Thursday, March 25, 2010


Thursday, March 18, 2010

A Russian In America Writes His Impressions

Dear Dmitry,

I hope you don't mind that this is in Russian. I think that this way I can be more completely honest. I am a relatively recent graduate of one of the many faceless post-Soviet institutions of higher learning, with a degree in philosophy. Last year I moved to the USA and married an American woman.

The question of when the modern capitalist system is going to collapse has interested me since my student years, and I have approached it from various directions: from the commonplace conspiracy theories to the serious works of Oswald Spengler and Noam Chomsky. Unfortunately, I still can't fathom what it is that is keeping this system going.

My wife is a very pleasant woman, but a typical white conservative American. Whenever any political question comes up, she starts ranting about the Constitution and calling herself a libertarian conservative and a constitutionalist. I used to think that she is well-educated and understands what she is talking about. In fact, she is the one who introduced me to the US, and I once believed everything she told me about it. But as I found out later, she understands nothing about politics, and just repeats various bits of populist nonsense spouted by Severin, O'Reilly, Limbaugh and other mass media clowns. Well, I am not going to try to prove to my wife that she is wrong on a subject that I don't quite understand myself. After all, she is a good wife. And so I try to steer clear of any political questions when I am with the family, although I do not always succeed. Perhaps if I had a copy of your book, it would help me explain myself to her better, but our family was one of the first to be flattened by the real estate market collapse. My wife went bankrupt, lost her bank account, house, job and the rest a while before I came here, and so we can't buy anything online.

In the talk you gave at the conference in Ireland you mentioned that there are certain regions of the US where the common people only eat garbage food from places like Walmart, which consists of artificial colors and flavors and corn, and that such a diet makes them "a little bit crazy." To my utter disappointment, I have to entirely agree with you. Various witty Russian commentators love to heap ridicule on the "dumb Americans" and on the USA as a generally stupid country. But if they spent a bit of time living here and paid closer attention, they would realize that it is not the low cultural level that distinguishes Americans from, say, Russians: both are, on average, quite beastly. But even when I've visited here before, as a student, my first impression was of a country that is full of madmen, ranging from somewhat mentally competent to total lunatics. And the further south I traveled, the more obvious this became. At first I even marveled at this, thinking, look at how intoxicating the spirit of liberty can be! But now I understand that this is a catastrophe, that American society is brainwashed and alienated in the extreme, and that all that's left for Americans to do is to play each other for the suckers that they have become.

Unfortunately, I feel the pernicious influence of all this on my own family right here and now. You don't have to be a brilliant visionary to realize that in the current situation all these endless suburbs, built on the North American model, are slowly but surely turning into mass graves for the millions of former members of the middle class. Those that do not turn into mass graves will become nature preserves - stocked with wild animals that were once human. My family is turning feral under my very eyes. Lack of resources has forced us to live according to the Soviet model - three generations under one roof. There are six of us, of which only one works, who is, consequently, exasperated and embittered. The rest of the household is gradually going insane from idleness and boredom. The television is never turned off. The female side of the family has been sucked into social networks and associated toys. Everyone is cultivating their own special psychosis, and periodically turns vicious. In these suburbs, a person without a car is as if without legs, and joblessness does not allow any of us to earn money for gas, and so the house is almost completely isolated from the outside world. The only information that seeps in comes from the lying mass media. And I understand that millions of families throughout America live this way! This is how people turn into "teabaggers," while their children join street gangs.

For me, as for you, this is the second collapse. You had left USSR before it happened, while I was there to observe it as a child. I saw what happened when people were finally told that they were being had for seventy-odd years, and were offered a candy bar as consolation. Now, after all this, Russian society is finished. It grieves me to see the faces of Americans, who still believe something and wave their Constitution about, and to know that the same thing is about to happen to them. I think that the model which you have proposed will allow us to confront and to survive this collapse with dignity.

New Hamshire

Source - Dmitry Orlov

Monday, March 15, 2010


Surge Capacity

In large law firms, there is a significant overhead associated with each attorney--office space, IT infrastructure, secretarial and paralegal support, salary, etc. As a result, the firm has a structural incentive to get as many hours as possible out of each attorney, and to do so consistently. In other words, attorneys should be billing 40+ hours per week. Of course, the nature of legal work very rarely provides a steady flow of 40 billable hours per week.

One common, but I think problematic solution is to take on as much work as possible, ensuring enough to fill 40 hours even during slow times. The problem, of course, is that when cases take off, and work demands rise, this additional work needs to be crammed in to the available time. Attorneys may be able to bill 60 or 70 hours a week for brief periods, but even then the quality of each hour of work naturally drops off. Some people will claim to bill 80 or even 100 hours per week, but I seriously doubt that hours 90-100 provide any real value to the client, especially if this is continued for more than a few weeks.

The alternative solution is to aim to work an average of about 30 hours per week, which will result in some weeks of 15-20 hours and other weeks of 40-50 hours. I think this is preferable in almost every way: it leads to better quality of life for the attorney, it leads to better quality of each hour of work performed, and it facilitates the incorporation of outside interests and continued learning that further enhances the value of each hour "billed." The key weakness to this lower workload is that it may not generate enough revenue to accommodate the high overhead costs associated with many top-tier firms. However, I'd argue that attorneys should be able to bill more per hour if they're averaging 30 hours per week than if they're averaging 60 hours per week--after all, do you think you'll get the same value from one hour out of someone's 60 hour work week as one hour out out of someone elses' 30 hour work week?

Of course, this same phenomenon applies similarly outside the legal world--most businesses and careers experience similar flux. And--perhaps most importantly--this dilemma highlights the problem with seeking to maximize output. When a system seeks to maximize output, it reduces its resiliency to perform and to adapt to stresses--it reduces its capacity to surge when it's really necessary. Additionally, output maximization tends to also reveal a short-term focus: there is little room to incorporate long term needs such as training, innovation, networking, business development, and sustainability of work demands on our lives outside of work. These same symptoms of output maximization, of course, apply equally to law firms (and other professions) and to modern industrial civilization writ large.

What am I doing about it? To start with, I'm focusing on reducing my own workload to about 80% of "full-time." I plan to use this additional time to focus on legal systems innovation (in part through a discussion here of the use of checklists in litigation, coming soon, as well as other blog posts that I hope will continue to improve my own understanding of our world and my role in it), to ensure that I'm ready and able to "surge" when necessary, and to keep improving my own legal and non-legal skills. If we all find ways to reduce how much we have to do on a regular basis, we'll all 1) have an improved ability to surge and rise to the challenge when necessary, and 2) consume and demand less in the interim. Not to mention enjoying our lives, friends, and families a bit more. That can't be a bad thing...

Source - Jeff Vail

Sunday, March 14, 2010


Saturday, March 13, 2010

Film Review - "Seamstresses"

So it is possible after all - a Bulgarian film that neither tries to fill cinema halls with outrage and cheap humour nor aims solely at the festival snobs with muddled pretenses. If audiences had every right to be skeptical about Bulgarian productions hitting the screen over many a year, this time around they are in for a sweet little surprise. Shivachki (Seamstresses) is no masterpiece that is going to place Bulgarian cinema on the world map with a loud bang, yet its simple and sincere charm is a small yet heartfelt step in the direction of finding what Bulgarian films keep forgetting they need - an audience.

This is a story of three young girls fleeing the depressing hopelessness as underpaid tailors for a foreigner boss. Katya (Violeta Markovska), Dora (Alexandra Surchadjieva), and Elena (Elen Koleva) come to Sofia with the shy hope of a better life only for the big city to try and take advantage of their naivete. Katya takes up a job as a waitress and ends up as the mistress of a pimp. The volatile Dora's disillusionment and bitterness takes aim at everyone and everything, including herself, while Elena does her best to pick up the pieces and keep their friendship together. Events flow with an unexpected ease and the audience can recognise and nod in agreement with the observant, if somewhat heightened, depiction of three possible ways to deal with the hardship in the big and hostile city.

The film does try to tell a story that does not aim to depress or elate, but which is simply based on life. The particularly refreshing thing is that writer and director Lyudmil Todorov goes about this task with certain humility - he seems to subscribe to the theory that one must first master the simple things in order to then be able to then stop using them. There are no attempts at bravura shots or stylistic pirouettes; the framing is straightforward and unobtrusive. For once the dialogue does not describe things the audience is already seeing; it is tight and evocative. The same goes for the performances; for once they are free from that irritating theatrical exuberance, which often adds insult to injury when recent Bulgarian films are concerned.

In view of this, it is not surprising that of the three young leads, the one faring worst is Surchadjieva, whom the script affords the most emotionally intense moments as the spiteful and feisty Dora. While nominally with the best pedigree among her young colleagues (she is familiar to the audience as the daughter of actors Yosif Sarchadjiev and Pepa Nikolova), she only skids on the surface of an admittedly difficult character despite her energetic approach. With Dora, the shadow of the actor is always on the character, which makes the performance of Koleva all the more startling. She is a gem of an actress turning in a gem of role as the quiet and forgiving Elena. Koleva is one of those rare actors who can express an emotion by simply thinking about it and the image of her strolling along in that blue hat and red jacket would probably by the lasting image that one would take home from this movie.

Her Elena comes about as a thoughtful counterpart to Audrey Tautou's Amelie, albeit living in a colder, dirtier and yet altogether more familiar world. It remains to be seen whether Shivachki will serve as a springboard for bigger and better things for her, but on this, evidence she is both capable and deserving of such. In fact, her persona and performance trace a conceivable path which Bulgarian films should take in order to make its piece with the audience - one of quiet charm, humility and awareness of one's identity.

Source - Sofia Echo


The Savanna Principle

One of the fundamental assumptions of evolutionary psychology is that there is nothing special about the human brain. It is an evolved organ, just like the hand or the pancreas or any other part of the human body.

Just like all the other parts of the human body, the brain – and all the evolved psychological mechanisms in it – are designed for and adapted to the conditions of the ancestral environment in which they evolved, not necessarily to the current environment. This principle holds for both psychological adaptations, like evolved psychological mechanisms, and physical adaptations, like the eye, the vision, and the color recognition system.

What color is a banana? A banana is yellow in the sunlight and in the moonlight. It is yellow on a sunny day, on a cloudy day, on a rainy day. It is yellow at dawn and at dusk. The color of the banana appears constant to the human eye under all these conditions, despite the fact that the actual wavelengths of the light reflected by the surface of the banana under these varied conditions are different. Objectively, they are not the same color all the time. However, the human eye and color recognition system can compensate for these varied conditions because they all occurred during the course of the evolution of the human vision system, and can perceive the objectively varied colors as constantly yellow.

So a banana looks yellow under all conditions, except in a parking lot at night. Under the sodium vapor lights commonly used to illuminate parking lots, a banana does not appear natural yellow. This is because the sodium vapor lights did not exist in the ancestral environment, during the course of the evolution of the human vision system, and the visual cortex is therefore incapable of compensating for them.

Fans of the 1989 James Cameron movie The Abyss may recall a scene toward the end of the movie, where it is impossible for a diver to distinguish colors under artificial lighting in the otherwise total darkness of the deep oceanic basin. Regular viewers of the TV program Forensic Files and other real-life crime shows may further recall that eyewitnesses often misidentify the colors of cars on freeways, leading the police either to rule in or rule out potential suspects incorrectly. Highways and freeways are often lit with sodium vapor lights and other evolutionarily novel sources of illumination.

The same principle that holds for physical adaptations like the color recognition system also holds for psychological adaptations. Pioneers of evolutionary psychology all recognized that the psychological adaptations are designed for and adapted to the conditions of the ancestral environment, not necessarily to the conditions of the current environment. I call these observations the Savanna Principle: The human brain has difficulty comprehending and dealing with entities and situations that did not exist in the ancestral environment. Other evolutionary psychologists call the same observation the evolutionary legacy hypothesis or the mismatch hypothesis.

One example of the Savanna Principle in action is the fact that individuals who watch certain types of TV shows are more satisfied with their friendships, just as they are if they had more friends or socialized with them more frequently. It makes perfect sense that people who have more friends and socialize with them more frequently are more satisfied with their friendships than those who don’t have as many friends or socialize with them as frequently. And they are. What’s interesting is that the same thing happens if they watch more TV. From the perspective of the Savanna Principle, this is probably because realistic images of other humans, such as television, movies, videos, DVDs, and photographs, did not exist in the ancestral environment, where all realistic images of other humans were other humans. As a result, the Savanna Principle suggests that the human brain may have implicit difficulty distinguishing their “TV friends” – the characters they repeatedly see on TV shows – and their real friends.

Another example, discussed extensively in a previous post, is the fact that, when experimental psychologists deliberately create a situation where people earn money when they are ostracized and lose money when they are included, people still feel happy when they are included (and lose money) and hurt when they are excluded (and make money). While this makes no sense from a purely economic perspective, it is perfectly consistent with the Savanna Principle. Throughout the course of human evolution, exclusion from a group was always costly and inclusion was always beneficial. These two factors always covaried throughout evolutionary history, because there were no evil experimental psychologists in the ancestral environment to manipulate them independently. There were no such things as beneficial exclusion or costly inclusion, and the human brain cannot therefore comprehend them. It implicitly assumes that all inclusion is beneficial and all exclusion is costly.

So it appears that the human brain indeed has difficulty comprehending and dealing with entities and situations that did not exist in the ancestral environment, as the Savanna Principle suggests. If you look around, you will realize that virtually nothing in your current environment existed in the ancestral environment. In fact, I believe there are only four entities in our current environment that existed in the ancestral environment: men, women, boys, and girls. If you are outside, you may be tempted to include such natural features as trees, mountains, and rivers, but unless you are on the African savanna, they are not the same trees, mountains, and rivers that existed in the ancestral environment. There are more situations and relationships in your current environment that still existed in the ancestral environment, such as friendships, alliances, and pair-bonding (“marriage”). But many of these situations and relationships today involve evolutionarily novel components (Facebook, written contracts enforceable by government, marriage certificates).

The key word in the Savanna Principle – The human brain has difficulty comprehending and dealing with entities and situations that did not exist in the ancestral environment – is difficulty, not impossibility. It is sometimes possible to overcome the limitations of the human brain consciously – it is possible for us to remember that the characters we see on TV are professional actors who are paid millions of dollars to play scripted roles – but it is often difficult. Even when we are aware of something at the conscious level, we still act as if we weren’t, as when we become more satisfied with our friendships when we watch more TV. The observation captured in the Savanna Principle has very powerful and profound implications for evolutionary psychology and how the human brain functions.

Source - Psychology Today

Monday, March 08, 2010

Darling Wife

Sunday, March 07, 2010

African Land Grab

We turned off the main road to Awassa, talked our way past security guards and drove a mile across empty land before we found what will soon be Ethiopia's largest greenhouse. Nestling below an escarpment of the Rift Valley, the development is far from finished, but the plastic and steel structure already stretches over 20 hectares – the size of 20 football pitches.

The farm manager shows us millions of tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables being grown in 500m rows in computer controlled conditions. Spanish engineers are building the steel structure, Dutch technology minimises water use from two bore-holes and 1,000 women pick and pack 50 tonnes of food a day. Within 24 hours, it has been driven 200 miles to Addis Ababa and flown 1,000 miles to the shops and restaurants of Dubai, Jeddah and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Ethiopia is one of the hungriest countries in the world with more than 13 million people needing food aid, but paradoxically the government is offering at least 3m hectares of its most fertile land to rich countries and some of the world's most wealthy individuals to export food for their own populations.

The 1,000 hectares of land which contain the Awassa greenhouses are leased for 99 years to a Saudi billionaire businessman, Ethiopian-born Sheikh Mohammed al-Amoudi, one of the 50 richest men in the world. His Saudi Star company plans to spend up to $2bn acquiring and developing 500,000 hectares of land in Ethiopia in the next few years. So far, it has bought four farms and is already growing wheat, rice, vegetables and flowers for the Saudi market. It expects eventually to employ more than 10,000 people.

But Ethiopia is only one of 20 or more African countries where land is being bought or leased for intensive agriculture on an immense scale in what may be the greatest change of ownership since the colonial era.

An Observer investigation estimates that up to 50m hectares of land – an area more than double the size of the UK – has been acquired in the last few years or is in the process of being negotiated by governments and wealthy investors working with state subsidies. The data used was collected by Grain, the International Institute for Environment and Development, the International Land Coalition, ActionAid and other non-governmental groups.

The land rush, which is still accelerating, has been triggered by the worldwide food shortages which followed the sharp oil price rises in 2008, growing water shortages and the European Union's insistence that 10% of all transport fuel must come from plant-based biofuels by 2015.

In many areas the deals have led to evictions, civil unrest and complaints of "land grabbing".

The experience of Nyikaw Ochalla, an indigenous Anuak from the Gambella region of Ethiopia now living in Britain but who is in regular contact with farmers in his region, is typical. He said: "All of the land in the Gambella region is utilised. Each community has and looks after its own territory and the rivers and farmlands within it. It is a myth propagated by the government and investors to say that there is waste land or land that is not utilised in Gambella.

"The foreign companies are arriving in large numbers, depriving people of land they have used for centuries. There is no consultation with the indigenous population. The deals are done secretly. The only thing the local people see is people coming with lots of tractors to invade their lands.

"All the land round my family village of Illia has been taken over and is being cleared. People now have to work for an Indian company. Their land has been compulsorily taken and they have been given no compensation. People cannot believe what is happening. Thousands of people will be affected and people will go hungry."

It is not known if the acquisitions will improve or worsen food security in Africa, or if they will stimulate separatist conflicts, but a major World Bank report due to be published this month is expected to warn of both the potential benefits and the immense dangers they represent to people and nature.

Leading the rush are international agribusinesses, investment banks, hedge funds, commodity traders, sovereign wealth funds as well as UK pension funds, foundations and individuals attracted by some of the world's cheapest land.

Together they are scouring Sudan, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, Malawi, Ethiopia, Congo, Zambia, Uganda, Madagascar, Zimbabwe, Mali, Sierra Leone, Ghana and elsewhere. Ethiopia alone has approved 815 foreign-financed agricultural projects since 2007. Any land there, which investors have not been able to buy, is being leased for approximately $1 per year per hectare.

Saudi Arabia, along with other Middle Eastern emirate states such as Qatar, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi, is thought to be the biggest buyer. In 2008 the Saudi government, which was one of the Middle East's largest wheat-growers, announced it was to reduce its domestic cereal production by 12% a year to conserve its water. It earmarked $5bn to provide loans at preferential rates to Saudi companies which wanted to invest in countries with strong agricultural potential .

Meanwhile, the Saudi investment company Foras, backed by the Islamic Development Bank and wealthy Saudi investors, plans to spend $1bn buying land and growing 7m tonnes of rice for the Saudi market within seven years. The company says it is investigating buying land in Mali, Senegal, Sudan and Uganda. By turning to Africa to grow its staple crops, Saudi Arabia is not just acquiring Africa's land but is securing itself the equivalent of hundreds of millions of gallons of scarce water a year. Water, says the UN, will be the defining resource of the next 100 years.

Since 2008 Saudi investors have bought heavily in Sudan, Egypt, Ethiopia and Kenya. Last year the first sacks of wheat grown in Ethiopia for the Saudi market were presented by al-Amoudi to King Abdullah.

Some of the African deals lined up are eye-wateringly large: China has signed a contract with the Democratic Republic of Congo to grow 2.8m hectares of palm oil for biofuels. Before it fell apart after riots, a proposed 1.2m hectares deal between Madagascar and the South Korean company Daewoo would have included nearly half of the country's arable land.

Land to grow biofuel crops is also in demand. "European biofuel companies have acquired or requested about 3.9m hectares in Africa. This has led to displacement of people, lack of consultation and compensation, broken promises about wages and job opportunities," said Tim Rice, author of an ActionAid report which estimates that the EU needs to grow crops on 17.5m hectares, well over half the size of Italy, if it is to meet its 10% biofuel target by 2015.

"The biofuel land grab in Africa is already displacing farmers and food production. The number of people going hungry will increase," he said. British firms have secured tracts of land in Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Nigeria and Tanzania to grow flowers and vegetables.

Indian companies, backed by government loans, have bought or leased hundreds of thousands of hectares in Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Senegal and Mozambique, where they are growing rice, sugar cane, maize and lentils to feed their domestic market.

Nowhere is now out of bounds. Sudan, emerging from civil war and mostly bereft of development for a generation, is one of the new hot spots. South Korean companies last year bought 700,000 hectares of northern Sudan for wheat cultivation; the United Arab Emirates have acquired 750,000 hectares and Saudi Arabia last month concluded a 42,000-hectare deal in Nile province.

The government of southern Sudan says many companies are now trying to acquire land. "We have had many requests from many developers. Negotiations are going on," said Peter Chooli, director of water resources and irrigation, in Juba last week. "A Danish group is in discussions with the state and another wants to use land near the Nile."

In one of the most extraordinary deals, buccaneering New York investment firm Jarch Capital, run by a former commodities trader, Philip Heilberg, has leased 800,000 hectares in southern Sudan near Darfur. Heilberg has promised not only to create jobs but also to put 10% or more of his profits back into the local community. But he has been accused by Sudanese of "grabbing" communal land and leading an American attempt to fragment Sudan and exploit its resources.

Devlin Kuyek, a Montreal-based researcher with Grain, said investing in Africa was now seen as a new food supply strategy by many governments. "Rich countries are eyeing Africa not just for a healthy return on capital, but also as an insurance policy. Food shortages and riots in 28 countries in 2008, declining water supplies, climate change and huge population growth have together made land attractive. Africa has the most land and, compared with other continents, is cheap," he said.

"Farmland in sub-Saharan Africa is giving 25% returns a year and new technology can treble crop yields in short time frames," said Susan Payne, chief executive of Emergent Asset Management, a UK investment fund seeking to spend $50m on African land, which, she said, was attracting governments, corporations, multinationals and other investors. "Agricultural development is not only sustainable, it is our future. If we do not pay great care and attention now to increase food production by over 50% before 2050, we will face serious food shortages globally," she said.

But many of the deals are widely condemned by both western non-government groups and nationals as "new colonialism", driving people off the land and taking scarce resources away from people.

We met Tegenu Morku, a land agent, in a roadside cafe on his way to the region of Oromia in Ethiopia to find 500 hectares of land for a group of Egyptian investors. They planned to fatten cattle, grow cereals and spices and export as much as possible to Egypt. There had to be water available and he expected the price to be about 15 birr (75p) per hectare per year – less than a quarter of the cost of land in Egypt and a tenth of the price of land in Asia.

"The land and labour is cheap and the climate is good here. Everyone – Saudis, Turks, Chinese, Egyptians – is looking. The farmers do not like it because they get displaced, but they can find land elsewhere and, besides, they get compensation, equivalent to about 10 years' crop yield," he said.

Oromia is one of the centres of the African land rush. Haile Hirpa, president of the Oromia studies' association, said last week in a letter of protest to UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon that India had acquired 1m hectares, Djibouti 10,000 hectares, Saudi Arabia 100,000 hectares, and that Egyptian, South Korean, Chinese, Nigerian and other Arab investors were all active in the state.

"This is the new, 21st-century colonisation. The Saudis are enjoying the rice harvest, while the Oromos are dying from man-made famine as we speak," he said.

The Ethiopian government denied the deals were causing hunger and said that the land deals were attracting hundreds of millions of dollars of foreign investments and tens of thousands of jobs. A spokesman said: "Ethiopia has 74m hectares of fertile land, of which only 15% is currently in use – mainly by subsistence farmers. Of the remaining land, only a small percentage – 3 to 4% – is offered to foreign investors. Investors are never given land that belongs to Ethiopian farmers. The government also encourages Ethiopians in the diaspora to invest in their homeland. They bring badly needed technology, they offer jobs and training to Ethiopians, they operate in areas where there is suitable land and access to water."

The reality on the ground is different, according to Michael Taylor, a policy specialist at the International Land Coalition. "If land in Africa hasn't been planted, it's probably for a reason. Maybe it's used to graze livestock or deliberately left fallow to prevent nutrient depletion and erosion. Anybody who has seen these areas identified as unused understands that there is no land in Ethiopia that has no owners and users."

Development experts are divided on the benefits of large-scale, intensive farming. Indian ecologist Vandana Shiva said in London last week that large-scale industrial agriculture not only threw people off the land but also required chemicals, pesticides, herbicides, fertilisers, intensive water use, and large-scale transport, storage and distribution which together turned landscapes into enormous mono-cultural plantations.

"We are seeing dispossession on a massive scale. It means less food is available and local people will have less. There will be more conflict and political instability and cultures will be uprooted. The small farmers of Africa are the basis of food security. The food availability of the planet will decline," she says. But Rodney Cooke, director at the UN's International Fund for Agricultural Development, sees potential benefits. "I would avoid the blanket term 'land-grabbing'. Done the right way, these deals can bring benefits for all parties and be a tool for development."

Lorenzo Cotula, senior researcher with the International Institute for Environment and Development, who co-authored a report on African land exchanges with the UN fund last year, found that well-structured deals could guarantee employment, better infrastructures and better crop yields. But badly handled they could cause great harm, especially if local people were excluded from decisions about allocating land and if their land rights were not protected.

Water is also controversial. Local government officers in Ethiopia told the Observer that foreign companies that set up flower farms and other large intensive farms were not being charged for water. "We would like to, but the deal is made by central government," said one. In Awassa, the al-Amouni farm uses as much water a year as 100,000 Ethiopians.

Source - Guardian

Thursday, March 04, 2010


Film Review - "The Band's Visit"

Thea Jarvis writes: "Hospitality may be a familiar, old-fashioned virtue, but it hasn't gone out of style. In our homes and communities, schools and churches, families and neighborhoods, hospitality remains the glorious centerpiece of the human dinner table. It's the flag we rally around to remind ourselves that we're all in this together. It's the sturdy thread that binds us gently to each other."

We agree, but in many communities, there is still an omnipresent fear of the stranger, an attitude that has been given credence by the culture wars, real wars, and the so-called war on terrorism. An outsider could be the evil-doer bent on our death and destruction. And so millions of people around the world shy away from the natural impulse of hospitality; instead of building a house of love, they construct a house of fear. This is the backdrop to Eran Kolirin's spiritual film The Band's Visit about the challenges faced by an Egyptian police band when they arrive in Israel to play at the opening of an Arab Cultural Center. They are strangers in a strange land.

Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai) is the conductor of the Alexander Ceremonial Police Orchestra. He is very worried about the group's future given budget cuts and other factors threatening its existence. When he and the band members arrive at the airport in Israel, no one is there to meet them. Tewfiq dispatches Khaled (Saleh Bakri) to get directions to the town where they are to play. But instead of concentrating on the details, he tries to romance the female clerk with his rendition of a favorite love song. The band takes a bus to a small, out-of-the-way desert town and once again, there is no one there to meet them.

Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), a vivacious manager of a café, gives them some food. Tewfiq is quite distressed to find out that there are no hotels or inns in the town and no bus until the next morning. Dina invites Tewfiq and Khaled to stay with her and convinces a regular at her café to take a few band members to his home. The rest stay in the café overnight.

Dina invites Tewfiq to go out with her. He is definitely not used to being with a woman who exudes sexual allure and takes charge of everything. She queries him about his life, and it takes the reticent band conductor a long time to reveal the source of his melancholy: the suicide of a son he pushed too hard and the death of his wife. Although Tewfiq loves music, he is more enamored of fishing.

Khaled, meanwhile, goes along with Papi (Shlomi Avraham) and his date to a roller disco. There the Arab ladies man tutors the socially awkward Papi in the art of seducing a shy young woman. Simon (Khalifa Natour), Tewfiq's assistant, spends some time with an Israeli family. Itzik (Rubi Moscovich), the host, hasn't worked for some time, and there is tension in the home about that. He remembers being impressed when Simon played part of an unfinished composition on his clarinet at the café. In a bedroom, Itzik suggests that his new friend shouldn't end the piece with fanfare but with something like what's there — "not sad, not happy, a small room, a lamp, a bed, a child sleeping, and tons of loneliness."

Novice director Erna Kolirin has fashioned a deeply spiritual drama about the bridge-making capacities of hospitality and the way music serves as universal language that draws people together. Instead of making a message film about Arabs and Jews, Kolirin has made a comedy filled with lovable characters struggling to communicate with those from a different culture and religion. They reach out to each other in simple ways: singing "Summertime" around a kitchen table, listening to the cadences in the Arabic language, and sharing a moment on a park bench. The cause of peace is nurtured in such soulful moments, and our hearts are lifted as we watch them unfold.

Source - Spirituality & Practice