Nine Eleven

Four days ago New York commemorated the 18th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. It is a heart wrenching ritual repeated every year. Family members and first responders return to ground zero to remember the loved ones lost on September 11 of 2001. The names of all people who died are read one by one.

In August 2001, I was sent on assignment by the UNDP to Vladimir, a city in Russia.  The city has a very large Jewish community.  The Jewish Cultural Center is called Hesed Lev and they got a grant from UNESCO, in response to their request for funds to promote Jewish culture through the performing arts. The Soviet Union was very rough with the Jews and many were killed during his regime. The younger generation in the country had been growing up without any knowledge of or sensitivity to their rich heritage. Hesed Lev wanted to tour the country with a variety show including plays, dances and music, especially folk songs. The grant would help underwrite the expenses but they wanted someone to put the program together an=d organize a festival which could be taken on the road. I was assigned the task.

Needless to say, I was quite excited. Even more so when I discovered that they had picked Fiddler on the Roof as one of the two plays.

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Fiddler in rehearsal

I was seriously involved in the Grande Prairie production of the play; I had a bit part as well. (I know, I know, Stanislavsky did say that there are no small parts, only small actors.) The members of the Center were also quite excited after reviewing my resume.  The Center did not want to spend precious dollars for accommodation in a hotel. I was given room and board in the house of one of the staff. I had no problem with the arrangement. In fact, I offered to underwrite the cost of food.

Putting the program together, supervising rehearsals, planning the tour etc. were quite fascinating. The enthusiasm of the cast and crew was very exhilarating.

Here I want to take a slight detour and go back in history. 16th of January 1989 was an important day in the history of the erstwhile Czechoslovakia. On that day Vaclav Havel, playwright and political activist, was inaugurated as the first democratically elected President, thus toppling the communist government backed by the Soviet Union.

The interesting fact is that Havel, along with many activists, including students, was in a jail in Bratislava on the day he was elected. On the 8th of September I got a surprise call from Alexander Sergeev of the Russia desk in Moscow. He had a request from UNESCO. Three Israelis would be arriving in Vladimir on the 9th of September. They were journalists who wrote articles of protest against the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia. At that time they were operating independently from Moscow, Odessa and Kiev for different news organizations. They were arrested and sent to Vladimir central prison which is the largest in Russia. It was (perhaps still is) the most notorious prison in the country and the most dangerous criminals or those who needed to be taught a lesson were sent there.

The three men spent about six years in the jail and when Czechoslovakia became a democratic republic, they were released. They moved to Israel. But they were returning to Vladimir after many years to see the prison where they had been incarcerated, where they withstood indescribable torture, but survived simply because of their indomitable spirit.

I was the only UN presence in Vladimir and so I was requested to interview them and submit a report. I arranged for a meeting on the 11th of September.

Yes, 9-11.

The journalists–Benyamin, Isaac and Menachem—had horror stories to tell.

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Isaac and the columnist in front of the only wooden church in the country

One particular punishment is worth mentioning. Every Friday was silence day.  From 5 in the morning when they were woken up until 5 a.m. the next day, the prisoners in the ward were not to make any sound. Food was served on paper plates, the toilets were not to be flushed, and if anyone felt like sneezing, he had to stifle it. In fact, one day Isaac sneezed and he was beaten up for that. He said that was the most brutal in the Russian repertoire of torture.

It was extremely disturbing to listen to the three people describe their experiences. It was inconceivable what a human being can do to another!! I had to ask them why, in the name of God, they came all the way to Vladimir! They said they wanted to see once more the place where they had withstood the brutal machinery of the KGB and beaten it. They were writing a book, describing their experiences, and they wanted to see the city which they had not had the opportunity to explore, having spent all the time in the prison. As I said they were incarcerated for six years and when Czechoslovakia became independent, they went from Vladimir to Haifa in Israel.

I came home around 6 in the evening and since the lady of the house had not come home to fix me supper, I turned on the TV. Russian TV more often than not showed Hollywood movies, dubbed in Russian. My Russian was not good enough to understand the dialogue. Even if I did, Clint Eastwood saying, Make my day, you punk, in Russian had no appeal for me. I used to look at the pictures and tune out the dialogue.

What I saw initially surprised me. One of the stations was showing the Twin Towers under siege. I did not understand the commentary that went with it. I assumed that it was a new movie that Steven Spielberg was shooting!  Or John Cameron.

In a few minutes my hostess called to apologize for not being home at supper time, but she asked me if I knew what was happening. Of course, I did not. And when she gave me the news, my heart sank. Many weekends I had gone to the Windows on the World on the 106th floor. They had a very attractive restaurant called Wild Blue. It was also known as the Greatest Bar on Earth! I spent time reading; writing, just looking at the river…….It was an ideal place to spend a quiet afternoon.  I kept on watching the repeated images of the plane ramming the towers, the resultant damage, confusion…

About half an hour later the President of the center called me and said that I should immediately shave my beard because I looked like one of the guys responsible!! I had no idea how she got the image to begin with.

The next thing I knew, Alexander asked me to pack and be ready to leave the next day. In the morning three soldiers came to the apartment and literally surrounded me and took me to the railway station to catch the early train to Moscow. The soldiers were with me throughout the journey. Once in Moscow, I was whisked off under strict military protection to a hotel somewhere out of Moscow. The next day I was put on a flight path which took me to Helsinki. Before I reached Edmonton I touched Glasgow, Paris and Frankfurt. The usual route would have been Moscow-Frankfurt-Edmonton. The UN does take care of their staff, I tell you!!

I was very disappointed to leave, with my job half done. I was told that  the Center did put together a program which they toured with around Russia.

 

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The “Second Coming” Has Come

This blog is a bit dated—20 days late. But the import of the event is of such staggering, nay, Biblical proportions that it is worth revisiting.

I am not well up on Christian tenets, although I know that many of the faith believed in the second coming. For my edification, my friend Liza Paul asked me to look up 1 Corinthians 11.26, Hebrews 9:28 and Acts 1:11. All three clarify that the Messiah would, indeed, appear at some suitable time. As such believers have been waiting.  I use the verb ’have been’ advisedly and you will get my drift as you read this further.

Of course, the believers do not know where or in what form the Messiah would appear. But believing in a Messiah is a central and precious core of the outlook of many Christians.

But the fact is, unbeknownst to us, Messiah did arrive. He kind of sneaked up on us. Some stone tablets containing decades of laws came crashing down. He did give telltale signs and removed the currency of some of the Ten Commandments. Specifically 7 (Thou shall not commit adultery), 8 (Thou shall not steal) and 10 (Thou shalt not covet.)

We did not notice because we had no signs of HIS coming.  We did not know whether three wise men would make their appearance again. But they did in the form of Mike Pence, Mitch McConnell , Lindsay Graham and Kellyanne Conway. Well, four. (I know, I know, the last mentioned is NOT a man, but wise all the same.)  HE was born in a mansion in Queens, New York, and not in a manger. But the truth that the baby is, indeed, the One, was kept a secret and those in charge were probably waiting for the appropriate occasion to announce. And that day happened to be August 22. The announcement was not made in Galilee or Bethlehem but on the front lawns of the White House. The present occupant, en route, Paris to attend the G7 conference told a gaggle of press reporters that he was the Chosen One. The earth was not covered in darkness, mountains did not erupt, and waterfalls did not recede. No. It was a quite peaceful afternoon. HE just looked up at the sky and said that HE was the Chosen One.

The majesty and import of the announcement resulted in the press corps falling on their knees. HE did not give any blessing of any kind, but everyone knew that he was going to Paris to bring peace on earth. Of course he has an eye on the Nobel Peace Prize. HIS staff is actively canvassing for HIM.  If Obama, a black man could get it, why not HE?  But HE is not a racist. HE told us so. HE is omniscient. Mark how he said that HE knew more about the crises in the world than HIS generals.

But at the G7, HE did not attend the session on climate change. There is no surprise there. Every school boy knows that climate change is a hoax, has nothing to do with humans and the so called changes have been brought on because HE was wrathful. HE made the icebergs to melt, raise the temperature of sea water, cause thunder storms, hurricanes and such. The scientists are dead wrong. Ask senator Inhofe.

The Messiah has a lot of things to attend to before the Kingdom of God—the land of the free and the home of the brave —is made great again. HE has the Philistines like the Democrats to take care of. He has to clear the swamp though all his sycophants are swamp dwellers continue to thrive among the alligators and mangroves. But they are God’s creatures too.

As far as we know, HE is rewriting the Ten Commandments and will be tweeted in due course, certainly before the election. Three changes have already been made as indicated above. One of the seven remaining will most certainly be that it is all right if one is a pathological liar. So go ahead and lie through your teeth is HIS message, nay, command.

Christendom is generally happy. Strange it took twenty centuries for HIS coming.

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The second coming has not affected many millions around the world. For the 730,000 Rohingya Muslims, for instance, who fled from Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing, life is atrociously hard. They have crossed the border to Bangladesh and live in squalid conditions in the largest refugee camp in the world.

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Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, with a population of about 10 million, its traffic is legendary, its air quality ranks among the world’s worst. (See picture below.)

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It has few parks. Even walking on its sidewalks is a hazardous exercise.

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The President of the country, Joko Widodo, announced two weeks ago a plan for fixing the capital: start from scratch. Building a new capital on the island of Borneo. Estimated cost $33 billion.

Speaking of numbers:

$ 1.5 trillion. Outstanding student loan in the US.

$170 million. The fine Google will have to pay because they knowingly and illegally harvested personal information from children and used it to profit by targeting them with ads.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Ageing and Speech

During my stint with the British government in the fifties and sixties, I had the privilege of meeting Roland Hindmarsh, a Cambridge Don and linguist. We were colleagues. In 1960 he retired from Civil Service and joined the British Council. However, every year he used to send a ‘form letter’ to selected friends. One of the themes was ageing, and he had written three articles on the topic. I believe that over the past few years I had published two of them in Subtext. This third one, though not specifically on ageing, is about an issue that plagues everyone, regardless of age. It is about speech.

I have listened with amusement how the professional sportsmen speak when the ubiquitous media pester them for a reaction or response.  It always sounded as though these beefy males were stringing words in such a way that everything they had to say sounded like one sentence, connected by an irrelevant word “an”, which I know stands for “and”.

I have always impressed on the actors that the consonant sounds in English speech are very important for clarity. And I was happy that Roland chose to write on this. The problem is that the speaker does not realize that his speech might lack the clarity that is required. Prof. Higgins of Pygmalion fame asked painfully, why the English people do not learn to speak English!!! This could be true of Scots, Newfies, Texans or Australians.

Anyway here is Dr Hindmarsh’s take on the problem.

“All manner of things can happen to the speech of the elderly.  They can hesitate and stumble, repeat themselves, lose track of what they were saying, mumble and dither.  Others, however, speak loudly, with heavy emphasis, and will not brook interruption.  Some simply ramble on and on, moving from one thing to another without there being any objective connection.

What about me?  Language has always been one of the main focuses of my engagement in life, and speech has figured for me as a teacher, lecturer and methodologist.  My library contains a whole realm of books on language, including its oral aspects.  But books are not speech in the most obvious sense, even though the novels of Dickens contain whole acres of conversation and repartee, argument and speechifying.

Within the elderly in my acquaintance there are those who need to speak, almost as if to verify that they are alive, and involved in personal interactions, functioning part of society.  There are others, however, who speak almost with reluctance, and may well seem to prefer to listen than speak themselves.  Speech, after all, necessitates a listener, whether present in the room, or at the end of a phone line, or in a radio interview or televised discussion.

Which brings me to my main complaint: the deterioration of spoken English in the last twenty or so years. (This article was written more than four decades ago.) On return to England after decades of deployment abroad, I noticed how British people now tended to speak as though to themselves, even though they were present in a group, especially one that was oddly enough described as interactive.  They often rambled on, their eyes vacant or directed into some corner of the room rather than to any other persons ostensibly listening.  Ostensibly, because at times I found it hard actually to catch what was being said, so deficient was the articulation, and inadequate the volume.

And that is one of the main complaints I make now, as an octogenarian: people of middle age so often talk as if they were soliloquizing, with the volume turned down, fumbling for words, with seldom any attempt to check whether the statement—if that is not too complimentary a term—is being received.  How has this come about?  Is it because people got used to using the phone, rather than speaking directly, and holding each other by eye as well as in speech?

Something else has occurred: the loss of rhythmic stress.  Together with all languages broadly classified as Germanic, English speaks certain syllables in words and phrases with greater strength and length than others.  That gives the language its characteristic rhythms.  But some disease has been eating away at the language of middle aged users—I speak only here of native speakers of the language—for the muscular rhythm has gone slack, with the effect for me as an octogenarian that I am often unable to follow what the middle-aged are saying.  Their utterances seem to lack the rhythmic stress that I had once expected to find.

When it comes to the young—say fifteen to thirty years of age—I am in greater trouble still.  For they have not only inherited the slack habits of their parents, but also have also speeded up speech into confusing jabber—a habit that may have been encouraged by the use of mobile phones, often for instant brief helter-skelter contacts.  This collapse of language is mirrored by the use of texting, in which features of pronunciation are allowed to produce the weirdest forms, cramped into indecipherability, where a whole world may be reduced to a mere image.”

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NUMBERS

 1 (one).  The number of people who came to a townhall meeting held by Republican congressman, Steve King. It was 21 year old Jessica Birch, a student at the University of Northern Iowa. King did not have to use the microphone.

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800 million.  The number of times the Muller report had been downloaded from the website of the Department of Justice, between its public release in mid-April and early July.

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Aw, shucks!

With the economy booming according to the White House, and the Republic literally swimming in cash, the Emperor wanted to buy Greenland from the Dutch government which owns the island.  You know, like buying the neighbor’s lawn mower. By any standard it was a very generous offer because the US was only trying to help the Danes. This is what friends do, help each other. But the Dutch government said, thanx but no thanx. This infuriated the monarch and so he promptly snubbed the Queen by cancelling a state visit that was planned for Him. He also characterized the Danish Prime Minister as “nasty”. He said, “I thought it was a very not nice way of saying something.” Those who follow the Monarch also know that mangled syntax is one of his more endearing qualities.

But does the country really have the money? On Wednesday the New York Times (one of the major fake news vendors) reported that the Federal deficit will reach$900 million by September 30, 2019, and will top $1 trillion next year. This is the prediction by the Budget Office.

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The quote of the week. Also a quiz: who said the following on Tuesday August 20?
“Any Jewish person voting for Democrats is guilty of ignorance or great disloyalty.”
The correct answer will be in next week’s blog.

 

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A gentleman by the name of Clyde Blackburn, a resident of Grande Prairie, Alberta, apparently went into a local eatery. There he found something disturbing. On the chalkboard menu the establishment had advertised “tea’s”, and this flagrant abuse of the apostrophe rattled him. He surreptitiously went to the board and erased the offending punctuation mark. He also started a thread on his Facebook page. This spurred many armchair grammarians into action and the discussion veered off from the apostrophe to commas, singular/plural uses, collective nouns, personal experiences with students and so on.

Mr Blackburn while trying to save the English language has, quite likely, committed a crime: defacing private property. I don’t know how the legal system in Alberta deals with such activities. I need to ask Hawkesworth about it. He knows a lot about such things. A suitable punishment would be to ask him to sing in public the national anthem of six countries including Burkina Faso.

Later research has revealed that Mr Blackburn is a City Councillor.

By a strange coincidence, the same week in which the thread was getting longer, I was made aware of a very interesting book, a kind of biography of the semi colon. The book is called “Semicolon: the past, present and future of a misunderstood mark” and is authored by one Cecilia Watson.

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A review of the book by Parul Sehgal appeared in the New York Times of July 30 and I thought that it would make interesting reading. In fact, I urge you to read it. Here it is. E&OE.

 

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Writers have their pet themes, favorite words, stubborn obsessions. But their signature, the essence of their style, is felt someplace deeper — at the level of pulse. Style is first felt in rhythm and cadence, from how sentences build and bend, sag or snap. Style, I’d argue, is 90 percent punctuation.

“Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.” “For a man of his age, 52, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.” “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.”

Every sentence is a performance, or should be, and punctuation sets the stage. It signals the rise and fall of the curtain, provides the special effects, etches out the grain in the voices we recognize above as Camus, J.M. Coetzee, Toni Morrison — even inducting us into the themes and tone of the novels. See those ironic commas in Coetzee’s “Disgrace” sequestering “to his mind” or the opening lines of Morrison’s “Beloved,” with one sentence sliced so suddenly, jaggedly into two.

In “Semicolon,” Cecelia Watson reveals punctuation, as we practice it, to be a relatively young and uneasy art. Her lively “biography” tells the story of a mark with an unusual talent for controversy. “The semicolon is a place where our anxieties and our aspirations about language, class and education are concentrated,” she writes. “In this small mark big ideas are distilled down to a few winking drops of ink.”

Ink, blood and bile. In 1837, two University of Paris law professors clashed over a question of semicolon usage and decided to settle the matter with a duel. A rogue semicolon drifted into the retranscription of an early-20th-century statute, causing liquor service to be suspended in Boston for six years. In 1945, a semicolon inserted into the definition of war crimes in the Charter of the International Military Tribunal threatened to halt the prosecution of captured Nazis until the ambiguous sentence was clarified.

Why such confusion? The modern semicolon was invented in Venice, in 1494, by the printer and publisher Aldus Manutius, and, for much of history, it had no strictly defined function. It acted like a musical notation, allowing for a pause somewhere between the beat of a comma and a colon (hence its mongrel design). Only later was it systematized and given two primary uses.

The first is uncontroversial. The semicolon keeps a sentence tidy by separating items in a list already cluttered with commas. (The band played shows in Richmond, Va.; Memphis, Tenn.; and Asheville, N.C.). The second function has caused all the strife. Here, the semicolon takes the place of a period and yokes together two independent clauses that could function as sentences on their own. (The band is terrible; I regret following them on tour.)

In this second capacity, semicolons are discretionary. They add shading, allow one thought to ripen into another. Few have used the mark more liberally and eccentrically, or more beautifully described its psychological effect, than Virginia Woolf. From the Lily Briscoe section of “To the Lighthouse,” describing Lily’s summers with the Ramsay family: “Such was the complexity of things. For what happened to her, especially staying with the Ramsays, was to be made to feel violently two opposite things at the same time; that’s what you feel, was one; that’s what I feel, was the other, and then they fought together in her mind, as now.” Semicolons allow these sentiments to flow together — to jostle and harmonize — in one sentence the way they would in one mind.

To a varietal of writer, often American, the technique is pure offense. “The most pusillanimous, sissified, utterly useless mark of punctuation ever invented,” the grammarian James J. Kilpatrick declared. “All they do is show you’ve been to college” (Kurt Vonnegut). “Ugly as a tick on a dog’s belly” (Donald Barthelme).

Sissified. If only the source of the anxiety weren’t so mysterious.

Semicolons are not your workaday periods and commas. They belong to the family of trills and volutes; they exist for the sake of complexity, beauty, subtle connections. Cardinal virtues, I’d say, but Watson traces the warring (and gendered) camps of prose style — a fixation on clarity and directness versus a curled sensibility, one interested in the fertile territories of ambiguity.

Watson covers impressive ground in this short book, skittering back and forth like a sandpiper at the shores of language’s Great Debates. There are fascinating forays into how grammarians “created a market for their rules,” the strange history of diagramming sentences and the racial politics of so-called Standard English. Watson is sharpest when acting a bit like a semicolon herself, perceiving subtle connections and burrowing into an argument. Whatever her subject, her targets are always pedants, those acolytes of “actually,” all those who profess to love language but seek only to control it.

Self-appointed grammar “sticklers” and “snobs” “want so much to get back to that point in the past where the majority of people respected language and understood its nuances,” she writes. “That place is a mirage. There was no time when everyone spoke flawless English and people punctuated ‘properly.’”

Does this mean anything goes? Not in the least. Watson opposes conventions only as they exist to spare us from thinking. Don’t just learn the rules, her clever, curious book prompts us; learn to ask, whose rules (and to admire that semicolon while you’re at it).

 

 

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A Sticky Wicket

The other day returning from a visit to the bank, I sat on a sidewalk bench to rest my tired legs. After a while when I tried to get up, I felt slight resistance in my derriere and realized that I was sitting on a blob of chewed gum, left behind by a previous traveler. One quality of this masticated guck is that it does not easily come off. All this meant another 20 dollar drain on the exchequer in terms of dry cleaning costs.

Anyway I thought it might be interesting to do some research on this somewhat ubiquitous substance.

In 1836, Santa Anna, the Mexican dictator came to Staten Island as an exile, after he was defeated by Sam Houston and after Texas became a state.  He carried with him as a chew, chicle: a rubbery substance produced by the tropical sapodilla tree.  In Staten Island he met Thomas Adams, a local inventor.  In 1869 Adams attempted to make tires from the Mexican’s stash of chicle, but was unsuccessful.  Then Adams gave it a chew himself and liked it better than paraffin wax or spruce resin chewing plugs that New Yorkers were buying from the drug stores.  In 1876 Adams opened the first gum factory, and chewing gum spread all over America, then throughout Europe and finally all over the world.

So the story goes.

But what Adams did not do is to devise a means of disposing of the chewed gum.  It found its place everywhere people congregated.  It was so convenient to stick it under chairs and tables, in telephone booths, on lamp posts, on subway walls.  But the easiest way to discard it was just that: discard it— on the sidewalks. Or on a sidewalk bench.

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Hardened gum underfoot is certainly not a rural feature.  The larger the city, the more the gum; and this makes New York the “splotch” capital of the world according to a city councilor.  The dark blobs stuck to pavements are not part of the concrete mix, not stray bits of asphalt, not hardened drips of tar—but they are discarded chewing gum, over which many shoes have left their imprint.

Well, the New Yorkers, especially the Mayor, are worried.  On an average, there are approximately 125 dark spots on a slab of cement on the sidewalk, each slab measuring six feet by four feet.  Considering that New York has 12500 miles of pavement the number of these black spots runs into the millions.

Business places, according to the city by- law are responsible for cleaning up the sidewalk in front of their space; but these days cleaning is restricted to removing garbage.  Hardened gum is not given any attention.  Some of the more prestigious places like the Carnegie Hall, Lord and Taylor, Saks, Tiffany and such do hire gum removers—employees who wield broom handles fitted with blades.  Understandably this operation does not begin until after midnight.

Every problem spawns a solution and a small time entrepreneur called Brad Fields has formed a company called Gumbusters of New York.  He has, in fact, taken a franchise from a Dutch company (suggesting that the problem is universal).  Fields “evaporates” the blotches using a solvent mixed with steam.    He is a kind of gum anthropologist.  “I walk with my head down now, like most New Yorkers,” says he. “But I do it for business knowledge.  I can explain why some wads are huge (kids chew four pieces at a time), why some are just larger than average (bubble gum), why some have tails (someone stepped on them when they were fresh, pulling along the street before they hardened), and how long it takes for a pink or white or green confection to become grimy stain that stubbornly stays put (about 24 hours).  We can smell gum sometimes; the flavor wafts up.”

Customers generally pay 35 cents per square foot plus 15 dollars per gallon for the solution.  They can even buy a ‘gum cart’ for 6000 dollars as Penn Central Station and The Statue of Liberty have done.

Stopping this habit by chewers is not as hard as it seems. He has only to follow the example of Singapore.  In that island state chewing gum is public places is illegal.  In fact, it is very difficult to buy gum in any of the stores.

Trivia: Americans chew about $3 billion worth of gum every year.  Using Wrigley’s single pack as a measure adds up to 60 billion pieces annually.

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Today’s gums are made mostly with a synthetic polymer gum base. But that is as sticky as chicle.

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The senseless murders in the land of the free and home of the brave have sent shockwaves all around the world. Enough has been written and spoken about it. The Emperor addressed the nation and said, inter alia, that “Mental illness and hate pull the trigger, not the gun.” I don’t know quite what that means but He said it, and so I accept it. He also promised to go to El Paso and Toledo, the places where the shooting happened (as he said it). He was going on a healing tour to Toledo except that he went to Dayton instead!!

When in El Paso many of the victims did not want to meet him. So He regaled those who were in the hallway of the hospital how in a rally in El Paso “several hundred thousand” people had gathered. But poor Beto O’Rourke had only 400 and that too in a parking lot.

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NUMBERS

$ 32 million. The money spent for the Russia investigation by Robert Mueller. $ 9.7 million went toward salaries and benefits, $3.1 million on rent, communications and utilities and $1.6 million on travel and personal transportation.

$ 5.2 billion. The biggest quarterly loss suffered by Uber.

 

 

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Shakespeare Is For The Ages, But…

In the late 1980’s when I was a student at NYU, I saw that the Shakespeare Festival at Stratford, Connecticut was playing Julius Caesar. This is one of my favorite plays and since I did not see it in the repertoire of Broadway plays, I decided to take in the Stratford play even though cost of travel, price of tickets, overnight accommodation etc. were a bit of a strain on my budget. It was only after I read the Playbill that I realized that the production was set in modern times. I was disappointed, but decided to see the play anyway.

The action took place in a banana republic; the conspirators were disgruntled army brass. Caesar was the dictator. When the play opened several people gathered on the stage dressed in business suits, many of them had cameras slung around the shoulders—–

Having never seen the Bard’s plays except in Elizabethan period costume, I was finding it difficult to accept the modern clothes. I was prepared to employ ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ only in a limited sense.

Anyway the play proceeded. It was vulgar to hear Caesar asking his wife to stand where Antony, during the races, could touch her and thus cure her of her barrenness.  The assassination was perpetrated by a group of army people shooting Caesar with handguns.

Eventually the funeral orations began and Antony, himself in a three piece suit, went on reciting the Bard’s words.  At one point he said, “Through this the well beloved Brutus stabbed, And as he plucked the cursed steel away, Mark how the blood of Caesar followed it”.

What cursed steel??!!  It was a blasted gun that killed the man. I could not take it anymore and at a suitable break in the action I walked out and took the bus back to New York. Saved overnight accommodation, however!!

I bring this up because Stratford Ontario is playing Merry Wives of Windsor as part of their season. Which is all right because, after all, they are supposed to mount the Bard’s plays. Except here, the play is set in the 50’s. Director Cimolino was inspired by the I Love Lucy show, he said. He chose the decade of square-rimmed glasses, doo-wop and hula hoops as the setting for the story. And costumes to match the era.  Ryan Porter of Toronto Star writes, “The set has astro turf yards dotted with swan ornaments and young lovers dressed in poodle skirts and letterman jackets like they’ve swapped closets with the cast of Grease.

The rumble that you heard is Shakespeare rolling in his grave.

Shakespeare wrote the play around 1597 though it was first published in 1602. The title is a reference to the town of Windsor which is also the location of Windsor castle. The play revolves around the lovable Sir John Falstaff—the vain, cowardly, boozing, overweight knight. The others include people with names Shallow, Pistol, Slender, Mistress Quickly, Nym…..No self-respecting parent of the fifties would have given such names to the children.

Many of what happens in the play would be either immoral or illegal today, certainly in the 1950’s. To make actors clad in inappropriate costume  deliver words written for the 1602 audience is inappropriate, indeed, unkind. There is clear misogyny in Shakespeare’s text.

Geraint Wyn Davies plays the adorable Knight but in his crumpled pants, waistcoat, and long checkered overcoat somehow does not look the part. The picture shows that he has a paunch, but it looks like a stuffed pillow.  Here is a picture of what he ought to look like (see below).

37895-275-shakespeare400_falstaff_eduard_von_grutzner

I am a purist and hence my prejudices. I am sure thousands of theatre-goers around the world have seen and enjoyed the Bard in other than Elizabethan costume. But I cannot stomach it!!

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NUMBERS.

100,000. Amount in dollars that an auction house is selling the jersey which Barack Obama is believed to have worn while playing in high school.

 

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A Question of Tort

As I write this the police is hunting two Canadian teenagers who are suspected of the murder of three people in British Columbia. They are still at large, miles away from where the crime was committed. Multi-millionaire Jeffrey Epstein (66) is in jail, pending trial, for sex trafficking of children. Earlier this week the Federal Trade Commission in the US has announced a fine of $5 billion (!) against the Silicon Valley giant, Facebook, for its violation of an eight year old privacy agreement. Malpractices include gathering of phone numbers and repurposing them for advertising or sneakily applying facial-recognizing technology.

I am sure you know of many instances worldwide where the rule of law is being flouted with impunity. I had occasion to write about this six years ago. This week’s blog is a reprint of the article that appeared on September 12, 2013.

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A Question of Tort

In Oklahoma, a few days ago, an Australian man attending one of the colleges on a baseball scholarship was shot and killed by three teenagers. One of them said, “We were bored and didn’t have anything to do, so we decided to kill somebody.” Another said that he did it for the fun of it.

On the 26th of February, in Florida, a big, beefy 28 year old man called George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, a 17 year old African American high school student, who did not have any weapon on him. The reason was self-defence.

In April 2013, two brothers Tamerlan and Dhhokhar Tsarnaev  (named after historical heroes Tamurlane and Sohrab) turned the Boston Marathon finish line into a war zone. Tamerlan died; the other is in custody.

In July, Cleveland’s Arial Castro pleaded guilty to 937 counts related to kidnapping, imprisonment and rape of three women. (He would hang himself in prison later.)

In July, again, a policeman in Toronto shot and killed a lone passenger called Sammy Yatim in a street car. Yatim had a knife in his hand, he had asked the passengers to evacuate and was standing at the door of the street car. He was no threat to anyone except, perhaps, himself. But the policeman, James Forcillo, thought otherwise and shot him. Nine times!!

Killed him.

I am not trying to catalogue heinous crimes that have been perpetrated recently or in the past. We all know that every day somewhere or the other loathsome incidents happen. In all these cases lawyers are appointed or hired to defend the lowlife that perpetrated the crimes. The lawyers, obviously, defend the criminals and try to get them acquitted.  For this, various defences are put forward: abusive parents, alcoholic parents, drug addicted parents, or even the society that did not take care of the disturbed individual. “Fell through the cracks” is the popular excuse. The most hilarious defence is temporary insanity. “Your honor, my client killed three people brutally, but he did not know what he was doing, and so I ask for the clemency of the court”. The criminal is sometimes set free only to perpetrate the crime again.

The question is:  If the lawyer abhors crimes against humanity and have a conscience why do they defend people such as Arial Castro or Tsarnaev or Forcillo? A few days ago when a Delhi court gave the death sentence to the four vicious rapists who murdered a 23 year old physiotherapy student, the lawyer who defended them was quite upset!  He was confronted by an army of journalists and he decided to capitalize on his moment in the sun and said passionately, “This is not a victory of truth. It is a defeat of justice.”

Would he have been so vocal if the victim was one of his own?

So when I saw a headline in New York Times (July 25, 2013) What motivates a lawyer to defend a Tsarnaev, a Castro or a Zimmerman?, I was quite interested. What indeed?

The author was one Abbe Smith who is a professor of law and the director of the Criminal Defence & Prisoner Advocacy Clinic at Georgetown University and co-editor of the forthcoming “How Can You Represent Those People?”

Smith says, “All criminal defence lawyers are asked this: it’s such a part of the criminal defence experience that it’s simply known as “the question”. Most of us have a repertoire of stock replies about how the system can’t work without good lawyers on both sides, or the harshness of punishment or the excessive number of people—especially minorities—locked up in this country. Capital defenders such as Tsarnaev lawyer Judy Clarke tend to cite their opposition to the death penalty…..

But our motivations are usually personal and sometimes difficult to articulate……. Defence lawyers try to find humanity in the people we represent, no matter what they may have done. We resist the phrase “those people” because it suggests too clear a line between us and them… ….Criminal lawyers are sometimes accused of investing all our sympathy in our clients and having none for victims. But we are human beings; we have feelings. ………”

Needless to say I was disappointed. Whatever the logic be, I cannot understand how anyone can defend a Tsarenev or Forcillo,or Castro. Whatever prompted the criminals to do what they did, it was premeditated. It is too simple to dismiss them as damaged, deprived or depraved. They have ruined families by their abhorrent behaviour.

Smith concludes her article by contending that criminal lawyers are motivated by the knowledge that none of us would want to be defined by the very worst thing we ever did. We represent “those people” because we can always find aspects of them that represent us”

Really??!!

I can categorically say that there is no ‘aspect’ of Castro or Tsarnaev that represents me.

 

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