Tag Archives: Toni Tileva

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.

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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.
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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

The Sectarian Myth: Iraq Ambassador Lukman Faily Speaks On The Situation In Iraq

My article
“The reality in Iraq is very different from that portrayed in the international media,” affirmed the Iraq Ambassador to the United States Lukman Faily in a talk at American University on February 18th. The focus on violence and the identification of sectarianism as the root cause of Iraq’s violence creates what he called a “sectarian meta-narrative,” that is far too simplistic of a paradigm and one that has plagued not just Western media portrayal of the region but also Arab media rhetoric as well. “It is easier to define a country in binary terms; to find simple, sellable elements to hone in on in the media. Violence has long stopped being sectarian in nature since about 2006-2007.” Ambassador Faily defied all the conventions of a typical “ambassador speech,” electing to speak frankly on the many misconceptions surrounding Iraq’s democratic transformation.
“Dictatorship changes the fabric of society.” Upon my request to further expound on this, the Ambassador stated that, “the longer and more ruthless the dictatorship, the longer it takes to shake off that coat, if you will. The state is there for the needs of the dictator so the people no longer associate themselves with the state. In a sense, people dislodge themselves from the state, which is why, for example, we saw the looters when the regime collapsed. The years under Saddam were detrimental to the Iraqi society. People began to associate the sanctions with the US because they were so removed from the state as a concept.” Psychologically, he explained, there is a need for cleansing after living so long in those circumstances. “Dictatorship demoralizes people, it makes for a more inward-looking, self-centered community and the longer it lasts, the more adverse the effect.” Placing Iraq more in the context of the Arab Spring movement, Ambassador Faily described the mindset of the people as “I want change, but I am not sure what the new social contract should look like.” People are after a new social contract, he suggested, but the weak civil society institutions in place, and the total dearth of NGOs and other community organizations, mean that the foundations are still not there and the role of the citizens is still unclear. “This is a young democracy and more people participation is needed.” This also necessitates the need not just political reforms but for social and economic ones as well.

Iraq Ambassador to the United States Lukman Faily and AU Professor Dr. Abdul Aziz Said in a talk at American University on February 18th. ©Toni Ti

Ambassador Faily then offered a very theoretically-rich construct to apply to the state of Iraq—the dichotomy of nation building vs. state building. “People often conflate nation with state, but this is a bit more complicated in Iraq. The state as a concept is very clear, but the definition of what it means to be an Iraqi is evolving.” What is the nation, he asked, especially in a society as heterogeneous as Iraq, where people can define themselves by a plethora of factors such as region/province, religious, or ethnic identity. He outlined several questions, including, “Do we rebuild the national character or the state institutions?” and “Do citizens have a stake in the nation or in the state?”
In addressing the current economic climate in Iraq, the Ambassador stated that the adverse impact of past sanctions was severe damage to the economic infrastructure. The current rate of economic growth is 9-11%, with steady increases in oil production and income levels. Unemployment, however, remains the same due to an over-reliance on oil production. Since oil as an industry is not very labor-intensive, he explained, it employs less than 1% of the population. “The core structure of the economy has to be managed better, with less reliance on subsidizing certain sectors.” Iraq also hopes to maintain a long-term investment relationship with the United States.

Geoengineering

In May, scientists reported that the average daily level of CO2 in the atmosphere surpassed 400 parts per million, an alarmingly high concentration level last seen two to four million years ago.

Even if humans miraculously halted all carbon emissions next week, the problem of climate change would be an inescapable and grim reality as most of the heat-trapping gas would linger in the atmosphere for decades or even centuries. The inertia in the world’s warmed oceans would prevent a quick return to cooler temperatures, even as the CO2 levels decrease. The most optimistic predictions for the rest of the century, cited by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its 2007 assessment report, forecast a rise of 2.0 to 5.2 degrees by 2100, while the direst anticipate a rise of 4.3 to 11.5 degrees. Among the anticipated effects are rising sea levels, increasingly severe storms and droughts, and melting glaciers and permafrost.
So what exactly is geoengineering then, a concept given some unexpected attention and increasing legitimacy by its mention in the most recent IPCC report? It refers to methods that “aim to deliberately alter the climate system to counter climate change.” The rather controversial area of engineering Earth’s climate seems to now be firmly planted on the scientific agenda. Some climate models suggest that geoengineering may even be necessary to keep global temperatures within the 2 °C above pre-industrial levels mark, agreed upon by the scientific and international community as the “tolerable” level. Most geoengineering technologies generally either reflect sunlight — through artificial “clouds” of aerosols, for example — or reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Reducing greenhouse gases generally involves carbon-capturing technologies that range from building towers to collect it from the atmosphere to grinding up rocks to react with CO2 and take it out of circulation. Solar geoengineering involves ideas including deflecting sunlight away from the earth with massive space shields or with clouds over oceans.

Renowned author Clive Hamilton recently visited American University’s School Of International Service to talk about his recent book, Earthmasters, and the environmental justice implications of climate engineering proposals. SIS Professor Simon Nicholson, who is a part of The Washington Geoengineering Consortium, moderated the event. Hamilton explained that until recently, geoengineering was largely a scientific discussion, held behind closed doors, and that it was very much viewed as a “Plan B” solution in the event that cutting greenhouse gas emissions was unsuccessful at the requisite speed. He referenced Harvard professor David Keith as the foremost proponent of climate engineering. The main climate geoengineering plan was inspired by sulfur-spewing volcanoes and involves using jets to spray sulfates into the stratosphere, where they would combine with water vapor to form aerosols. Dispersed by winds, these particles would cover the globe with a haze that would reflect roughly 1 percent of solar radiation away from Earth.
The 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, which shot some 10 million metric tons of sulfur into the air, reduced global temperatures about 1 degree F for at least a year. The sulphate aerosol shield would be regularly sprayed into the stratosphere to create a dimming effect and a resultant cooling akin to what happens when there are large volcanic eruptions. Couching the discussion in the context of environmental justice, Hamilton stated “we need to implement the sulfate aerosol shield to protect the Pole as a matter of justice, because there is nothing more unjust than the impact of climate change itself.”
A big issue that remains, however, is the uncertainty of how well it would work—there is no question about the cooling effect the shield would have but whether that cooling would be systematic and how it would affect precipitation patterns and the climate as a whole is a major question. Another issue is what Hamilton called the question of governance: a) who should control the technologies (patents?)?, b) who should make decisions about the deployment of geoengineering schemes?, c) where would the sulfite sprays be applied (over the Arctic or at the Equator, for example)?, and d) how would they be applied? “Essentially, the question is who should have their hand on the global thermostat.”
The most recent report by the IPCC reinforced the rather dire projection that “with business as usual,” we would surpass the 2 degree threshold set as an acceptable level of temperature change within a decade. SIS Professor Paul Wapner stated, “business as usual is what has gotten us in trouble in the first place, and this solution may seem like more business as usual. We tend to not solve problems but displace them across time, space, and species.”
Hamilton agreed that what was initially a Plan B is now a nearly inevitable course of action as mitigating efforts do not seem to be progressing forward at the requisite rate to stem drastic climate change. But he expressed a lot of reservations about the Promethean-like nature of this sort of intervention and the “technology will save us now” air to it. “In essence, this plan is being marketed as turning a drastic failure of the free enterprise system into a triumph of humanity’s ability to solve our greatest problems through technology.” In her recent article, Dr. Rachel Smolker took issue with what she perceived to be the normalization of geoengineering: “This insistence that we engage in debate over climate geoengineering is part of the process of ‘normalization’ that seems orchestrated — perhaps deliberately — with the intent of habituating people to the whole idea of climate geoengineering as an option.”
 In a response, Dr. Simon Nicholson stated, “geoengineering is in fact entirely normal. It is the expected response of a culture that looks to technological solutions to complex societal challenges. It makes far more sense, in that light, to have an active voice in the geoengineering conversation than to seek to suppress it.”