All posts by sibanez

Fed Up Film Review

My review of Fed Up

In recent years, a number of powerful food documentaries have set out to pull the proverbial wool from our eyes and expose big agriculture and the Monsanto monster for what it is. Despite the glut of information available, however, making sense of the piecemeal data can be confounding. Fed Up, directed by Stephanie Soechtig and narrated by Katie Couric, is a rather cogent contribution despite covering some familiar ground.
Fed Up focuses on childhood obesity and its concomitant illnesses: Type 2 Diabetes and metabolic syndrome. Type 2 Diabetes amongst adolescents has gone from being non-existent in the ’80s to a staggering number of 57,638 cases today. The film follows three teenagers as they struggle to lose weight.
The film does an admirable job of definitively hammering the nail into the coffin of the “eat less, exercise more” myth of weight loss that has permeated public consciousness for so long. The fallacy of “all calories are the same” is conclusively laid to rest here as well, using the example of a soft drink vs. almonds, the fiber in which causes them to be digested qualitatively differently and cause much less of a spike in blood sugar and insulin levels. Similarly to sodas, juices also have no fiber, and the film argues that they’re essentially the same (makes you want to toss your Odwallas, huh?). With that, Fed Up also aims to squarely take on the personal responsibility model of obesity and supplant it by the disease model of drug addiction. “Food addiction is a biological fact,” states one of the many pundits in the film. In the same way that drugs can hijack neural pathways, so can hyper palatable foods (the study of the cocaine-addicted rats who consistently chose sugar water over cocaine is referenced).

So, what is making us fat? Fed Up points the finger at sugar, while also addressing the other co-variables. In 1977, the McGovern Report, strongly cautioned against the consumption of refined sugars. The sugar lobby fought vehemently against these standards, in the end succeeding in their removal from the report. The 1980s saw the rise of America’s obsession with a low-fat diet. The fat, predictably, was replaced with sugar. Since 1977, daily consumption of sugar has doubled. There are currently 600,000 products in the marketplace with sugar in them. The pundits in the movie do bring up a very hotly-contested topic — namely, they argue that a sugar calorie *is* a sugar calorie. Essentially, honey is just as bad as high-fructose corn syrup, they argue. While not exactly scientifically confirmed beyond doubt, this is certainly food for thought. Another fallout of the low-fat fixation: the explosion of the cheese industry. Once all the fat was removed from milk to make it skim, the dairy industry, in a stroke of Machiavellian genius, ramped up its cheese production, and spun cheese into the new “protein food,” causing a huge spike in cheese sales.
Fed Up argues that while the food lobby is incredibly powerful, the sugar lobby is especially so because with the creation of cheap additives like high-fructose corn syrup, the companies had a vested interested in keeping America (and especially its children) sugar-addicted. One of the scariest statistics in the film (and there were quite a few) is that we should be consuming between 6-9 teaspoons of sugar a day, and most American easily eat 4 times that amount. When the World Health Organization released its 916 TRS report in 2002, it unequivocally identified sugar as the cause of most metabolic diseases and set the limit to 10 percent of calories as sugar consumption. By the time (surprise) the food lobby was done with this, the WHO was forced to amend that to the alarmingly high 25 percent.
Fed Up also thoroughly explores the inherent conflict of interest facing the USDA: they must safeguard public health yet promote the food industry. It also delves into the bigger structural forces at play: how budget cuts in the National School Lunch Program during the Reagan era caused most school cafeterias to purchase their meals from fast food companies and not prepare food themselves. Fed Up takes a hard look at Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign, which while well-intentioned, just did not have the teeth to stand up to the food company lobby which quickly cried out with reductionistic “Nanny State” objections. By focusing mostly on one half of the problem, exercise, it largely ignored just how badly the deck is stacked against children’s ability to make sensible food choices. As one speaker put it rather succinctly, “Junk is still junk even if it is less junky.” The companies paid only so much lip service to improving their products, the film argues. Junk food marketing, especially to children, remained egregiously non-curtailed.
Not every data point in Fed Up is ground-breaking, but its focus on sugar certainly is. Ultimately, the film argues that as long as we allow private profit to be in charge of public health, we are in trouble, but knowing the facts about what one is eating is a sure first step in revolutionizing food industry and our role in it.

Feature: Baltimore Tattoo Convention 2014

My coverage and photos from the Baltimore Tattoo Convention 2014

This was my third year of covering the Baltimore Tattoo Convention, yet the charm has yet to wear off on Charm City’s colorful display. A celebration of all things body art, it always remains str-ink-ingly communal in its spirit. Tattoos have long moved past the “freak factor” to make an indelible mark on the mainstream and become a very public, yet intensely personal form of self-expression. It’s art on a mobile canvass. The artists who create them and the people who commission them come from all walks of life and have an equally broad array of reasons for getting them.

Tattoo conventions are truly communal and inclusive. They present opportunities for people to show support for their favorite artists by getting tattooed there or entering competitions. For others, it’s a chance to meet and see the work of artists they would otherwise not be able to know about.
I had a chance to chat with James Haun of Fatty’s Custom Tattooz, whose area was honorably dubbed the “one stop metal shop,” for creating the most metal of tattoos known to man and for being in a ridiculously good black metal band appropriately named The Oracle (and playing with Corrosion of Conformity tonight!). This year, James did a Most Metal Tattoo Contest 2.0, asking for submissions on Facebook for “most metal tattoos” and picking a winner who received a free tattoo at the convention. The winner was Nancy Dove-Smith, a long-time James supporter, who wanted a “bleeding goat’s head, chopped off, tongue hanging out, eyes rolled back in its head with deer antlers with raw skin/meat hanging off the points, impaled on an and upside down cross.” James, ever so magnanimous, decided to give the goat not only deer antlers but goat horns as well. The Dark Lord was pleased with this offering.


Anne-Marie Slaughter: Focus on Care at Home and Abroad

My piece published here
Also here
Renowned scholar and President of the New America Foundation, Anne-Marie Slaughter, visited SIS as part of the Dean’s Discussion lecture series. Titling her talk, Revaluing Care, at Home and Abroad, Dr. Slaughter spoke about a broad range of issues, domestic and foreign. The revaluing of care is a reference to a feminist theory called ethics of care; one of the relevant tenets of that theory is valuing actions in the private sphere equally to those in the public one.
In 2012, Anne-Marie Slaughter published an article in The Atlantic entitled Why Women Still Can’t Have It All; she wryly remarked that, to this day, this article keeps being referenced as the article amongst the myriad of pieces she has authored in her 20+ year academic career.  In outlining the evolution of her thinking since the article was published, Dr. Slaughter said, “I don’t think the problem alone is discrimination against women, although that is not to dismiss that as an ongoing problem facing women, especially low-income women.” The severe underrepresentation of women in positions of power is, in a sense, baffling considering the much-rosier statistics of women graduating college. “The deeper problem that unites the many facets of the symptoms we see is less about women per se and more about not valuing the kind of work that women have traditionally done. We don’t value care; we value competition and consumption.”

“There is a deep unconscious bias on the part of men in the academy. We need more women in senior professorial positions. So much of advancing in the academic requires being selfish and saying ‘no’ as what is valued are big ideas and a body of scholarship. This often works against women who mentor students and are asked to contribute to the community.”

Dr. Slaughter suggested that until we are able to value care as much as earning an income and until we learn to support care-givers, not much headway can be made. She has been using Twitter (and the hashtags #wherearethewomen and #foreignpolicyinterrupted) actively to raise the profile of women in international affairs. “There is a deep unconscious bias on the part of men in the academy. We need more women in senior professorial positions. So much of advancing in the academic requires being selfish and saying ‘no’ as what is valued are big ideas and a body of scholarship. This often works against women who mentor students and are asked to contribute to the community.”
Taking her care vs. competition framework to a grander scale, Dr. Slaughter said, “We should place an equal weight on human interest and government interest. What happens to people in a country should be of as much value as what happens politically.” Referring to the ongoing civil war, she stated, “I have been very passionate about the need to do more in Syria.” Invoking the principle of “responsibility to protect” is relevant in the case of Syria which is committing crimes against humanity on its own territory. “Syria is the Rwanda of our time. An estimated 150,000 people have already died in this conflict; the entire region surrounding Syria has become majorly destabilized.” Dr. Slaughter expressed outrage and dismay that Assad is still allowed to operate from the air, a capacity she feels could have easily and swiftly been disabled by intervention. “I wish the President had used force as soon as the chemical weapons use by Assad, with the approval of international bodies.” Talking about Russia, Dr. Slaughter felt that Putin is being given way too much power by the second-Cold-Water rhetoric. “His approval ratings are not that great at home,” she added.
You can watch a video of her talk here.

BYT Spring/Summer 2014 Film Guide

The dynamic Georgetown alum duo of Mike Cahill and Brit Marling is back with the follow up to their brilliant Another Earth, I Origins. Expect more of a thinking man’s sci-fi, where science actually helps us learn more about being human. In I Origins, a molecular biologist (Michael Pitt of The Dreamers fame) and his lab partner are experimenting with giving non-functioning-eyed organisms sight. The eyes/Is have it.
Sexy Beast–in one word, unnerving. Director Jonathan Glazer is back after 10 years with similarly unsettling matter with Under The Skin, “a horror with a heart,” starring Scarlett Johansson as an impossibly mesmerizing and prepossessing alien with a British accent. “You don’t really want to wake up, do you?” I am sure most audience members would agree.
Director Sydney Freeland filmed Drunktown’s Finest near the Navajo Reservation she was raised in. It’s a film about young Native Americans, with some of the themes you would anticipate–alcoholism, poverty, search for an identity, finding one’s place. Yet, there is a certain levity that links the stories of Sick Boy, who has enlisted in the Army to support his family but is at risk of getting booted before basic training, Nizhoni, who was adopted by white parents and spent most of her adolescence in faraway private schools, and Felixia, a pre-op transsexual who secretly turns tricks while living with her tradition-minded grandparents on the reservation.

The Global War on Tribal Islam: An Interview with Akbar Ahmed

Originally published here
Also here
“After 9/11, I dedicated myself to creating bridges of understanding between different cultures and faiths. The relationship between the West and the Muslim world seemed to especially be fraught by much misunderstanding,” says Professor Akbar Ahmed. For his latest book, The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam, Professor Ahmed focused on tribal areas: The peripheral areas between states and on the communities living between borders.  Ahmed provides an exhaustive survey of tribal cultures across North and East Africa, Yemen, and Southwest and Southeast Asia. The title of the book is a metaphor; the thistle was how Leo Tolstoy described the tribes living in the Caucuses in his book Hadji Murad because, like the flower, they were thorny and prickly. The drone, on the other hand, is a symbol of globalism and the epitome of technological advancement.
In The Thistle and The Drone, Ahmed explores in-depth tribal history, culture, code of honor, and tribal Islam, an Islam that is very different in nature from more mainstream branches of the religion. Drawing on 40 case studies that Ahmed and his team of student researchers interviewed and analyzed, Ahmed couches his discussion in the dichotomy between center and periphery.

The first main finding of the book is that terror towards the West is very much perpetrated by tribal people. 90% of the 9/11 hijackers were from Yemeni tribes. The rhetoric used by Osama bin Laden and many others has always been very tribal in nature, Ahmed suggests.  Thus, he says, “we [the West] are fighting one kind of war when it is an entirely different kind of war to them.” The second major point is that Ahmed believes that there is a way that the tribes can be pacified via peaceful and diplomatic means, citing the example of the Aceh in Indonesia or the relations between Scotland and England.
The central argument of The Thistle and the Drone is that “war on terror” is ultimately a war between a central government and a periphery. In Ahmed’s view, the “center” is nearly always in direct conflict with the tribal societies—a war of the state vs. its domestic antagonists, if you will. These tribal societies are often fighting against modernity or increasing encroachment upon their territories and way of life– the Rohingya in Burma, the Tuareg in Mali, or the Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Pakistan, for example. “These tribes already have turbulent relations with the central government, which has failed to bring them into the nation, and the war on terror has only exacerbated this tension.” In addition, their own fellow Muslims often look upon the tribespeople as backward as well. This central vs. periphery tension is something Ahmed sees as fixable but not through the use of drones in the war on terror. “Drones have in essence become a symbol of Western arrogance. A far cry from the surgical-precision weapons they are described as, they have devastating moral costs. We often don’t hear about what it is like to live in an area where drones are buzzing overhead all night long—how often the women and the children suffer…”

Particle Fever Movie Review

My review of Particle Fever

Particle Fever epitomizes the wide-eyed enthusiasm and awe of a “heck yeah, science!” sentiment we can all get behind. The documentary is a breathtaking look at one of the most significant scientific experiments in recent times and one that captured the public’s imagination like few others. It focuses on nothing less than the search for answers about the nature of our universe by looking for the smallest particle in the microverse, the elementary particle called the Higgs boson/a.k.a. “the God particle.”
Directed by Mark Levinson, a physicist, and produced by another physicist involved in the experiment, David Kaplan, Particle Fever makes grasp-defyingly big concepts such as what are the origins of the universe and how is matter created accessible to the viewer. Rather than relying on clever infographics, Particle Fever makes us understand *why* this experiment matters and makes the scientists’ mixed emotions of giddiness and apprehension feel palpable.

The film introduces us to several scientists at the CERN lab in Switzerland, where the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator, resides. CERN’s “accelerating science,” motto is quite fitting. As one of the physicists in the film points out, “You know it’s big, but not until you see it do you actually understand how big.” The collider is the world’s largest machine, a 17-mile ring of magnets designed to crash particles into each other at unbelievable speeds. There is a network of 100,000 computers world-wide just to handle the data; 10,000 scientists from more than 100 countries worked on the project, including people from “enemy” countries like Pakistan and India.
The fact that there is a veritable mystery at the core of the film makes the suspense and awe all the more understandable. The search for the presence and size of Higgs boson matters tremendously because it would prove or disprove the so-called Standard Model, a theory about the nature of the universe, that could only, oh, be the end of physics as we know it. No big deal. Whether supersymmetry or multi-verse ends up being the correct model has huge implications, and as one of the scientists puts it, this could mean that he has literally wasted his entire life studying something that may not even be true. Talk about momentous!
Despite its colossal subject matter, Particle Fever remains profoundly human, from the trepidations and child-like excitement of the scientists who have spent decades working on this, to the sight of Peter Higgs crying upon the discovery of something he had only theorized about. In other words, it spans the universe from the smallest to the largest. Higgs boson, the smallest particle known to exist, is also perhaps sort of misguidedly called the “God particle,” because it is the essential building block of the universe. How apropos that to understand the grandest of the grand, one has to find the tiniest of the tiny.