Sunday, 20 May 2018

Gender discrimination kills 239,000 girls in India each year: Study

An estimated 239,000 girls under the age of five die in India each year due to neglect linked to gender discrimination, a new study has found.

The figure, which amounts to 2.4 million deaths a decade, does not include pre-natal mortality rates.

"Gender-based discrimination towards girls doesn't simply prevent them from being born, it may also precipitate the death of those who are born," wrote the study's co-researcher Christophe Guilmoto in the Lancet medical journal.

"Gender equity is not only about rights to education, employment or political representation. It is also about care, vaccination, and nutrition of girls, and ultimately survival," added Guilmoto.

The report is the first to examine the number of avoidable deaths among girls under five in India at a district level, showing specific geographic patterns of avoidable female mortality across India's 640 districts.

Avoidable or excess mortality is defined as the difference between observed and expected mortality rates.

To determine that figure for India, researchers used UN population data from 46 countries to calculate the difference between the expected morality rate for girls aged under five in areas of the world without gender discrimination and the reality inside India.

The researchers found that 29 out of 35 Indian states showed overall excess mortality in girls under five, and all Indian states and territories, apart from two, contained at least one district with excess mortality.

The average level of excess mortality in girls aged 0-4 in India between 2000-2005 was 18.5 per 1,000 live births, or close to a quarter of a million deaths a year.

"Around 22% of the overall mortality burden of females under five is therefore due to gender bias," the study's authors, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) a scientific institute based in Austria, said in a statement released Monday.

IIASA researchers found that the problem was most pronounced in northern India, where the four largest states, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh, accounted for two thirds of the total excess deaths of infant girls under five.

The study showed that the areas worse affected were typically in rural regions, with low levels of education, high population densities and high birth rates.

The study's co-author Nandita Saikia, from the IIASA, said that the findings reinforced the need to address directly the issue of gender discrimination in addition to "encouraging social and economic development for its benefits on Indian women."

The report suggests many of the deaths are at least partly due to unwanted female child bearing in a society that has a preference for sons.

"The sustained fertility decline currently observed in north India is likely to lead to a reduction in postnatal discrimination. Unless son preference diminishes, lower fertility, however, might bring about a rise in gender-biased sex selection," said Saikia.

A preference for boys and the availability of sex-selective operations, although illegal in India, means there's a gender gap of as many as 63 million girls.

As a result, India has one of the most skewed sex ratios in the world. For every 107 males born in India, there are 100 females. According to the World Health Organization the natural sex ratio at birth is 105 males for every 100 females.

(Source: CNN)

Reality of motherhood in honest photo series

"Motherhood is learning how to do everything with one hand while carrying a baby in another"

A photographer has captured what life as a stay-at-home mum is really like with a series of brutally honest images.

Giedre Gomes, from Cedar Lake in Indiana, is a photographer and mother to two young sons, five-year-old Mario and three-year-old Rocco.

To mark Mother’s Day in the US, the 35-year-old knew she wanted to create a powerful photo series but was also tired of seeing conventional dreamy images of women and their children.

Instead, she wanted to show the reality of motherhood and challenge the stereotypes that come with being a stay-at-home parent.

After putting out an open call on Facebook looking for mothers to feature in her photographs, Gomes joined forces with her neighbour, Jamie, to create an honest series of images inspired by their own experiences as parents.

“I knew I wanted to show a mother butt naked on the toilet not having any privacy and a mother trying to shower with the company of the kids,” Gomes told The Independent.

“This project was so me. Every single picture in this project, I have been there. I even have cell phone pictures of me on the toilet while breastfeeding.

“I’m a fun, happy, crazy mum, who doesn’t care what other people think and thankfully my neighbour Jamie is just like me and said ‘I don’t care, I will pose on the toilet.’”

Together, Gomes and her friends created a series of pictures portraying everything from breastfeeding while simultaneously preparing dinner, to chaos in supermarkets, being jumped on in bed and being interrupted while on the toilet.

But while the images are light-hearted, the photographer hopes that it will create a more serious conservation about just how hard motherhood can sometimes be.

“I wanted to show that stay home mums don’t sleep all day. So many people think ‘oh good for you, you are home all day, you don’t have to work’ but that’s just not right,” she said.

Writing for Bored Panda, the mother-of-two also explained how she believes being a mum is the best job in the world but that it’s not always “rainbows and butterflies.”

“Motherhood is no longer having privacy, never peeing or showering in peace. Motherhood is using your shirt to wipe runny noses and dirty faces. Motherhood is learning how to do everything with one hand while carrying a baby in another.

“Motherhood is waking up with a little butt or foot in your face. Motherhood is breastfeeding whenever wherever. But in the end, I wouldn’t have it any other way,” she wrote.

After sharing her photo series for Mother’s Day, Gomes says that she didn’t expect the reaction it has received but is pleased that so many parents can relate to it.

(Source: Independent)

Would you pay your ex a 'break-up fee'?

Earlier this month, police in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou responded to a call after bar staff reported finding a suspicious suitcase.

It contained two million yuan in cash ($314,204; £233,323) - an extraordinary amount of money, maybe even life-changing.

They managed to track down the owner, who according to the local police, had arranged to meet with his ex-girlfriend in the bar.

The money? It was a "break-up fee" a new trend in Chinese dating.

The price of true love?
Everyone knows that dating can be expensive; forking out a bit of cash to buy drinks or meals in the early stages of a relationship, or buying gifts and holidays later on.

No longer content to just have the awkward meeting to hand each others' stuff back, break-up fees have emerged in recent years in China as a sort of compensation at the end of a long-term relationship.

While not legally binding, it's a bit like one party giving their former partner a divorce settlement.

It's the person that ends the relationship that pays the fee. They decide, based on the amount of time, effort and money they have invested in the relationship, how much money they should give to their former partner.

Some people look pragmatically at the amount of money their partner had spent on them while they were dating, whereas others set a levy based on how severe they think the emotional damage of the break-up will be.

Break-up fees are more commonly paid by men - out of guilt or in order to offset their partner's upset. However, increasingly some women see it as acceptable to pay a fee, given that it is traditionally the man who will pay for meals and gifts in a Chinese relationship.

Some reports suggest they're an urban phenomenon spurred on by increasing consumerism.

But others see them as a possible hangover from earlier times - when Chinese women were more financially dependent on men. Chinese attitudes towards dating have traditionally been pragmatic and geared towards marriage. So the fee is meant to prevent embittered parties from suffering emotional damage, and to help them start a clean slate with their former partner.

Reports suggest that the fee can specifically helps older women who feel they have lost opportunities that they might have had in their youth to either prioritise their career or meet "the one".

Cases of break-up fees which make it into the media range from the seemingly harmless, to those involving complicated court proceedings.

Some have been met with droll humour, such as a case in April where a woman sent her former partner an inventory of every single restaurant and hotel they had visited. She had painstakingly researched how much her partner had spent on her, and wanted to reimburse him what she thought she owed.

In January, a case in the eastern city of Ningbo involved a man demanding compensation from his girlfriend after she dumped him for going bald.

Other cases have been more serious. In November 2014, a man in southwest Sichuan province demanded compensation from his girlfriend after finding out that she had other partners.

They were both married but had been seeing each other for five years and he had often given her money to buy clothes. After the woman refused to pay the man a "break-up tax" multiple times, he went to her home and threw acid at her family.

He was arrested on suspected manslaughter, but argued that his behaviour could have been avoided if the couple had parted as equals.

(Source: BBC)

Saturday, 19 May 2018

Meghan Markle and Prince Harry are married

And they're married! Britain's Prince Harry and US actress Meghan Markle sealed their wedding vows with a kiss on the steps outside Windsor's St. George's Chapel on Saturday, cheered on by delighted crowds.

The couple -- now the Duke and Duchess of Sussex -- then set off on a procession through the streets of Windsor in an open carriage drawn by four Windsor Grey horses.

The bridal party, including three-year-old Princess Charlotte, Harry's niece, waved enthusiastically as the couple departed from the chapel after a ceremony that was unprecedented in British royal history.

In a departure from tradition, Markle walked much of the way up the aisle unchaperoned, followed by her 10 bridesmaids and page boys -- a move that is unprecedented for a royal bride in Britain and was seen as a powerful statement of her feminist principles.

Her elegant white dress with an open bateau neckline was by British designer Clare Waight Keller, Givenchy's first female artistic director. Her 16-foot-long veil was held in place by a diamond bandeau tiara lent to her by the Queen.

Only when she reached the 15th-century chapel's Quire was Markle accompanied for her final steps to the foot of the altar by Prince Charles, Harry's father.

Harry, flanked by his brother and best man Prince William, looked emotional as he waited at the altar, dressed in the frockcoat uniform of the Blues and Royals.

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle stand together during their marriage ceremony.
Britain's Prince Harry and Meghan Markle stand together at the start of their wedding ceremony.
The couple sat with clasped hands as they listened to an impassioned sermon from Chicago-based bishop Michael Curry, the first African-American head of the Episcopal Church in the United States.

His fiery preaching style was a marked departure from the usually conservative tone of a British royal wedding. Harry could be seen saying "Wow" to Meghan as the sermon ended.

It was followed by a performance of the Ben E. King classic "Stand by me" by the Kingdom Choir, a group of 20 gospel singers.

Meghan was all smiles as she said her vows and gave Harry his wedding ring. The crowd could be faintly heard cheering outside as the couple were proclaimed husband and wife by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, the most senior cleric in the Church of England.

Big moments so far
• Harry's aunt Lady Jane Fellowes, the sister of his late mother, Princess Diana, gave the reading from the Book of Solomon.
• Palace revealed that Meghan's wedding ring has been made from Welsh gold and is a gift from the Queen, while Harry's is platinum.
• The Queen conferred the titles of Duke of Sussex, Earl of Dumbarton and Baron Kilkeel on Prince Harry, making Meghan the first-ever Duchess of Sussex.

The last to arrive before the bride was the Queen, wearing a lime silk dress, accompanied by Prince Philip.

Among the host of famous guests already waiting in the chapel were Oprah Winfrey, George and Amal Clooney -- dressed in an eye-catching yellow dress and hat -- tennis star Serena Williams, actor Idris Elba and singer James Blunt.

Flowers and foliage surround the West Door and steps of St. George's Chapel on Saturday.
Former footballer and celebrity David Beckham stopped to hug a fan as he walked alongside wife Victoria Beckham, former Spice Girls singer turned fashion designer, toward the chapel door.

Guests connected to the royal family included Pippa Middleton and her parents and Tom Parker Bowles, who is the son of Prince Charles' wife, Camilla. Earl Charles Spencer -- brother of Harry's mother, the late Princess Diana -- was another of the guests, as was Harry's aunt Sarah Ferguson, the ex-wife of Prince Andrew.

Former Prime Minister John Major, who was made a guardian to William and Harry after Diana died in 1997, was another high profile guest. Current Prime Minister Theresa May was not invited.
Senior members of the royal family, Prince Charles, the Princess Royal, Prince Andrew and his daughters, Princesses Eugenie and Beatrice were among the last to arrive.

Crowds gathered in the streets of Windsor from early Saturday, hoping to catch a glimpse of the bride and groom as they process through the town in an open horse-drawn carriage following the ceremony. Other devoted royal fans have camped out for several days to get the best possible spot. Forecasters promise blue skies for the big day.

Many more people planned to rise early (or stay up all night) in the United States to watch as Harry, long a favorite with the British public for his irreverent good humor, tied the knot with his California-born bride.
Crowds gather near Windsor Castle for the wedding of Harry and Meghan on Saturday.
The wedding represents a historic moment for the royal family, as it welcomes an outspoken biracial, American divorcée into its ranks.

In a reflection of its contemporary nature, the couple chose a modern set of wedding vows, with the text of the formal parts of the service taken from Common Worship, the Church of England's standard liturgy, first published in 2000. It is thought to be the first time that this text has been used in a royal wedding.

There was no promise by Markle to "obey" her husband. Rather, Meghan pledged to "love him, comfort him, honor and protect him." Harry has chosen to wear a wedding ring, unlike his brother.

The award-winning young cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason was chosen to play during the signing of the register. The ceremony will end with the Etta James version of "Amen/This Little Light of Mine," a gospel song that became synonymous with the US civil rights movement.

The presence of Harry's mother was also felt at the ceremony. "Guide me o thou great redeemer" was sung at Diana's funeral, at her memorial service in 2007 and at Kate and William's wedding in 2011.

Flowers adorn the front of the organ loft inside St George's Chapel.
Guests from Markle's side included cast members from "Suits" -- the legal drama in which she made her name. Actresses Abigail Spencer, Sarah Rafferty, Gina Torres and actor Gabriel Macht were all seen arriving.

It appeared that TV legend and philanthropist Winfrey, dressed in Stella McCartney with a large hat, would be seated in the Quire with the family and other close friends, rather than in the main body of guests in the nave.

In an effort to be inclusive, the couple invited 2,640 members of the public, including 1,200 ordinary people from communities around the United Kingdom, to watch from inside the castle grounds as the guests arrived.

Among them were Helen McKenzie and Louis Davidson, who were invited through their local community in Somerset. "We got the invitation a while ago but had to keep it secret. It wasn't easy!" Davidson told CNN as the pair headed into the castle.

(Source: CNN)

Duke and Duchess of Sussex: Harry and Meghan's new titles

She may be marrying a prince today, but that doesn't make Meghan Markle a princess -- Queen Elizabeth II has conferred the titles of Duke and Duchess of Sussex on Prince Harry and Meghan ahead of their wedding Saturday.

Harry's titles will be His Royal Highness The Duke of Sussex, Earl of Dumbarton and Baron Kilkeel. Once married, Meghan will be known as Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Sussex. She will be the first person to hold that title.

The only previous person to hold the title of Duke of Sussex was an anti-slavery campaigner and supporter of rights for Catholics and Jews, according to the Royal Collection. Prince Augustus Frederick, son of George III and Queen Charlotte, gained the title in 1801.

The titles are granted under the British monarchy's system of "peerage," which traces back to feudal times. Originally, the monarch would bestow titles on servants who pledged loyalty in exchange for protection or land, making them a peer of the realm. Today, it is used for relatives of the monarch.

Titles are decided by the Queen when a relative either comes of age or gets married.

The Queen can choose from five titles for a man -- duke, marquess, earl, viscount or baron -- and for a woman -- duchess, marchioness, countess, viscountess and baroness. Dukedom is the highest of all five.

Typically, family members are given the titles of Duke and Duchess, but the Queen can choose to bestow more than one title.

In the case of Prince Harry's brother, Prince William, he and his wife, Kate Middleton, became the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, but the Queen also granted Prince William the titles of Earl of Strathearn and Baron Carrickfergus.

Prince Charles -- Harry and William's father -- is the Duke of Cornwall, and the Queen's second son, Prince Andrew, was given the title Duke of York.

But breaking with tradition was the Queen's youngest son, Prince Edward, who chose the title Earl of Wessex when he married.

(Source: CNN)

China’s last cave dwellers fight to keep their underground homes

When armed bandits prowled this remote, mountainous stretch of the southwestern province of Guizhou in the chaotic years before the founding of modern China, the ethnic Miao villagers hid in the region’s enormous caves.

And there they have remained, even after China was united under Communist rule, grinding out an existence of profound rural poverty and isolation.

The area is in one of the poorest provinces in China. The only link to the rest of the country, and the outside world, is over a mountain footpath — a brisk one-hour hike through a steep valley — that leads to a nearby road.

Over the past 20 years, though, the caves have become less secluded because of a steadily increasing trickle of tourists, who come to experience what local media have described as the last continuously inhabited cave in China.

A cottage industry has popped up in which the cave dwellers earn extra money by renting out rooms in their homes, which over time have clustered within Zhong cave, a limestone cavern big enough to hold four American football fields. The hangar-like cave is so large that their wooden or bamboo-made residences form a small, subterranean village built along its undulating walls.

During the day, the cave is filled with the sound of cows and roosters. On Friday afternoons, the laughter of children echoes and the smell of cooking fires permeates the cave’s cool, damp air, which offers relief from the heat of the valley below.

Children doing chores during their weekend break from boarding school. Credit Bryan Denton for The New York Times
A resident of the Zhong cave walking through the cavern’s interior. Credit Bryan Denton for The New York Times
The county government wants the residents of Zhong cave to move to a nearby block of housing: low-slung, white-walled farmhouses with wooden window frames that were completed nearly 10 years ago.

Officials say that residents have not taken care of the cave, leaving it unsuitable for inhabitation, and that the government should oversee the village as it is listed as a protected community by the Getu River Tourism Administration, a local agency. They have offered each resident 60,000 renminbi, or approximately $9,500, to leave.

Only five families have agreed to move.

The remaining 18 families have held on stubbornly to their homes inside the cave. They say that the new homes are too small, that they fear losing access to their land, and that they alone, because of their historical connection to the cave, should have the right to independently control its small tourism economy.

“The residents of this cave should be the administrators of tourism here, regardless of whether or not we are paid,” said Wang Qiguo, the head of the local village, who established the first hostel there.

As he spoke, his wife prepared a steaming array of dishes made from home-smoked pork and local vegetables grown in the valley.

After all, Mr. Wang noted, “The best thing about this cave is its inhabitants.”

Wong Qicai working in the terraced fields below the Zhong cave, pictured behind. Residents of the cave subsist primarily off farming crops like millet and raising pigs and other livestock. Credit Bryan Denton for The New York Times
The unfinished terminus of a half-built cable car system that was intended to bring tourists up to the Zhong cave. Some local residents say the project, which was supposed to be completed last year, halted after the investor ran out of money. Credit Bryan Denton for The New York Times
Even residents who are considering moving out seem to agree that $9,500 per person is too little money, especially because many are elderly and speak little or no Mandarin, meaning they could feel isolated if they leave the cave community. They still rely on their nearby land to grow the millet and vegetables on which they subsist.

Villagers have also complained about the quality of the new housing, saying it’s too small and poorly made.

During the 1980s, the outsiders who most often visited the Zhong cave were local government officials conducting checks to enforce China’s “one-child” policy. The measure was deeply unpopular among the villagers whose children work alongside their parents in the fields, tending to livestock.

Mr. Wang said that during those years, violators of the policy would sometimes be taken away for forced abortions and sterilization.

The single greatest change in the history of the cave was the introduction of electricity, only in 2002.

Surprisingly, the Chinese government did not bring electricity to the area. Instead, a wealthy American businessman from Minnesota, Frank Beddor Jr., was responsible.

A resident herding his cattle out to pasture past some of the cavern’s newer homes, built with wood rather than woven bamboo. Credit Bryan Denton for The New York Times
Mr. Beddor first visited the Zhong cave in 2002, and would ultimately return several more times — donating tens of thousands of dollars to connect the cave to the region’s electrical grid.

His continuing financial support also built a schoolhouse and a communal bathroom, and delivered livestock and other assistance to the villagers, dramatically improving their quality of life.

But in 2011, the school was closed by the local government, forcing residents to send their children, some as young as 5, to the region’s boarding school nearly two hours away.

Mr. Beddor died at age 83 in 2007. His emotional connection to the village is still a mystery to the villagers, some of whom remember the few times he visited the cave.

Frank Beddor Jr., an American businessman from Minnesota who first visited in 2002, donated the money to finally bring electricity into Zhong cave. Credit Bryan Denton for The New York Times
Wang Qicai, 39, a farmer who also runs a small general store out of his home in the cave, said young people may move out to become migrant workers, but many end up returning to have their families.

The cave, he said, “feels like home.”

“The weather inside the cave is amazing,” he added. “It feels like heaven.”

The lettings club where tenants are fined £90 for leaving dirty dishes

Rent from Lifestyle Club London and you are a ‘member’ … and that’s a whole new grey area

It was when Paolo Sanchez* needed to find affordable accommodation in London that he was lured by a Facebook ad offering a large, attractive room for a reasonable rate. Cleaning, utilities, broadband and council tax were thrown in. He applied, and moved into a eight-bedroom house-share in Hackney for £900 a month. Only then did he realise what he had let himself in for.

“The agent can come and go without notice and make a judgment on how tidy it is and, if they don’t like it, can fine all the occupants,” he says. “Three times people have been in our property. Most worrying, they can terminate the contract at any point giving us seven days to move out.”

The company, Lifestyle Club London, is a lettings agency calling itself a “membership club”. Those who sign up are, it claims, able to make the property they choose a principal residence for as long as they wish, or move between any other of its properties with 24 hours’ notice.

Instead of a deposit, it requires a nonrefundable £200 joining fee and a refundable membership fee, worth one month’s rent, which is, essentially, a deposit. “Members” then pay a monthly rate. The company compares itself to gig-economy firms such as Airbnb and Uber, which skirt around the usual rules to offer flexibility.

The catch is hidden in the terms and conditions, which make extraordinary reading. Tenants, or “members”, must maintain and replace white goods at their own expense and leave them in situ when they leave. If they require extra furniture they must pay half the cost and leave it for club use. Club staff are entitled to inspect rooms unannounced at any time and if “gross breaches” are identified the membership fee is withheld. “Gross breaches” can include the inevitable consequences of a large household. Sanchez, 22, and his eight housemates were fined £90 for leaving dirty dishes in the kitchen sink and £225 for removing graphic print-outs taped to the fridge warning of penalties for drug taking and dirty kitchens.

“We’re struggling to understand our position,” he says. “They have the power to create new fines essentially from nothing, and when one of the housemates moved out, the club refused to return his £600 deposit. We fear they intend to do that with all of us.”

Ever since the 1977 Protection from Eviction Act, landlords and lettings agents have sought ways around laws enshrining the rights of tenants. Many blur the legal distinction between “assured shorthold tenants”, who have exclusive rights to the accommodation and cannot be evicted without a court order, and “licensees” who typically occupy a hostel run by a registered social landlord, a holiday let or spare bedroom in a family home. They have fewer legal rights and can be evicted without a court order.

Lifestyle Club London appears to be an example of a lettings agent exploiting a legal grey area. Set up last August by 30-year-old Estonian Tiina Lehtla with capital assets of just £1, it seeks to imply its “members” are licensees, rather than tenants. Its Companies House registration – Lifestyle Club LSC Ltd – says it operates “housing association” real estate. But it is not a registered housing association and its website invites private landlords to add properties to its portfolio.

The penalties, right to unannounced access, “membership fee” and “monthly contributions” rather than rent create the impression residents do not have exclusive rights over the rooms they rent. At a stroke, this removes any of the rights of an assured shorthold tenancy, such as government-backed deposit protection and protection from eviction.

In one door and out the other: but the promise of more ‘flexible’ renting, without the ‘burden’ of a tenancy agreement, comes at a cost Photograph: Photography taken by Mario Gutiérrez./Getty Images
According to Robert Bolwell, a specialist in landlord and tenant law with Dutton Gregory LLP: “Even if someone renting a room does not have a formal tenancy agreement, since Lifestyle Club LSC is not a registered social landlord, it is difficult to see how the company can avoid the provisions of the Protection from Eviction Act and simply terminate their right to accommodation. The courts have long said that one should not look at labels when determining the nature of a contract. If the arrangement looks like a tenancy and smells like a tenancy, you may well have a ‘tenancy’, no matter what a landlord decides to call the arrangement.”

Lifestyle Club London trades from an address in the London borough of Islington. Last August, Islington trading standards successfully prosecuted a lettings agent, Green Live, for stating two of its tenants were “licensees” and refusing to register their deposits with a protected scheme, or allow them to challenge an eviction notice.

In what is thought to be the first case of its kind in the country, the agent was fined £11,000 under the Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 for issuing two sham licences. Trading standards says it is aware of Lifestyle Club London, but declines to confirm whether it is investigating.

Lifestyle Club London says that the flexibility it offers members outweighs what it admits are “disadvantages”. “It is true that under our agreements you are not under statutory protections, but on the other side you have much more flexibility.

“You can upgrade, downgrade, move in and out or relocate between club properties on your own terms and with very short notice without having the liability of a tenancy agreement. We simply came up with a new concept which some might call questionable but, likewise, so could the practices of Airbnb and Uber.”

It claims that members share properties with a resident landlord, which makes them licensees. Sanchez says there is not one in his house. Moreover, he says his requests to transfer to another club property have been stalled and there are no properties listed on the website or anywhere else, for “members” to choose from.

According to housing charity Shelter, Sanchez’s predicament is symptomatic of an overheated property market and official inertia has left young people on tight budgets particularly vulnerable.

Lifestyle Club London may not be breaking the law but mayor Sadiq Khan has committed to cracking down on lettings agents who do, last year releasing a “rogue landlord and agent checker” to name and shame private landlords and letting agents who have been prosecuted or fined.

Legislation in 2014 made it mandatory for lettings agents and property management firms to register with an approved arbitration scheme. Lifestyle Club London directs complainants to the Shared Accommodation Providers Association, a dormant company whose phone number and email address are out of service.

However, it’s also signed up to the officially approved Property Redress Scheme (PRS) which can expel members who do not comply with its rulings when a complaint is upheld. But it does not check their terms and conditions comply with its code of practice before accepting their membership. An expelled company can no longer trade legitimately.

Sanchez and his housemates can complain to PRS, but ultimately their contract would have to be tested in court. As he says: “Lifestyle Club holds all the cards. I’m actually happy with the accommodation, but the instability is very worrying.

“Many of us are students and to lose our home and a month’s rent would leave us struggling to survive.”

*His name has been changed

(Source: The Guardian)

Gertrude Stein’s mutual portraiture society

Between 1908 and her death, in 1946, Gertrude Stein created over a hundred prose portraits, which she called “word paintings.” Most of her portraits were of her friends: Alice B. Toklas, Matisse, Picasso, Sherwood Anderson, Erik Satie, Hemingway, Man Ray, Jean Cocteau, Jane Heap, Carl Van Vechten, Virgil Thomson, Alfred Stieglitz, Francis Picabia, Guillaume Apollinaire, and others.

In some cases, she was returning the favor of a friend having made a portrait of her in another medium. Picasso’s Portrait of Gertrude Stein was followed by Stein’s “Pablo Picasso,” which appeared in a special issue of Camera Work, edited by Alfred Stieglitz. (The issue also featured Stein’s Henri Matisse and reproductions of works by Picasso and Matisse.) Stein would then write a prose portrait of Stieglitz, too.

There’s something precious and annoying about these artists’ mutual admiration, but also something admirably transactional—you do me, I’ll do you, and we’ll both benefit. This mutual portrait project reached a new level of absurdity in 1923, when Stein’s “A Portrait of Jo Davidson” was published in Vanity Fair. Stein’s piece was accompanied by three photos: a photo by Man Ray of Davidson working on his recently completed sculpture of Stein (a bronze casting based on Davidson’s model now sits in Bryant Park); a photo of Jacques Lipchitz’s 1920 bronze bust of Stein; and a photo of Picasso’s 1907 painting.

The caption to Ray’s photo of Davidson reported that Stein had “returned [Davidson’s] compliment” by writing a portrait of him. Here is that portrait: “You know and I know, I know and you know, you know and I know, we know and they know, they know and we know, they know and I know, they know and they know you know and you know I know and I know.”

If there was something to be known, not even Davidson knew what it was. He wrote, in a 1951 memoir, “Gertrude did a portrait of me in prose. When she read it aloud, I thought it was wonderful. It was published in Vanity Fair with my portrait of her. But when I tried to read it out loud to some friends, or for that matter to myself, it didn’t make very much sense.”

Man Ray was also part of this mutual portrait society. In 1922, Ray took Gertrude Stein and Picasso’s Portrait, which shows her seated perpendicular to Picasso’s portrait of her, with the painted Stein regarding the real one. In 1924, Stein composed a prose portrait of Ray. “Sometime Man Ray sometime,” it went. “Sometime Man Ray sometime. Sometime Man Ray sometime. Sometime sometime.” (The portrait was never published.) Stein had granted Ray the exclusive right to photograph her, but this arrangement—and their friendship—ended in 1930, when Ray billed her for his services. That base mercenary request was out of place in the prestige economy. “My dear Man Ray,” Stein wrote. “We are all hard up, but don’t be silly about it.”

Stein’s exchanges with other artists were both an honor and a form of self-referential silliness, and usually asymmetrical. Her portraits were often incomprehensible even to their subjects, whom they nonetheless elevated by her touch; the physical portraits she received in return increased her visibility and notoriety.

Carl Van Vechten was a sneakier opportunist. Soon after meeting Stein, in 1913, Van Vechten appointed himself her champion in the U.S. In 1914, he wrote “How to Read Gertrude Stein,” the first of many public assertions of their mutual affinity and understanding. Over the next thirty years, Van Vechten arranged for the publication of Stein’s writing, organized her 1934 lecture tour in America, and wrote worshipful essays on and introductions to her work. As Edward White argues in The Tastemaker, Van Vechten’s greatest talent was not only for “recognizing and expressing” artists’ “brilliance,” but also, in doing so, “binding himself to their greatness.”

Stein reciprocated in various ways: she wrote two portraits of Van Vechten (three, actually—one was not published); she dedicated her 1934 book Portraits and Prayers to him; she let him photograph her; and she praised his writing and photography.

Even the pair’s private correspondence became an occasion to celebrate each other, though mostly to celebrate Stein. In the 1920s, Van Vechten started making his own postcards, following Stein’s custom of personalizing stationery with phrases from her own writing. In 1931, he wrote to Stein in France, reporting on his “postcard craze”: “I now have postcards of [Kristians] Tonny’s & Picasso’s portraits of you & if you can get me a photograph of it, I would have postcards of Jo Davidson’s statue too! I want to have this very much!”

Stein sent Van Vechten a photograph (possibly by George Lynes) of Davidson’s sculpture, and she asked Davidson to send Van Vechten some images as well. Davidson obliged, and Van Vechten photographed the photo and sent it back to Stein as a postcard.

Pleased by his postcard, in 1933 Stein, in turn, sent Van Vechten a postcard featuring a photograph of Francis Picabia and herself, holding between them Picabia’s painting of her. Twenty years earlier, Stein had published “Article,” a portrait of Picabia. No portrait could go unreciprocated.

Portraits and Prayers, with a photograph of Stein by Van Vechten on the cover, bears a dedication to him that reads, “TO CARL. Who knows what a portrait is because he makes and is them.” Stein also included in the book her third portrait of Van Vechten, “Van or Twenty Years After.”

Two months after Portraits and Prayers was published, Van Vechten, who had turned to photography full time, took Gertrude Stein, January 4, 1935, which he showed (along with a few other works) that year in the Second International Leica Exhibition of Photography in New York.

Van Vechten’s small contribution caught the attention of the art critic Henry McBride, who hailed Van Vechten as “the Bronzino of this camera period” and predicted that future “analyzers of Gertrude Stein” would have “all the data they need” in Van Vechten’s portrait. “They won’t require personal contacts.”

Stein herself seemed to know, as she sat for portraits and portraits of portraits, and made portraits of her admiring friends, that the portraits would replace them all. It’s a good thing there were so many. Now everyone in that society is dead — and famous.

(Source: The Paris Review)

An ancient Persian “refrigerator” stored food and even ice long before electricity was invented

In case someone ever tries to argue that ancient human civilizations were less advanced when compared to modern-day humanity, we’ve gathered some examples in favor of the ancients. They were, many a time, ingenious in the type of technology they came up with and employed in their everyday life.

Take the Incas, for example, who did not have a developed alphabetic system for writing but had the quipu, a counting device of knots and strings that enabled them to keep track of population records and livestock and even recaptured essential episodes of their folklore.

When it comes to engineering, architectural wonders are omnipresent on almost every continent, whether that be the pyramids of Egypt, Angkor Wat of the Khmer Empire, or even entire underground cities such as Derinkuyu in Turkey’s Cappadocia region. One great example of smart and sustainable engineering brings us to the Middle East, a realm noted for being one of the cradles of civilization and developing human cultures. There, around the 4th century B.C., the ancient Persians came up with what is known as yakhchāl.

The yakhchāl did not serve as a burial ground or a place to accommodate people, but it instead fulfilled another important function amid the scorching summers. With excessive heat and arid climate, the region had occupants, the ancient Persians, who needed some way to cool off and store food during the summer months, and that’s when yakhchāls were found of great help. The word stands for “ice pit.” These edifices provided both space and conditions to store not only ice but also many types of food that would otherwise quickly spoil at hot temperatures.

On the outside, a yakhchāl structure can dominates the skyline with its domed shape, and on the inside, it would typically integrate an evaporation cooler system that allowed the ice and food resources to stay cool or even frozen while stored in the structure’s underground rooms. It may sound a bit far-fetched that the ancient Persians saved ice in the middle of the desert, but their technique was, in essence, not so complicated.

A typical yakhchāl edifice would rise some 60 feet, and on the inside it would contain vast spaces for storage. The leading examples point to figures such as 6,500 cubic yards in volume. The evaporative cooling system inside the structures functioned through windcatchers and water brought from nearby springs via qanāts, common underground channel systems in the region designed to carry water through communities and different facilities.

The evaporative cooling allowed temperatures inside the yakhchāl to decrease with ease, giving a chill feeling that indeed you are standing inside one big refrigerator. The walls of it were constructed intelligently as well, with usage of special mortar that provided super insulation and protection from the hot desert sun. It was a mix of sand, clay, and other components such as egg whites and goat hair among others.

The structures also contained trenches at the bottom, designed to collect any water coming from molten ice. Once collected, this water was then refrozen during nighttime, making maximum use of the resource as well as the cold desert night temperatures. It was a repetitive process.

Not only did the yakhchāls provide basic food resources, treats, and ice for the royals and high state officials, but the service was so attainable that even the poorest of society could access it. Usage of yakhchāls has halted in modern times, and though some structures have been damaged and eroded by desert storms, still, many can be found intact across Iran and some of its neighboring countries, as far as to Tajikistan. The usage of the term yakhchāl lingers on in the region today, commonly referring to refrigerators found in modern-day kitchens.

(Source: The Vintage News)

Aussie marsupials are having so much sex they are literally killing themselves

They are small, mice-like critters known for their marathon mating sessions, which can last up to 14 hours. And that may be their undoing.

The Australian government has added two species of antechinus, the black-tailed dusky and the silver-headed, to its endangered species list, saying all that sex is killing them.

During mating season, which lasts for several weeks each year, males and females move frantically from one mate to another. There's no courtship, just sex -- with as many partners as possible.

"They literally become a marsupial zombie in their pursuit," Jeff Corwin, wildlife expert and TV host, told CNN.

Males only live about a year, and the females live up to three years, but on average, they both die after a litter is born.

So while the round-the-clock fornication stresses both sexes, only the males produce testosterone, said Andrew Baker, head of a research team that has discovered five new species of antechinus since 2012.

The constant high levels of testosterone keep the stress hormone, cortisol, from shutting off.

Eventually, it reaches toxic levels and causes the animal's immune system to malfunction. The animal then bleeds internally and dies.

A researcher displays an antechinus, which is the size of a large mouse.
It isn't just sex
A species that purges half of its adult population every year is already in a vulnerable situation, but the antechinus also faces pressure from humans.

"The antechinus is doing what it's been doing for millions and millions of years. This strategy to be very, very active sexually and very competitive with males coming in to take your female away, this is nothing new to this species," Corwin said.

"It's not too much sex. What's killing the species is habitat loss, climate change; and perhaps the biggest impact are invasive predator species, like dogs, cats and rats. They're outcompeting this species to extinction, and this species, as it shows us, just wants to have a good time."

Baker says there could be as few as a few hundred animals of each of the two species left. In order to save them, he believes humans need to get the antechinus to migrate to southern Australia, where it's colder. But researchers aren't sure how to introduce them to those areas.

So what if researchers tried to keep males and females separated? Baker says the males would only make it if males and females were in total isolation and only if females were introduced one at a time.
In an experiment, castrated males did survive -- but that doesn't do much for reproduction.

"Life is incredibly valuable," Corwin said. "It's miraculous in the way that it survives. And the antechinus illustrates that, but unfortunately, it's being pressured to the verge of extinction. We may lose this species before we ever know what its great natural value is."

Death by sex may seem counterproductive to the survival of a species, but many animals have evolved the behavior to maximize reproduction. Another example: garter snakes, who engage in massive, tangled orgies so exhausting the males age faster and die sooner. Have fun Googling that one.

(Source: CNN)

Friday, 18 May 2018

How does the royal family make its money?

Most people make money from their day jobs. British royals are not most people.

Queen Elizabeth II and the British royal family have multiple sources of income, but they're still not as rich as you might expect.

Media reports have estimated the Queen's personal fortune is worth up to £360 million ($470 million). That's a nice chunk of change, but over 320 Brits are richer, according to the Sunday Times.

The Queen and the heir to her throne, Prince Charles, receive most of their income from the government and their private estates. Millions trickle down to the rest of the family, including Prince William and his wife Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge. Prince Harry, who will wed American actress Meghan Markle on May 19, also receives royal funds.

Here's how the royal finances work:

Queen Elizabeth II
The Queen's three main sources of income are the Sovereign Grant, the Duchy of Lancaster estate and her personal property and investments.

The Sovereign Grant -- an annual lump sum from the government -- is essentially an expense account, covering the costs of travel, security, staff and the upkeep of royal palaces.

The Queen received £42.8 million ($58 million) free of tax from the Sovereign Grant in the 2016-2017 fiscal year. The payment was projected to balloon by 78% to £76.1 million ($103 million) in the latest fiscal year to help finance an extensive renovation of Buckingham Palace.

The Sovereign Grant is generated from the Crown Estate, a collection of UK properties and farms that generate hundreds of millions of pounds each year. The vast majority of earnings from the Crown Estate go into government coffers, but a portion of the profits -- between 15% to 25% -- are given to the Queen in the form of the Sovereign Grant.

Queen Elizabeth II receives an annual income from public and private sources.
Another important source of income for the monarch is the Duchy of Lancaster, a private estate of commercial, agricultural and residential properties that dates back to 1265. It produced £19.2 million ($26 million) in income for the Queen during the most recent fiscal year. The Queen uses this money to pay for official and private expenses, including some costs incurred by other members of the royal family who undertake official engagements on her behalf.

The Queen also has her own personal assets, including Balmoral Castle in Scotland, and the Sandringham Estate in the east of England. Both were inherited from her father and are beloved family retreats.

But her wealth extends far beyond real estate. The Queen also owns a valuable stamp collection, numerous works of art and a stock portfolio.

Other assets closely associated with the Queen, including the Crown Jewels and many works of fine art, are actually owned by the Royal Collection Trust, a charity.

The Queen' husband -- Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh -- also receives an annual payment worth £359,000 ($488,000) to finance his official duties. He retired last year after more than six decades of public service.

Prince Charles and his clan
Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, known formally as The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall, rely on a a mix of public and private money.

Over 90% of their income comes from a private estate, the Duchy of Cornwall, which was established in 1337 to provide an income to the heir to the throne. The Duchy of Cornwall owns and operates land in rural and urban areas, a collection of islands and rental cottages in places like Wales and Cornwall.

In the most recent financial year, the couple made £20.7 million ($28 million) from the estate.

The couple also received £1.3 million ($1.8 million) from the Queen's Sovereign Grant and another £461,000 ($627,000) from various UK government departments.

The Sovereign Grant is used to pay the couple's official travel and property expenses. The government cash goes toward some official overseas trips and the salaries of members of the military who protect the family.

Roughly half of their annual income is spent on official duties and travel, while a quarter goes to the tax man. The remaining £6.6 million ($8.9 million) goes to Charles' children, "non-official" purchases and a royal savings account.

Meghan Markle is set to wed Prince Harry on May 19.
When Markle officially joins the clan, Prince Charles has the discretion to give the couple more money.

Prince William, Kate and Prince Harry are also reimbursed for costs when they perform official duties on behalf of the Queen.

Prince William and Prince Harry have private, inherited wealth from their mother, Princess Diana.

The rest of the family
There is limited public information about how the rest of the royal family make their money. The Queen has three other children aside from Prince Charles, and they too have children, spouses and grandchildren.

The Queen's two youngest children, Andrew, the Duke of York, and Edward, the Earl of Wessex, work full-time to support the monarchy, which involves appearing at public engagements on behalf of their mother.

The Queen pays her children for these duties through her income from the Sovereign Grant and Duchy of Lancaster.

The next generation of royals is expected to forge their own careers and required to be more independent. For example, Andrew's daughters -- Princess Beatrice and Princess Eugenie -- have full time jobs in the business and art worlds, respectively. But they also receive some financial support from their father.

(Source: CNN)

The strange history of the “King-Pine”

Nina-Sophia Miralles, the founder and editor of Londnr magazine, writes about the strange history of the pineapple as a spiky signifier of wealth, in the Paris Review. Read on: 

“There is no nobler fruit in the universe,” Jean de Léry writes of the pineapple. Charles Lamb loved the fruit erotically: “Pleasure bordering on pain, from the fierceness and insanity of her relish, like a lovers’ kisses she biteth.”  Pieter de la Court professes: “One can never be tire’d with looking on it.” How did these men, and so many others, become so enraptured with the pineapple? And how have we forgotten its former grandeur?

In 1496, when Christopher Columbus was returning from his second voyage to the Americas, he brought back a consignment of pineapples. Little did he know that this golden gift, nestled among the tame parrots, tomatoes, tobacco, and pumpkins, would be the crowning glory of his cargo.

The fateful pineapple that reached King Ferdinand was the sole survivor: it was the only specimen that had not dissolved into a sticky rot during the journey. It produced enough of an impression for Peter Martyr, tutor to the Spanish princes, to record the first tasting: “The most invincible King Ferdinand relates that he has eaten another fruit brought from those countries. It is like a pine-nut in form and colour, covered with scales, and firmer than a melon. Its flavour excels all other fruits.”

At least part of the excitement came from the fruit’s spiked form, which sent Europeans into rapture. King Ferdinand’s envoy to Panama, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdes, writes, “[It is] the most beautiful of any fruits I have seen. I do not suppose there is in the whole world any other of so exquisite and lovely appearance.”

The sweetness of the pineapple, too, should not go unmentioned. Renaissance Europe was a world essentially bereft of common sweets. Sugar refined from cane was an expensive commodity, and orchard-grown fruits were subject to seasons. The pineapple may well have been the tastiest thing anyone had ever eaten. But delicious or otherwise, it was still the preserve of adventurers, and the pineapple might never have made it into common lore if it hadn’t coincided with yet another global development: the widespread dissemination of the written word.

Though books had been in production since the mid fifteenth century, the sixteenth century saw an estimated increase of 130 million books flood Western Europe. Sailors and scholars alike took up the pen to chronicle tales from the New World, its civilizations, climate, flora, and fauna. Suddenly, wider knowledge of the pineapple led people to notice its glaring absence in the Bible and classical texts.

As Fran Beauman notes in her book The Pineapple, “That it was previously unknown in the Old World meant that it was free of the cultural resonances that engulfed other fruits.” While the pomegranate suffered under the legacy of Persephone and the apple was stained by the creation story, the pineapple was, Beauman continues, “a completely blank page” onto which ruling powers could press their own meanings.

It did not take long for the absolutist monarchy, still unshaken on the continent, to co-opt the pineapple for its own purposes. The French priest Father Du Tertre may have been the first to bless it “the king of fruits,” but by the mid seventeenth century, this imperial image was exceedingly popular. The French physician Pierre Pomet’s exalting explanation runs: “It was thought a just Appellation … to call the Ananas the King of Fruits, because it is much the finest and best of all that are upon the Face of the Earth. It is for this Reason that the King of Kings has plac’d a Crown upon the Head of it, which is an essential mark of its Royalty.”

The pineapple became a symbolic manifestation of the divine right of kings. Not only did it suit Royalist agendas to claim anything with a crown had been appointed by heaven, but the distance the pineapple had to travel to get to Europe meant few people had seen or tried one. This added an extra mythical quality that could not be contested. The situation in England, however, was set to change.

During the sparing Cromwellian years that followed the English Civil War of 1642, there are no mentions of the pineapple in print. To the staunchly protestant Cromwell, “the pineapple must have seemed like an insufferable luxury compared, to, say, the humble pear,” Beauman writes. Besides, Cromwell was not willing to embrace a fruit whose leafy headgear was read as evidence of God’s favor. In England, torn by issues of governance, the pineapple was briefly the enemy.

Then Charles II was recalled to take the throne in 1660, and a new era of plenty was ushered in. Nicknamed the Merry Monarch, Charles II was celebrated for his voluble personality, swaggering court of cavaliers, and rapacious love of women. Cromwellian Puritanism was cast aside in favor of the revival, and splendor returned to the dining table with glistening meats, trembling jellies, and sugar sculptures. In the pineapple, which Charles II christened “King-Pine,” he saw an opportunity.

In 1668, when the French ambassador came to England to mediate a heated debate over the island of Saint Kitts in the West Indies, Charles II ordered a pineapple from Barbados, then an English colony, to be perched at the top of a pyramid of fruit at dinner. It was a wily move to assert English ascendancy in the region, and a public-relations triumph. “We can get pineapples,” it seemed to relay, “and you can’t.”

From then on, the pineapple became Charles II’s favorite status symbol. He even had a painting commissioned of himself being presented a pineapple by the royal gardener, though this was another bit of clever PR: the pineapple still could not be grown in northern climes.

Charles II presented with a pineapple, C. 1675.
As European kingdoms tussled for power in the colonies, and particularly as the Dutch gained ground, English access to pineapples would continue to be leveraged as proof of their strength. Unluckily for the British, the Dutch were also keen and able gardeners. The first greenhouse was constructed in the Netherlands in 1682, intensifying the rivalry between the two nations.

When the Dutch cloth merchant Pieter de la Court had a breakthrough in the process of growing pineapples, the English were galled into a jealous frenzy. This only subsided when a former English princess and her Dutch husband, ironically named William of Orange, took the throne. William’s new title as king of England did much to calm the pineapple wars.

By the Georgian era, pineapples could be raised on the British Isles. Cue countrywide madness. As the Enlightenment period made the rich richer, the landed aristocracy began to engage in a frenzy of new hobbies, including gambling, boozing, and time-consuming, expensive pineapple cultivation. Pineries needed care around the clock, custom-built greenhouses, and mountains of coal to keep the temperatures high. The fruit took three to four years to bloom. The cost of rearing each one was equivalent to eight thousand dollars in today’s money.

The sheer expense meant it was considered wasteful to eat them, and they remained, as during Charles II’s reign, dinnertime ornaments. A pineapple would be passed from party to party until it began to rot, and the maids who transported the pineapples placed themselves in mortal danger should they be accosted by thieves.

For those who did not have the funds to grow their own, a bevy of pineapple-rental shops sprung up. By the 1770s, it had entered the lexicon as a commendation. “A pineapple of the finest flavour” was a phrase used for anything that was the best of the best. (For instance: “My birthday party was a pineapple of the finest flavour.”) In Sheridan’s 1775 play The Rivals, a character compliments another by pronouncing, “He is the very pineapple of politeness.”

Teapot, Edward Warburton, 1760.
During the expansion of trade in eighteenth-century Britain, home-goods companies began to cash in on the pineapple as a status symbol. Wedgwood, the makers of fine china, began to produce tableware with pineapple themes for the upper classes. Carved stone pineapples appeared on plinths outside grand manor houses, pronouncing to passersby the largesse and high standing of the family within. They adorned carriages, topped garden temples, figured in countless paintings, and were turned into enormous sculptures gracing country gardens.

Pineapples had become synonymous with good taste, nobility, and limitless wealth. It was a primarily English phenomenon. Pineapples disappeared from France after the 1789 Revolution, and other countries such as Spain, Portugal, and even Russia (where a pineapple had once made it to the court of Catherine the Great) could not keep up with the UK’s heavy investment in pineapple cultivation.

Built in 1761, the Dunmore Pineapple is an iconic Scottish landmark
As steamships began to import the fruit in greater quantities from the colonies, the pineapple’s reputation deteriorated. Industrialization, war, and shortages served to push the fruit further from cultural consciousness. It seems strange now that this fruit, easily purchased in chunks at any supermarket, ever engendered such furor.

Yet in the past few years, the world (or at least the world of those who shop at Urban Outfitters) has witnessed a return of the pineapple motif. Its bristly shape appears on clutch bags, in the form of novelty shot glasses, stuck on cute stationary and phone cases. After the advent of cheap canned pineapple rings and pineapple chunks atop Hawaiian pizzas, it seems difficult to believe that this most recent embrace of the pineapple’s whimsical form has anything to do with status. Trends in hipster decorating motifs—from owls to pineapples and on, more recently, to cacti and flamingos—follow little discernible logic.

Trend Bible pins the emergence of the pineapple as connected to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil and a subsequent growing interest in South America, though the “King-Pine” appeared on wallpaper and statement socks as early as 2014. Perhaps the memory of when people had never seen anything so spiky or tasted anything so sweet lingers in our collective subconscious. At the very least, the modern love of the pineapple feeds into people’s constant yearning for summer, for faraway tropical lands. A life of heat and pleasure. A life of leisure, in fact, just like aristocrats once had.

Mahanati: The important tale of Savitri — superstar and woman

The actor takes her own sweet time to absorb Savitri, initially looking out-of-sorts with her forced enthusiasm and later stunningly dissolving into the psyche of the superstar, writes Neelima Menon in Full Picture. Read on: 

Savitri sways into the frame draped in rich kancheevarams and a beauteous smile. She calmly accepts the director’s challenge to perform a scene where she must shed exactly two drops of tears from one eye. Once done to perfection, the director acknowledges her feat with humility. It’s a craftily designed scene ushering in the first lady superstar of Indian cinema. In a way it underlines the colourful folklore surrounding Savitri—a superstar of south Indian cinema of the 1950s and 60s. Her unquestionable aura, talent and generosity. Mahanati (titled Nadigaiyar Thilagam in Tamil) directed by Nag Ashwin is an important film, more so as it chronicles the life and times of a heroine, a female superstar, in an industry seeped in patriarchy. And it’s a story, despite being a perceptibly filtered version, that needs to be told.

The film is set in the early 80s where a rookie reporter, Madhuravani (Samantha) is assigned the task of writing a story on Savitri, who is on her deathbed. The film goes back and forth to narrate her story through the people close to her, parallelly infusing a love track between Vani and her colleague.

Savitri, right from childhood, is shown as an irrepressible child with a talent for theatre and dance and drawing people towards her like a magnet. The narrative, while archiving her metaphoric rise to stardom, focusses more on her personal journey. Her marriage to the much-married Gemini Ganesan, her ensuing star value, addiction to alcohol, and her eventual bankruptcy.

We aren’t quite fed on her jaunts on the sets (there is a brief verbal pow-wow with her first director), or how she clawed her way into the existential patriarchal system (set in the 40s and 50s), or how she broke the rules, got equal billing with the heroes and had films written for her. That part is often finished in a dialogue or a song. There are no mentions about a rivalry either. It somehow looks so easy and equally hard to buy.

There is enough focus on her romance with Gemini Ganesan and that arc is nicely done, riddled in moral complexity. Gemini Ganesan’s characterisation is as intricate as Savitri’s and Dulquer Salmaan brings all that to the fore with a measured intensity. His simmering infatuation for Savitri later explodes into a love that questions the moral fabric of the society. His relationship with his first wife isn’t explored, neither his affair with Pushpa Valli. The writing is interesting in those scenes depicting his ego battles with Savitri’s stardom and their oddly intense love affair.

There are pages from her life that make us think she was also a feminist, a stubborn fighter who refused to be beaten. True, she reluctantly agrees to act post marriage, but she achieves better success soon after, refusing to let her corroding relationship with Ganesan affect her career. Her passion for car racing, her ability to withstand any crisis, her unbridled generosity and kindness that helped her reach an almost divine status…and her lifelong sorrow of not meeting her father. It’s during these multifaceted scenes that Keerthy Suresh really takes charge. The actor takes her own sweet time to absorb Savitri, initially looking out-of-sorts with her forced enthusiasm and later stunningly dissolving into the psyche of the superstar. That passage where she breaks down upon witnessing Ganesan’s betrayal was a beauty. And she was perfect every time she did a take-off of Savitri on camera in those meta scenes. 

What seemed out of place was the corresponding romance between Madhuravani (Samantha, who keeps repeating herself in every film) and Vijay Anthony (Vijay Devarakonda). Except for stretching the running time, it served no purpose; especially superficial were the scenes at the church and her supposed empowerment. 

Dani Sanchez-Lopez arrestingly captures the 40s and 50s, the black and white tones (the on camera and off camera transition was superb), and equally brilliantly textures the 80s. The songs too complement that time, evoking nostalgia melodically (Niazhavendi Nindre being my top pick).

True, the hat-tip to the legends of the time had apt actors (Nagachaithanya as Akkineni Nageshwara Rao, Mohan Babu as SV Ranga Rao, Prakash Raj as Aluri Chakrapani) but I wish the director had explored more into the dynamics between them and Savitri than put them up as glorified props.

In the end Mahanati, a biopic about an iconic actress also speaks about the deep-seated patriarchy that still hung as a Damocles sword over the unequal power play in a husband-wife relationship, about the deeply flawed institution called marriage (there is a scene when the same crowd who boos Savitri claps when Ganesan calls her Mrs. Savitri Ganesan), about the thin boundaries between love and morality and how actresses always had a shelf-life. That way Mahanati is also a powerful social commentary. 

Hippos poop so much that sometimes all the fish die

Their dung consumes the oxygen around it, creating lethal pulses of suffocating water, writes Ed Yong in the Atlantic. Read on: 

At first, Chris Dutton and Amanda Subalusky had no idea why the fish were dying.

At a bridge on the border between Kenya and Tanzania, they noticed that whenever the Mara River rose by a few feet, dead fish would wash up on its banks, sometimes in the thousands. Storks, vultures, crocodiles, and hyenas made short work of the carcasses, so “if you weren’t there to see it, you’d never know it was happening,” says Dutton. Local rangers knew about the die-offs, but they blamed the events on farmers who sprayed pesticides in upstream fields.

It wasn’t the farmers. Through an increasingly bold set of experiments, involving remote-controlled boats, computer simulations, a makeshift dam, and vast tankers of excrement-filled water, Dutton and Subalusky identified the real culprits: hippos.

The duo, who are married, published their results in a paper with the remarkably polite title of “Organic matter loading by hippopotami causes subsidy overload resulting in downstream hypoxia and fish kills.” To translate: Hippos sometimes poop so much that all the fish choke to death.

At night, hippos wander into grasslands to graze. During the day, they return to rivers to keep cool and protect themselves from sunburn. As they wallow, they constantly urinate and defecate. Every day, the 4,000 or so hippos in the Mara deposit about 8,500 kilograms of waste into a stretch of river that’s just 100 kilometers long. “Down at the bridge, you can put a net in the water for a few seconds, and the entire middle will just be coated with hippo feces,” says Dutton. “There’s hippo feces everywhere. Over the rocks. Over the bottom.”

A hippo pool. (Chris Dutton)
In the dry season, when the Mara becomes narrower and shallower, certain stretches of it become especially thick with hippos—and their dung. Hippos are aggressive and dangerous, so only the foolhardiest of researchers would wade into these so-called hippo pools. Instead, Dutton and Subalusky deployed a remote-controlled boat armed with sensors. It revealed that the mud and water at the bottom of these hotspots is a stagnant mess of ammonia, methane, hydrogen sulfide, and other chemical grotesqueries. It’s also starved of oxygen: Almost all of the gas is consumed by bacteria as they slowly digest the accumulated hippo poop.

During heavy rains, extra water floods into the hippo pools, churning up the putrefying muck and sending it off downstream. For good reason, these events are called “flushing flows.” To study them, Dutton and Subalusky used an oxygen-logger—an arm-long cylindrical device that, to the untrained eye, looks rather like a pipe bomb. “We always get stopped at airports,” Dutton says. Once dangled off the side of a bridge, the logger revealed that flushing flows dramatically reduce the oxygen levels of the downstream river, often to levels that are lethal for many aquatic animals. That, says Dutton and Subalusky, suffocates the fish.

The duo went out of their way to confirm this idea. They added hippo poop to bottles of water and demonstrated that oxygen levels fall. They added poopy water to “experimental streams”—long trays designed to simulate a flowing river. But they still craved a more realistic experiment. “We were talking about ways of how we could create a flood through a pool, and some other researchers said: Why don’t you build a small dam?”

Inspired, the duo used sandbags to block off the water supply to a nearby pool that’s in hippo territory but not frequented by the animals. A Maasai fixer connected them to a guy who had a large truck, another guy who owned two huge 4,000-liter tanks, and a third guy who owned a large wastewater pump. With all of that, the team transferred 16,000 liters of soiled hippo water into their artificial pool. And when they released the sandbags, they found that oxygen levels did indeed plummet in the water downstream.

8,000 liters of poopy hippo water going into an artificial reservoir. (Chris Dutton)
Bizarrely, this is the second study to be published this week on how hippo poop affects river environments. Keenan Stears, from the University of California at Santa Barbara, did similar work in Tanzania’s Great Ruaha River. Unlike the Mara, the Ruaha’s waters have been heavily drained by upstream farms. During the dry season, it stops flowing altogether, and its hippos are confined to isolated pools. Stears found that pools with lots of hippos have much less oxygen than those where the beasts are rare. As such, they had half the diversity of fish and invertebrate species, and just 4 percent the numbers of fish. Only in the wet seasons, when water once again flowed between the pools, did the fish and invertebrates bounce back.

Stears estimates that around 94 percent of hippo populations in Africa live in rivers like the Ruaha that have either already started to dry up or will likely do so as the climate changes. “The results from our study are indicative of emerging issues relevant to the whole of Africa,” he says.

This “reinforces the need to maintain flows in these river systems during the dry season,” adds Frank Masese, from the University of Eldoret in Kenya.

But Dutton and Subalusky’s study shows that hippos and their oxygen-sucking waste can occasionally be problematic, even in relatively pristine rivers like the Mara. And their work challenges us to reconsider what pristine even means.

Last year, the duo showed that migrating wildebeest nourish the Serengeti by drowning en masse in the Mara, adding about 1,100 tons of dead meat to the river every year. “The Mara really is a unique system,” Subalusky says. Hippos and wildebeest act as conveyor belts, channeling land-based nutrients into the water in the form of excrement and carcasses. And that water runs through a landscape that’s dominated by herds of elephants, and thousands of zebras and gazelles.

In this way, the Mara reflects what rivers elsewhere in the world might have once looked like, before humans slaughtered their way through mammoths, bison, and other megafauna. It’s not a babbling brook of clear water. It’s a world of dead bodies, putrefying poop, and the occasional wave of suffocation.