Sunday 13 January 2002

Someone who could care less about blogging

Pudding-chan

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Rules To Live By

“Before anyone’s pants come off, all women should assume they’ll get pregnant and all men should assume the woman will want to keep the baby. Everyone can work backward from there.” (Carolyn Hax, Tell Me About It : Lying, Sulking and Getting Fat and 56 Other Things Not to Do While Looking for Love)

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Monday 14 January 2002

There is no moral clarity in war

In a Jerusalem Post op-ed piece (reprinted in the Sydney Morning Herald) in which he praises the “moral clarity” of America’s war against terrorism, Benjamin Netanyahu writes:

No grievance, whether real or imagined, can ever justify terrorism. Its deliberate and systematic targeting of civilians, as opposed to the unintentional civilian casualties that are the tragic consequences of justified warfare, must be seen - like Nazism - as an unmitigated evil.

This argument never ceases to amaze me. British bombing raids on Germany during World War II were directed specifically at civilian targets. And although the American public was outraged by Japanese air attacks on Chinese cities, the United States put aside any claims to moral clarity when, in the last months of the Pacific War, the Twentieth Air Force abandoned precision bombing against military targets and launched the firebombing campaign against Japan.

Tokyo after the March 9-10 raid

In the first raid—on the night of March 9-10, 1945—napalm-based incendiaries killed an estimated 100,000 civilians. According to the most authoratitive source, Kenneth Werrell’s Blankets of Fire, during the course of the campaign B-29s destroyed 178 square miles (43 percent) of the built-up areas of sixty-six cities (including Hiroshima and Nagasaki). The United States Strategic Bombing Survey estimated that 330,000 people were killed, 476,000 injured, 2.5 million buildings destroyed, and 8.5 million made homeless.

I’m not suggesting that the USAAF lacked justification in bombing Japanese cities. I’ve yet to encounter a convincing alternative strategy that could have ended the war with fewer casualties, military or civilian. But only a lawyer, a politician, a hypocrite, or a fool would suggest that war affords any opportunities for moral clarity. Netanyahu’s statement is particularly egregious, given the Israeli government’s tacit support for illegal settlements on the West Bank.

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Thursday 17 January 2002

Journalism and trust

Flipping back and forth between Doc and Tom as they discuss the relationship between blogging and journalism made me conscious of certain beliefs I absorbed from my parents. I recall asking my mother in my late twenties whether she’d been disappointed when I chose to become a photographer rather than a doctor, a scientist, or an architect. Not at all, she replied, the only way you could possibly have disappointed me is if you’d become a lawyer.

For my father, it was journalists. It’s too late to ask him why he held them in such low regard but, as far as dad was concerned, if you scraped the absolute bottom of the barrel, all you’d wind up with was a spoonful of journalism.

Although, to their credit, neither Doc nor Tom frame their arguments purely in terms of American journalism, I wonder whether they take journalists more seriously than I do because American journalism is—to put it bluntly—superior to the Australian strain that my father deplored and I lost interest in a long time ago.

It’s not surprising then that I find myself at odds with Dan Gilmore when he writes:

Now, I don’t necessarily trust what I see online. I have more skepticism about what I see online from a random source than what I read in an article from a traditional publication that employs professional reporters and editors. We’re developing hierarchies of trust, and we’re learning that we need to check things out for ourselves.

Well, as Mandy Rice-Davies famously remarked, he would say that, wouldn’t he. For as far as I can figure, the recipe for an awful lot of journalism consists of equal portions of:

  • Recycled press releases
  • Manufactured outrage
  • Wafer-thin understanding of the subject under discussion

If you don’t agree, recall an article you’ve read or a TV news segment you’ve seen about a subject you know intimately. Then grade it for accuracy. More often than not, you’ll realize that the piece was flawed by at least a few minor errors, possibly a major gaffe. Journalists are, for the most part, generalists. They know bits and pieces about lots of different things but hardly anything at any depth. And you find yourself thinking, somehow that just didn’t hit the mark.

Unlike Dan Gilmore, I have more skepticism about what I read in a traditional publication than what I read online—not from a random source but from someone who has built a reputation for accuracy and reliability.

I was a photographer for 20 years. I know a lot about photography. Sites like Phil Askey’s Digital Photography Review or robgalbraith.com leave “traditional” photography magazines in the dust. How would you even dream of comparing Askey’s and Galbraith’s astonishingly rigorous reviews with the farcical Which is better, Nikon or Canon? Well, they’re both big advertisers, so they’re both fantastic approach of the major magazines?

I’ve used Macs and PCs for 17 years. I know a reasonable amount about computers. Why would I bother with PC World or Computer Shopper—whether in print or online—when there’s Tom’s Hardware Guide, Macintouch, and Dan’s Data? Well, Dan (Gilmore), I wouldn’t.

So, after all that, I find that I’m my father’s son.

What else is new?

[Later] I realized that I might feel differently about this if I lived in Zimbabwe. <edited />

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Friday 18 January 2002

Talented practioners of a new discipline

Walt Whitman wasn’t part of the curriculum at the parochial high school I attended in Sydney a long time ago. Our attention was directed instead towards the English poets and a token Australian or two. So it was a surprise and a delight to be introduced to Whitman through the poem that closed Doc’s entry on Wednesday. What a gift, I thought, to be pointed in Whitman’s direction; I immediately recalled an essay written by John Szarkowski twenty years ago on the work of the French photographer, Eugène Atget.

Eugene Atget, Parc de Sceaux, 1925Atget died in Paris in 1927, having spent the previous thirty years assembling a comprehensive catalog of French architecture, landscape, and everyday life. In that time, he exposed perhaps ten thousand glass negatives—as Szarkowski writes in another essay, Atget “was not progressive, but worked patiently with techniques that were obsolescent when he adopted them, and very nearly anachronistic by the time of his death.” Nor was his work appreciated by his fellow countrymen. The American photographer Berenice Abbott rescued an enormous cache of his negatives from neglect and possible destruction. Through her efforts and Szarkowski’s, Atget’s reputation was secured.

Doc’s essay is titled, It’s the Writing, Geniuses. Doc’s genius lies in the way he builds his argument carefully and concludes it gracefully by pointing to Whitman’s poem. “Look!” he seems to be saying. “This will reward your attention.” I suggest that accomplished bloggers, Doc included, are practising a discipline that Szarkowski defines here:

As a way of beginning, one might compare the art of photography to the act of pointing. All of us, even the best-mannered of us, occasionally point, and it must be true that some of us point to more interesting facts, events, circumstances, and configurations than others. It is not difficult to imagine a person—a mute Virgil of the corporeal world—who might elevate the act of pointing to a creative plane, a person who would lead us through the fields and streets and indicate a sequence of phenomena and aspects that would be beautiful, humorous, morally instructive, cleverly ordered, mysterious, or astonishing, once brought to our attention, but that had been unseen before, or seen dumbly, without comprehension. This talented practitioner of the new discipline (the discipline a cross, perhaps, between theater and criticism) would perform with a special grace, sense of timing, narrative sweep, and wit, thus endowing the act not merely with intelligence, but with that quality of formal rigor that identifies a work of art, so that we would be uncertain, when remembering the adventure of the tour, how much of our pleasure and sense of enlargement had come from the things pointed to and how much from a pattern created by the pointer.

I’m convinced the best blogs owe much of their power to such an art of graceful pointing. And, that though they may not look like journalism, they sure as hell feel like art.

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Sunday 20 January 2002

Do not they bleed?

A passionate essay titled Warmongering at Yourish.com. Earlier in the week I wrote that “it’s difficult to see how a state can commit its armed forces to a ‘war against terrorism’ while denying that captured enemy soldiers are prisoners-of-war.” However, seeing a discussion between two “experts” on a current affairs program a couple of nights ago swayed my opinion against captured Taliban and Al-Quaeda fighters being classified as prisoners-of-war according to the 1949 Geneva Convention.

They weren’t in uniform, they didn’t wear badges of rank, there wasn’t any legally constituted chain of command… if anything, they most resemble mercenaries who, along with spies, are specifically excluded from the provisions of the Geneva Convention. This is crucial for the US Government because prisoners-of-war are entitled to be repatriated to their own countries after the cessation of hostilities. The idea of punishing Al-Quaeda fighters with a slap on the wrist then sending them back to Afghanistan is laughable.

So I agree with Meryl that “terrorists get fewer rights” and that “anyone who thinks a single American POW would have been treated well [by the Taliban] is lying to us and to himself.” But she concludes with the statement: “the terrorists lost their claim to humanity long ago. If you ask me, human rights are for humans.” From where I stand, that looks like the top of a long and slippery slope. The finest soldiers balance ruthlessness with compassion.

I’ve spent the last couple of years doing research for a book about, in part, the Pacific War. When I read Meryl’s final sentence I recalled a message that Admiral Nimitz sent out to the US Pacific Fleet immediately upon the conclusion of the war:

It is incumbent on all officers to conduct themselves with dignity and decorum in their treatment of the Japanese and their public utterances in connec­tion with the Japanese. The Japanese are still the same nation which initiated the war by a treacherous attack on the Pacific Fleet and which has subjected our brothers in arms who became prisoners to torture, starvation and murder. However, the use of insulting epithets in connection with the Japanese as a race or as individuals does not now become the officers of the United States Navy. Officers in the Pacific Fleet will take steps to require of all personnel under their command a high standard of conduct in this matter. Neither fa­miliarity nor abuse and vituperation should be permitted.

Admittedly, Nimitz was referring to verbal abuse, but the subtext of his message was clear: despite the inhuman behavior of the Japanese towards American prisoners-of-war, it was the duty of American personnel to treat the Japanese humanely.

In Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire, from which I’ve quoted Nimitz’s order, Richard B. Frank writes that “this message also proved to reflect on the character of President Truman. Of the dozens of messages and hundreds of operational reports he received from theater commanders, he took particular care to see that this message was culled out and preserved separately in his papers.”

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Flapjacks

Since I am not an accomplished cook I stick to a few tried and tested recipes. Here’s a foolproof one for flapjacks, from The Whole Wheat Heart of Yasha Aginsky (by Yasha Aginsky).

3 farm fresh eggs
1½ cups of milk
½ teaspoon of sea salt
1/3 cup of sunflower oil
3 tablespoons of raw honey
2 cups of whole wheat flour

Blend everything together and chill until ready to use. (The batter will keep in a jar in the refrigerator for a week.) Bake on a hot, oiled griddle until browned on both sides. Serve topped with raw honey, pure maple syrup, or a mixture of yoghurt and stewed apricots. (Natsuko likes a topping of fresh fruit salad and maple syrup.)

The recipe works perfectly well with normal eggs, salt, and honey too. Unfortunately the cookbook is out of print; though at the time of this post there was a secondhand copy at Powell’s in Portland, OR.

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Friday 25 January 2002

Forgot to use a condom? Not on the Pill?

“I don’t want to get pregnant. A friend told me if you scoop yourself out with a coffee spoon when you’ve finished you’ll be safe. So I always carry a few disposable coffee spoons around with me,” a 17-year-old [Japanese] girl says as she waves around one of her precious utensils.

(MDN WaiWai)

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eczematic, beermeister extraordinaire

Cooper's beer sign

. The pub across the street from the New Wok in Town where I ate dinner tonight has this beautiful glowing Cooper’s sign in one of its windows. I was sitting in the restaurant drinking a Cascade Premium Light. I’d actually ordered Cascade Premium Lager but the new waitress brought me the light beer by mistake and it didn’t seem important enough to make a fuss about. As soon as I looked up and saw the sign, I wished I’d ordered a Coopers Best Extra Stout instead. Except that the New Wok doesn’t stock Coopers.

All of which is just a preamble to writing about this terrific beer site I discovered: RateBeer.com. (Over 44,000 real user ratings of more than 11,600 beers!) The range of beers rated is astonishing and, while the quality of the ratings obviously varies, the knowledge and wit of some users is impressive. I looked up Cascade Premium Light and found this gem by eczematic:

Drank some of this last night when we ran out of anything else. Better than some light beers, having a reasonably pleasant hop aroma, and some cleanish barley grain in the body, but I still get the feeling that I’m a victim of some practical joke where the brewers piss into green bottles and see how many people will buy it because it says “premium”. I think the accelerating drunkenness versus sobering over time graph will show that this stuff actually sends you backwards - it’s the antimatter of the beer cosmos, and should be annihilated.

He gave it a score of 1.4 out of 5. He rates Coopers Best Extra Stout at 4.5. As a point of reference, he gives Anchor Steam Beer a score of 3.6, describing it as the best American beer he’s had. When I checked eczematic’s user profile I discovered he’s only been a member since September 25 last year and in exactly four months he’s rated 552 beers! Each member profile page shows a distribution graph for all the beers rated and there’s a spike in eczematic’s down at 0.5. He’s not xenophobic—his worst ten includes four Australian beers but, I’m pleased to say, Schlitz Red Bull and Schlitz Ice occupy the two spots at the absolute bottom of the barrel. I’ve tasted some wonderful American beer over the years but nothing can erase the memory of two mouthfuls of Schlitz I drank in Vicksburg, MS in 1981.

The really good news is that eczematic lives in Sydney. I’m going to suggest to Garth that the three of us get together and talk drink beer. We might even be able to talk eczematic into starting a beer blog—though given his strenuous tasting schedule he may not have the time.

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Saturday 26 January 2002

Build or demolish

While I was sleeping, the Dave/WinerLog contretemps boiled over at Burningbird. “Should I comment?” I asked myself. After all, there seems little point in picking at the scab of a wound that might best be left to heal (or fester) on its own. On the other hand, the synergy between these three sites gave me a much-appreciated boost at the beginning of my blogging career. It didn’t feel right to ignore the issue so I went with my gut.

I am by nature a bit of a smartarse. At school I was in constant trouble for making “inappropriate remarks” in class. Because it was a Catholic school, many of my witty ripostes sprang from what I saw as the gap between theory and practice, between the dogmas the Marist Brothers espoused and their everyday behavior. It strikes me that WinerLog arises from a similar impulse. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if one or two of the Wiener Boys were recovering Catholics.

On arriving at Sydney University I found, to my great delight, that my talent was as widely appreciated there as it had been by my high school classmates. I only learned upon entering adult society that “adolescent” and “undergraduate” are used to describe a particular kind of humor. As I grew older and began to curb this instinct, I discovered that I got along with all kinds of people, many of whom would have been disconcerted or even offended by the former me. As one of my close friends put it last New Year’s Eve, “You’re a lot less angry than you were when I met you in 1979.”

It’s a widely remarked aspect of online life that people write things in email they’d never dream of saying face-to-face. I suspect that the immediacy of blogging also encourages the expression of thoughtless or malicious remarks. Dave seems to be making the same point here.

Some history: I posted some (what I thought were) lighthearted comments about disappearing items from Scripting News; Dave ripped me a new arsehole in a post that quickly disappeared; WinerLog picked up on it; I wrote another post about how tough it must be to have to listen to people criticizing you with the tools you built. Finally — and this is the really important part — Dave did something incredibly sweet and generous. He posted an item about my site looking beautiful that drove a ton of traffic here; an act that opened up a space for me in the blogging firmament, pointed me towards finding a better tone for my blog, and taught me the importance of displaying grace under pressure.

Burningbird notes the value of the Roman belief that “one’s ultimate enemy is, in actuality, one’s most powerful friend. Your enemy spends more time thinking about you than your friends do. Your enemy points out all your weaknesses, allowing you to learn how to become stronger. Your enemy will be honest when others, fearing to offend, will lie.” She’s right; though I suspect that this, as with a lot of advice, is easier to dispense than to swallow.

In a sense, Dave created an uncomfortable situation for himself by taking on two seemingly incompatible roles: building software as well as writing essays and a weblog. Most people do one or the other. Dan Bricklin also does both, but — for me anyway — his weblog lacks the spark of Dave’s. I believe that other CEOs will follow in their footsteps, finding an authentic voice with which to replace the bland platitudes of their marketing departments and PR flacks. Those who succeed will owe a debt of gratitude to Dave.

Burningbird may also be correct in telling Dave that he needs a sense of humor. But even if Dave wasn’t “a little irony-challenged” as Brent Simmons pointed out in a Wired profile, that’s still a really hard ask. The editor of the Sydney Morning Herald might print articles or letters critical of the newspaper’s stance on a given issue, but he doesn’t have to devote space every day to a column whose sole purpose is to draw attention to real or imagined deficiencies in his business and personal behavior.

Irony is certainly a sharper, more entertaining tool than sarcasm but, like any other tool, irony rapidly becomes blunted with overuse. That, ultimately, is the problem with WinerLog. There’s no light to temper the shade. Though I’ll probably continue to read it. Partly from a libertarian conviction that every voice, no matter how offensive, should be heard (listening is obviously a matter of individual choice); mainly because it gives me an occasional chuckle by appealing to the less generous side of my nature.

Dave, on the other hand, might be inconsistent or occasionally obnoxious but he’s possessed of a huge heart. In giving me a tool and a space in which to use it, he’s supported and encouraged my desire to do what I love most: to write. And he’s made me more aware that building things takes a lot more skill, love, energy, passion, and commitment than demolishing them.

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Sunday 27 January 2002

Let’s practice kanji

Chris Jennings, whose Tokyo Tales blog has been nominated for a Bloggie, also runs The Kanji SITE . Though “primarily aimed at people who are studying for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test,” The Kanji SITE is a first-rate resource for anyone who wants to improve their kanji reading skills. The random testing function is more fun than solitaire.

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Monday 28 January 2002

Chinese-English translations

Doc’s entry Raising the Red Flag reminded me of an experience I had in Beijing in 1980. Working with a Chinese photographer, Mr Hu, I was photographing Ming and Qing dynasty scrolls in the Imperial Museum (located in the Forbidden Palace where much of Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor was filmed). This was at the tail end of the Cultural Revolution and everyone was still wearing Mao suits—although the high level Party functionaries whom I occasionally met must have bought their Mao suits at Versace or Ermenegildo Zegna.

I was only able to communicate with Mr Hu through a translator, Miss Feng, who was an expert in technical translation. She spoke flawless English and, to assist her with any specialized words, she had a Chinese-English/English-Chinese technical dictionary.

Since the electrical voltage used to fluctuate wildly during the course of the day— modifying the color temperature of our tungsten photo lights—we were forced to take regular breaks while waiting for it to stabilize. A large analog voltmeter mounted on the wall enabled us to monitor the voltage. (One morning, when I asked Mr Hu why the voltage had held rock-steady at 220V for two hours, he told me that the power authority had given priority to the museum because the Yugoslav President was visiting.)

But this morning the voltage was down to 212V and we were taking another enforced break. I saw Miss Feng’s dictionary on a table, picked it up, and began to idly flick through the pages. As I’d expected there were sections on such subjects as marine biology, aeronautical engineering, orthopedic surgery, and of course photography. I amused myself for a while by looking up the Chinese characters for “aperture,” “shutter-speed,” and “developer.”

Then, turning to the front of the dictionary, I found a section of Chinese political phrases and their English equivalents. “Capitalist running dog.” “US hegemony.” “Imperialist lackey.” I’d always assumed that these terms had been coined by Western journalists as a way of sending up Chinese political speech. But here they were, in print. This was how the Chinese actually thought and spoke. Or some of them at least.

Suddenly I felt a presence behind me and turned to find Ms Feng. I was embarrassed to be caught reading her dictionary without having asked permission.

“This dictionary is very interesting, Miss Feng,” was all I could think to say as I handed it back.

“Yes, Mr Delacour,” she replied. “And some parts of it are more interesting than others.”

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Tuesday 29 January 2002

Older is better

Jorn Barger has updated his Bible translations comparison page. My favorite: John 9:24-25 from the King James Version:

24 Then again called they the man that was blind, and said unto him, Give God the praise: we know that this man is a sinner.
25 He answered and said, Whether he be a sinner or no, I know not: one thing I know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see.

And from the New Revised Standard Version:

24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.”
25 He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”

These verses form a postscript at the end of Martin Scorcese’s Raging Bull. Paul Schrader, the film’s scriptwriter, says about the quotation:

That’s purely Marty. I had no idea it was going to be there, and when I saw it I was absolutely baffled. I don’t think it’s true of La Motta either in real life or in the movie; I think he’s still the same dumb lug at the end as he is at the beginning, and I think Marty’s just imposing salvation on his subject by fiat. I’ve never really got from him a terribly credible reason for why he did it; he just seemed to feel that it was right.

The difference between a Calvinist and a Catholic upbringing, I guess. I loved seeing that quotation as the music from Cavalleria Rusticana swelled up in the background. But then I always was a sucker for redemption.

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Oh, baby

Be My Baby : How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts, and Madness, or My Life As a Fabulous Ronette I wasn’t the slightest bit surprised to learn from Stephanie Zacharek’s glorious Salon essay that the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson and I share the same “all-time favorite song.”

The RonettesBe My Baby.

Written by Jeff Barry & Ellie Greenwich with Phil Spector; recorded in July 1963 at Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles; produced by Phil Spector; engineered by Larry Levine; lead vocalist Ronnie Bennett (soon to be Ronnie Spector), backing vocals by Estelle Bennett and Nedra Talley.

“He didn’t care,” says Sonny Bono of Phil Spector in a BBC documentary. “He broke all the rules when he recorded then because he was the star, his song was the star, and the sound was the star. The artist was a secondary item.” Until he met Ronnie Bennett. Until together they created Be My Baby.

2:40 of transcendental pop perfection.

You hear it in those orchestral interludes that feel like caresses; in the assertive clacking of those castanets, a symbol of every exotic danger this exquisite woman poses; in the stark drumbeat that opens the song, like a heartbeat isolated from all the other sounds (breathing, hiccups, grunts) that a human body makes in the course of a lifetime, and held up high as the greatest one. The sound Phil Spector gave Ronnie and the Ronettes is lush but not heavy; a queen’s mantle made with something that must have been like love, by one cat who sure knew how to sew.

Reviewed by one babe who sure knows how to write. This is criticism of the highest order: fearless in its enthusiasm, inspired by a deep love and respect for its subjects, underpinned by a profound understanding of the dynamics of male-female relationships. Psychology, symbology, musicology, anthropology, and pathology. In 2,256 words Stepanie Zacharek nails it down flat.

Back to Mono lapel badgeIf you’re a fan, like me, you’ll want to track down a copy of Ronnie Spector’s book: Be My Baby : How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts, and Madness, or My Life As a Fabulous Ronette. It was out of print when I bought mine a few years ago but abebooks.com currently has 145 copies listed. Foreword by Cher. Introduction by Billy Joel.

Even if you’re not obsessed, you still need to buy Back to Mono (1958-1969) , a boxed set of Phil Spector’s greatest hits. 60 songs cut between 1958 and 1969 on three CDs. Plus a bonus CD—the Yuletide special, A Christmas Gift for You . A lavishly illustrated booklet that includes Tom Wolfe’s classic profile, The First Tycoon of Teen. And… a “Back to MONO” lapel badge. I wear mine nearly every day.

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Thursday 31 January 2002

A kiss is just a kiss?

The Obvious points to a poignant item by Oblivio about his failure to count accurately the number of women he’s slept with. As an aside he writes:

“I’ve never been one for casual sex—casual kissing, perhaps, but not casual sex. So again it would seem that the MIAs are probably all women who at one time I really liked and may have even gone out for a few weeks before realizing it wouldn’t work, or vice versa.”

Is kissing more casual, less intimate than sex? Prostitutes generally don’t think so, a kiss being the one intimacy that is refused even the most regular of clients. In Jean-Luc Godard ‘s short film, Anticipation, ou l’an 2000 , made in 1966,�a soldier of the Sovietoamerican army is sent for treatment for sexual deprivation. Although the first prostitute, who represents “physical love” does not excite him, the second prostitute, “spiritual love,” arouses his passion.

As James Monaco writes , “together they invent the kiss, using the one part of the body which can both speak and make love. The screen bursts into full color, and the ubiquitous p.a. system announces that the couple�is dangerous because ‘they are making love, progress, and conversation—all at the same time.’”

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© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour