» THE WINGED SIN-EATERS: Vultures & the Vital Importance of Scavengers

by Brian Awehali

Tlazolteotl, the Aztec goddess of earth, motherhood and fertility, played a redemptive role in the religious practices of Meso-American civilization: At the end of life, an individual was allowed to confess hir misdeeds to this deity, and according to legend she would cleanse the supplicant’s soul by “eating the filth”…

As they ride the wind, vultures seek dead things, not dying things, using a sense of smell far more highly developed than any other bird’s. They can detect a dead mouse under leaves from 200 feet up. They are discriminating, preferring corpses between two and four days dead….Vultures, whose name comes from vellere, Latin for to tear, begin their eating at vulnerable spots on the carcass—the anus and eyes. All that being said, you really wouldn’t want to live in a world without them.

A truly fascinating article in the Virginia Quarterly Review, by Meera Subramian, and with gorgeous photos like the one below, by Ami Vitale, goes into a lot of detail about the vital role of vultures and scavengers, and the alarming decline of their species on the Indian subcontinent.

Vultures scavenging human remains left at the burning ghats on the banks of rivers in India – Ami Vitale / Corbis

As the article explains,

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» EXPERIMENTS IN VEGANISM & ADVANCED BIPEDALISM

by Brian Awehali

http://www.builtlean.com/2011/11/17/barefoot-running-research/

On a long road trip several years ago, when I was still eating even very bad roadside food, I listened to the book Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, by Christopher McDougall, and I found myself delaying gas and bathroom breaks because I was too interested in what would happen next. McDougall told a wildly entertaining story about traditional and modern competitive “ultra”-runners that managed to also be a sort of ethnography and a treatise on a significant aspect of human evolution: our unequaled long-distance running ability and our related unique ability to sweat from every part of our body, instead of just from our tongues, as basically all other land mammals do.

Why is this significant? As an October 2012 article, “The Running Man Revisited,” from Seed magazine explains:

“…[R]oughly 2 million years ago, Australopithecus, with its tiny brain, hefty jaw and diet of rough, fibrous plants, evolved into Homo erectus, our slim, long-legged ancestor with a big brain and small teeth suited for tearing into animal and fruit flesh. Such a transformation almost certainly involved a reliable supply of calorie-laden meat, yet according to the fossil record, spear points have been in use for 200,000 years at most, and the bow and arrow for only 50,000 years, leaving an enormous stretch of time when early humans were consuming meat without the use of tools. [...] A deer and a decently fit man … trot at almost an identical pace, but in order to accelerate, a deer goes anaerobic, while the man remains in an oxygenated jogging zone. The same is true for horses, antelopes, and a slew of other four-legged creatures … and because quadrupeds can’t pant while they run, they also quickly overheat.”

Humans can’t outrun a cheetah or an antelope over short distances, but those animals can only run at their faster speeds for short distances compared to humans. Organized human “persistence” hunters can run an animal until it literally drops of heatstroke, as illustrated by the BBC documentary clip below (hard not to feel bad for the prey):

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» CHAOS: OF STRANGE ATTRACTORS & THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT

by Brian Awehali

When Edward Lorenz gave a talk in 1972 entitled “Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?,” he distilled the main essence of his thoughts on predictability, interdependence and “chaos theory” in one pithy question.

Lorenz was a mathemetician and a meteorologist who, in the early 1960s, discovered that weather simulation models he was developing were exhibiting chaotic, non-predictive behavior, despite a fixed set of variables and no apparent equipment malfunction. Two identical weather simulation machines, side-by-side, given the same variables to process. Wildly different results. How?

Lorenz eventually concluded that it was a “dependence on initial conditions” — in this case, the fact of computers rounding variables to decimal points: 3.12879 expressed as 3.13, etc. Even extending the number of decimal points in the simulators did not produce matching results from the weather machines. Minute variations gave rise to wildly different chains of events.

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» MISADVENTURES IN “ORGANIC” FARMING IN TAIWAN

by Brian Awehali

Daikon drying in the sun

A while back, I had a great time traveling through all but the southern portion of Taiwan. I’d gone for Spring Festival (Chinese New Year), and to do a bit of work trade with a WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities in Organic Farming)-affiliated farm on the outskirts of Chunan (or Zhunan, depending on your preferred system of romanization).

The farm itself was mostly a disappointment to me. There is no internationally consistent standard for measuring what is and is not organic. Even in the U.S. (granted, no paragon of truth in labeling) the labeling of organics is tricky, often misleading and inconsistent [see an in-depth article from my former magazine, "Organics: Meaningful or Market Niche?").

Sweltering farmland in Chunan

Seed trays soaked in water and sun

This farm, in Zhunan, in the province of Miaoli, was nestled right up against a major highway flyover, and perhaps one hundred yards from two tall, constantly belching industrial smokestacks. The smokestack exhaust might well have been filtered or non-toxic, but anyone with common sense who’s ever actually lived next to, or looked at land immediately adjacent to large highways, can tell by the sooty residue of automobile exhaust and dust that there’s nothing organic about the ground in these areas.

My host was really more interested in the local promotional opportunities of having travelers all the way from America coming to work on, and promote, his farm. After picking us up in his van and driving like a maniac back to his place (with his un-seatbelted young son in the front, many sharp-pointed tools laying unsecured on the floor), my host spent a good deal of the next ten days pressuring us in various forceful ways to appear on a television interview with him for a local news station where his wife worked, and to be a very public face for a farmer’s market he was trying to launch, on the grounds of a swank mountain restaurant.

I declined, repeatedly, and with less and less patience, explaining that I hadn’t come to WWOOF so I could be paraded around town to impress friends or appear on local television news programs I wouldn’t even understand. After several rounds of requests, I further explained that, by my standards, his farm actually wasn’t organic, and I didn’t want to publicly support it. I’d come, I said again and again, to learn more about farming.

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» TRESPASS AT WILL: Squatting as Direct Action, Human Right, and Justified Theft

“Approximately 3.5 million people in the U.S. are homeless, many of them veterans.  It is worth noting that, at the same time, there are 18.5 million vacant homes in the country.” – Tanuka Loha, Amnesty International, December 2011

by Erin Wiegand

IT’S A COLD, WINDY NIGHT IN SAN FRANCISCO, and three men are about to take shelter in a vacant apartment building. One of them digs a crowbar and bolt cutters out of his backpack; another keeps a careful eye out for police or passersby. In a matter of seconds they’ve snipped off the lock and opened the door. They survey the house, looking for any signs of occupancy or renovation—newspapers or mail, paint buckets or ladders. Satisfied that the house has been empty for some time, they relax and settle down for the night. Tomorrow, they’ll put a new padlock on the door, and set about fixing up their new home.

Thousands of miles away in Amsterdam, 50 young people have set up a barricade outside the front of a large building. The police, in full riot gear, file out of their vans and form a line opposite them. Inside the house, the doors have been reinforced with sheets of scrap plywood. The last remaining people in the building pour bottles of vegetable oil down the stairs in order to slow the cops down. Outside, the police raise their batons and charge the house.

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» POETRY & THE POLITICAL IMAGINATION: Aimé Césaire, Negritude & Surrealism

by Robin D. G. Kelley

Negritude, by Wilfredo LamAimé Césaire demolishes the old maxim that poets make terrible politicians. Known in the world of letters as the progenitor of Negritude (the first diasporic “black pride” movement), a major voice of Surrealism, and one of the great French poets, Césaire is equally revered for his role in modern anticolonial and Pan-African movements. While it might appear that the poet and politician operated in separate spheres, Césaire’s life and work demonstrate that poetry can be the motor of political imagination, a potent weapon in any movement that claims freedom as its primary goal.

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» THE OBJECT OF THE OBJECT: Porn, Dignity & the Masculine Mantle

by Susan Faludi

A few years ago, if you traveled up Van Nuys Boulevard to the 4500 block, you could meditate, like Ebenezer Scrooge, on the hollow murmurings and frenzied forebodings that are the ghosts of American commerce, past and future. This particular business strip belongs to the San Fernando Valley suburbs of Los Angeles, which means it could be anywhere. The east side of the street displays the flattened state of things to come: a block-long mini-mall parking lot lined with consumer franchises—a Blockbuster Music store, a Baskin-Robbins, a Humphrey Yogart outlet, a General Cinema twoplex next to large signs announcing, coming soon, a General Cinema ‘‘Multi Theater Complex’’ offering a unique movie going experience with five more screens, bigger and better. Across the street, on the west side, is the past, and crumpled newspapers and discarded Baskin-Robbins cups skitter up and down its crud-caked sidewalks. At the boarded-up entrances to former hardware stores and shoe-repair shops, where tradesmen’s tools once clattered, clouds of gnats hover, making loitering un- pleasant. The small independent businesses have abandoned the field. On the day I first passed through here, even a thrift store bore a “for lease” sign.

Only one veteran remains open for business, tucked away on a second floor, up a well-worn set of stairs. Behind an unmarked door lies a room the size and shabby complexion of a one-man private detective agency from another era; dust-covered vertical blinds quiver in the stale air circulated by a floor fan. A frayed gray-blue carpet with a permanent crease down the middle is held down by two chipped desks, each with an over-flowing ashtray and a five-line phone, which blinks and rings ceaselessly from nine to six. The company sign with its blue globe logo has presided over the street for most of the firm’s nineteen years, an exemplar of discreet advertisement from a more decorous time: Figure Photography Films. Wanted: Figure models for immediate placement. 986-4316. Suite 203. The ad belongs to the World Modeling Talent Agency, central casting for the nation’s pornographic film, video, and magazine industries.

I began to get a glimmer of the landscape the new young men of modern porn were struggling to traverse: a treacherous terrain that had more to do with work than sex, more to do with gender identity than genital excitement. It was also a terrain more relevant to the larger working male population than most men would care to contemplate.

The agency has survived, despite the old-fashioned propriety of its sign, by accommodating the forces unleashed across Van Nuys Boulevard. In a world where desire is packaged in videocassettes or DVDs and marketed in malls, where self-worth is quantified by exposure, World Modeling has become the last-chance opportunity for a generation desperately seeking “immediate placement.” It is a backstage door to the current American dream and an emergency escape hatch for some who find themselves capsizing in a reconfiguring American economy. Which is why, by the last decade of the century, World Modeling would become a mecca beckoning not just women but men. More men, in fact, than women; more men than this industry of feminine display could even begin to absorb.

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