Happy non-smoking Year!

Stoeker/Bergami — Untitled

About 3 million people die every year in the world because they smoke. In France, tobacco kills about 60,000 people each year, of which about 10 percent are non-smokers who died from passive smoking.

Sixteen years ago, French Minister of Health Claude Évin enacted a law forbidding people to smoke in the metro and trains, and requiring no-smoking areas in restaurants and cafés.

It was commonly ignored by owners of restaurants and cafés though, essentially because separating smoking from non-smoking areas was difficult in small premises.

Starting in February 2007, and after several European countries, another French law barred smoking in public places such as government offices, schools, hospitals, and the like. Simultaneously, Dominique de Villepin, the French Prime Minister at the time, decided the State would take charge of one-third of the costs of anti-smoking treatments, such as patches. “That would represent the first month of treatment” he said. And probably  it will save a lot of money in the future, since it will lower costs related to tobacco-induced cancers and cardiovascular diseases. 

No Smoking! However, so-called areas of social interaction — cafés, restaurants and nightclubs — had received a reprieve until January 2, 2008. Here we are. It will be interesting to see if the French obey the regulation as well as the Italians did when they banned smoking themselves, three years ago.

Although there has been quite a lot of lobbying in the media lately against the (sic) “liberticidal law”, I think we should be optimistic. The first part of the ban was easily accepted by the French in 2007. Despite they are usually depicted as intrinsically reluctant to comply with the rules, polls regularly showed that most French people supported the ban by an average 80 percent (about 60 percent among smokers). Hopefully, it will be the same in next weeks and months, and we can have a dinner in any restaurant without the smell of tobacco... at last.

So... Happy non-smoking New Year, everyone!

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

1997 One Earth Award - Angela Scott
Angela Scott  from Kenya won the One Earth Award 
in the 2007Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.

The captain of our Russian icebreaker wedged his ship against the ice in Antarctica’s Amundsen Sea, so we could step off [...] A single emperor appeared out of the whiteness and headed towards the ship. It was completely unafraid and curious about the other two-legged-creatures wandering about on the ice. [...] We were probably the first humans it had ever seen. The picture I took is a statement on our world, its wild inhabitants and the nature of humans. (Angela Scott)

Elephant Creation by Ben Osborne
Elephant Creation by Ben Osborne
The Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition has been running since 1964 under the patronage of the British Natural History Museum and BBC Wildlife Magazine.

It is also sponsored by Shell now — oil companies try hard to restore their image, don't they. Have a look at the awarded pictures anyhow: about 20 awards in different categories, and several other great pictures, as the photo just above, by Ben Osborne, who was the overall winner of the contest.

Maria Callas

Maria Callas' eyes
The Gods were bored,
they beckoned back their voice
(Yves Saint-Laurent)

Thirthy years ago, the most famous Greek since Socrates died in her appartment in Paris.

Maria Callas sings 'Una voce poco fa'
by Gioacchino Rossini

$icko

Sicko A Study of Sexuality and Health among Older Adults in the United States was the title of an interesting article published two weeks ago in the New England Journal of Medicine.

You probably heard of this study, that was reported at great length in the media all over the world. The paper concluded that many older adults are sexually active. Okay. Nothing that surprising or brand new here, yet interesting to know.

Only, there was another great article published in the very same issue of the New England Journal of Medicine that received much less attention from the media. Its title was Healing Our Sicko Health Care System, by Jacob S. Hacker, Ph.D. The article dealt with the last movie by Michael Moore bearing this name in a level-headed way, not at all hagiographic of a movie of which the limitations were underscored. Quoting its first paragraphs:

ImageThere is a scene in Sicko — Michael Moore's controversial new film about U.S. health care — that captures both the power and the limits of Moore's cinematic polemic.

A mother is speaking about her 18-month-old daughter, Mychelle, who became ill one evening with vomiting, diarrhoea, and a high fever. At the nearest emergency room, Mychelle is treated by a physician who suspects, rightly, that she has a life-threatening bacterial infection. But rather than give her antibiotics, the doctor calls her insurer, whose physician-gatekeeper tells him that Mychelle is not covered at the hospital and must be taken to another facility. The doctor repeatedly says that Mychelle needs care, and he is repeatedly told that she must be transferred first. Finally, nearly 3 hours after arriving at the hospital, wracked by seizures, Mychelle is taken to the approved facility. She dies 15 minutes later.

As Mychelle's mother, Dawnelle Keys, recounts this awful sequence of events, a swing hangs empty in the background. Even if we had not witnessed multiple tragedies already — a woman seriously injured in a car crash whose insurer denies payment because she doesn't obtain "prior authorization" to visit the emergency room, an elderly couple who move into their daughter's storage room because they cannot afford their medicine, an uninsured man forced to choose which of his two fingers to have reattached after an accident — we'd know how the story ends.

And yet, when the moment comes, and Dawnelle Keys's voice cracks as she describes losing her daughter, the effect is still devastating. We can't but wonder how our rich, powerful country can let so many citizens face such unnecessary pain and loss. How could a government "of, by, and for the people" fail so miserably to protect the people from such vast and preventable tragedies?

ImageIndeed. I have heard so many stories of the same kind from chat friends living in the United States. Each time, I feel sorry... and angry too, probably because I am a doc myself, and I live in Europe. It seems surreal to see such failure in the richest and more powerful country in the world, while the right to be treated has been a fundamental right in European countries for decades.

A few years ago, USA was ranked 37th in the World Health Organization's ranking of the world's health systems, and at the same time, about $5 billion a month are spent in Iraq? There must be an error somewhere.

Ciao, Luciano

Luciano Pavarotti died at 5 a.m. Thursday morning, local time, at his home in Modena, Italy. He was 71, and one of the greatest tenors ever.


Nessun Dorma by G. Puccini — Live in Paris, 1998.

Afghan Girl

Afghan Girl — Steve McCurry, 1984
Afghan Girl — Steve McCurry, 1984

I spent several hours this morning walking in the 6th arrondissement (administrative district) of Paris, playing a treasure hunt game. There was no treasure actually, nor hurry or competition. It was only a game with the family, where we found our way according to hints taken from a dedicated book. It was fun.

We strolled around for about four hours in the Latin quarter, walking from street to street in an area usually crowded with people, but almost empty in this sunny morning of an August Sunday. I enjoyed a lot seeing in an unusual way places I think I know well, as if I were a tourist walking in a foreign city.

It was not in the riddle book for sure, but it was not a surprise either, since I read about it some days ago in a photo magazine: Steve McCurry exhibits at a Gallery rue de Seine at the moment. It was then planned we would have a look, if by chance our journey brought us in this street, and it did.

Steve McCurry is a photojournalist who became famous for his coverage of the Russian invasion of the Afghanistan in 1979. Disguised in native garb, he crossed the Pakistan border into rebel-controlled Afghanistan just before the invasion. When he emerged, he had rolls of films sewn into his clothes. His coverage of the conflict won the Robert Capa Gold Medal for Best Photographic Reporting from Abroad, an award dedicated to photographers exhibiting exceptional courage and enterprise.

You probably know the famous picture displayed above, the portrait of a young Afghan Girl with unforgettable piercing look, whose identity remained mysterious for years. Her photograph was exhibited there this morning, with several other great photos.

Barcelona — Casa Batlló

Batlló
Casa Batlló — Barcelona, June 2007

It is not surprising that when it was being built, people started to call it "Casa dels ossos" (House of Bones) : the entire facade of the Casa Batlló looks as if it is covered with bones, skulls, shoulder blades or hip bones, in the form of bone coloured balconies, as well as real visions of shinbones and fibulas on the lower part.

A little round turret on the top, crowned with a four-armed cross, looks like a huge sword thrust into a roof similar to a dragon's back.

Obviously, the tradition of Sant Jordi (Saint George, who killed the dragon), very popular in Catalonia, inspired Gaudí here, as it did in several occasions elsewhere also.

Yet you can see many things rather than a killed dragon and the bones of his victims in the outside of the Casa Batlló. You can see a representation of Venice carnival, with masks, confetti and arrays of colours. Or some kind of a vertical lake, with water reflections, water plants and underwater caves. And finally, all and none of these, but abstract shapes and forms designed for their own sake and in a coherent interaction. In any case, the facade has nothing to do with the natural properties of stone with which the house has been built, and this is typical feature of buildings by Gaudí.

Image
A balcony

His life's work, the Church of the Sagrada Familia — not finished yet, more than 120 years after the building started — is also an explosion of life where plants, animals, human beings and saints palpitate through the stone.

La Casa Batlló was called after the name of its owner, who commissioned Gaudí to tear down the old apartment building and reconstruct a new one. Not only Gaudí conceived the building as an architect, but as a project manager and a foreman. He gave directly orders to the workmen on the scaffolding, telling them exactly where to put each coloured piece.

When I arrived there last Sunday, it was 9:00 am exactly. They were just opening the gates. The night before had been sleepless for many Barcelonians, because of San Juan celebrations. There was still little people in the streets and no tourist had reached the place yet. I was alone. For about 10 minutes, the Casa Batlló was mine.

This house is more than a building, it is a myth of art.The windows provide natural light everywhere inside, even to the most interior rooms and stairs, and every nook, every detail contains a surprise. Here come a couple of pictures I took in there. You'll find much more, and better ones, on its dedicated website.

Image
Main room on the first floor
Image
Room on the last floor

Image
The light shaft

Image
Stairs
Image
Stairs to the roof
Image
Cross on the roof

The Air is on Fire

David Lynch — This man was shot 0.9502 seconds ago.

David Lynch: This man was shot 0.9502 seconds ago.


The Air is on Fire was the name of an exhibition dedicated to David Lynch, I attended a couple of weeks ago at the Fondation Cartier pour l'Art Contemporain in Paris.

ImageDavid Lynch is essentially known as a filmmaker (Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, Twin Peaks etc.) with unorthodox narrative and visual style. He is also a painter, a photographer, a video artist. The exhibition brought together the various forms of expression he has employed since 1960, installed in an environment he designed, complemented by a series of concerts and projections he created.

David Lynch's universe is unique, dark, often violent, usually with a disconcerting touch of humour though. His static work develops the line of thought outlined in his movies — or maybe it is the opposite. It calls to mind fantasies of his youth, torments of his adult life.

ImageThat said, I found the show as disturbing as Lynch's movies. It made me feel ill at ease on several occasions. Yet I was feeling all the time I was watching at a huge artistic event.

The first part of the exhibition displayed Lynch's paintings, installed by himself. Steel gantries with curtains (that seem directly borrowed from Mulholland Drive or Twin Peaks) supported unframed canvas on which Lynch had glued various things (dolls' heads, clothes, glass eyes, knifes...) that were mixed into the paint afterwards. The paintings often showed scenes of rape and murder that associated violence and irony, the loneliness of people portrayed there reminding me of Francis Bacon's suffering figures sometimes.

ImageSeveral dozens of small pictorial pieces were presented in another room, without a title or a date. These were rough sketches and notes hastily put down on restaurant headed notepapers, paper handkerchiefs, matchboxes, visit cards, etc. These pieces are not decipherable in an objective way, yet they give away Lynch's obsessions and inside thoughts, as a journey deep into the inconscient of the artist.

Lynch's first short films were shown on the lower floor of the building, in a small projection room. Some of them dated back the 1970's, in which you could see the temptation of gore, as well as attempts at blurring significance of events and disclosing only one distorted side of the reality.

ImageOne hundred photographs or so were displayed, that looked like illustrations of his movies: femmes fatales, banal places with stifling atmosphere, and loneliness always. I loved several of them, probably I will write a specific blog about them some day.

Image At the end of the exhibition, a series called Distorted Nudes was displayed: these are digital images Lynch made using old erotic photographs as initial material, that have obvious analogy with the work of the Surrealists. Here also, you could see Lynch's belief that reality is not univocal, that any "normality" probably hides a monstrous reality.

The Air is on Fire is due to end tomorrow. Then, unless you planned to come to Paris this week-end, I strongly suggest you explore its website [click here], that contains several videos, including a tour of the show with David Lynch himself.

The Thorn Humans

Image Recommended accompanying music:
 
[When the War is Over by J.J. Cale & Eric Clapton]

Seeking on the Internet yesterday after last news in Iraq, I unexpectedly found : despite the ongoing conflict across the country, no bird species has gone extinct in the Mesopotamian marshes — that used to be among the most biodiverse regions in the Middle-East — since the last assessments were conducted in the 1970s.

A Field Guide to the Birds of Iraq was even published recently, the authors of which proudly state that it "covers the 387 bird species that have been recorded in Iraq", being the "first comprehensive, fully illustrated field guide to the birds of an Arabic speaking country and first field guide of its kind for Iraq".

Granted, several US soldiers are killed in Iraq every day. Granted again, several hundred thousand Iraqi civilians died because of the war that began 3 years ago, and bombs still kill dozens of men, women and children every day or so. It made me think that is a great pity that they are not Buddhists or Hindus, instead of Christians and Muslims. If they were, they could be reincarnated as birds! Hopefully, they would live and breed then, despite the noise of bombs.

Rostropovich

Mstislav Rostropovich at the Berlin Wall — November 11, 1989
Mstislav Rostropovich plays at the Berlin Wall — November 11, 1989

Mstislav Leopoldovich Rostropovich died today in Moskow, a few days after his 80th birthday. He was not only one of the best cellists ever, but a symbol of freedom and resistance to communist dictatorship.

Farewell, Slava.


M. Rostropovich plays Bach Cello Suite N°1

Cats

Cats having lunch in Malta
Two cats having lunch in Mdina Malta, Feb 2007.

They take up residence under a car in Rabat. You find them lying on low walls overhanging Grand Harbour in Valletta. They thread their way through fishing boats turned upside down on the quays in Senglea...

Wherever you  stroll around in Malta, you meet cats.

Many males are russet, many females are tricolour. They're usually alone in the streets, sometimes grouped together in the parks. People feed them. In Valetta's streets, you can see small boxes or plates at many doors, with leftovers, catfood, water or milk. In Lower Baracca gardens, dinner time is impressive when some inhabitants come and bring food to twenty or so multicoloured cats. They don't fight. They share. They have time.

Malta in this respect reminds me of Venice, Greek islands or Provençal villages: cats seem to be the real masters here. Lenient masters actually, who put up with humans as long as they don't move too near, and serve them well. I believe they enjoy living in such beautiful locations, although they pretend to overlook gorgeous sceneries with supreme indifference. They know they are part of the beauty and peacefulness of the place, their native beauty holding their own against ephemeral human constructions.

Billy's Car Hire


Billy's Car Hire
Mellieha, Malta — February 2007.

If you ever worried about how I manage with cars in Malta after you heard of my difficulty in driving on the left, please don't worry any more: I learned fast.

Malta — One Man in a Car

Grand Harbour by night — Valletta, Malta, Feb. 2007.

Here are your keys, Sir. The car you've rented is in the parking just outside. Don't worry, it's very close: you only cross the road in front of the terminal, then turn right on the sidewalk. After about 100 meters you'll see a yellow line. You follow it and you've got your car in two minutes. By the way, your car is yellow also, ha-ha. It is a yellow Hyundai Atos.

I had no idea what a Hyundai Atos looked like. Only I had rented a small car, together with my plane ticket to Malta and hotel reservation. I had arrived to Malta airport at 6:00 pm only and it was dark. Therefore, I could not see any yellow line, yet there seemed to be hundreds of yellow cars in this huge ill-lit parking. At the end, after maybe 20 minutes, a yellow car by chance wore the correct plate number. I put my suitcase and bag into the rear boot, opened the driver's door and... what? the steering wheel is on passenger's side? Oh merde! They drive on the left in Malta!

So... It was dark. I wanted to go to a hotel in a town called Floriana it is just before Valletta, the capital city, the car rental guy had said, you cannot miss it, yet I was supposed not to be able to miss the yellow line either using a car with everything on the wrong side. Have you ever tried to run through the gears on a mechanical gearbox with your left hand? (Note: this is a question for non-British right-handed people only). I tell you, it's a must, especially by night, in a foreign country, when you don't know precisely where you are going.

There were mainly one-way roads fortunately, but there were roundabouts also. Oh merde, again... should I drive round clockwise or counterclockwise? Of course, every Maltese driver had just decided they should not come here and show me. Hehe, a frog doesn't ever let himself be overawed by British traps though: I astutely pulled over, until another car showed me they do this... the wrong way also, clockwise, of course!

Twenty minutes later and after a couple of wrong roads taken, I finally arrived at the city. Hey, I am lucky now, I thought, here is the sign of my hotel. I turned left towards the sign, looking for a place to park. You know, policemen are very polite here.
Sir, did you notice you were driving on the right, just before you went the wrong way up this one-way street? he asked. I groped around a few seconds to find a way to open the window and answer him, could not find the button (it was mechanical handle also), and at the end opened the door, went out, and apologized.
I am sorry Sir, I'm not used to driving on the left and I was so glad to see my hotel at last!

He looked at me with such a pitying look that I could almost hear his thoughts (the poor guy is a Frenchman, and probably he is a little challenged also).
It's okay, he said, showing me a parking space, you can park here. Quick please.

Guys, I have a funny game for you to play: by night, with your left hand, on a mechanical gearbox, with a policeman watching at you, try to reverse into a parking space between two trees. Believe me, it will be fun. Well, at the end, I succeeded. My luggage in hand, I entered the hotel and checked in, an enormous smile on my face as I was thinking of Jerome K. Jerome novels...

-----

I am in my room now. The weather is warm and soft, with little wind. It is Carnival, I can hear the music coming up from the streets. I am sitting on my room's balcony, looking at the scenery I took a picture of and displayed above. I am in vacation for four days. Yay!

Call for Witnesses : Lost Elephants!

I read today an agonized call on the website of the SPA (Société protectrice des animaux, the French Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals):

CALL FOR WITNESSES

The SPA is looking for 4 elephants that are part of the Big Foot Show. They were seen in Cavalaire-sur-Mer lately, and we need to find them! If you have any information, please call us immediately (+33 143 xxx xxx or the Internet).

Two and a half months after they made off, nowhere on the web I read news about the cute pets being found again... Therefore, if you ever see elephants on a road close to your place, especially in Europe or Middle East — I mean, elephants whose colour is grey, not pink — no need to go and see a doctor: you might have met the poor little things on their way back to native Kenya.

Losing their elephants... people are absent-minded sometimes, aren't they.

Don't dry your cellphone in a microwave owen!

My brother, who sells cosmetics on the international market, told me several times funny stories about warnings he must put on products his company markets in the USA, so as not to be sued.

For instance, soap packages should be labelled do not eat and eye liner pencils do not apply while driving. Apparently though, get a brain before use has not yet been displayed anywhere.

Quoting Bob Dorigo Jones, president of a US consumer watchdog called Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch (M-LAW): it used to be that if someone spilled coffee in their lap, they simply called themselves clumsy. Today, too many people are calling themselves an attorney. If I were silly enough to eat a soap, for sure I would never tell it anyone after! but some people dare everything, don't they... This sue first, ask questions later mentality has not only produced wacky warning labels. It has also increased the cost of products and services families use daily.

A couple of days ago, M-LAW declared the winners of their 10th annual Wacky Warning Label contest. Sometimes, it is hard to know whether the company is being outright stupid or if they are simply targeting the most brain dead dumb! This year, the winning label was found on a washing machine in a laundermat: Do not put people in washing machine, it displays. The second place award came from a personal watercraft that warns: Never use a lit match or open flame to check fuel level. The one I love most is the third award though: Don’t try to dry your phone in a microwave oven, a cellphone instructions leaflet warns.

Several warnings awarded in the previous years were quite brilliant also:
— On a baby stroller: Remove child before folding;
— On a blanket: Not to be used as protection from a tornado;
— On the handle of a household iron: Never iron clothes while they are being worn;
— On the package of a brass fishing lure with a three-pronged hook on the end: Harmful if swallowed (ouch);
— On a toilet bowl cleaning brush: Do not use orally (eww).

These are good pieces of advice definitely. Thank you, guys.

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Timeless Music
The Magic Flute
by W. A. Mozart


Timeless Reading
Les Essais
by Michel de Montaigne