Another Big Pile of Rocks

At the pinnacle of its power in the first century, the so-called Roman Empire might better have been called the "Mediterranean Empire," so completely did it encircle the Mediterranean Sea. Never before or since has one power unified the entire basin from Gibraltar to Constantinople, at least not on both sides of the sea; the Moors almost managed it, but couldn't quite grab hold of a few minor territories like France and Italy to complete the circuit.

Perhaps this is one reason why, at least outside of the kitchen, there is no experience so quintessentially Mediterranean as tramping about on an ancient pile of sun-bleached Roman ruins, the scent of rosemary and thyme wafting up on heatwaves from the baking bushes. Volubilis is no different. Here at the westernmost extremity of Rome's influence, on the foundations of the long-forgotten pre-Christian Mauritanian empire, the visitor tramples fallen olives underfoot while Moroccan goats gambol amidst the shattered pillars. Apart from the olive trees there is no shade to be found; the sun beats down relentlessly on the elaborate Roman patios and disused baths.

In the way that these things often seem to go (one thinks of Jerusalem), what was an important city to the Mauritanians became one to the Romans, and then in the eighth century, to the Moors. Beyond some of the pillars of Volubilis, washed in yellow Mediterranean sunshine, are the twin camel humps of Morocco's holiest town, Moulay Idriss, named for the descendant of the prophet who brought Islam to Morocco, and from whom the Moroccan royal family charts its lineage. We took a collective taxi from the city of Meknes to Moulay Idriss and walked to Volubilis from there, a highly recommended excursion. After a short scramble up the hillside at the base of the village a pleasant one hour walk leads around a spectacular bluff on a little-used road. For much of the route the archaeological site is visible on the plain below, until finally one cuts downhill through the groves to emerge on the main highway opposite the entrance to the ruins.

What once was the main drag, rail straight in the Roman way. One imagines the structures to the left to have been the truly posh digs of Volubilis; the floors are exquisitely tiled with mosaics. Enormous private baths abound. In fact, walking through this section, one has the impression that the Romans did little other than bathe.

Storks nest atop the tallest remaining columns, occasionally flapping off to soar far overhead on rising thermals.

Many of the mosaics depict fish and other aquatic creatures, although the site is far from the sea between the Rif and Atlas mountains. The Romans must have been fanatics for seafood.

Only the merest fraction of Volubilis has been restored in any way. Wandering the hillside below the most impressive buildings, you begin to realize the extent of the city. Chunks of limestone are everywhere. Here, a gully is filled with bits of column, two-thousand-year-old construction rubble, apparently awaiting looters.

There are countless splendid mosaics at Volubilis. These patterns even seem to suggest that the motifs I earlier identified as Moorish may actually predate the arrival of Islam. Note that, although made of hundreds of tiny squares of stone, these layouts share with contemporary Moroccan cement tiles a four-part format in which two patterns compete visually for attention with one another. Do you see this as four circles? Or as four diamonds?

Incidentally, or coincidentally, the trail for the walk from Moulay Idriss to Volubulis begins just beside the tile-manufacturing facility I was so happy to discover a few posts ago. After taking the Moulay Idriss turnoff from the main highway watch for a blue and yellow gas station on the left. The tile factory, really just a garage operation, is immediately to the left of this, and just downhill from here a trail leads up a rubble-strewn ravine. It is only a hundred meters or so up this hill to the little-used road mentioned above. Depending on where exactly you emerge on to this road, the ruins of Volubilis should be visible in the valley off to your left.


Barack Obama for President of Iowa

Antarcticiana's firm commitment to journalistic integrity and our unswerving dedication to presenting only the facts are, of course, known from one end of the world wide web to the other. You may read here about the "beauty" of a particular species of bird, or even the "superiority" of one sort of flooring to another, but we generally try to withhold judgement, always preferring that you, the informed reader, draw your own conclusions. We are all about empowering you; we leave polemics and politics to the blowhards, those puffers of hot, garlicky air who pollute the byways of the internet in such tedious abundance.

But lately the barrage of attention being paid to our humble blog has made us aware of the great power we have; power which must be used to do good, lest it go to waste, falling like ripe fruits from the trees to rot uneaten on the ground of the orchard. In short, we feel much like Bono; with so very many ears cocked in our direction, to remain silent seems to us an abdication of the grave responsibility you, the dear reader, have invested in us.

It is therefore, with pride, and a sense of urgency, that we end our long moratorium on the endorsement of political candidates with the announcement that we firmly and fully support Barack Obama in the upcoming Iowa caucuses.

Why Obama? And, having gone out on a limb and chosen a young, gangly, light-skinned black man whose name sounds scarily like "Osama," why hedge and endorse only for Iowa?

As to the latter question: the presidential elections are scheduled for November 4th, 2008. The Iowa caucuses for January 3rd of the same year, but only just. (Next year, by the way). Eleven months are a very long time. Significantly longer than a pregnancy, and we all know how long and trying those can be. Give or take a few weeks, in fact, this period represents a full one-quarter of a complete presidential term. This absurd state of affairs, which results in our electing a president who serves for all of two years before launching his re-election campaign, requires our discouragement. With such a vast span of time dividing the primaries from the actual election, Obama, despite being by far the youngest serious candidate, could well die of old age before the elections even take place. Or do something so stupid that we would be forced to withdraw our support. For the moment, Iowa. Then we'll see how things go.

So, why Barack? In six words: he is earnest, brilliant, and inexperienced. We live in a time when the so-called world's greatest democracy has been reduced to a two-party tyranny of rule by corporate interest. Fat old white men, some in blue diapers, some in red, all paid for by lobbyists, sit on either side of a great sandbox slinging handfuls of grit at one another. Why on earth would we want to elect as president someone who has demonstrated that they are adept at playing this game? Obama honestly seems to agree with us that things cannot go on this way. From here, his inexperience looks like a major benefit; he hasn't been at it long enough to have been corrupted and destroyed by the endless series of incremental, criminal, soul-destroying compromises reached daily between our elected leaders and their golf partners. Should we really prefer, for instance, a woman whose every decision appears to have been taken in the calculation (or miscalculation) of its political consequences, rather than any actual belief in the rightness of it?

Plus, Barack is a brother. He doesn't talk about it much, and he did go to Harvard, which doesn't play so great in the 'hood, but what I'm hearing is that he is actually a bro'. Almost fifty years after legislating racism out of existence, the contemporary attitude towards race in our country is one of denial. Today's solution to chronic black unemployment and resultant potential unrest, now known euphemistically as the divisions within our society, is an offer of two choices to the disenfranchised: incarceration or military service. Those who complain are reminded that they have just as many options open to them as anybody else, because back in the 1960s they became equal. It is about time we proved it.

Video link courtesy of ATLAS + the Balakrishnan dynasty.


Reading: The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan and My Life in France by Julia Child

Something is wrong with our diet, and two months of delighting in the outdoor markets of Paris have only served to focus my attention on the problem. Tomatoes that actually have flavor; herbs that haven't travelled hundreds of miles since being picked and therefore remain fresh in their paper bags until well past the next market day; vegetables firm and local; chickens of all different sorts and costs, priced quite clearly in relation to the amount of love and care that has been spent on raising them; these are only a few of the things to be seen on the street here that are quite different from the typical American food shopping experience. Begin to consider the relationships between the sellers and producers of this "produce" and the contrasts are amplified. And the French are still complaining that their way of life is being destroyed. In Morocco, they say, the tomatoes still really taste like tomatoes.

In two quite different books, one an indictment of contemporary American agrobusiness, the other a memoir summoning up misty, romantic reminiscences of a budding cook's first initiation into the finest sort of gastronomic Parisian life, we are forced to think about what we are eating. Julia Child's cholesterolfest is the chronicle of her life in the 7th arrondissement, of meals and wines and sauces first tasted, and of how she came to co-author another book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which was a runaway hit in the United States of the 1960s and launched Child's career as a TV star. In it are to be found the seeds of both America's ongoing culinary revolution and the extraordinary success of cooking as televised entertainment. Pollan's book is organized around the conceit of three meals he prepares at the end of three food chains he identifies: industrial, organic, and hunter-gatherer. Actually, there are four meals, because he discovers that what we know of today as organic has been all but co-opted by industry, so he eats one "industrial-organic" meal and one that we might call "beyond organic." But it is much less a book about eating than it is about the implications of the food we eat; Pollan is concerned with the moral, social, political, and environmental costs of most every bite we put into our mouths.

At the beginning of My Life in France Julia and her husband Paul, who met in Asia working for the precursor to the CIA, move to Paris on a USIS propaganda contract. Child eats sole meuniere and tastes poulet de bresse and she is hooked; before long she is biting into lark pies, roasting capercaillies and hares and doubtless swallowing ortolans whole. The Childs bring an American insatiability to the cuisine they find in Paris, and she points out several times that the key to eating in the land of butter and cream, of lard and cheese, is portion control. No seconds, no snacks. Meanwhile she is endlessly in the kitchen refining recipes that call for vats of these delicious fats. Refining and tasting. She and Paul diet, even at one point--gasp-- cutting out alcohol. There is never the slightest moral quandary raised by their charmed Parisian lifestyle, merely an endless search for the very best ingredients and preparations.

Pollan's investigation of what ends up on your plate is a more of a look at the ingredients that go into the ingredients. Unless you pay a lot of attention to what you eat, in America today much of what you eat is processed corn. Cattle are fed on it, although they never evolved to eat grain; so much for steak. So are chicken when they aren't eating much grosser stuff. Sodas are sweetened with it; these days sugar cane is an exotic tropical delicacy. In fact anything that is sweetened at all, and these days that is virtually every processed food product available, is sweetened with corn syrup. The ballooning of America, our grotesque epidemic of national obesity, Pollan dates to the sudden corporate switch from sugar to corn syrup in the late 1970s. Corn, it turns out, is disastrous for cows, for the environment, and for our health. Nonetheless, thanks to a downward-spiraling and self-reinforcing combination of government subsidies and agricultural exigencies we now have a beef industry that produces most of our meat pretty much out of sight of a blade of grass, cattle's natural food. He buys a cow, watches it eat corn, and then is refused entry to the slaughterhouse where it is killed and butchered.

"The industrialization--and brutalization--of animals in America," he writes, "is a relatively new, evitable, and local phenomenon: No other country raises and slaughters its food animals quite as intensively or as brutally as we do. No other people in history has lived at quite so great a remove from the animals they eat. Were the walls of our meat industry to become transparent, literally or even figuratively, we would not long continue to raise, kill, and eat animals the way we do." But because we consumers both want our food cheap and want to eat it without relating our meal to the death of a fellow mammal, we are complicit in the sorry turn of events that has brought us to where we are today: acres of densely-packed beef standing ankle-deep in their own waste for most of their lives, gobbling corn mixed liberally with antibiotics. Mmmm. Yummy. We're in denial about why our food is inexpensive, but to come out of that denial we will have to face certain unpleasant realities. For instance, hamburgers and steaks once had faces.

Pollan, horrified, flees the feedlots of the midwest for the huge produce farms of California, and even temporarily attempts vegetarianism. But his history of the organic vegetable industry makes it clear that what was once a hippy idea about goodness has become little more than a marketing term. Vast conglomerates now grow organic produce, and about the only good thing Pollan has to say about it is that the fields are fertilized naturally, preventing the runoff of poisonous chemicals. A head of fuel-guzzling salad is still trucked or flown across the continent before it reaches my Red Hook Fairway, the pickers are still underpaid and exploited and the flavor of a tomato is, well, scarcely Moroccan.

He goes next to Polyface Farm in Virginia, where a guy who sounds to me like a prime candidate for a MacArthur genius award, Joel Salatin, runs a complete, diverse, holistic eco-system sort of an operation. Chickens roam outside, fertilizing grass which the cattle bite back to just the right length, inspiring the blades to heroic efforts of regrowth. The animals are fat and happy and tasty. There are acres of rotating vegetable crops. It is all very Old MacDonald and nothing at all to do with McDonald's. Customers are able to choose their own live chickens and even encouraged to watch them being killed. (A few years ago I did sound on a cooking show. On one episode we visited a northwestern New Jersey farm rather along the lines of Salatin's. The show's hostess, Rosemary, ooed and aahed over a pair of truly spectacular hens that our host, the farmer, had killed in preparation for our visit and hung on the shed to bleed out. They were splendid, and Rosemary proposed a scene in which he and she would talk through the recipes for the evening meal while plucking the chickens. This was vetoed, promptly but with regrets, by the field producer, who said that chickens being plucked had zero chance of actually making it onto television. It was a powerful illustration of the absurdity of our American relationship to our food, and the media's role in reinforcing the dysfunction.)

Although Salatin's farm is not quite 100% self-sufficient, the aspiration of a farm like his poses a direct threat to the very fundament of capitalism. The closed, ecological system, every plant and animal in balance, is great for growing food, but it means the death of growth in the business sense of the word. As Pollan points out, no fertilizer is purchased from industrial agribusiness; inputs are few, and the goal is for them to dwindle to none. The farm has the potential to produce a certain number of eggs and chickens, but to try and have more stresses the land and throws the system out of balance. Although it is a constantly changing dynamic interplay of a wide variety of edible life, economically, an operation like this is static.

Salatin is little concerned with the "organic" moniker. Instead, and far more important than any notion of organic farming, are the ideals of transparency and local production that his operation embodies. Paying two dollars a pound more for a vegetable at a Whole Foods does almost nothing to change the environmental and ethical dynamics of American food consumption. We love the convenience of driving to the supermarket to buy our pristine shrink-wrapped cuts of meat, our buffed, glowing pressure-washed vegetables, but to really change anything we need to be riding our bikes to the farmers market. How far has your radish traveled? And what was the name of the chicken you had for dinner last night? (Or at the very least, what did the building it was raised in look like?) The concerned consumer should hope to know the answers to these questions. The many social benefits of this buy local and buy fresh strategy would have been, for Julia Child, primarily culinary benefits, but the beauty of it is that the two go hand in hand. Buying from Joel Salatin, if you have the luck to live just down the road from him, isn't only the best thing you can do for the planet, it will also get you the most tasty meal you can hope to prepare.


Chilling with Kay-Jay

Snuck away to Munich to get a quick dose of fatherhood and visit my very good friends, the former AK718 and everfred, henceforth to be known only as "Karl Julius's parents."

Karl was perhaps not as thrilled as I was.
Photo: Karl's dad

Dad takes a picture for Karl's blog, which already scooped my visit. Astute analysts will notice a certain similarity in father and son hairstyles; both are sporting a cut we might charitably call "breezy-on-top."
As Fred put it: "no paternity test necessary."
These domes, they are identical!
Karl's mom

Why, chickens in America would consider that luxurious!

Christmas shoppers over at food palaces Harrod's and Selfridge's in London are stranded without a steady supply of quail to serve for the holidays after the League Against Cruel Sports released this footage of inhumane conditions at a game "farm" in Lancashire.

Their gloomy surveillance footage of denuded, almost featherless birds, stumbling insensate about their tiny cages amongst the corpses of their brethren, marinating in their own feces, was uploaded by the Guardian UK with the label "Warning: viewers may find the following footage disturbing."


The Key to a Man's Tummy...

Loving the stupendous graphics on this half-liter bottle of Malamatina retsina, the pine-tar infused Greek white wine. If we were dealing with Romans and not Greeks I would take "malamatina" to mean "bad morning," but even if this wine suggests a hangover in its very name the label makes up for it: homeboy has the biggest glass of all time, not to mention he's rocking the Tintin hairdo as he goes bottoms-up.

According to wikipedia, such wines may have originally gotten their bouquet of baseball bat and long, acrid, paint-thinner finish because the bungs in the amphorae used to store and transport them were sealed with pitch from the Aleppo pine. Despite the emergence of newer technologies like casks, corks and even glass bottles, local demand for this unique and, frankly, rather acquired taste remained so high that it is now added to the wine.


Pass the nuts

Finally the major media is picking up on this very important story:

Under the headline Der Pistazienkrieg, which sounds even more ominous in the German than my Pistachio War, yesterday's Sueddeutsche Zeitung follows antarcticiana's lead in pointing out that America's beef with Iran is about much more than Persian nuclear ambition. In gracious, european fashion the paper gives credit where credit is due:

So berichtet der Reiseschriftsteller Richard Fleming in seinem Blog von einem Vergleich im New Yorker Delikatessgeschäft Sahadi’s, dass kalifornische Pistazien zwar formschöner, jedoch sehr mehlig seien, und mit den schrumpeligen, doch würzigen Pendants aus Iran nicht mithalten können Laut der israelischen Zeitung Jediot Achronot deckt sich das mit dem Urteil der israelischen Konsumenten.

At least I think this final paragraph of the article includes a credit; I have no idea what it says. However, a brief trip to babelfish suggests not only that I have now made myself internationally famous for slagging off the inferior flavor of Californian pistachios as compared with those produced by the axis of evil, but also that online translation has a long way to go:

Thus the travel writer Richard Fleming in its Blog reports of a comparison in New Yorker delicate business the Sahadi's the fact that California Pistazien is very mehlig graceful designed, however, and with the schrumpeligen but spicy counterparts from Iran cannot keep up sound of the Israeli newspaper Jediot Achronot covers itself with the judgement of the Israeli consumers.

Perhaps my German readers can bring clarity to this muddy controversy.

Sueddeutsche, by the way, doesn't draw the line at handing out credits. In an admirable spirit of integrity and transparency they are also sharing their ongoing research into this developing crisis.


Unboring flooring

Classic Islamic design elements

Among my various obsessions I don't generally include floor coverings, but I must admit to a passionate preference for a particular style of floor tile known to Miami residents as Cuban, to Manilans as Malaga, and called simply cement tile (carrelages du ciment) in France and Belgium. Like the pressed tin ceiling panels that mimic an ornate and intricate style of carved plaster ceiling so labor-intensive that it has all but ceased to exist, these tiles were a product of the industrial revolution designed to simulate, consistently and at a low cost, what had been the painstaking work of armies of craftsmen who laid mosaic floors entirely by hand. At least that's my theory; one of the things that's interesting about a simple but fleeting technique like that used to produce these tiles is that the history of its development and use may already be lost. A cement tile is not a Colt revolver or a cotton gin, and the more humble processes from the dawn of industry have few historians. Who invented the machine that makes them? Who determined their worldwide standard size, a 20cm square, which results in the exact measure of 25 tiles per square meter?

The most beautiful examples of these tiles are symmetrical with respect to only one diagonal axis, so that four of them, arranged properly, can be used to make two quite different designs. A complete floor is visually exciting in part because of the constant, unresolved tension between the two patterns.

Difficult to find today, these tiles were once in widespread use across much of the globe. I've seen them in the Philippines, in Brazil, Argentina and Chile, in Mexico, Morocco and Algeria: almost certainly of Mediterranean origin, they can only have crossed the globe in the colonial period, following the flow of Iberian peninsular power and francophone influence. I've never been to Martinique, Guyane, Angola, or Mozambique, but I would be shocked not to find these tiles there, lurking in the dark unrenovated corners of tiny shops and on the floors of once-grand, faded tropical homes.

These tiles only improve with age and wear. Their porous cement surface, after countless waxings and endless foot traffic, becomes polished and reflective, warm and worn. The designs are made with colored pigment squeezed at high pressure into the layer of cement below, so that even if the surface chips, the color and the pattern remains, unlike today's glazed ceramic tiles, which look shabby when chipped. The result of an early industrial process, like letterpress or screen printing, the tiles have a rough and handmade quality rather than a computerized uniformity. They are fragile, even sandy and almost crumbly before they are installed, and they cannot be used out of doors except in the tropics; because of their porosity, freezing and thawing will crack and buckle them.

No less Islamic in design, this example is from Santiago, in Chile. All the rest of the tiles in this post were photographed in Fes and Meknes, Morocco

Many of these attributes make these tiles ill-suited to the modern world of mass production, where palettes of thin identical ceramic slabs brought from Turkey or China by container make it possible to match a tile from a Home Depot in Brooklyn with one purchased years later from a Lowe's in Arizona. In contrast the cement tiles are more than half an inch thick, heavy, dirty with grit, and difficult to transport as they easily crack until bonded to the floor.

This cubic Escheresque pattern is an international favorite that can be seen gracing floors in many different countries. Here there are two color versions made with the same template.

Flooring is boring, I wrote not long ago in these pages. But my life sometimes seems to follow a winding path, paved with these tiles. A series of coincidences? Or is it that when one shows an interest in something it then begins to crop up in the most unlikely places? In New York, after a trip to the Yucatan where there were many such tiles to admire, I saw some in a shop window on 13th street, and went in. I recognized the salesman. We had deejayed together in the early 90s. He had moved on from his nightclubbing days by beginning a Moroccan import venture; his tiles, he said, were used in the enormous floor of a Las Vegas casino. He had become a partner in a tile production facility in Morocco. I bought six, and Joseph helped me make them into a steel-framed coffee table with rebar legs. Not much later, I went to the Philippines, to work on a documentary about Imelda Marcos. We interviewed her dressmaker, who lived in a house opulently tiled inside and out with the same cement tiles in rich ochre, green and burgundy, with matching borders and trim. His garden patio was a paradise of tile. Where had he gotten them? It turned out that the father of the boyfriend of our assistant producer had resurrected the lost art of Malaga tile production, and was responsible for them. A year or so later, walking across Cuba, I met on a countryside lane a man whose job was to replicate the designs seen on old Cuban floors to create replacement tiles for use in the renovation of Habana Vieja.

Modern Flair

Despite all these spooky, recurring encounters I still had, until stumbling last week into a small garage outside the Moroccan holy village of Moulay Idriss, no idea how these tiles are actually made. There is a certain poetic justice in the discovery that Morocco is still a thriving center of cement tile production, for the Islamic preference for non-representational geometric patterns in decorative design, brought into Spain during the Moorish expansion, undoubtedly influenced the development and production of these tiles, wherever the technology to make them may have originated. Many of the designs I've seen across the world clearly take their inspiration from patterns seen in the zildj mosaics that sheathe mosques all the way from Tehran to Timbuctou. In Morocco, the technique for making them seems to have been in continuous use since some time in the 19th century; it has not had to be rediscovered, for it never quite disappeared.

UPDATE: The long awaited (by me, at least) Periplus Editions book on hydraulic or encaustic tile design is finally available. Called Havana Tile, the book, if one is to judge by the many intricate and colorful designs it includes, makes a pretty strong argument that Cuba is the place where this style of tile reached its highest level of development. Many of the historical facts relating to these tiles, about which I merely speculated, are herein revealed.

The pristine steel slab to the lower left of this image defines the exact 20cm X 20cm size of the tile, and its polished surface determines the smoothness of the finished tile's visible upper surface. The worker at the station above is just beginning to make a tile. He has set a template for the pattern inside a clamp on top of an identical steel slab in preparation for pouring the pigment.

Templates hanging on the wall in the garage hint at a variety of possible patterns.

Here the same laborer is pouring the viscous, cementious pigment into the mold, which is essentially an ornate, square cookie cutter. The worker below is at step one in the process--all the labor is staggered in order that all four stations may share the lone central compactor.

The pigments are kept in a row of stucco sinks and troweled into the molds as needed.

A third worker at the next stage of production. He has removed the template and is shaking dry cement on top of the colored layer. The next stage is visible at the empty station; a layer of wet gravel is added and smoothed. Finally the large iron anvil-like weight visible at the very bottom of the frame is placed on top of the three layer cement sandwich and the contraption is slid down the steel rails under the business end of the compressor. A few moments of crushing pressure and hey, presto, tile complete.

The gooey template, waiting to be cleaned off in preparation for making the next tile.

The apparatus allows four workers to make tiles simultaneously. In action these guys were a blurry, speeding hive of activity, as seen in the video clips below

I know, after more than fifteen years of working as a documentary sound recordist you would think I might have done a better job of filming all the necessary elements to tell the story of the making of a tile. It would be nice to have the money shot, in this case the completed tile being lifted out of the frame. Sorry I missed it; I was too excited. Much of what you see here is frantic and maniacal leveling of the rear surface layer of grit; the "tile sandwich" must have just the right amount of cement and gravel in it to properly compact into the finished product.


Do fries come with that sheik?

In these days of free trade and globalization it's important to know your market. This mural, spotted on a brick wall in Meknes, appears to depict a horde of Moorish freedom-fighters, presumably riding northwards on their fine Arabian stallions to recapture Spain.

However, taking the longer view, this in fact turns out to be just another advertisement, in the form of a romantic representation of you, the contemporary burger purchaser, in your car, pulling up to the drive-through at this Moroccan outpost of the Golden Arches.

Make mine a lambburger, and Supersize it!


The Coming Pistachio War

At the airport en route to Fes, Morocco I grabbed up a copy of my favorite local rag, Jeune Afrique, which is a sort of alternate reality African version of the Economist, still carrying a torch for the deceased, assassinated, corrupted and otherwise retired liberators of colonial Africa, from Kenyatta and Lumumba right through to Mugabe, who appears on the most recent cover complete with his Hitler mustache, above the headline "Should Mugabe be defended?" (Thank the good gracious Lord that even Jeune Afrique suggests that he cannot be, but boy do they tread gently down the path leading to this inevitable conclusion.)

Amongst other delightful stories is the delicious, facetious conspiracy theory that the United States wants to bring down Iran not because of its alleged nuclear warmaking ambitions, nor even because of its oppressive totalitarian ayatollahs, but rather to end Iran's domination of the international pistachio trade. Iran is the world's top producer, furnishing most of the middle east, including sworn enemies like Israel, with this very best of the world's salted nuts. They also furnish Sahadi's, on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. California is number two. At Sahadi's, the domestic pistachios, although much cheaper, are spurned by nut sophisticates.

At risk of being denounced as a terrorist, both my journalistic integrity and refined palate demand that I recognize the Iranian product as superior to the Californian, which, although plumper and more uniform in size and shape, is but a bland and mushy bean when compared with the nutty toothsomeness of its wrinkled, salty and irregular Persian cousin.

Notwithstanding, and according to Jeune Afrique, Stewart Tuttle, spokesperson for the US embassy in Tel Aviv, a proud native of the Golden State, decried the local consumption of Iran's pistachios, which arrive in Israel via the back door of Turkey, saying "I think Israel should be consuming American pistachios and not Iranian ones."

UPDATE: The only other major media running this story, besides me and JA, appears to be Haaretz, the Israeli broadsheet that rarely finds much common ground with Jeune Afrique. Their pistachio coverage, picked up off the AP wire, is here. Those who might blame me for plagiarizing will have to take my word for it that it is purely coincidental that both my and this account use the Tuttle quote as a closer.

UPDATE: Interesting case study HERE.


Villa La Roche

As part of an unofficial ongoing series on lesser-visited Parisian attractions we today bring you Le Corbusier's Villa La Roche, a private residence now controlled by his foundation. Tucked into a private close deep in the terminally unhip and utterly bourgeois 16th arrondissement, Villa La Roche and its attached neighbor, the Villa Jeanneret, are two houses from early in Corbu's career. Like many architects Le Corbusier started out working for friends and family: In the glorious Parisian twenties, when new avant-gardes sprang up just about every time more than two or three artists ran into one another at a café, La Roche was a collector of the painting of "purism," the little known post-cubist movement manifestoed by Le Corbusier and the disaffected (or simply unsuccessful) Cubist painter Amédée Ozenfant. Corbu's real name was Jeanneret, and the adjacent Villa Jeanneret was originally built for his brother. His architectural partner at the time was his cousin, Pierre Jeanneret.

In 1925 I'm not sure if this open-sided patio space underneath the gallery was meant for parking cars out of the rain or just as a sort of outdoor entryway, but in the age of the automobile it has been copied millions of times since. Drive in, open the car door, and you're home.

Another innovation now almost essential in McMansion construction is the interior triple-height foyer. At the Villa La Roche it literally cuts the building in half, with only a second-floor catwalk connecting the personal art-gallery and library with the bedroom and kitchen spaces on the other side. A detail I particularly liked is that the extension of the stairwell into the atrium space, which makes a sort of interior rapunzel-balcony overlooking the ground floor, echoes another, exterior one that projects off the far end of the gallery like a modernist deer-hunting stand. The one out of doors is just large enough for a few select potted plants, with room to stand and salute one's arriving guests.

The same catwalk, viewed from outside, with that iconic chaise

Stark and sparse, the house has an attractive and complex layering of white planes

The original plans and drawings for the house now hang self-referentially in the gallery space, replacing La Roche's "purist" art collection. A ramp, like a steep prototype for a wheelchair accessible facility, swoops up across the windowed back of the gallery; it is the only means of access to the extraordinarily isolated library / love nook tucked far up above the foyer.

Looking across the entry way from either side one realizes that an amazing amount of space is taken up by staircases in this small house, which has not the luxury of the excessive expanses of real estate of the McMansion to either side of its divisive entrance. In fact, one of the more obvious innovations of this building is the architects' willingness to forgo buildable square footage in favor of columns of daylight, cutback roof decks and the sheltered patio / garage outside the front door. The place has the feel of two rather odd abutting triplex apartments instead of one integrated home, although the intention seems to have to have divided the "intellectual" spaces, those for contemplation and study, from the living spaces where sleeping, cooking, and eating take place.


Please, feed me with further modalities

Day after day, it seems, I am contacted with offers to tap into mind-boggling riches beyond my wildest dreams. According to the letters I get, piles of gold and cash, stranded in offshore banks, await nothing but my nominal participation as a silent partner before they will be mine. Well, at least staggeringly generous percentages of them will be mine. The infinity and variety of the 419-scam, as these get-rich-quick offers are generically called, after the section of the Nigerian penal code that criminalizes them, suggest a wealth of west-African literary talent squandering their imaginations on the generation of bogus offers. The letters are filled with deceased oil-barons, cousins of Philippine despots, Russian countesses and international financiers, a cast of exotic characters worthy of any action-adventure epic.

We don't usually waste too much ink on these scammers, as there are plenty of others who make a hobby out of it. Another fascinating repository of this literary form is at the Nigerian scam letter museum. Reading through accounts of the long and tortured e-dialog that results from actually engaging one of these scammers is a great way to kill an afternoon, but here at antarcticiana we try to bring you only the cutting edge of meaninglessness, not the meaninglessness you can easily find elsewhere.

Today, however, I'm reporting the arrival of the first meta-419 scam to cross my screen, suggesting that innovation and creativity are alive and well in the boiler rooms of Lagos and Lomé. Here, Mrs. May Udoh and Mr. Moses Sylvanius, working for something called the Eco-bank PLC Compensation Office, offer me, a hypothetical victim of previous scams, the much-more-modest-than-usual sum of $150,000 to compensate me for moneys I already lost. This is actually quite genius, as those venal and gullible enough to have been scammed once are just the sort to respond to this long-awaited offer of justice and compensation for the wrong-doing they originally suffered. Those who have never succumbed to the scam still have a chance to be suckered, for they perhaps feel the same way I do: I'm the lucky recipient of a windfall because the Eco-bank has mistakenly identified me as someone who was scammed. I can hardly wait to get my hands on all that money!



REF/PAYMENTS CODE: ECB/06654 $150,000 USD.

This is to bring to your notice that we are delegated
from the UNITED
NATIONS in Central Bank to pay 150 victims of scam
$150,000 USD (One
Hundred and Fifty Thousand Dollars Only each).You are
listed and approved
for this
payment as one of the scammed victims to be paid this
amount, get back to
this office as soon as possible for the immediate
payments of your
$150,000 USD compensations funds.

On this faithful recommendations, want you to know
that during the last
U.N. meetings held at Abuja, Nigeria, it was alarming
on the money lost
by various individuals to the scams artists operating
in syndicates all
over the world today. In other to compensate victims,
Body is now paying 150 victims $150,000 USD each in
accordance with the
UNITED NATIONS recommendations. Due to the corrupt and
Banking Systems in Nigeria, the payments are to be
paid by Central Bank
Nigeria as corresponding paying bank under funding
assistance by

Benefactor of this compensation award will have to be
first cleared and
recommended for payment by ECO BANK PLC.

According to the number of applicants at hand, 114
Beneficiaries has been
paid, over a half of the victims are from the United
States, we still
have an outstanding of 36 scam victims left to be
paid. Other victims who
not been contacted can submit their application as
well for scrutiny and
possible consideration.

We shall feed you with further modalities as soon as
we get response from
you on how you intend receiving your compensation

Send a copy of your response and payment code to our
remittance officer:

ECB/06654 $150,000 USD.
Email: ecobankplc_nig77@yahoo.co.uk

Yours Faithfully,
Mrs. May Udoh

UPDATE: A day after blogging this, I've already been found by someone searching for 'ecobank plc COMPENSATION OFFICE.' Naturally, we were number one on Google for those search terms. I can only hope that my post dissuaded them from participating in this Nigerian version of the Spanish prisoner scam. The same search reveals that someone posted an almost identical letter to Ripoff Report in mid-October. Who knows how and by what cancerous internet byways these things travel, but it is interesting to note that in the intervening six weeks the amount of the reward has gone from 100 to 150 thousand smackers, and Mrs. Udoh has changed her name from Joan to May. The former Mr. Iyamah Sylvanius is now, in late November, Mr. Moses Sylvanius, his Islamic-sounding name having been stripped away in favor of something more Christian-friendly. One imagines hordes of scammers stealing one another's breathless prose and making minor alterations to avoid gangland charges of copyright infringement.