Wednesday, June 30, 2010


Weather and volcanoes permitting, I am taking a trip tomorrow to the northernmost tip of west Iceland, situated just below the Arctic Circle. The intention is to visit an abandoned village named Hesteyri, located in a remote area in Jökulfirðir (the Glacial fjords). It is the location of the book I am presently writing, so the trip is a fact finding mission, an atmosphere intake of sorts. Although I have been there previously I desperately need to be there now when I am attempting to adapt the three dimensional location to the mere two dimensions provided by paper. This is probably the way most writers prefer to work, despite the photos, articles, books, the information highway and all of the other data available for sofa research, nothing beats the 1:1 scale.

Unfortunately I will not be able to stay at Hesteyri for an extended period and write, much less finish the book. The village has no phones, mobile connections, electricity or running water, aside from what passes by in the form of a small stream. It is the penultimate item that makes me squirm and what kicks the feet from under me as an author. I need a computer to write and with no electricity to power it I am pretty helpless. My laptop has such a crummy battery that it can run for just under an hour without a socket connection and there is no way I can finish my book in an hour, unfortunately. My engineering co-workers told me to take a generator along which seemed like a good idea but the more they described it the less I became inclined to rent one. The statement that totally put me off the idea was: “no it’s not THAT heavy, two to four strong, young men can PROBABLY carry it up to the house from the boat. “ I am not travelling with an undecided number of strong, young men and even if I were they would not be all too pleased to find out that once they had stumbled along with the cumbersome and heavy machine all the way, they would have to go back to the beach to get the gasoline needed to keep it running.

I have never attempted to write by hand, the last time I wrote anything of substance pen in hand was when taking notes while at school. Since my main source of writing has been checks but since they became obsolete all I write by hand is my name under credit card receipts, a Y followed by a short squiggly snake and a standalone capital S. The ability to write a novel using a pen or pencil has long since passed me by.

Being at Hesteyri or anywhere in the world where time has stood still makes me wonder about how much has evolved and how easy our life in the west has become. The same feeling is evoked when I read excerpts from history books, the further back the record dates the harder it is to imagine how life was livable. In this respect I am not talking about access to the internet. These thoughts almost always channel down the same chute: when people in the future read about us, what will make them gawk? Will our clothes seem cumbersome and uncomfortable? Will medicine have advanced enough to eradicate illness and our bodily pains and trials seem horrific? Will the food we eat seem unappetizing and disgusting? Will our forms of transport look ridiculous, uncomfortable and slow?

Much thinking about this has led me to a conclusion which is a bit sad. I think our times will be looked at with disdain not because of what we wear, eat or drive. We will be infamous because of our spendthrift ways, consuming way too much of the limited resources available to us without much afterthought or conscience. Instead of evoking thoughts of “oh those poor people, look at what they had to endure” we will get comments like: “what were they thinking?”

Maybe I should write with a pen while at Hesteyri after all. When in Rome…

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

In that we leave Paris and grill Rebecca Cantrell

A quick shout out to Sarah - a reader of our Murder is Everywhere blog - who came up and said hello at the ALA library conference in DC....nice meeting you Sarah and thanks for stopping by!

I've just spent the night in Las Vegas airport after a missed flight - slot machines ringing as I camped on the floor - so please excuse a quick and dirty grilling of Rebecca Cantrell who's new book set in Weimar Germany has just come out.

On tour for A Night of the Long Knives and jet lagged from the Hawaii flight, where Rebecca Cantrell a Berlin Weimar period writer award winning author lives with her family, I shot her some questions. Not at gunpoint, I might add but Rebecacca was gracious and here goes. The bright light is shining.
So quick and dirty Rebecca, tell me:

Cara -What crime novel would you most like to have written?
"The Third Man" by Graham Greene

Cara - What fictional character would you most like to have been?
James Bond, except a girl

Cara - Who do you read for guilty pleasures?
Everything, and I don't even feel guilty about it

Cara - Most satisfying writing moment?
When I look up and realize that hours have gone by without me noticing

Cara - Do tell, the best Brazilian, British, Thai, Icelandic, South African, French or German crime novel is …?
Best one I read recently: Berlin, by Pierre Frei

Cara - What Brazilian, British, Thai, Icelandic, South African, French or German crime novel would make a great movie...apart from yours?
Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kaestner. It's been made a few times, with the best version in 1931. But I think it's ripe for a remake.

Cara - Worst / best thing about being a writer?
Worst: Bad reviews
Best: Me alone in a room making things up

Cara - Pitch me your next book
"A Game of Lies" is set during the 1936 Berlin Olympic. Just for the duration of the games, the Nazis are pretending that Berlin is not the oppressive city they have made it. They have taken down anti-Semitic posters, re-opened gay bars, and stopped beating up their citizens in public. But it’s a thin veneer of tolerance.
Hannah travels to this Berlin to write a story on the games and smuggle out secret documents. At the stadium, soon after she is reunited with the famous reporter Peter Weill, her mentor and ersatz father, he dies in her arms. The next day his beloved sister is found dead too. When the Nazis cover up both murders, Hannah determines to reveal the story they died for.

Cara - Who are you reading right now?
Re-reading "The Night of the Long Knives" by Paul Maracin so I can answer questions intelligently on my tour.

Cara - The three best words to describe your own writing are..?
It's hard to answer this one without feeling like an arrogant jerk.
Compassionate, historical, Berlin.

Danke, Rebecca. Hope everyone catches one of her readings

Cara - Tuesday

Monday, June 28, 2010


The word, in Zulu, means rejoice.
But, in Brazil, few folks could tell you that.
If you say Jabulani around here, people think  football.
More specifically, the football, the one being used in the FIFA World Cup.
And they think crap.
Time was, that the Cup was played-out with balls that had no name, and were brown, like the one above. That changed in 1970, when the event was broadcast live, on television, for the first time.
A ball was required that would be clearly visible in black and white, and Adidas, the German manufacturer, was asked to make one.
They came up with a design that most of us are familiar with today, a sphere with 32 panels, white for visibility, and black to help players detect swerve when the ball is in flight.
Enter the Telstar, named after a communications satellite to which it bore a distant resemblance.
The Telstar was a great success. So much so, that Adidas got the contract to supply World Cup balls ever after. (Or through 2014, at any rate.)
But they didn’t rest on their laurels.
No, they kept on tinkering with the product.
Every new ball got a new name, the Tango, the Azteca, the Tricolore, to name just a few.
And now, God help us, we have the Jubulani.
And devoutly wish we hadn’t.
Because this paragon of the ball maker’s art responds to kicks in an entirely new way.
Former Liverpool player Craig Johnston believes the "erratic, wild and unpredictable" nature of the Jabulani is "contributing to a much poorer World Cup".
England’s coach, Fabio Capello claims  it’s the worst ball he’s ever seen.
 Júlio César, Brazil’s goalkeeper, called it “as unpredictable as one of those cheap balls you’d buy in a supermarket.”
And striker Lúis Fabiano referred to its radical changes of direction as "supernatural".
In the midst of the ruckus, and responding to the complaints, two Brazilian scientists got their hands on a Jabulani and dragged it off for tests in a wind tunnel at the University of São Paulo.
Here’s what they discovered:
The Jabulani has more wind resistance, and therefore loses velocity faster, than any of its predecessors.
But that’s not the major problem.
The major problem is that, at slow speeds, the Jabulani moves through the air pretty much like any other football.
But at speeds above seventy km/h, the direction of motion begins to become erratic.
And becomes more erratic as the speed increases.
How fast is a kick when a striker is shooting at the goal?
Sometimes as much as 140km/h.
See, now, why so many players and coaches are concerned?
And their concerns are mounting.
Games, from here on in, could be decided by penalty kick shootouts.
And how’s that going to work if neither the shooter, nor the goalie, can be sure of the direction that will be taken by the ball?
The FIFA has, at least, acknowledged that there’s a problem.
After the conclusion of the Cup, they’ve agreed to discuss the matter with coaches, teams and Adidas.
Meantime, everyone is just going to have to live with it.
A footnote: the Brazilian experience prompted scientists at Caltech to test the ball on the 23rd of June. Their results confirm what everyone else has been saying about the Jabulani.

 Leighton - Monday

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Wet With Light

Every time I land in Bangkok, it’s like coming home. To a somewhat dreamlike home, where an occasional door might lead to a blank wall and some of the furniture might be glued to the ceiling, but home nonetheless.

It’s a home I enter by stages. First, of course, is the big, abrupt, wrenching stage: 16-18 hours in an airplane. Humans were not designed to travel this way: Wave goodbye to my wife and dog in California, spend an eternity trying to fall asleep in a seat that barely reclines enough to roll a ball down the back, and then – stiff, creaky, fuddled, and dryer than a ship’s biscuit – clamber out of the air conditioned dimness of the plane directly into The World of Light and Heat.

That’s what I experience first: light and heat.

With the equatorial sun pretty much directly overhead, blue-sky Bangkok is brilliantly bright. Reflections – off automobile chrome, the polished corner of a curved roof, the colored tiles on a temple façade – gather the light, condense it, and beam it at you like a welder’s arc, more comfortably viewed through blackened glass. Light saturates the rural landscape around the airport as it fades away into the distance, bleaching it to a green that’s almost white. The land seems to be wet with light.

While I’m screwing up my eyes to deal with the brightness, the heat attacks. It plasters itself against me like Jell-o at the boil, wet, heavy, absolutely unavoidable. In the 45 seconds it takes to get to the end of the jetway I’ve worked up a sweat. Then I’m plunged into the penguin environment of the airport, air conditioned to a point where beef could be hung in it for weeks, until immigration and luggage collection are over and I pass through the automatic doors and back into the blast furnace of the day.

So, okay, light and heat. And an extraordinary dislocation in time. It’s 11 AM in Bangkok and 8 PM in California. Put all these things together – the heat, the light, the time displacement – and you have a state of mind that would have been quite expensive in the Sixties. One floats through the world in a bubble, and at a surprising altitude.

But then, from the back of the taxi, I begin to see the familiar landmarks: the airport hotel, a few tuk-tuks putt-putting by on their three wheels, the ramp onto the expressway, the airport hotel. (Or did I already see that?) And I realize that the taxi itself is a familiar landmark, with its thoughtfully placed box of Kleenex inside the rear window, the amulets and Buddha figures on the dash, the garland of flowers hanging from the rear-view mirror. At this point, I’m about a third of the way home.

After closing my eyes for just a second, I open them half an hour later and find myself on Rama IV Road, and all the things I haven’t seen in months are right there, where they’ve been all along. The older women with the broad hats who sweep the streets and sidewalks with hand-made straw brooms. The cops in their tight brown uniforms that never, ever pull apart in between the buttons (even on the fat cops) because the buttons are phony and there’s a hidden zipper running up the front. Young boys dawdling along together, unselfconsciously holding hands, young girls holding hands with young girls. The dazzle of sun on long, clean black hair. Spotless, unwrinkled white blouses on schoolgirls. A teenage girl on the sidewalk laughs so hard she drops into a crouch. I’m two-thirds of the way home.

Then comes the world’s longest stoplight – long enough that I’ve seen drivers trapped at it turn off their engines to save gas – and we’re on Silom Road. The whole spectrum of urban Thai commerce is on display here, from the tiniest sidewalk stand to the gleaming new department stores. I look for, and find, a store window where the mannequins assume a pose you never see in Western store windows: one arm loosely extended, palm down, fingers curved slightly under. This is the universal Southeast Asian way of calling you over, beckoning you in. It says, come here. It says, hello and welcome. It seems like a welcome to me, and I’m almost all the way home.

I tote the bags into my apartment, turn on the air conditioner, hang up whatever I have to hang up, and head back down to the street to stock the refrigerator and buy some flowers. (Flowers are ridiculously cheap.) Then I carry everything back upstairs, put it away, and try to find a way to stay awake all day so I can go to bed that night with half a chance of actually sleeping through until morning.

And the next day I tote my laptop to Coffee World or the TipTop Restaurant and get huge smiles of welcome from the staff, who begin to funnel me a continuing and endless flow of black coffee. I haul my laptop out of its bag, open it, and start writing about Thailand, and when I look up I see Thai faces, and when I listen I hear the Thai language. And I know I’m one hundred percent home.

Tim -- Sunday

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Phoney War

It wasn't my intention to write about the World Cup this week - Stan's piece below sums up the experience far better than I ever could - but if the intention of this blog is to offer an insight into the culture and psyche of our respective locations, then I feel I would be doing you a disservice by not addressing the major news story of the moment in England: not the draconian and savage budget cuts being implemented by the Government, but Sunday afternoon, 3pm GMT, England playing Germany in the last 16 of the World Cup. People will stop what they are doing, the streets will empty, TV screens gathered around, fingernails bitten to the quick.

England v Germany. It is a contest loaded with history. And it is we English who tend to do the loading. The Germans have moved on; they seem able to view these games as just that - games.We are less mature, however. As soon as a German opponent hoves into view, everyone turns into Basil Fawlty in full 'Don't Mention the War!' war mode. The worst culprits, as they invariably always are, are the tabloid newspapers. Probably the crassest front page in recent memory came on the eve of the 1996 European Championship semi-final between England and Germany. The editor of The Daily Mirror, a very smug young man named Piers Morgan, who has since gone onto global success as...actually I'm not sure what his success is based on, besides enormous amounts of chutzpah...decided to splash with the headline 'Achtung! Surrender!' above the strapline 'For you Fritz, ze European Championships are over!' It backfired spectacularly, apologies were made, and it was made to look even more daft when Germany, after an unbelievably tight struggle, beat England in a penalty shoot out.

That was simply the latest in a long line of painful defeats to Germany, etched into the English sporting psyche. England famously beat West Germany to win the 1966 World Cup, but needed a a controversial call from a Russian linesman, who deemed Geoff Hurst's shot to have bounced over the goal line after hitting the cross bar. The TV pictures are unclear, but you don't find many England fans complaining. It put the team 3-2 up in extra time. As the Germans poured forward in search of an equaliser, Hurst broke away in the last minute to score the winner, resulting in the most famous piece of sports commentary in English history by Kenneth Wolstenholme.

(As Hurst breaks free, fans run onto the pitch, thinking the full time whistle has blown) 'There are some people on the pitch. They think it's all over. (Hurst's shot almost breaks the net)...It is now.'

It immortalised Wolstenholme, even though I watched a full rerun of the match recently and his commentary is otherwise hopeless. He gets the name of most players wrong and barely has anything of interest to say beyond the quotidian. But that one line lives on.

That was last taste of footballing success against the Germans for some time, as if a curse had been placed on England when the Russian linesman made his game-changing decision (Boston Red Sox fans take note. You're not the only ones to do hopeless, pessimistic superstition). Four years later, defending their title in Mexico, England took a 2-0 lead against West Germany in the quarter-finals. Alf Ramsey, the victorious coach of '66, decided to take off Bobby Charlton, England's talisman. England wilted in the heat, and Germany surged back to win 3-2. In 1990 England scrambled through to the semis of the World Cup. They came up against a mighty German side, crammed with winners. England played well, arguably deserved to win, but it was 1-1 at the end of extra time. Cue penalties. Cue inevitability. Germany won.

When the same thing happened in 1996, pessimism seemed to be widespread: we just couldn't beat Germany. Stereotypes took hold. They had Teutonic ice in their veins. We had ants in our pants. When it came to pressure, they thrived, while we choked. Believing we had little chance on the pitch, some England fans in the stands took to taunting Germany in increasingly juvenile ways. They would sing the theme tune to Dambusters and spread their arms out like aeroplane wings. Or they would start chanting 'Two World Wars and One World Cup doo-dah doo-dah', forgetting Germany had won several more World Cups than us. It was all extremely juvenile and did the country no favours whatsoever. When it came to Germany, we seemed incapable of growing up.

Then, on a surreal night in Munich in 2001, on the road to qualification for the 2002 World Cup, England beat Germany 5-1. People pinched themselves. We could beat the Germans. More than three decades of sporting hurt was exorcised. From that point on, we grew up. Ahead of the game this weekend, so far there is little of the crass patriotism, or infantile sniggering about the past (though not all: when the game starts, listen carefully, beneath the drone of vuvuzelas you are likely to hear the brass band who follow the national team everywhere playing the theme from The Great Escape.)

That said, it is the main topic of conversation. Who will win? Is Rooney fit? Who will play alongside him up front? Where will you be watching the game? This England team has been very poor so far. They will have to play much better, but they are capable of doing so and have a great deal of big match experience throughout the team. Germany, in contrast, have played some good football, but are a young team with less of an aura about them than their more illustrious predecessors. If they play without fear England could be in trouble. But I just have a sneaking feeling that England will snatch it by a single goal.

As long as it doesn't go to penalties. Please don't let it go to penalties. England have a 17% win record in  penalty shootouts in major tournaments. The Germans have 71%.

Ice in their veins, you know. *Spreads arms wide* Der der- der der dada der der, der....



Thursday, June 24, 2010


It is impossible not to be caught up in the World Cup fever if you’re a South African.  That’s why we say ‘ayoba!’
The event has brought pride to the country as the first African nation to host the event.  We have confounded the inevitable critics who predicted that we would not be ready.  Even within the country there were many people (mainly Whites who can’t imagine a Black government doing anything right) who were constantly predicting a disaster.  The feelings of many South Africans have been captured in this wonderful letter sent to the foreign media – particularly the English ones (
Of course, football at this level needs stadia.  Some of ours are works of art – by intent.  Soccer City in Johannesburg, seating 90,000, was designed to look like a calabash (a pot made from a gourd – in common use throughout Africa).  Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit has its roof supported by towers shaped like giraffe and its seats painted, zebra-like, in stripes of black and white.  Durban’s Moses Mabhida Stadium, named after a giant of the freedom movement and later general-secretary of the South African Communist Party, takes its design inspiration from the South African flag, with its grand arch representing the unity of a sport-loving nation.  The two legs of the arch on the southern side come together to form a single footing on the northern side, symbolizing the uniting of our once-divided nation.

Since the opening kick-off on June 11, the country has gone ballistic in support of our team, called Bafana Bafana (the Boys, the Boys).  Everywhere you go, there are flags flapping in the winter breezes, and cars have ‘mirror socks’ – flags designed to fit over your car’s side mirrors.  That’s my car in the picture.
Then, of course, there is the vuvuzela.  Not only are there mirror socks, but there also socks for vuvuzelas, called sockzelas – not to keep them warm in the cold Highveld winter, but to dress them up with the team’s colors.  It is a boon for people like me whose allegiance changes as teams get eliminated.  My pecking order is Bafana Bafana first, the USA second, then any African team.  Talking of vuvuzelas, one composer got into the act and composed a concerto for vuvuzela (music shown).  It is played everywhere, and very morning I wake up to its mellifluous tones emanating from houses at the bottom of the hill.  As we say in South Africa, ‘lekker!’ (nice).
People have emerged as great entrepreneurs for the World Cup – for example, the makarapa, a hard hat, was first used in the early 1970’s to protect football fans from bottles.  Today the inventor, a poor Black guy from near Johannesburg, has teamed with a businessman to make hundreds of them – individual works of art.  And fans and tourists love them.  I’m sure you’ll soon see them in a shop near you.
I’ve always been a sportsman – football, cricket, field hockey, rugby, tennis, squash, golf, and so on.  I particularly love team sports because success only happens when everyone pulls together.  Team sports teach interdependence and unselfishness.  And there are few highs as high as being in a team that is successful because of its teamwork.  Teamwork is, of course, a metaphor for life.  And that is one of the attractions of tournaments like the World Cup.  They give ordinary people the opportunity to observe great teamwork.  They inspire kids in particular to play team sports and to play cooperatively.
And that brings me to the only major disappointment of the tournament to date – not the abysmal performance of the French team, but their behavior.  The French were staying at the luxurious Pezula Hotel up the road from me, and we were all excited, sports lovers that we are.  We liked the South African and French flags alternating on the lampposts throughout the suburb.  And the Danish team was staying at the other side of town.  And the Danish flag was fluttering too.  Our little town of 60,000 was hosting two teams!  Amazing.
But then the difference between the two teams started to appear.  The security for the French team was draconian.  Residents like me were subject to police roadblocks to get to our homes.  We had to get security clearances to go to our golf clubhouse and get similar clearances for guests.  There were dozens of police everywhere.  Security around the Danes was relaxed and minimal.
The French were secretive and not social at all.  We never saw them in person, except for a couple of times when we were invited to watch them practise.  And when the team went to practise, they drove the kilometre or two in a bus with darkened windows, escorted by (and I’m not exaggerating) eight or nine police cars, blue lights flashing.  I was appalled to hear that he staff in the clubhouse was instructed not to look directly at the faces of the French players, but to look down as they passed.  The Danes, on the other hand, joined the locals for drinks when they had a chance.
It was its behavior that lost the French team our support – the aloofness, the acrimony, the squabbling, the mutiny, the French coach’s refusal to shake the South African coach’s hand after the French lost to Bafana Bafana.  We wanted the team to set an example to the kids of our town, to play with them, to inspire them,  But what we got was a bunch of men, earning in a week more than many Knysna residents would earn in a lifetime, who demanded to be treated like royalty. 
And so our exuberance about the World Cup has been saddened by what we saw here.  Saddened because most of us have great affection for France and the French; saddened because, with little effort, the French team could have had such a positive impact and won our hearts. 
‘Ayoba’ is an expression of pleasure or amazement, like ‘cool’.  We would like to have used it about our French guests.  Instead we think they should learn about ubuntu – an African philosophy about which I will write soon – which teaches that a person is a person through other persons.
The French have now left.  Ayoba!  We can get back to our enjoyment. 
Now I am waving my Stars and Stripes for Saturday’s game, unfortunately against an African team – Ghana.  But then again, either way I win!
Stan - Thursday

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Orloj

I am presently in a city that takes my breath away. This city is Prague, the capital of the Cheque Republic. Seeing that I have only been here for a day I am not in a position to report in any detail about the wonders of this city or its people. This will hopefully fall on the shoulders of a guest blogger writing crime stories based here or elsewhere in the Cheque Republic. My blog will be thus be brief as the only thing I am really able to share is a recollection from a previous visit, a story that sticks to the brain as it combines two elements from separate sides of the spectrum of human accomplishment – the wondrous and inventive nature of our minds and the horrid, cruel selfishness we unfortunately possess as well. It is a story about a 600 year old mechanical, medieval clock named the Orloj.

The Orloj is probably the best known tourist attraction in Prague, with the possible exception of the Charles Bridge, and it is also known as the astronomical clock – telling far more than just the time, which coincidentally is probably the only thing this clock fails to clearly depict. The clock is built into the tower of what used to be the city hall and its origins date back to 1410 and it is the oldest clock of its kind which is still operated by the original clockwork (600 year old) and even the astronomical dial shaped like an astrolabe survives in the original form. The clock’s main function when commissioned was to depict with precision when the sun was at its highest point each day and as can be seen from the photo, it is made up of three main parts: the walk of the apostles (top part), the sphere (clock dial in the middle) and the calendar (bottom part).

Beautiful in its own right while immobile the clock becomes even more masterful on the hour, when an animated show involving carved wooden figures takes place. This involves an appearance of the 12 apostles whom bless the city from the two small doors that open to portray a procession of six apostles each, as well as movement from 4 figures situated on each side of the clock dial itself and the calendar. These figures represent elements that were considered to be “menacing” for Prague when the clock was erected, namely: Death (taking the form of a skeleton which rings a bell), a Turk (who shakes his head), a Miser (who looks at his bag of coins) and Vanity (which admires itself in a mirror). Unfortunately I have not come across any explanation regarding the Turk, why he was conceived as a threat or why the representative movement involves shaking of the head. Come to that, I have no idea either why vanity or a miser would have proposed a threat to medieval Prague. Once the apostles have finished their blessings and the “threatening” figures their movements, a rooster crows and the chimes of the hour are heard.

The Sphere (clock dial) represents astronomical phenomena such as sunrise and sunset, the time, movements of the sun, the phases of the moon, the equinoxes, the seasons, the days and the zodiac. It involves three clockwork rotations that are beyond my understanding and hence ability to explain, but to give you an idea of the complexity, each of the three co-axial wheels (same diameter) are driven by the same pinion but use a different number of cogs (365, 366 and 379) depending on what they are to represent (the sun, the moon and the zodiac). At the time the sun was believed to orbit the earth.

The calendar at the bottom contains symbols for the 12 months and it also has four wooden figures, these are immobile and are supposed to represent virtues as opposed to the threats described above. These virtuous figures are: a chronicler, an angel, an astronomer and a philosopher. The calendar is a later addition, being added in 1870.

The above is by no means a good or complete description of the wonders of this ancient clock. I will merely ask that you take my word for it that it is an amazing feat of craftsmanship and astronomical prowess, incredible considering that in 1410 the oil painting had yet to be invented and the prototype of eyeglasses were another 40 years into the future. And how was this awarded? By gouging the clockmaker’s eyes out to ensure that he would not make another one for another city. This was done at the request of the city council no less.

However, the clockmaker managed to get a bit of revenge as he supposedly asked his apprentice to take him to the clock where he damaged it badly, cursed it and finally died while touching it (probably from an eye-wound infection). The clock did not operate properly for hundreds of years and those who tried to repair it either died trying or went mad.

For every plus out there there seems to be a minus.

Yrsa - Wednesday

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Let's Monet

Monet vu du ciel, a giant human jigsaw puzzle, gathered 1,250 people, each of whom held a square of cardboard over their heads to recreate Monet’s La Cathédrale de Rouen, effet de soleil, fin de journée. It was filmed from 1,200 feet by a helicopter.

Or gather flash-mob French style Obliged to dress in white and summoned by phone call, text or email to a secret location 15 minutes beforehand, the participants in Paris's Big Open Air White Dinner more than earn their supper. The annual event took place this year in the courtyard of the Louvre.

Honestly it's enough to make me buy a ticket. What group things do we do here with such classe, elan or style?
Yesterday was féte de la musique. Here's some less formal Parisians doing a Vietnamese dance

to music involving bamboo poles.
All over Paris you find music: in courtyards, on the street corners, under the arcades of Place des Vosges, in the churches and it ranges from baroque, to reggae, jazz, a chanteuse singing Piaf outside a cafe. The city throbs with different beats, the streets and Metro are jammed and it lasts into the night.

I've been in Paris for féte de la musique twice and the first time sobered me up. Crowds disoriented me and we had no plan of where to hear music - BIG mistake. You need a plan, a goal, my friends said, if you leave your quartier and they were right. My son, about six at the time, was hungry, the noise hurt his ears and my British friend, Lesley, diagnosed with a brain tumor had disappeared somewhere in Saint Germain. Lost. And in the crowds impossible to find.
Somehow we wedged into the Metro and made it back to Montmartre like homing pigeons. I fed my son, put him to bed and left my husband at the flat. Ready to brave the crowds and look for her, I figured I'd cross back to the Left Bank. But there she was on the street. Smiling.
She hooked her arm in my mind...'let's go dancing,' she said.
We ended up still in Montmartre our quartier, at the fire station with the pompiers, the fireman - well known as les beaux hommes - and the chansons playing in the courtyard of their caserne. Dancing laughing and talking to the local cafe owner and his mother.
I'd learned 'never leave your quartier' a rule of thumb for most Parisians and if you did, plan.

Féte de la musique holds bittersweet memories. My son's taller than me now. And Lesley lived another five years. But of my many memories of her....she's dancing with a fireman at féte de la musique

Cara - Tuesday

Monday, June 21, 2010

Cala Boca Galvão – Brazilian Inside Joke

Explaining Brazilian humor sometimes challenges this writer.
But I’m going to give it a go.


Before you read any further, please look at the video that I've embedded above.
And, if your browser doesn’t show it embedded, click here to see it:
As a matter of fact, you might want to do that anyway.
Because the embedding cuts off the right side of the image.

Okay, you’ve seen the video?

Now admire the poster.
Think you now know what the cala boca galvão movement is all about?
Well, you don’t.

Here’s the real Galvão.
That’s right, a person, not a parrot.
Galvão Bueno is Brazil’s leading sports commentator.
He does play-by-play on all sorts of sports.
Especially football (soccer).
The thing about Galvão is that he talks a lot.
Some people like it.
Others go as far as accusing him of being a bombastic cliché machine and wish he’d shut up and let them enjoy the games.

The World Cup, as I don’t have to tell you, is being played out.
Galvão is calling most of the games.
We’re all hearing him a lot.
And, if you go into a Brazilian bar, or other public place, when a game is on, you’ll often hear someone say “cala boca, Galvão”, the literal meaning of which is “shut up Galvão”.
And, now, in a typical manifestation of Brazilian humor, non-Portuguese speakers around the world are being enlisted to participate.
Under false pretenses.
What they think they’re doing is supporting a movement to save a nonexistent parrot called the galvão.
What they’re actually doing is signing an electronic petition telling Galvão Bueno to shut up.
And over one million of them have already done it.
And, now, there’s this:

If you don’t see it embedded, go here:

As a footnote to the main event, other Brazilians have plugged in phony subtitles to this YouTube video. They purport to show Hitler reacting to the phenomenon. The Lady Gaga comment refers to a secondary hoax, now being spread, that Cala Boca Galvão is actually the title of a new song recorded by Lady Gaga. (The large titles are in Portuguese, but there are small ones, in English, above the image.)

Leighton - Monday

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Minor Irritation Insurance

In a time when it's possible -- even mandatory -- to buy insurance against everything from catastrophic long-term health care to lost luggage, I've noticed a gaping hole. Why does no one offer minor-irritation insurance?

There are whole months when everything goes along okay except for the occasional broken arm or burst pipe. Those are bothersome, but if you're insured to your nostrils, you have the satisfaction of knowing that someone somewhere is going to have to pay for this. If nothing else, it gives you a sense that your account with the Universe is going to get squared.

But then there are days when the Universe hits you lightly but repeatedly in the face with a folded newspaper, and there's no one to turn to for compensation.

I think this is the kind of thing that results in people Going Postal, if you'll forgive the occupational slur. Two or three of these incidents, and a little light goes out of the day. Seven or eight, you begin to mutter unpleasantly at people you love. Fifteen or 20, and you find yourself in line to buy a Glock 9-millimeter and four boxes of cross-tops.

I believe society in general would be a lot safer if we could be insured against these kinds of incidents. So I suggest the following examples, with recommended compensation:
  • Turning on the TV in a hotel room and seeing Sean Hannity after you've put down the remote: Should be worth $12.76.
  • Packing only one novel for a long trip and discovering that you've already read it: $13.07
  • Discovering that you've already read it while you're flying Delta Airlines: $31.12
  • Hearing or reading the term barista. I want my coffee poured by a coffee-pourer, someone whose job description tells me that he or she knows what coffee is and has learned to pour it. A barista sounds to me like someone in the bull ring who makes faces at the bull to get it mad enough to gore the matador. Sort of a safer picador. Barista should be worth $1.19 and a free cup of coffee.
  • Seeing a white guy wearing his baseball cap backwards: $4.84
  • Hearing a white woman say, “You go, girl.” $7.43 and a pair of noise-canceling earphones
  • Being exposed to any white person of either sex who refers to friends and acquaintances as “homies.” $14.29 and short-term use of a tranquilizer dart and the gun to fire it.
  • Having to listen to “Stairway to Heaven” on the car radio: $3.39
  • Repeated exposure to the term “hat trick”: $1.71 per
  • Apostrophe pollution, as in the following sentence: “He picked up the suitcase by it's handle.” I mean, Jesus Christ. Is there anywhere someone so clueless that he or she would write, “He picked up the suitcase by it is handle.”? How simple is this, anyway? If you can't replace “it's” with “it is,” then write “its.” Let the apostrophe go someplace it's needed. It's not like there is an infinite number of apostrophes – every one that's misused deprives some poor writer of one he or she may need. This one should cost Mutual of Omaha $89.54.
  • Any inadvertent experience of karaoke. A few years ago in Taiwan, a drunken businessman grabbed the microphone in a karaoke bar, held onto it, and sang “My Way” six times in a row. The other drunken businessmen in the bar beat him to death with heavy metal ashtrays. If those men had known that each slurred repetition of “My Way” was worth, say, $7.32, that man would be alive today. Not that that would necessarily be a good thing.
  • Opening a menu and finding “Caesar” (as in Caesar Salad) misspelled. If people put half the energy into feeding the world that they put into finding wrong ways to spell “Caesar,” there would be Jenny Craig franchises in Sub-Saharan Africa. I'm no fan of big government, but I think there should be Caesar Salad Squads that do nothing but visit restaurants and check the menus, and they should have the power to force the ones that get it wrong to serve a salad they can spell. “Green,” for example. “Ceaser” should put $2.29 in my pocket every time I see it.
  • And while we're at it, Menus that use Capitals for each Important Word. I can actually sort out for myself what's important in an entree like Loin of Beef Simmered over an Open Fire in a Fragrant Sauce of Shallots. It's meat, right? It's got some stuff poured on it. $3.72, and hold the sauce.
  • Donald Rumsfeld. Fortunately, this one's over. $17.65
  • Politicians who use the phrase, “At this moment in time.” As opposed to what? A moment in space? In the ingredients for shampoo? In a quart of milk? $3.99, and a bargain at the price.
  • Anyone who employs more than five words to describe a bottle of wine. Double indemnity if they use the words “fruity” or “undertone.” So, $2.71 for six words or more, $5.42 for that bottle of Merlot with the fruity hint of blackberry, and $8.13 if it's also got an undertone of oak. If I want to drink oak, I'll throw some acorns in the Vita-Mix. Everything I want to know about a wine can be summed up in four words: It's red. It works.
I could go on for days, but I have to watch my blood pressure. If there are any minor irritations you'd like insurance against, send them to me, and maybe I'll put up a new list. If I choose yours, I might even throw in a visit to your local barista.

By the way, if Hannity's hairline were any lower, he'd be parting his eyebrow.

Tim -- Sunday

Guest Author Annamaria Alfieri

Today we're pleased to welcome Annamaria Alfieri.
Deadly Pleasures Magazine called her book, City of Silver, one of the best first novels of the year.
The Washington Post said, “As both history and mystery, City of Silver glitters.”
And I couldn't agree more.

One of the secrets about Annamaria is that she isn't Annamaria. 
As Patricia King, her real name, she has authored five books on business subjects including Never Work for a Jerk, which was featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show, and the current Monster Boss. 
Annamaria/Patricia lives in New York City, and writes today about the place where her novel is set:

The Richest City in the World

Picture the most powerful city in the Western Hemisphere, the same size as London, a place that has dominated the economic life of the planet for a century.  Its upper classes are mostly white, consumed with displaying their wealth in the form of the latest in luxury goods and sumptuous parties.  The thankless or dangerous work is done by a brown underclass of people largely of South American Indian or mixed Indian and Spanish blood.  At the moment, the city is on the brink of economic ruin, because its dominant men have manipulated the financial system in a way that will affect the economies of countries around the world.  The troubled among its citizens console themselves with strong drink or fundamentalist religion.
Sound familiar?  New York City in 2010, right?
Well, yes, but it is also Potosi, in the Spanish Viceroyalty of Peru in 1650.

The most fundamental thing about Potosi is its position.  At 13,500 feet, it was then and is now the highest city on earth.  What could possibly have brought 160,000 souls—noblemen and beggars, the covetous and zealous—to live in a remote and desolate land where not a blade of grass grew, in thin,  icy air, buffeted by awesome storms and bitter winds?  Only one thing: Money.  Literally, tons of it.

In April of 1545, the Spanish arrived and claimed a red canonical mountain that turned out to be the richest silver lode ever discovered.  Despite the hostile natural environment, over the next century, the city attracted Indian and Spanish miners from all over the Altiplano and western South America.
At first, silver was so close to the surface that it had been exposed by erosion, and so pure that it hardly required refining.  And the riches were shared among all—Indian or Spanish—who worked the Cerro Rico (rich mountain).  Twenty percent of all that was taken was loaded on mules and llamas to make the three-week trip to the coast at Arica, where it was sent to the King of Spain. 

The city that grew up at the base of the mountain became a lovely Spanish place with a cathedral, monasteries and convents, palaces of noble (actual or pretended) Spaniards and their wives, a theater, and a mint to stamp coins, which came to be known as doubloons in the pirate adventure stories of our childhoods. 
The buildings were decorated by native artisans in a style called Mestizo Baroque: as ornate, complex and beautiful as Baroque churches in Rome or Vienna, but with motifs of jungle animals, exotic plants, and Indian faces. 
By 1650, however, the veins being exploited were deep in the mountain, and the mine owners required mercury to purify the silver.  To maintain the flow of wealth, the Spanish instituted a system of enforced labor called the mita, little different from, some say with no difference from slavery.  The work was so dangerous that tradition says, in the villages where men were impressed into the mita, their relatives played dirges for them as they marched away.
Potosí still exists as a city of 105,000.  In 1986, UNESCO declared it part of the Patrimony of Humanity.  Its architectural masterpieces have largely been restored and can be enjoyed by visitors.

Miners still work the Cerro Rico.  Until recently, they have taken mostly tin and copper from the mountain.  But the media have reported that lithium, perhaps the metal of the Twenty-first Century , has been discovered there.
The life of Potosí is about to change again.

Leighton for Annamaria - Saturday
Check out her web page here: