Odds and Sods

November 30, 2008

An occasional collection of interesting material that I don’t have time to comment on.

  • Does having a good wash make you more likely to commit unethical acts?  Some recent research may suggest that “[p]hysical purification … produces a more relaxed attitude to morality.”
  • And talking of unethical acts, the New York Times has a useful survey of how people used modern technology to stay in touch and informed during the Mumbai attacks.
  • A country’s adoption of technology around 1500 CE is a good predictor of current economic development, say some researchers, taking the direct lineage of today’s economies back before both the colonial expansion and the industrial revolution.

Fine Art

November 30, 2008

renoir2In Paris tomorrow there is an interesting sale of early modern art from the Jeanne Lanvin Collection.  There will be nine Renoirs on offer, along with four by Degas, a couple of Mary Cassats, a Braques, a Pissaro, a non-abstract Picasso, and a dozen more.

Renoir’s lovey La tapisserie dans le parc has the highest pre-sale estimate at $3.2 to $4.5 million, while 28 of the 31 lots have estimates below $1 million.   If this sale has the kind of problems experienced by the auctions earlier in November, then the art market will truly have hit a downturn.  These are fine works of art, well priced given the price explosion experienced before the global financial crisis burst into view, and they deserve to sell.

We’ll see.


The 100-Mile Diet, Japanese Style

November 30, 2008

The Japanese government is concerned about food security. Alone among developed countries, Japan produces less than 50% of the food its people eat. The country is reliant on imports from a small number of supplier countries. That wasn’t always the case, and the Japanese Ministry has made the following well-crafted 4-minute video (Japanese audio with English sub-titles) to encourage a return to a more traditional — and locally grown — diet.


Les Sapeurs du Congo

November 30, 2008

The other day I was crawling through the series of connected tubes (according to ex-Senator Ted Stevens) that George Bush called “the nets” when I came across an extraordinary group of people, dressed as 1930s French gangsters, in the heart of a poverty-stricken and war-ravaged African jungle.

sape1

I thought that was interesting enough, but then I discovered they were part of a recognizable social group in Congo Brazzaville.  They are known as the Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes (SAPE).

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Sape is French slang for “dressing with class”. The French often use the expression “il est bien sape” to talk about a sharp dressed man. The term “sapeur” is a new African word that refers to someone that is dressed with great elegance.   La sape has emerged directly from a specifically Congolese history.  George Aponsah says that

The Sape emerged from the chaos that was the Congo during the reign of Mobutu. It was really one way of coping with a society that had broken down. For a young person growing up at that time, there wasn’t much to grasp hold of to help you feel better about yourself. Politics was out, so you found a lot of cargo cult religions in the Congo. The Sape is essentially one of these. The distinctive look of the sapeurs was also a rebellion against one of Mobutu’s dictatorial decrees, which was that everyone was expected to dress in a very traditional, standard African costume – the abacost.

Hector Mediavilla casts its origin much further back:

The arrival of the French to the Congo, at the beginning of the 20th Century, brought along the myth of Parisian elegance among the Congolese youth working for the colonialists. Many considered the white man to be superior because of their technology, sophistication and elegance. In 1922, G.A. Matsoua was the first–ever Congolese to return from Paris fully clad as an authentic French gentleman, which caused great uproar and much admiration amongst his fellow countrymen. He was the first Grand Sapeur.

A third version has it that

It is the result of the admiration which followed the return of african soldiers who helped France fights the First World War. As they returned clad in european style garnments, they aroused the curiosity and admiration of their fellow countrymen who in turn sought to dress the same way to look good , far from the idea of imitating the colonial master, or seeing him as superior being.

Whatever its background, la sape has taken hold among a certain group.  In an album dedicated to la sape, Papa Wemba, one of Zaire’s top singers, sang: ”Don’t give up the clothes. It’s our religion.”  A 2006 piece by Edmund Sanders has the following description of the cult-like hold sape can have on its adherents (what George Amponsah calls “the cult of cloth, the cult of elegance”):

sape4He struts down the muddy, trash-strewn alley like a model on a catwalk, relishing the stares and double-takes from passersby.  In a country where many survive on 30 cents a day, Papy Mosengo is flashing $1,000 worth of designer clothing on his back, from the Dolce & Gabbana cap and Versace stretch shirt to his spotless white Gucci loafers.   “It makes me feel so good to dress this way,” the 30-year-old said when asked about such conspicuous consumption in a city beset by unemployment, crime and homelessness. “It makes me feel special.”

But Mosengo can scarcely afford this passion for fashion. He worked eight months at his part-time job at a money-exchange shop to earn enough for the single outfit, one of 30 he owns, so he’ll never have to wear the same one twice in a month.  He doesn’t own a car. He lets an ex-girlfriend support their 5-year-old son and still lives with his parents, sleeping in a dingy, blue-walled bedroom that is more aptly described as a closet with a mattress.  Friends, family and his new girlfriend implore Mosengo to stop pouring all his money into clothes and liquidate the closet.  “Man, we could buy a house with the money,” said Dirango Mubiala, his clothing dealer, estimating that Mosengo spends $400 a month.

Mosengo won’t budge. “This is just what I am,” he said from behind a pair of oversized white Gucci sunglasses. “I’m a Sape.”

A New York Times report from 1988 noted that:

With outfits easily costing three times the average monthly salary here of $300, sapeurs resort to renting, or ”mining,” out their clothes to friends for a night. A 24-hour rental for a designer suit is about $25.

I can’t possibly do justice to this fascinating culture in a post ike this.   Luckily there are resources out there to find out much more, most of which have galleries of images.   My first encounter was through the wonderful “The Congolese Sape” essay and gallery by Hector Mediavilla.  But see also an article by James Brook in 1988, and the Interview with George Amponsah and Cosima Spender in 2004.  Papy Mosengo’s story is from the 2006 article by Edmund Sanders.


Of Burgers, Bigots and Neighbourhood Spirit

November 29, 2008

Last night, Herself and I went to dine at Fet’s.  Nothing unusual in that.  In fact, regular readers will know that Fet’s is our favourite hangout on the Drive.  However, last night we were not there just for the burgers.

While we are at Fet’s, though, we might as well discourse on the food first.   Fet’s has made a real effort recently to have a good changeable fresh sheet.  Last night it included “Moroccan Meat Pie” which I was intrigued enough to try.  It turned out to be a shepherds pie with a spice I couldn’t recognize, a lot of orange flavour, and cheese in the potato topping.  None the worse for all of that, either.  It was served piping hot and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

My bride had the Caribbean burger, which she declaimed was as good as ever.   And that is saying something because in this writer’s humble opinion, the Fets’ Caribbean burger is the finest burger available — definitely on the Drive and probably in the City.  I’m not usually a lover of pineapple, cooked or otherwise; but in this dish it works perfectly.  As always, Eric takes care of his meat, and the burgers are well-formed, generous, and perfectly cooked.

Another fine dining experience.  But on to the real reason we were there.

Some of you may have heard of the Reverend Fred Phelps and his tribe of followers from Kansas.  The leadership and members of his Westboro Baptist Church have become famous for showing up at US military funerals with signs saying “God Bless the Roadside Bombs” and “God Hates America”.   They do this in the belief that America’s soldiers are being killed by God because America allows gays to live and thrive.  Typical extremism, religious fanaticism of the American kind.

phelps

Next door to Fet’s is the Havana restaurant/art gallery/theatre space.  The play opening there last night was about the young gay man brutally murdered in Wyoming a few years back.   Rumour had it that Phelps and his maniacs were motoring all the way from Kansas to Commercial Drive to protest against the play.

His mob was supposed to arrive at 7.   We got to Fet’s at 6 and, on the way, met with several people coming to the Drive to protest against Phelps.  By the time we finished dinner and went back on the street, there were several hundred anti-Phelps folks there, with banners and rainbow flags and a lot of noisy joy considering the continuous heavy rain.  It was wonderful to see our neighbourhood pour out onto the cold and wet streets in support of the consenting diversity that flavours the Drive and, indeed, the entire Province.

My night-time camera skills are minimal and I didn’t have a tripod to steady the long exposures; so this is an impressionistic view of the crowd outside the Havana last night:

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In the end, Phelps and his people never showed up.  Perhaps he was stopped at the border, perhaps he was scared off by our numbers.  Who knows?   We stayed around for quite a while.   This was community in action.


What Detroit Needs

November 29, 2008

Stop the presses!  Hold the front page!   I have found the solution to Big Auto’s problems.

I present to you — the renewable, recyclable, no-gasoline motor:

onecowpower

With a $25billion loan from the American taxpayer, Ford, GM and Chrysler could probably corner the global market in suitable cows.

[Thanks to Peter Greenberg for the image]


My Own London Underground!

November 28, 2008

IF today wasn’t Buy Nothing Day — and IF I happened to have a spare $8million burning a hole in my pocket — I’d be really tempted to buy this.

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This is one full mile of tunnels and rooms directly under central London.  It is being sold by British Telecom who inherited the property.  As the New York Times reports:

The tunnels were built in 1940 during the blitz, when Britain came under sustained air attacks from Nazi Germany. The government decided to create eight underground bomb shelters in London, as the city’s subway stations were not big enough to accommodate all those seeking refuge.  But the BT tunnels, and one other, were never used by the public because the government needed them for its own operations. The BT tunnels soon became a temporary base for troops before D-Day while another tunnel was turned into the European headquarters of Gen. Eisenhower.  In 1944, the tunnels became a base from which the Allies helped resistance movements in Nazi-occupied countries. Members of the secret service, in offices equipped with telephones and teleprinters hidden beneath the war-torn streets, helped coordinate as many as 10,000 men and women gathering support against the Nazi regime across Europe.

After the war, the tunnel network became an important operations center for the company once known as British Telecommunications. In recent years, though, BT has used the space mostly for storage … Appearing more like the set of a James Bond movie than prime real estate, the complex still has a bar and two canteens, not in use, and a billiard room, not to mention functioning water and electricity supplies.

There are a couple of issues that need to be dealt with …

The air is dry, hot and stale. The constant rattling of London Underground trains rushing through a separate tunnel system a few feet above and the sound of giant ventilation fans make the tunnels a noisy environment.

Baffleboard, that’s what they need.  A few truck loads of baffleboard to muzzle the noise.  Then it could be a really neat downtown hideaway.  Now, about that $8 million ….