Art and Culture News

El Monte’s “Gangnam Style” Embarrassment

City slogans are almost always upbeat, but the positive messages that they are meant to convey are sometimes contradicted by the policies enacted by their own city governments. Such is the case in regard to the southern California town of El Monte (population 113,000), which advertises itself with the motto: “Welcome to Friendly El Monte.” Lately El Monte has been anything but friendly to its own employees. In a case that is getting international attention, the city fired 13 lifeguards and a swimming pool manager for making an innocent spoof video of the global YouTube sensation “Gangnam Style” in the municipal pool, despite the fact that they did so on their own time, using their own resources. Officials claim that their behavior “violated prohibitions on the use of city property and didn’t meet employee conduct standards.” An international petition campaign is now urging the city government to rethink its decision. The resulting publicity has certainly given attention to the spoof: “Lifeguard Style’ has been viewed more 1.5 million times on YouTube.

Gangnam Style, by South Korean hip-hop artist Psy (Park Jae-sang), mocks the social pretentiousness found in Seoul’s Gangnam District. Gangnam is not only the most exclusive neighborhood in South Korea, but perhaps in the entire world, noted for its conspicuous consumption. Psy’s satire, noted for a dance move that he himself describes as “cheesy,” has certainly hit a nerve, with more that 221 million hits on YouTube, and more than a million comments.

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Slovenia’s Sausage Struggles

The small country of Slovenia is often noted as the most prosperous former-communist state. The Economist, however, is concerned about a possible Slovenian financial meltdown, warning that “if Slovenia succumbs, it would be the first former communist country in the euro area to need aid. And once again the badge of honour of joining the zone would have become a mark of humiliation.” Recent news reports on the former Yugoslav republic, however, are more inclined to fret about the sausage struggle currently pitting Slovenia against both Austria and Croatia.

The row began last spring when Slovenia petitioned the European Union for official recognition of the “Krainer Wurst” (Kranjska klobasa in Slovenian) as a geographically specific product. Under the EU’s “protected geographical indication” (PGI) regime, foods and drinks so classified are regulated to ensure “that only products genuinely originating in that region are allowed to be identified as such in commerce.” (Existing examples, of which there are many, include Roquefort and Gorgonzola cheese as well as Champagne.) Austria quickly objected to the maneuver, fearing that it would be forced to rename its own “Krainer” sausage, the Kaesekrainer. Austrian officials further argued that their version of the sausage was distinct from that of Slovenia, owing to its cheese filling. The loss of the Kaesekrainer name, they contend, “would be an economic blow to sausage producers and to Austria’s cultural heritage.”

While the dispute is being considered by EU officials and as possible compromises are being discussed, Croatia voiced its own objections. Although Croatia is not an EU member, it is slated to join the union in 2013. Croatia produces its own “Kranjska sausage,” which that generates some $13 million annually. Like Austria, it does not want to be forced to rename the product.

As reported by the BBC, The European Commission describes Kranjska klobasa as a “pasteurised sausage made from coarsely minced pork and pork fat, with added salt, garlic and pepper. The sausage undergoes hot smoking and is eaten warm after brief warming in hot water. It has a distinctive “mildly smoky smell.” The Wikipedia article on the sausage contends that it is similar to Polish kielbasa, and further notes that it has become very popular in Australia:

Kranjska klobasa is known as Kransky in Australia, to where it was introduced by post-war immigrants from Slovenia in the late 1940s and 1950s. The Kransky is very popular in Australia and New Zealand. The Waiters Club in Melbourne, Australia, is renowned worldwide for its wide range of Kransky dishes.

The geographical designation Krain (German) or Kranjska (Slovene) is rendered in English as “Carniola.” Carniola was a historical duchy, under the control of the Hapsburg dynasty, the territory of which forms the core of modern Slovenia. Its territory did not extend to any appreciable extent into the areas that now constitute Austria or Croatia. On that basis, Slovenia does have a certain claim. But to restrict the name of a widespread, well-established product to a particular region of origin strikes many as an extreme move, much like limiting “wieners” to sausages produced in Vienna or “frankfurters” to those made in Frankfurt.

In the United States, the move to restrict “champagne” to sparkling wine made in Champagne has made some headway, but many Americans steadfastly resist the trend. As explained by Mental Floss:

The French are really, really prickly about misuse of the word champagne. Only sparkling white wine that comes from the Champagne region of France, in the northeastern part of the country, can be called champagne. And that’s not a suggestion; in Europe, it’s the law. It has been illegal for non-Champaignois vineyards to call their booze champagne since 1891. In fact, so important is French ownership of the word champagne that it was reaffirmed in no less important a document than 1919’s Treaty of Versailles—the one that ended World War I.

But here’s the loophole: The United States never ratified the Treaty of Versailles—not because of the champagne clause, but because the Republican-controlled Congress didn’t want to see the formation of a League of Nations. And so, in America, it is perfectly legal to call your sparkling wine “champagne.” In fact, you can call your gym shoes champagne, if you’d like.


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Tower Proposal Draws Ire in Venice

The picturesque Venetian skyline has remained virtually unchanged since 1514, when St. Mark’s Campanile—the city’s largest structure—reached its current shape. Although past its prime in the early 16th Century, Venice remained a center of trade and manufacturing, even ruling directly over Crete, Cyprus and much of the Dalmatian coast. Though the city’s empire is long gone, its form remains a stunningly beautiful and potent anchor for nostalgic sentiment. Enter the French fashion designer Pierre Cardin, whose proposal to build a new sixty story tower comprised of “three fin-shaped towers connected horizontally by six huge steel discs” (pictured at left) on the mainland near Venice has drawn heavy criticism. The building, dubbed the “Palais Lumière,” would be built in a currently abandoned industrial area in Porto Marghera, which lies about two miles from Venice (see map below), and include residential, commercial, industrial, and public areas. The project appears to be slowly working its way through the Italian bureaucracy, but that hasn’t stopped an outpouring of anger from preservation-minded Venetians.

Cardin’s supporters, like the head of Italy’s Vento region Luca Zaia, have heaped praise on the project, calling Cardin a “21st Century Lorenzo the Magnificent” who’s project will herald the “start of the renaissance of the whole Porto Marghera area”. Cardin’s nephew, Rodrigo Basilicati, is an architect by training and has taken the lead role in working out the technical aspects of his uncle’s vision. Basilicati grew up in a small town about ten miles from Porto Marghera, and sees the tower as a way to revitalize a desolate area. “We chose this apparently ugly and difficult location because we hope that it will convince other people that Porto Marghera can enter a new chapter,” he says. With Italy as a whole facing 10.8 percent unemployment and government bond yields around six percent, depressed areas of the country like Porto Marghera have good reason to welcome the influx of €1.5 billion ($1.85 billion) that the project would provide.

Porto Marghera, the future home of the Palais Lumière, is the large ‘carrot key’-shaped area on the left.

The potentially negative impact of the tower on Venice’s traditional character and allure is the main motivation for its opponents. Rather than trading Eastern European slaves and timber for Asian spices and silk as in the days of yore, Venice’s economy now depends on the 60,000 daily tourists who come to spend large sums of money as they stroll and dine along its canals. The new building would be about twice as tall as St. Mark’s Campanile, and even its position miles from the city does not assuage fears that it will impinge on the beauty of Venice. Italian historian Tomaso Montanari has likened the project to buildings in Dubai that many consider garish, noting that the Palais Lumière looks like it was designed by the “emirs of the Gulf.” Others have called the building “a spaceship dumped into the lagoon”, and derided it as “ugly and useless.” Italian architect Vittorio Gregotti addressed Cardin saying “Dear Pierre, if you want to do something for Venice, think of something else.” According to the LA Times, the Italian cultural group Our Italy fears that construction would jeopardize Venice’s status as a World Heritage Site—though that is certainly baseless hyperbole.

The word “imbroglio” supposedly has roots in the famously confusing and intricate politics of republican Venice, and it fits the current situation quite well. Every year brings new stories about how Venice might soon sink beneath the sea, and among the architecturally minded the city is more often seen as a symbol of “elegant decay” than a living and breathing place for people. Will a new tower on the opposite side of the lagoon re-energize Venice, or will it forever mar the views that make the city beautiful? The most likely answer is ‘neither’, but Venetians will just have to wait and see.

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Disputed Ruins and Phoenician Heritage in Beirut

New construction projects in urban areas nearly always require the destruction of whatever buildings stood on the land previously. Although efforts to preserve historic buildings in the U.S. have generated cynicism and at times seem absurd, the same cannot be said of Beirut, Lebanon. Beirut is one of the oldest cities in the world, with a history stretching back some 5,000 years. In early 2011, construction workers in Beirut’s Mina al-Hosn district unearthed what archaeologists suggested was a port used by the city’s Phoenician inhabitants in the 5th Century B.C. The discovery prompted Lebanon’s former Minister of Culture, Salim Wardeh, to designate the area as an archaeological site in order to protect it from development. Although archaeologists now dispute whether the ruins were in fact a port, and whether the site was actually built in the 5th Century B.C., they continue to agree on its importance and antiquity.

Photo of the ruins’ destruction. Photo credit: Scott Barbour, AFP/Getty Images

Nevertheless, Lebanon’s current Minister of Culture, Gaby Layoun, decided to revoke former minister Wardeh’s decree on June 26 of this year on the grounds that the site “does not involve any trace of Phoenician or Roman port infrastructure”. The decision opened the way for construction, and bulldozers moved in almost immediately to remove the archaeological debris. These events prompted a quick riposte from Wardeh and two other former Ministers of Culture who deplored “the destruction of heritage and the violation of Lebanon’s history by one who is responsible for preserving them”. The overseer of archaeological excavation at the site, Hisham Sayegh, resigned from the Ministry of Culture on June 27 during a protest calling for Layoun to step down. Addressing Layoun directly, Sayegh claims: “Never has archaeology in Lebanon since the last centuries and during wars of ancient times, or during the Israeli invasion and bombardment of Beirut, experienced such destruction as it has witnessed since you took office at the Ministry of Culture.” Layoun has responded to his critics vigorously, promising to press charges against those leveling insults in the future.

Location of the site within Beirut

Historical heritage can be a fraught issue in Lebanon, a land where Christians and Muslims of various sects coexist in an uneasy balance. Lebanon’s Phoenician past has the potential to serve as a unifying force, since it is a legacy that neither religious group can theoretically monopolize. Though generalizations should be taken with a grain of salt, Lebanese Christians have in the past used Phoenician identity as a moral weapon. By identifying themselves closely with Phoenicia, some Maronite Christians assert their claims on Lebanon’s past to be more authentic than those of their Muslim neighbors, who usually look more to the Arab and Ottoman heritage. Despite recent genetic tests indicating that both Christian and Muslim Lebanese share equal amounts of “Phoenician blood,” the association of Phoenicia with Christian activism in Lebanon has been slow to fade.

The disputed construction site and former archaeological dig in Beirut may or may not be Phoenician, but the backlash against its destruction shows that Lebanon’s ancient past is a highly valued resource among Lebanese of all faiths. One can only hope that remaining ancient sites in the area can help foster an atmosphere of respect that will allow Beirut to thrive for another 5,000 years.

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Gujarat to Ban References to Caste in the Classroom?

The Indian state of Gujarat has recently decided to amend its educational curriculum by removing “all the derogatory or implied references to surnames, castes, religion, profession, region.” The reforms go so far as to prohibit the use of students’ surnames—a caste “give away”—in the classroom.

The maneuver comes at the time of a mounting dispute between the chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, and the chief ministers of the Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Modi claimed that caste politics have “ruined” Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, two of India’s poorest and least socially developed states, which he contrasts unfavorably with rapidly developing Gujarat. The leaders of the poorer states accused Modi, in turn, of exaggerating Gujarat’s achievements and of unfairly dismissing the progress that has occurred in their own states. Journalists sympathetic to their cause have noted that Modi himself frequently engages in caste politics, especially by working with Brahmin organizations.

Modi is a media-savvy and polarizing politician with national ambitions. Coming from a Hindu-nationalist background, he has been charged with complicity in the anti-Muslim mob violence of 2002 that resulted in hundreds of deaths. Supporters credit the ascetic and hard-working chief minister for the rapid economic growth experienced in Gujarat over the past decade. Modi himself is not shy about trumpeting his achievements, as can be seen in the image posted here, taken from his own website.

Modi is currently downplaying Hindu nationalism, reaching out in the process to Muslim voters. Muslims in Gujarat, he recently announced, are better off than Muslims in other India states due to his developmental policies. Modi is also currently discouraging the practice of holding lavish weddings, which he claims puts undue economic hardships on poor and middle-class Gujaratis. He is instead advocating “mass marriages” that involve numerous couples. As reported in Orissa Diary:

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi today expressed satisfaction at greater acceptance of the concept of mass marriage among affluent as well as in tribal families. However, he said, there is need for scientific management of such events. He blessed 251 couple on the occasion. Participating in a multi-caste mass marriage ceremony organized by Sahara Manav Kalyan Trust Vadi at Jhankhvav in Surat district, he said the government has doubled the incentive to brides from Rs.5,000 to Rs.10,000 to encourage mass marriages.

It takes care of eradicating social evils as well as vulgar display of wealth with families concerned entering into deep debt traps. The Chief Minister was particularly happy at the emancipation of tribal people living in forested areas, their newfound urge for higher studies and joining the mainstream. He said the government has started higher secondary schools in science stream in tribal areas.

On several occasions, the daughters of prostitutes in Gujarat have been forced to marry reluctant men in such mass weddings in order to prevent them from becoming sex workers.


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Geography Teachers Assaulted for Not Allowing Students to Cheat

Geography classrooms are not normally associated with violence, but that is not necessarily the case in Pakistan. Just this week, classrooms at Government National College in Karachi were ransacked and several teachers were beaten after they refused to allow students to cheat at the annual examination of a course on commercial geography. According to Dawn, Pakistan’s premier English-language newspaper, the assault was perpetuated by “political groups of outsiders.” As a result of the attack, teachers at the college organized a boycott of exam-grading duties, complaining that the institution’s officials had not taken adequate precautions to prevent violence. The Sindh Professors and Lecturers’ Association “said that it was the failure on part of the college directorate and the law-enforcement agencies that unscrupulous elements had now started demanding cheating facilities so openly and were giving threats to the lives of teachers and other college staffs.”

Cheating on examinations in Pakistan is so prevalent that it has inspired a minor YouTube genre. One recent video recounts the story of a school headmaster being “beaten by an influential feudal lord for not allowing students to cheat during matriculation examination.”


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New Evidence on the Settlement of Madagascar

A new study of the genetic background of the people of Madagascar sheds light on the settlement of the island. It has long been known that the initial movement of people to Madagascar was relatively recent (1,000 to 1,500 years ago), and that it originated not from the African mainland but rather from the islands of what is now Indonesia. The new study, carried out by a team led by Murray Cox of New Zealand’s Massey University, examined mitrochondrial DNA, providing firm data on maternal lineages. The findings suggest that the first settlement of the island occurred around 830 CE, and involved a small group of women, numbering around thirty individuals. The researchers found no indication of women continuing to move from Insular Southeast Asia to Madagascar after the initial settlement event. Subsequently, however, another migration stream brought women (and men) from Africa to the island.

Many mysteries still surround the peopling of Madagascar. Cox’s dating suggests that the initial settlement occurred during the heyday of the powerful Srivijaya Empire, which controlled the Strait of Malacca and maintained a powerful fleet. But cultural evidence of Srivijaya’s role in the settlement process is lacking. The Empire was Buddhist, with Hindu elements, but religious practices of Indian origin were not established on Madagascar. The indigenous Malagasy language of Madagascar, moreover, is most closely related to the Barito languages of Borneo, not the Malay language spoken in Srivijaya.

Some have suggested that the first settlers could have been members of a tribal population from Borneo sent by Srivijaya, or perhaps by a Malay mercantile network, to establish a local base for food production that could aid their trading activities in the area. Others think that the settlement could have been entirely accidently, resulting from a ship or small fleet blown off-course. It is unlikely that mercantile activities would have directly led to the settlement of the Madagascar. Certainly traders from what is now Indonesia were active at the time in the waters of the western Indian Ocean, but it is thought that few women were involved in the process.




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South Korea Cuts University Tuition

Educational Attainment Map Wikipedia

Educational Attainment Map WikipediaThe Korea Herald announced last week that South Korean Universities would be reducing their tuition by an average of 4.5 percent. Almost all schools cut their fees, some by more than 20 percent. The move was in response to a series of well-organized student protests over the mounting costs of higher education, which were particularly intense last summer. Fee cuts are possible because the South Korean government “set aside 1.75 trillion won for tuition support in 2012 as part of its move to help relax tuition burdens.” Most universities in South Korea rely extensively on such fees, although, at an average level of US$ 8,000, they remain low by U.S. standards.

South Korea has one of the world’s most rigorous educational systems. The desire for a university education is intense, and the competition to get into the best schools can be overwhelming. Political leaders in the country have recently claimed that too many Korean students are opting to pursue higher education. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, President Lee Myung-bak claimed last autumn that, “Reckless entrance into college is bringing huge losses to families and the country alike.” The same article adding that, “Mr. Lee has raised eyebrows, and hackles, by suggesting that fewer people should go to college from a population of 50 million that sustains 3.8 million undergraduate and graduate students.”

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Remarkable Sardinian Statues Reconstructed

Archeologists on the Italian island of Sardinia have completed the painstaking reconstruction of “small yet unique army of life-size stone warriors which were originally destroyed by enemy action in the middle of the first millennium BC.” The statues originally stood guard over the graves of elite warriors, buried in the eighth century BCE. They were produced by members of the indigenous Nuragic culture, a little-known but impressive civilization that dominated Sardinia from the 18th century BCE to the 2nd century CE. The Nuragic culture is best known for its stone tower-fortresses, the nuraghe, sometimes considered Europe’s first castles. The remains of some 7,000 of these structures are still found on the island.

Although Sardinia is the second largest island in the Mediterranean, with a long, distinctive, and interesting history, it has often been ignored by outsiders. Few realize that the Sardinian language is not a dialect of Italian, but rather forms its own branch of the Romance linguistic family. The Sardinian language includes a number of ancient, pre-Indo-European features, which may have been derived from the language of the Nuragic civilization.

As the modern language map shows, not all parts of the island are Sardinian-speaking today. Most people in northern Sardinian speak Corsican, an Italian dialect, and a significant area in the northwest is Catalan-speaking. Standard Italian, of course, is spoken everywhere, and may be gradually replacing the other languages and dialects of the island.

Like Sicily and several regions of northern Italy, Sardinia is constitutionally defined as an “autonomous region with special statute,” allowing it to retain more of its tax receipts and run more of own governmental functions than other parts of Italy. Sardinia does, however, have an active movement pushing for full sovereignty. Its main political party, Independence Republic of Sardinia, is non-violent and social-democratic. It has undergone splits over the past few years, and has not done well in recent elections.


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Cultural Hybridity in New Zealand


A newly released study in New Zealand argues that many English-speaking immigrants to the country are held back by their inability to comprehend the “small talk” that typically takes places in New Zealand workplaces. Such informal conversations, the study indicates, are conducted in a “distinct form of ‘New Zealand English’ … developed from the merging of Maori and European cultures.” It is unclear, however, how much such misunderstandings stem from actual linguistic differences, as New Zealand English is fairly close to British English, from which it developed. Cultural presuppositions seem more important. In the New Zealand workplace, the study contends, self-deprecating humor, informality, and chatting are greatly valued. Such a style is said to derive from the attitudes of both the English settlers and the indigenous Maoris. Employees from Hong Kong and Japan, the study states, have a particularly difficult time adapting to such a cultural milieu.

Maori cultural influences are stronger on New Zealand’s North Island than its South Island. It would be interesting to see if workplace culture differs on the two islands.

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