02 August 2009

Old MTBE Post up at Matador Abroad

Check it out and see what the world-traveling set thinks about it.

15 April 2009

A Good Run

After 22 months, 30,000+ visitors from six out of seven continents, and 240-something posts, MTBE died.

Those waiting for the resurrection should have known that I don't believe in resurrection. But in reincarnation.

31 March 2009

Al Jazeera's People and Power Presents Black Russian

It's a little too sensationalistic for my taste and I could nitpick a number of points, but I AM ON BLOG BREAK.

(h/t to anonymous)

30 March 2009

Nice Jewish Girl Falls in Love with Indian Dentist, Leads South American Country

After a long life committed to social justice, Janet Jagan has passed.

From the NYT:

Born Janet Rosenberg in 1920, she was a student nurse at Cook County Hospital when she met Cheddi Jagan, a dentistry student at Northwestern University and the eldest of 11 children of an Indo-Guyanese family of sugar cane workers. His grandparents had arrived in British Guiana from India as indentured laborers.

They married, despite the fierce opposition of her parents, who were Jewish, and in 1943 they moved to British Guiana, where he established a dental practice and they both became involved in radical politics. In 1950, they founded the People’s Progressive Party, and in 1953, in elections under a new Constitution providing greater home rule, Dr. Jagan became chief minister. But the Jagans’ Marxist ideas aroused the suspicions of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who sent warships and troops to topple the new government. The Jagans were jailed.


After her husband died in 1997, she ran for president and won. At campaign rallies, her followers respectfully called her “bhowji,” a Hindi term meaning “elder brother’s wife.” But her government was plagued by street protests and tension with the opposition People’s National Congress.

After a mild heart attack in 1999, Mrs. Jagan stepped down, opening the way for her Moscow-educated finance minister, Bharrat Jagdeo, to become president, a position he still holds.
In that part where there is an ellipsis above is a complete simplification and mess-up-ification of Guyanese history. I imagine that someone (not it!) should write a spirited letter to the editor at the NYT.

(For a quick slice of Guyana and Cold War history, check out the Jagans back in the day in the footage here. To really get to know more, you might start with the book reviewed here and move on to things like this and this.)

Now back to my renewal efforts. This blog is still, technically, on pause.

29 March 2009

Dry Spell

I've hit one.

Looking for things that are haunting, inspiring, bizarre and refreshing.

Music, art, holes in the wall, the unexpected.

MTBE is on pause, pending results.

27 March 2009

Russian Rap Friday: Optik Russia Presents New Russian Standard

Taking the aggressiveness of Onyx and sprinkling in a bit of Wu-Tang ensemble myth-making, German label Optik Russia ups the ante with New Russian Standard:

25 March 2009

South Texas Vacation Notes

1. My friend says, "Let's go get some breakfast tacos!" He means to take me here:

2. My untrained, picked-up-here-and-there Spanish does fine here when it comes to ordering two different types of tacos and it even works when I have to make a substitution because they ran out of chorizo.

3. Later on the same day, said Spanish (in)competency does not cut the mustard when I have to run into a gas station after the radiator hose on my friend's custom-built Shelby Cobra blows off. No problem getting water, but the phrase "large flathead screwdriver" proves a little more difficult. Help comes in the form of a bilingual man wielding three tall Budweisers, Clamato and lime-flavoring packets.

4. When wandering around the local public university in search of an air hockey table, I see this sign in the middle of a fountain. I am told not to be surprised.

5. It is not uncommon for buildings to get in the way of cars in South Texas.

20 March 2009

Russian Rap Friday: Noize MC

He's kinda obvious, but likable all the same:

And live, indy-rock style, near Arbat:

18 March 2009

Ethnic Violence in Russia: 2008 Numbers by Reader Request

A reader writes in:

...for my undergrad thesis I am doing foreign migration's influences on hate groups in Russia. I am going to make a chart, but I cannot find the number injured or the number killed, and/or the total for 2008. Usually the SOVA center published yearly stats, but I can't find them anywhere on the site. I would like to use this source because all of my other stats come from SOVA as well.
SOVA has published this information here, but it's only available in Russian. Here's a quick translation of the basic findings into English, for you and other readers who might be interested:
In 2008, there were no fewer than 525 victims of racist and xenophobic violence; 97 of these victims were killed. These numbers are minimal estimates of violence, excluding incidents occurring in the north Caucasus, massive brawls, attacks with a financial motive and assaults involving the use of a firearm (except in instances where racist motives were declared by law enforcement agencies), and other types of dispute-related altercations.


Overall, in 2008, racist and neo-Nazi attacks were recorded in 44 regions. The main centers of violence, as before, are the Moscow (57 murders and 196 injuries) and St. Petersburg (15 murders and 38 injuries) regions. After a two-year break, neo-Nazis have become active again in Voronezh (2 murders and 18 injuries), once again taking third place in these miserable ratings.


The main victims of xenophobic aggression are natives of Central Asia (49 murders, 108 injuries) and the Caucasus (23 murders, 72 injuries). However, for those with non-Slavic features, there is no insurance against racist attacks, nor are representatives of leftist youth movements or alternative youth subcultures (punks, goths, emos, etc.) safe, as neo-Nazis consider them "traitors to the white race."
The report goes on to list examples of everyday racism, vandalism and other manifestations of xenophobia and extremism, followed by comparative tables at the bottom of the post.

Anyway, good luck with that thesis, dear reader! And if you get a chance, I'd love to see the results as would, I imagine, other MTBE readers. So keep us posted, okay?

17 March 2009

Tajikistan in Crisis: On the Ground Reporting

Journalist Ilan Greenberg and photographer Carolyn Drake are in the middle of a series of reports from Tajikistan over at Untold Stories.

The first report on life in and around Dushanbe is mix of typical dire-situationist journalism with touristy-impressionism:

The countryside is wracked by devastating problems – from catastrophic water and energy shortages to rampant child labor practices in the cotton fields to jobless villages where Tajik men returning from Russia face unending unemployment.
And then:
The grass is still yellow and chalky from the dry winter and leaves have yet to take hold on trees, but the muddy-red mountains ringing Dushanbe are beautiful. Women in traditional, cheery, and colorful Tajik coats walk the sidewalks. The roads are pleasantly dominated by vans --new and quiet, privately-run and Chinese-made vans-- a gift from the Chinese government. The small-wheeled vehicles furiously ferry people around this otherwise slow paced, even laconic city. The Chinese are also building new roads and tunnels and Dushanbe has a lot of new Chinese restaurants. There's a zippy vibe to the place.
The next post from Greenberg and Drake focuses on resource issues and expat bars, followed by a little story of trying to cross over into Afghanistan.

A longer piece by Greenberg has also gone up over at Slate with scary buzzwords like destabilization, crime, and terror; as the writer probes deeper into the Tajik provinces, he signals imminent danger by noting that "cell phone coverage had evaporated."

(This last bit has me wondering about how long it will be until some whipper-snapper grad student publishes an article on "'Cells': Space, Terror and Mobile Phone Reception as a Device in 21st-century Journalism and Popular Culture." Not it.)

Like the gimmicky photo reproduced above, the reporting is a little cliche, but there are some worthwhile on-the-ground details.

15 March 2009

"A Source of Endless Grotesqueness": James Purdy Dead

A peculiar man with a curious heart, James Purdy could write.

Here's a typical little selection from In a Shallow Grave (1975), an untidy exposition of sickness, loathing, corporeality and love:

He shook so with sobs then and he was laying across me like I was his last refuge that for a minute I did not realize what was happening. For the first time since I had been ruined and stained like mulberry wine, another human being had forgot how horrible I am, and was touching me and hugging me and asking for comfort, forgetting how I look like some abortion or night-goblin, though as I told you before, in the dark somehow I am sort of good-looking again.
Desperation, deformity, and delectable detail.

Yet, despite the pleas of a small handful of critics, including Susan Sontag and Gore Vidal, Purdy never managed to find widespread recognition. This was, in part, because his topical matter was, in case you missed it above, a little off-beat. Katha Pollitt's review of Narrow Rooms (1978) should give you an idea of Purdyian plotting:
Narrow Rooms, a tale of love among the bondage-and-discipline crowd in, of all places, West Virginia, centers around Roy Sturtevant, a young man known as “the renderer,” because, as we are reminded every 20 pages or so, his grandfather was a renderer of animal fats. Roy dominates Brian, and Brian, Roy’s command, dominates Sid, because Sid has been rejecting his advances ever since eighth grade, but Sid kills Brian first and goes to jail...
Not everyone's cup of tea, and clearly not Pollitt's. But Purdy, a queer self-proclaimed inheritor of Hawthorne and Melville, never thought he was writing for everyone, anyway. In the words of Sontag, his was a "bitter comic vision, in which the flesh is a source of endless grotesqueness."

In my opinion, everyone should try it, at least once. Especially now that he won't have to suffer his fame.*

He died on Friday.


*Imagine how bitter success would have been after uttering these words: “Reputations are made here, as in Russia, on political respectability, or by commercial acceptability. The worse the author, the more he is known.”

13 March 2009

Russian Rap Friday: Black Cost, Al Nasr, BK & Arlan

Жаман емес:

Straight out of Kazakhstan with a laid-back rap, both in Kazakh and in Russian.

12 March 2009

Eastern European Cinema, 1942-2007

A limited survey in haiku form.

Hungary 1942: Men on the Mountain
Director: István Szots

Dramatizing land
enclosure in Hungary.
God will not save us.

Hungary 1979: Angi Vera
Director: Pál Gábor

Every poor soul
has a birthday. Even the
soul-less party hack.

Czechifornia* 1981: Cutter's Way
Director: Ivan Passer

One eye, one arm and
on one leg John Heard bounces.
Jeff Bridges' bare chest.

Romania 2007: 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days
Director: Cristian Mungiu

How projected light
sucks the air out of a room.
Relentless tension.

Czech Republic 2007: Small Russian Clouds of Smoke and Low-Level Flight [Vols. 3 & 4 of the Private Century series]
Director: Jan Šikl

Russian exiles live
in Czechoslovakia
and film each other.


*California, as seen by a Czech emigre director.

10 March 2009

Russian Rap Comes Early!: When Academia Meets Hip Hop...

I've set aside Fridays to exhibit Russian rap, but some things cannot wait until their appointed day of the week:

Philologists represent! It's all a play off of this (which I can't be bothered to paste in, because it simply isn't worth it).


"That’s how the Russian mafia helped us get our wages": Gastarbeiter Notes

Sean's Russia Blog brought my attention to the published excerpts of an Uzbek worker's diary on OpenDemocracy. Sean highlighted some passages that typify the dangers faced by migrant laborers. The nuts and bolts of the informal economy in Russia are just as fascinating:

21 September 2004. Moscow. Kurkino.

We did finally get paid for our work. But only because we turned to Viktor Petrovich for help - our former employer from the Leningrad Oblast. He was very happy when I rang him, and was quite amused to hear that we had been tricked like little boys. I thought I was wasting my time ringing him.Viktor Petrovich had invited me to work for him a couple of times in the past, but I couldn’t go to him, as my father died and I didn’t go to Russia for two years. I wanted to hang up, but his voice suddenly became serious, and he asked me to tell him in more detail about the director Semyonov who hadn’t paid us for the work we did in Kurkino. Viktor Petrovich immediately rang his friend in Moscow and gave us his address. We went to the Taganka and met a person called Alexei. He listened to us and promised to solve the problem. I said we would give him half the sum he got out of Semyonov as a reward. We shook hands, and to our surprise Alexei appeared with the money three days later. That’s how the Russian mafia helped us get our wages.


25 February 2009. Moscow. Northern district.“Aeroport” region.

A week ago I tried to open a kiosk opposite the transport technical college, so that the students could buy cigarettes and beer from me, and not in the building next door. It didn’t work out, although the head of the municipal services office supported me. You have to pay the police, the sanitary and epidemiological department, the fire brigade, the environmental people, as well as taxes, licenses etc., plus “protection” money to the mafia. When we added all this up, we worked out that I would have to pay almost $2,000 each month on bribes, kick-backs, presents and various bills. I would barely have anything left. I went to the head of the technical school and suggested that I should open a retail outlet on the territory of the school, and that he could be my “protection”, but he got scared. I’ll have to look at other options.
The entrepreneurial ambition of that last sentence, in the face of everything else recorded throughout the diary, is pretty amazing.

For further reading:
Stealth of Nations. A wonderful little blog on informal economies across the globe.


p.s. Seriously, folks. Take this poll!

07 March 2009

How Rarefied Have I Become? A Poll and a Bleg

Over the past few months, I've been working on figuring out (1) how to craft a dissertation that is approximately readable and (2) how to devise a pitch to sell my work to folks when I hit the job market next year.

One attempted solution has been to sprinkle into the writing connections between the fairly unknown protagonists of my tale of interwar anticolonialism and some more widely-recognized figures with whom they came into contact. But recently, a couple of friends have pointed out that my sense of "more widely-known" might need some calibration.

My solution: procrastinate ask my wonderful blog readers to take a poll and tell their friends to hop over here and take this poll, so I can get a better idea of who is who and how to pitch.

Now, this isn't a shame-game. I know that most of the people and terms listed below are a little obscure. I'm just trying to get a sense of how obscure they are and which ones might work as good hooks for the reader.

Like all polls, the more people who take it, the more indicative the results will be of broader trends. I also think it would help if non-regular readers of this blog take it, assuming MTBE readers are a self-selecting group of people who either know me or are interested in things I write about.

So tell your friends, send out an email, post a link on your blog... Please, help me figure out how rarefied my work's become! (If you don't want to direct them to this post, they can also take the poll here.)

But first, before you tell everyone, take it yourself.

Tick the boxes for all the terms that are familiar to you.
Agnes Smedley
Karl Radek
George Padmore
Ghadar Party
Sun Yat-sen
Scottsboro Case
Jomo Kenyatta
Mike Gold
Isadora Duncan
Katayama Sen
Lothrop Stoddard
Vsevolod Meyerhold
Paul Robeson
George Kennan
Nazim Hikmet
Walter Rodney
Countee Cullen
Alexander Deineka
Kwame Nkrumah
pollcode.com free polls


06 March 2009

Russian Rap Friday: "I'm Country" by Hooligan

Bubba Sparxxx, watch out. Cause country rap just got a new voice.

Hooligan reps provincial Kazakhstan in this masterful ode to his peripheral roots, «Я провинциален» ("I'm Country").

05 March 2009

People All Over the World: Join the Global Blackface Game

Now, it's sad, but after the Obama victory I basically expected a few retrograde Americans to do idiotic racist kee-rap like this:


But I just didn't see the global legs on the blackface resurgence.





More innocuously, the Obama roll:

(Last two, via.)

Paste links to more evidence of the global blackface resurgence in comments, if you got 'em.

04 March 2009

Harper's Index on Russia: Once Abundant Cinemas and the Magic Number 37

The famous Harper's Index is now available and searchable online.

Here's some selected Russia facts from the past few decades, indicative both of trends in Russia and of American interest in Russia:

Movie theaters in the United States: 16,901
In the Soviet Union: 144,100

Price of a Jane Fonda workout videocassette on the black market in Moscow: $370

Students in the United States who are studying Russian: 25,000
Students in the Soviet Union who are studying English: 4,000,000

Number of Russians who subscribe to the New York Times: 7

Number of Jews who arrived in Israel from the Soviet Union last year: 145,000
Number of Palestinians who arrived in Jordan from Kuwait last year: 250,000

Number of members of the Cossacks, a Moscow motorcycle gang: 8
Number of motorcycles they own: 1

Number of animals a Moscow circus left on a Japanese dock in 1992 to make room on its ship for newly bought cars: 93

Chances that a Russian favors independence for Chechnya: 3 in 4
Years it took Russia to win its armed conflict with the Chechens during the last century: 47

Number of Russians electrocuted last year while trying to steal power lines and cable: 544

Minimum number of physical assaults made on Russian journalists in 2000: 60

Percentage of non-jury trials in Russia that end in conviction: 99

Average percentage of Americans who approved of the job Bush was doing during his second term: 37
Percentage of Russians today who approve of the direction their country took under Stalin: 37

03 March 2009

Juked Stats or a Clean Drop? Ethnic Violence in Russia, February 2009

SOVA Center has just released its report on hate crimes in Russia in February 2009. The results are somewhat of shocker. Last month, 26 people were victims of racist attacks; two of these victims died.

This represents a considerable decrease. For comparison, in January, 39 people were attacked, including fourteen murders. In February of 2008, 71 people were attacked and 18 of whom were killed.

SOVA explains that the sharp drop in hate crimes follows the arrests of a number of neo-Nazi groups over the winter; at the same time, they indicate some skepticism about these statistics, noting that in Moscow, for instance, not one racially-motivated attack has been reported since 12 February (that is, just after President Medvedev urged the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) to crack down on extremism).

Like any seasoned viewer of The Wire, I wonder if this month’s drop simply reflects “juking the stats.” And the subsequent question has to be: “How far up the pole does this go?”

Or maybe there really hasn’t been one racist crime in Moscow in the past three weeks. Maybe the MVD devised a method to sweep extremism off the streets in just one week. Maybe the skinheads simply decided to give up. I truly hope so. But those "maybes" are pretty huge.