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.


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).


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.


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:


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:


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.


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 ….

Buy Nothing Day

November 28, 2008

Today is Buy Nothing Day.


Your support is appreciated!

Update: On the other hand, you could just ignore me and let’s see what happens.

Foodscapes: Incredible!

November 26, 2008

Take a look at this delightful romantic image:


Everything in the picture is a food item, from the salmon sea to the bread dunes!  This is just one of a dozen or more equally creative images by London-based photographer Carl Warner featured in a spread at the Telegraph Online.

Stripping The Malls

November 26, 2008

I have written a couple of times before about the state of large shopping malls around the world, but a story from CNBC today shows that the economic upheavals are also playing havoc with their smaller and generally uglier cousins, the strip mall.

strip-mallsEven more so than mega-malls, strip malls—with a dozen or so stores stretched along busy U.S. highways—define the American retail landscape, and their owners are suffering … In the past several weeks, the eight-store Paramus Towne Square mall in Paramus, New Jersey, has seen the parent companies of two of its anchor stores, home goods seller Linens ‘n Things and electronics center Circuit City, file for bankruptcy. And, earlier this year, the mall had to find new tenants for a Borders bookstore, which closed when its parent company cut costs.  “If you are an owner of a mall or a small strip center, it’s been a very difficult year and likely to get worse next year,” said Mark Claster, a partner at the turnaround and financial advisor, Carl Marks Advisory Group …

U.S. retail vacancy rates rose to 6.6 percent in the third quarter from 6.1 percent a year earlier, according to CoStar Group, a provider of commercial real estate information and data. Shopping centers, a category that includes strip malls, are doing much worse than that, reporting vacancy rates of 9.4 percent … The trend is expected to accelerate as the financial crisis has tightened credit, say retail analysts and restructuring experts.

Block after block of derelict strip malls is the death of any town, especially those on highways that depend on passing trade.  Blight begets blight and pretty soon there aren’t enough tax dollars to make the improvements needed.  The collapse of neighbourhoods tends to happen quickly, and the dereliction of large suburban/highway areas could well be one of the earliest, and most lasting, of the devastations driven by the credit crunch.

Ama Disappears, Welcome ozeki Harumafuji

November 26, 2008

Following up to the update, Ama was indeed promoted to the rank of ozeki today.  At the same time, he changed his sumo name from Ama to Harumafuji.


Harumafuji said he would aim for the top rank of yokozuna (grand champion).  “Since I got this great name, I want to achieve results that would take the name higher,” the wrestler told reporters after his formal promotion.

Update:  And now he has won the Emperor’s Cup!

Sumo Update

November 24, 2008

Sumo fans will be aware by now that Hakuho won his 10th Emeperor’s Cup this weekend, beating Ama after a long-drawn-out winner-take-all contest.  Both wrestlers finished the basho with 13-2 records, and thus Ama is pretty much guaranteed to be promoted to the rank of ozeki later this week.

Ama’s performance — beating all the ozeki, and the yokozuna in their first match, and his fearless battle in the play-off bout — was generally welcomed by the crowd.  It is true that he is not Japanese (being yet another Mongolian), but his ability to overcome by sheer technique his weight and size limitations in a sport where size and weight often carry the day is recognized as remarkable.  And he always smiles at the end of a bout, win or lose.

It is a pleasant feeling when the good guy does well.

How Much Did That Cost?

November 22, 2008


CNBC has a terrific slideshow that compares the cost of the current financial “bailouts” against other high budget items in the past.    They estimate the cost to date of the present crisis at $3.4 trillion.   That’s the same cost, in today’s money, of the entire Second World War.

By comparison, the Vietnam War at $700 billion, the New Deal at $500 billion, the purchase from France of one-third of North America at $217 billion, and the Marshall Plan at $115 billion seem paltry.  The $25 billion the Big Three car makers want, could pay for 3 Panama Canals in today’s dollars.

Something doesn’t make sense here.  How can a credit crunch cost the same as the most expensive war the world has ever seen, a war that lasted years, killed scores of millions, and destroyed the economic infrastructure of fifty countries or more?

Where is all this money going?

Quivering With Anticipation

November 22, 2008

Tonight is the last session of the Winter basho in Kyushu.   With the withdrawal of injured yokozuna Asashoryu and the recent dominance of yokozuna Hakuho, many sumo fans had low expectations from this tournament.  But we were wrong.

There had always been one point of interest:  One of the rules of thumb in sumo is that for a senior rikishi to win 33 bouts over three consecutive bashos entitles him to serious consideration for promotion to ozeki, the rank immediately below yokozuna.  Our favourite, Ama, the smallest of all the senior rikishi, needed 11 wins this time to qualify, and his fan clubs have been out in force most days to cheer him on.  To rising public acclaim, Ama has exceeded all our expectations with wonderful technique to overcome his weight and size disadvantage.


With just tonight to go, Ama already sits at 12-2, level with Hakuho at the top of the tournament.  And Ama beat Hakuho two nights ago to get himself into a chance to win the tournament outright.   Hakuho fights ozeki Kotomitsukui tonight, while Ama faces lower-ranked Baruto.  If Ama wins and Hakuho loses, then Ama wins the Emperor’s Cup (and vice versa, of course).   If they both win, then there is a special winner-take-all bout between the two at the end of the evening.

Beyond the Ama sensation, I have to say that the level of sumo seems really high this tournament.  The lower ranked rikishi have been putting on quite the show; and mostly to a half-empty arena.  Last night the house was full — as I am sure it will be tonight — but some of the mid-week audiences have been less than stellar.  Oh well;  they’ve missed a treat.

I’ve already had my nap to ensure I stay awake until the finish at about 1 tomorrow morning!

Hard To Believe …

November 22, 2008

… in this challenging financial environment that anyone is seriously contemplating spending $65million for an 8,000 square foot condo — even if it does have the finest views in New York.


The penthouse at 25 Columbus Circle atop the Time Warner Center

features 14 ft. ceilings throughout, elegant and dramatic entertaining space and warm and inviting private sanctuaries. A master bedroom suite encompasses an office, his and her dressing rooms, gym and his and her bathrooms. The 41 ft.-long living room with floor to ceiling windows has the most incredible view of Manhattan. The red lacquered corner library/office also commands a special place of solitude in this apartment. A full dining room with views of the Hudson River is a room of understated luxury. A chef’s kitchen and pantry, a full laundry center, four full bedrooms with en-suite baths and a screening room, round out this amazing property.   25 Columbus Circle represents the ultimate in five-star living and dining, pampering its residents with a complete array of luxury amenities: from a white glove concierge service, access to the gym, spa and pool of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, private screening room and a discrete basement garage, to the outdoor roof deck, children’s playroom, board room with Park views, private storage and ballroom.

$65 million for white-gloved concierge service — you got me right there.  My check’s in the mail.

We Are Almost Twice As Old As Mickey Mouse!

November 19, 2008

bcflagWhile we are in a celebratory mood, I should note in passing that in White Man’s history, British Columbia is 150 years old today.  The land was created out of the mouth of Sir James Douglas in a speech he gave on a cold and wet November morning to a bunch of fur traders and trappers at Fort Langley on the Fraser River.

I shouldn’t knock it, really.  Douglas, who was Governor of Vancouver Island, saw a huge influx of American miners flood into the Interior during the Gold Rush days of the 1840s and 50s.  He realized that if the British Crown didn’t step up and make a statement, then the territory could easily become an extension of the Oregon Territory.  His proclamation on that blustery day saved us for cricket and tea parties, parliamentary supremacy, and God Save The Queen.

Happy 80th Birthday Mickey!

November 18, 2008

Like the Queen of England, Mickey Mouse has a real birthday (presumably May 15, 1928, the release of “Plane Crazy“) and an official birthday. Today, in 1928, Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks released “Steamboat Willie” to a receptive world.

warhol-andy-mickey-mouse-2803603As the global representative of Disney, the symbol of Mickey Mouse has become so powerful that it can, at one and the same time, represent both the American Dream and the American Nightmare.  Now that is marketing!

Cliff Top

November 16, 2008


“Cliff Top” (2008), acrylics on canvas, 20″ x 20″

Click the image for a better view.

Vancouver Through Mediated Eyes

November 16, 2008

For twenty years and more, Vancouver has been a major film-making centre.  In particular, we are well-known for the numbers of “cult” TV series that have used our city and its environs as their own — “Smallville“, for example, “MacGyver“, “Battlestar Galactica” and, most especially, “X-Files“.  So well known that fans of the shows make pilgrimages to Vancouver to see the locations live.

In a fascinating essay entitled “Everywhere and nowhere: Vancouver, fan pilgrimage and the urban imaginary“, Will Brooker notes that the average tourist will enjoy our art deco Marine Building as an architectural jewel, while one fan tourist will see the building as the “Daily Planet” office from “Smallville“, and another will recognize it as where X-Filer Scully chased her sister’s assassin.


Our Colosseum-inspired Public Library is Metropolis Courthouse in “Smallville“, but for the visiting “Battlestar” fan it will be on the planet Caprica.

The premise of the article is that Vancouver is so popular a location that, in post-modern imagery, it has become “flat” and thus amenable to

“dress-up and disguise, and in turn the pilgrims who recognize and remember its disguises – seeing the Marine Building doubled as the Daily Planet building, for instance – experience the city not as the dully unremarkable subtopia of Relph’s account or as the postmodern ‘scamscape’ Soja cautions against in Californian suburbs, but as several impossible cities laid over the real in a liberating geography.”

Brooker notes that Vancouver’s position in fandom is entirely different than, say, Graceland or Coronation Street, where imaginations are limited to a single appreciation.  The fan visiting Vancouver invariably finds multiple meanings because “more than most sites of fan pilgrimage, they evoke other imaginary maps  that have to be held in a double, triple, multiple vision alongside the real.”  Clearly we are in the the “postmodern realm of simulation and pastiche”.  However,

“Vancouver is a slightly different case to the more obvious simulation cities and suburbs. Unlike theme-park worlds, its other-directedness and points of connection are visible only to those pilgrims with specialist knowledge and fan investment. The passages to other worlds – the Marine Building as part of Scully’s Washington DC, the cathedral as a route to Mulder’s Iowa – are hidden to the non-fan.”

Those of us who live here generally experience neither the “dully unremarkable suptopia”, nor Soja’s “scamscape”.  But each of us can feel the thrill of the fan when we see a recognizably Vancouver building standing in for someplace else.

The View Through

November 15, 2008


Vancouver has a number of hearts.  The Sun Yat Sen Gardens in Chinatown is one of my favourites.