life and career – he’s the first deaf rapper to be signed by a major record label. He has a following around the world.

Signmark performs “bilingually” on stage. This means he uses sign-language for the hearing audience, while his collaborator, Brandon, an American-Finnish rapper, sings for the hearing audience. So it’s just a case of rearranging the “g’s” – signing and singing. The bilingualism is an important theme for Signmark. His argument is that being deaf is not a disability, but like being part of a linguistic minority. After all, he pointed out to me, if I knew sign-language he wouldn’t need an interpreter to communicate with me.

Here’s an extract from the 12 minute film I shot:

I was impressed by the strong support given to the deaf community at the University – a lot of interpreters are assigned to work with deaf and hard-of-hearing students. I wished I knew some sign-language myself. I think I half knew this, but I heard that most countries have their own sign-language – ie British, American, Chinese and so on – mostly completely different from each other. There is an official universal sign-language but it’s mainly used in Europe, and American Sign Language is often used as a lingua franca. Signmark himself knows five sign-languages, and can speak and lip-read in Finnish. While signing in American Sign Language he forms quite a few of the words in a whisper – so he’s a fluent linguist.

He told me he studied for a Master’s in Education and described a dialogue with an anthropologist when he was a student – the anthropologist had defined an ethnic group as having a culture, a language and so on – and Signmark, real name Marko Vuoriheimo, felt that most of the categories applied to deaf people.

Signmark’s current album (“Breaking the Rules”) is full of references to the people who wrongly thought he couldn’t make it in music -the tone is confident, sometimes mischievous. But his first album (“Signmark”) was darker. While making it he discovered that deaf couples in his home country had been legally barred from marrying between 1929 and 1969 – and that quite a few deaf women (no one knows how many) were sterilised – in the name of eugenics policies that held that the Finnish race would degenerate if deaf people were allowed to procreate.

Members of a club for the deaf in Finland in the 1930s.

I filmed a concert at the university, all the time getting into the music itself. The UN angle is that Signmark is on the working group on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability. (Yes, a mouthful, and hard to get out in the narration.) I was also moved by what I learned about deaf people and the commitment of many hearing people to work with them.

Overall, I had a ball – and had a lot of fun filming and cutting the piece.

Here’s the full-length film – with subtitles for the deaf audience.

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murderous traffic, Lyme Disease and following the blind – it’s Moscow

So I arrived in Moscow – miles of crumbling tower blocks before you get to the centre, horrible traffic (murderous if you want to cross as a pedestrian), huge electric cables stretching between the top of one tower block to another, huge new towers being built, shopping malls, money. It was one of the few places I actually started to worry about getting enough to eat. In the hotel the meals were ferociously expensive and microscopic – and since, unbeknownst to me, I had Lyme Disease I didn’t have a lot of energy to walk around and find things – and my hotel was a bit isolated.

Somehow, had the impression that the guts have been ripped out of this town – some older sections still survive – great art galleries – the two Tretiakof galleries are cool, onion domed churches, a park with busts of Lenin and Stalin staring at you, slightly annoyed at being stuck in this garden, undignified.

And then the filming itself – with Anatoliy Popko – a young blind man, funny, intelligent, resourceful. I follow him through the metro system – beautiful but unforgiving – it’s very rare for a blind or disabled person to be seen on the metro or out in the streets. He moves quickly from pillar to pillar. He walks with his stick tracing the very edge of the platform. The one thing you don’t want, he points out, is to not know where the edge of the platform is.

The blind factory worker – the woman assembling light bulbs all day – her face makes me want to cry. I feel guilty gliding in and filming and gliding out – but I go on with the shoot.

Later, at work, he shows me the cool software that means you can e-mail him and he’ll write back. There’s a continuous burbling, robotic voice. As his cursor runs over a sentence or as he writes, the software reads it out, so he knows at every instant what’s on the page.

Anatoliy invites me back to his parents’ home – a pokey apartment on the outskirts of Moscow. Most people seem to live in fairly pokey apartments by Western standards. They serve home-made wine which tastes as if it’s about 50% alcohol. His mother gives an emotional interview about the day she knew Anatoliy would never see again – at the age of twelve – and how he lay down for a year doing nothing, before springing back via dishwashing, to excelling at Moscow State University.

Anatoliy with his ten-month-old daughter Polina – very touching, seeing him soothe her through touch and sound.

I’ll remember this trip. Was diagnosed with Lyme Disease shortly after I got back – now better.

You can see the complete 14 minute film here.

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