Archive for September, 2008

Soyuz vs. Shuttle

Posted in Uncategorized on September 25, 2008 by salul

Just ran into these short, raw data. Made me remember, and feel better, about how I used to wish I could fly to space from Baikonur when I was a kid.

As of 2006 (and there haven’t been any fatalities since):

Soyuz (1967-Present)
Flights: 95
Failures: 4 (2 non-fatal)
Failure Rate: 4.21%

Cosmonauts Flown: 228
Fatalities: 4
Fatality Rate: 1.75%

Shuttle (1981-Present)
Flights: 116
Failures: 3 (1 non-fatal)

Failure Rate: 2.59%

Astronauts Flown: 692
Fatalities: 14
Fatality Rate: 2.02%

One of the two fatal accidents with Soyuz was a human error – someone depressurized the capsule on re-entry.

I’ll take my chances with Soyuz, thank you very much. As far as the number of astronauts flown and the number of flights, this is a pointless metric if you consider that most Russian space programs are long-term. They send their cosmonauts up there for half a year, sometimes longer, so they need fewer flights. Add to that the fact that their resupply spacecraft is unmanned, so fewer flights are needed still.

Hear, hear

Posted in Uncategorized on September 22, 2008 by salul

Just ran into this statement by the editor of The Independent (UK news daily):

I haven’t asked for a car. I don’t like being a burden, particularly in times of financial stress. When you get asked to do things like this it’s a great honour and you should do them to the best of your ability and not take stuff.

I like this guy (naturally, he’s a Londoner). His is a thought I hope I can continue to hold on to within the context of the current work environment that I inhabit…in which privileges, perks and bonuses are too easily taken to be entitlements, rather than merit-driven rewards. More often than not, undeserved rewards, especially in light of the “straitened times” we ourselves are going through, and which should focus our attention on the most efficient way to distribute and employ existing funds, rather than how much milk the cow will provide.


My two cents for today.

Covarrubias and the South Seas collection of the Museo Nacional de las Culturas (Mexico)*

Posted in Fieldwork (Melanesia) on September 13, 2008 by salul
*During the past week I wrote up an extensive email, inviting several colleagues to collaborate in a museum catalogue for an exhibition of Oceanic art and artefacts that is to be held next year in Mexico City. I reproduce here, in enlarged and edited form, my original missive.

Recently, one of the main national museums in Mexico, the Museo Nacional de las Culturas, contacted me in order to assist them in organizing an exhibition of their South Seas collection.

To my astonishment, I discovered that the MNC have a really amazing set of approximately 250 Oceanic artefacts that were brought to Mexico in the 1950s by their then director, Miguel Covarrubias – more famously known in the Anglo-Saxon world for his Island of Bali book).

In effect, Covarrubias is widely known for having been a talented artist and caricaturist, as well as a canny self-promoter of the arts and humanities – and was indeed quite successful at portraying himself as a key member of the 1920s and 30s Mexican avantgarde of intellectuals and artistes to which people like Diego and Frida belonged. He was clearly quite a looker, to boot (thus he could, and often did, strike some pretty impressive, almost over-the-top, poses, such as the one above). In sum, Covarrubias was a fascinating, multilayered kind of proto-bobo (even though his career predated the coinage and popularisation of this term by several decades, it nevertheless conforms to its definition in ways that I find convincing enough to apply to him, a bit tongue-in-cheek). Moreover, for our purposes, he was also a highly informed traveler and admirer of the Asian-Pacific arts, as his Bali book has long confirmed. Hence, he was instrumental in founding the MNC and building up its most important non-Mexican collections.

For this reason the MNC’s Oceanic collection is surprisingly coherent – Covarrubias clearly knew what he was up to, and secured some very valuable objects during the swap that he arranged with the folks in charge of the Australia and Pacific Collections at the Field Museum. The collection itself is made up mostly of Melanesian objects, especially representative of the Solomons, island PNG and the Sepik. These objects were originally collected by Albert B. Lewis (1867-1940) during the 1909-1913 Joseph N. Field South Pacific Expedition, and include a malanggan from New Ireland, a number of amazing headdresses from across island PNG, and a garamut from the Rai coast of PNG, as well as several large shields, headdresses and anthropomorphic artefacts that are clearly meant to represent ancestral (Melanesian) presences. The collection also includes a number of Fijian and Central Polynesian clubs and a few artefacts from South Malakula, Vanuatu, but very few items from Micronesia or Polynesia as a whole.

The Oceanic collection at the MNC has never really been exhibited properly (it is currently housed in a nicely done but rather obscure corner of the 16th century MNC building in downtown Mexico City). This, coupled with the fact that the MNC wanted to organize a major exhibition to mark the 70th anniversary of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH, which is the foremost government research and teaching institution in charge of most of Mexico’s national heritage), means that there are suddenly funds and a great interest in mounting a large exhibition in the second half of 2009, which would be lodged in the International wing of the National Museum of Anthropology, in Mexico City.

The basic idea behind this exhibit is to supplement the existing Oceanic collection at the MNC with Polynesian and Micronesian artefacts from other musea, most notably the Field Museum in Chicago.

As for my part in all of this, I have been hired as Research Assistant to the Curator of this exhibit, Dr. Raffaela Cedraschi, who is a permanent curator and researcher at the MNC and has previously organized a major and very successful exhibit involving African artefacts from other of the MNC’s collections. We are now working on a draft paper that will function as our project proposal.

The basic concept is to organize the exhibit in such a way that it highlights all three major traditional regions of Oceania – Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia. Australia will not figure in this exhibition. However, we want this to be a dynamic exhibit, which highlights key aspects of Oceanic cultures and cosmologies, and have decided to experiment a little bit with how we conceptualise and present the various exhibits. Thus far, we have thought of dispensing with the traditional Melanesia-Polynesia-Micronesia division and have begun to settle on a five-part scheme which is designed on the basis of five more or less pan-Oceanic concepts, or fundamentals, which are: Moana, Fanua, Mana, Tamate (or tapu) and Kula [these last two are tentative, since they are more geographically-bound terms].

These concepts are intended to allow us to organize the artefacts on the basis of the basic ideas that they evoke, namely, the sea and maritime environment, land and territorial identity, power, ancestry/topogeny/fractality and the supernatural, and exchange/circulation as the basis for creating social value. 

The point is to try to break free of coherent and predetermined socio-geographic boundaries and emphasize the interconnected and dynamic nature of Oceanic societies.

There it is, in a nutshell. Any comments, advice and/or critiques are warmly welcomed.


Rosa y Miguel Covarrubias (photographer unknown)

Rosa & Miguel Covarrubias (photographer unknown)

In praise of Sir Raymond Firth (1)

Posted in Fieldwork (Melanesia) on September 9, 2008 by salul

A few years ago, while working on a chapter in my PhD thesis relating to the ritual significance 

We, the Tikopiaof the Torres Islands stone ovens (L-T: gwe), I ran into the unabridged first edition (1936) of We, the Tikopia. To my astonishment, I discovered that 
for much of the opening descriptions in the book Sir Raymond went on and on about ovens, cooking and -most importantly- the various roles that diverse people played in the construction of ovens and the cooking process. In his words:

Cooked food has a direct bearing on kinship in that so many obligations are fulfilled in terms of food, and to some extent the nature and quality of the dish are indices of the timbre, as it may be called, of the relationship. (We, the Tikopia, 1967: 103)

If I haven’t lost you yet, the points I want to make here are twofold.

First, as I have discovered over the course of several field trips to theA Torres Islands gwe Torres, many of the key moments of ritual exchange in North Vanuatu (and across the broader North Van-South East Sols region) are intimately related not only to cooking, but to the full process of constructing a stone oven, cooking the relevant food, and finally, distributing the kakae. In effect, it is clear to me that ovens are inseparable from, and indeed function as key indices for, the manner in which relationships – both ritualised and quotidian- play themselves out in local and regional socioscapes. This much was clear to Firth himself, who, when describing the “principal avenues” of his approach to kinship, mentioned biography, residence, linguistics, material culture, and what he referred to as “the alimentary approach”.

Old Oceania hands will realise that I’m not saying anything new here. Nevertheless, as Pat Kirch and Roger Green pointed out some time ago,

“The comparative ethnography of food is a neglected topic.” They also noted that “Perhaps only in Firth’s classic, We, the Tikopia is the entire process from lighting the earth oven to the consumption of the family meal exquisitely detailed”, but mentioned that “Inexplicably, the fascinating section detailing Tikopian recipes was eliminated from the later, paperback edition now read by students.”

The second point I wanted to make, and that I suppose will come up again in future references to Firth, is the exquisite style of ethnographic narrative that is to be found throughout his ouvre. His was a careful, meticulous, and sometimes even lyrical form of description; importantly, it was rendered in such a way that the analysis never really got in the way of the descriptive flow, thereby making for quite a page-turner (at least in my eyes), by which I mean a very lengthy, but ultimately fluid, sort of ethnographic text. More importantly, to one familiar with the context of Melanesian anthropology, the richness of his ethnographic descriptions and insights in We, the Tikopia are all the more impressive when one considers that the first and original period of fieldwork from which that book emerged lasted only for twelve months. Certainly I speak for myself when I say that many of Firth’s first observations carry a sensibility regarding the nuances of local cosmology and values which I have only begun to experience after four return trips to the Torres Islands (from which, incidentally, one can spy Tikopia on a REALLY clear day…if standing on the top of the highest rise on Hiw island).

In sum, I do believe that Firth’s writings offer a tidy exemplar of what a rich, theoretically unobtrusive and careful ethnographic narrative can be – so long as it is supported by equally penetrating powers of observation and synthesis while in the field. I also suspect that some of the freshness in this style of anthropological writing has sometimes been lost to the excessively self-reflexive precautions of poststructural strategies of writing and reading. But here I realise that I am getting into potentially hot water, and since that is a whole other kettle of bonito, as it were, I will end this post simply by inviting those of you who might have an interest in anthro topics to take some time out to reread (or discover for the first time) the work of this most distinguished predecessor of Oceanic studies.





Vanuatu election update

Posted in Fieldwork (Melanesia) on September 8, 2008 by salul

Finally able to get back to the blog. A cursory search has not yielded the sort of nitty gritty data that I long to sink my teeth into, but here and here are some of the latest to appear in the Daily Post (dated 4 and 5 Sept, respectively) regarding the Vanuatu election. Ralph himself offered the following (unofficial and incomplete) numbers as of last Tuesday, relating to the Port Vila race:

Unofficial results for Port Vila:

Ralph Regenvanu ( Ind ) – 1,607

Moana C. Kalosil (VGC) – 1,013

Edward N. Napei (VP) – 888

Maxime C. Korman (VRP) – 836

Patrick Crowby (NUP) – 813

David (Shep. All) – 646

Ralph also circulated the following message, which I am very happy to reproduce here, in the spirit of giving as much coverage and distribution to current events in Vanuatu:


Olgeta –

Folem ol “unofficial results” we yumi gat, mi mi lidim Port Vila konstituensi long ova long 1,600 vot, nambatu hemi Moana Carcasseswetem ova 1000 vot. Evri narawan oli kasem less than 1000 vot.

Namba blong mi hemi highest namba eva long Port Vila.

I soemaot klia nomo se ol man i vot blong jenis.

Tankyu long sapot blong yufala evriwan, mo naoia mi nidim sapot blong yufala blong mekem jenis.

Tankyu bakegen,


Finally, for those who might want to obtain further insights into the contemporary politics of Vanuatu, here you will find a handy link to a booklet outlining the party policies of some of the main parties that took part in these past elections.

EDIT: Although this note is from three days ago, it nevertheless indicates that one will have to be patient for a few more days…

I’ve also found this useful blog link with firsthand impressions and images of the run-up to the elections, and voting day itself, from a Peace Corps volunteer based in North Efate.

Winds of change in Vanuatu

Posted in Fieldwork (Melanesia) on September 4, 2008 by salul

This morning the trusty Pacific Beat podcast from Radio Australia gave preliminary results from the general elections of 2 Sept. in Vanuatu. Sadly, a quick web search has not yielded any sites that carry this breaking news, and the Vanuatu Daily Post has still not yet been updated, so I cannot link my patient and probably dwindling readers to anywhere relevant or informed.

However, the PB’s man on the ground in Port Vila reported that the preliminary counting indicates that Ralph Regenvanu, who was the former (extraordinary) director of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre and more recently a  member of the National Cultural Council, as well as a good friend and colleague, obtained at least 2,000 votes within the Port Vila district (6 seats up for grabs in this, the nation’s capital). This may not seem like much, but is huge when one considers that the usual voting numbers for candidates in a large electoral district within Vanuatu don’t normally breach the 1,000 vote mark.

In other words, by Vanuatu standards Ralph has made a historic and clean sweep of it and has thereby positioned himself to become one of the most outstanding political figures and quite possibly national leaders of Vanuatu in the coming years. Given the rot, sclerosis and overall two-party immobility that used to characterise Vanuatu politics until very few years ago, this is nothing short of amazing, and I want to use this very humble and brief space to salute Ralph and send him my most heartfelt well wishes.

On a more analytic note, it is very refreshing to confirm that, notwithstanding the fact that an urban electorate such as that of Port Vila will tend to be diverse, cosmopolitan and probably more open to young, educated and dynamic candidates, Ralph’s achievement provides some very compelling arguments against the tired myth about Melanesian communities and electorates tending to vote for “big men” candidates who act as providers and distributors of political favours and goodies. In point of fact, what this probably indicates is that, given the chance, people in the Melanesian islands actually can and WILL vote with their heads and not as faceless “traditionalist” collectivities. Of course, there are nuances for and against this comment, but I want to keep it brief, and so leave any debate open to whomever wants to reply to this post.