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Friday, March 26, 2010

Arrows of desire: How did St Sebastian become an enduring, homo-erotic icon?
How did a burly, middle-aged soldier become an enduring, homo-erotic icon? As Guido Reni's extraordinary series of St Sebastian paintings are shown together for the first time, Charles Darwent investigates...
The Independent

Saints alive: Six of the seven paintings from Guido Reni's St Sebastian series. Click 'more pictures' to scroll through.

Christian saints don't make the cover of gay magazines every day – even less so in a slick of baby oil and a pair of Calvins. But such was the case with last July'sissue of reFRESH, the saint in question being played by French policeman-turned-TV-hunk, Sebastien Moura.

Was he playing Ignatius Loyola? Francis of Assisi? Paul of Tarsus? Not quite. The only saint who really cuts it as a cover-boy is St Sebastian, that curly-haired Roman youth shot with arrows on the orders of the emperor Diocletian. Sebastian's appeal to gay men seems obvious. He was young, male, apparently unmarried and martyred by the establishment. Unlike, say, St Augustine of Hippo, he also looks good in a loincloth and tied to a tree. And never was Sebastian more winsome than in the seven versions of him painted by Guido Reni, six of which go on show at the Dulwich Picture Gallery next month.

Before we look at these, though, let'srewind for a moment. Follow me, if you will, to Rome – to the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli, not far from San Sebastiano Fuori le Mura, where the martyr's punctured remains have lain since the year 287 AD. Here, in a niche to the left, is the seventh-century mosaic of a middle-aged man, bearded and in Byzantine court dress. Given the church's name, you might take him for St Peter. You would be wrong. The saint is Sebastian, although he clearly will not see 40 again and there isn't an arrow in sight.

What's going on? Well, Sebastian is living proof of the fact that if saints didn't exist, we would have to invent them. Thanks to the arrows, he's the one martyr in art everyone can spot. (Iconography is so unfair. Who now recognises St Stephen's stones or St Lawrence's griddle?) A twinky torso also helps. Yet, according to his hagiographer, Ambrose of Milan, Sebastian was a red-blooded captain in the Praetorian Guard, a centurion of middling years: he is the patron saint of soldiers and athletes, not hairdressers. Far from riling Diocletian by proselytising for same-sex love, he was killed for converting Romans to Christianity. And we all know where that led.

But there is worse. Not only was St Sebastian middle-aged and butch, he wasn't killed with arrows. Punctured, yes, but not killed. The perforated martyr was rescued from the stake and nursed back to health by St Irene of Rome – a woman, boys – before unwisely haranguing Diocletian for his paganism as he passed by on a litter. Unmoved by his tenacity, the emperor had Sebastian clubbed to death; his body was then dumped in Rome's sewers. Had history been less kind, he might have ended up as patron saint of poo.

How this would have affected his career as a gay coverboy we will never know. I can only recall one representation in art of St Sebastian thrown into the Cloaca Maxima, and that – by Reni's contemporary and fellow Bolognese, Lodovico Carracci – is safely tucked away in The Getty Center in Los Angeles. By contrast, there are more pictures of the arrow-filled Sebastian than there are of any other martyr I can think of, painted by everyone from Aleotti to Zick by way of Rubens, Botticelli, Titian and John Singer Sargent. The National Gallery alone has a dozen, including ones by Crivelli, Gerrit Honthorst and Luca Signorelli. And they're all of the same Sebastian, the one who ends up, eventually, on the cover of reFRESH: a paragon of male beauty, his toned body, prettily stuck with arrows, exposed to our gaze; the martyr described by Oscar Wilde – who, in French exile, took the alias "Sebastian Melmoth" – as "a lovely brown boy with crisp, clustering hair and red lips".

So how do we get from a shit-encrusted Sebastian to a blow-dried Sebastien Moura? For an answer to that, take a trip to Dulwich.

Reni's six Sebastians have never been seen together before, and it is unlikely that they ever will be again. (One comes from New Zealand, another from Puerto Rico. A seventh, in the Louvre, was deemed too fragile to travel. If you need an excuse for a weekend in Paris, here it is.) It seems extraordinary that a painter should have gone back to the same subject so often, especially over so short a period. Latest scholarship dates all seven Sebastians to the 1610s, when Guido was in his thirties and newly home from Naples.

Some of this can be put down to political nous. Bologna had been annexed by the Papal States in the 16th century, and Sebastian was the third saint of Rome. Then again, Sebastian's gender-bending may have struck a chord with Reni. According to his biographer, Carlo Cesare Malvasia, Reni "turned to marble" in the presence of female models and lived with his mother until he was 55. After her death, he refused to have women in his house or to let a woman's laundry touch his own. Unlike his contemporary, Caravaggio, he seems to have had no gay life either. Sebastian is an unmistakably male saint, but one whose martyrdom is the embodiment of female passivity. Like the Virgin, his point is that he is pierced but pure. Far from being homoerotic, Reni's Sebastians are anti-erotic – a cancelling out of sexuality by a man who seems to have liked neither men, women nor good red herring.

None of this, though, explains the saint's transformation in painting from a Byzantine daddy to a Baroque twink. Here, Reni was only a follower of fashion. Piero della Francesca's Misericordia polyptych, painted two centuries earlier, already shows Sebastian as young, willowy and lightly rouged. But why?

In 1348, Europe had been ravaged by the Black Death: up to half of the entire population of the continent died in a torment of bloody flux. In their terror, Romans prayed to Sebastian – he'd survived those arrows, after all – and the epidemic lifted. Willy-nilly, he became the hottest plague saint in Christ-endom. It is incumbent upon plague saints to look as though they haven't got one foot in the grave (or, come to that, in the sewer). So by the end of the 14th century, the middle-aged Sebastian had had a makeover, his beard, wrinkles and actual cause of death neatly airbrushed from the picture.

Even so, it is something of a leap from the canvases of Reni to the cover of reFRESH magazine. Obvious answers to the question of just why Sebastian should have spent the past 400 years as gay saint du jour don't seem to add up. There are as many explanations for his appeal as there are people doing the explaining.

To Yukio Mishima, the Japanese writer and keen sado-masochist, his martyrdom symbolised the erotic pleasure of pain. In his autobiographical Confessions of a Mask, the lightly disguised author has his first ejaculation over a reproduction of a Reni Sebastian. (Just which, it is hard to say. Guess for yourselves.) Mishima later had himself photographed as the saint before ritually disembowelling himself. Derek Jarman's 1976 film Sebastiane uses the loin-clothed youth to look at the overlap between sexual and spiritual ecstasy, while Oscar Wilde and Tennessee Williams see him as a late-antique rentboy.

Perhaps Sebastian's oddest reinvention came in Thomas Mann's Nobel Prize acceptance speech. "Grace in suffering – that is the heroism symbolised by St Sebastian," said Mann; then, warming to his theme, he added: "The image may be bold, but I am tempted to claim this heroism for the German mind and German art." The date was 1929. A decade later, German gays such as Mann were being rounded up and gassed.

All of which is to say that the secret of Sebastian's success may lie in his ability to be all things to all men. Along with the famous arrows, the symbol of his martyrdom is the rope that binds his hands; yet the shape-shifting Sebastian just won't be tied down. The novelist and political activist Susan Sontag pointed out that his face never registers the agonies of his body, that his beauty and his pain are eternally divorced from each other. This made him proof against plague in 1348, and, in these ungodly times, it still does. A recent book devoted to the martyr includes Aids-related work by artists including Wolfgang Tillmans and Louise Bourgeois. It is called Saint Sebastian: A Splendid Readiness for Death.

* 'The Agony and the Ecstasy: Guido Reni's Saint Sebastians' is at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London SE21, 020 8693 5254, until 11 May

Thursday, March 25, 2010

6.0-magnitude earthquake hits west of Manila
The Associated Press
1 hr 54 mins ago

Employees gather on the side of a street after they rushed out of their office building after an earthquake Thursday, March 25, 2010 in Manila, Philippines. The 6.2 magnitude earthquake shook buildings and sent workers out of their offices in the city, though no immediate reports of damages or casualties. (AP Photo/Pat Roque)

MANILA, Philippines – A 6.0-magnitude earthquake struck west of Manila on Thursday, the seismology institute reported, causing buildings in the Philippine capital to shake and sending frightened workers out of their offices.

There were no immediate reports of damage or casualties, and no tsunami alert was issued. Buildings in Manila shook for about 30 seconds.

The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology initially reported the tremor had a magnitude of 6.2, but lowered it to 6.0 after receiving more field data, said its director, Renato Solidum.

"Essentially, this would not trigger significant damage," Solidum said.

Editha Vargaz of the Land Bank of Philippine's risk management group said she and dozens of other colleagues climbed down the stairs to the street from the bank's headquarters on the 31st floor of the 34-story building.

"We were very calm," she said, citing training from regular earthquake and fire evacuation drills.

However, there was panic among some employees in offices at the nearby 14-story Ramon Magsaysay Center, said Ralph Balmaceda, who works for a travel agency on the seventh floor.

While he and other staff hurried down the stairs, "most others were panicking and some even tried to shove others" to reach the street more quickly.

"It was scary because of the previous incidents in other countries," said Balmaceda's office mate Beth Rodriguez. "We thought it would be the same here also."

Solidum said the quake was centered off Lubang Island in Mindoro Occidental province, about 80 miles (130 kilometers) southwest of Manila, six miles (10 kilometers) under the seabed.

The U.S. Geological Survey put the magnitude at 6.1 and depth at 21 miles (33 kilometers).

Lubang Island is near the southern end of the Manila Trench, a fault line about 560 miles (900 kilometers) long on the ocean floor under the South China Sea along the western flank of the Philippines' main island of Luzon.

The Philippine archipelago lies in the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire where earthquakes are common. It is flanked by the Pacific Ocean to the east and the South China Sea to the west with undersea trenches — potential quake triggers — running alongside its coast on both sides.

The last major quake registered a magnitude 7.7 in 1990 and killed nearly 2,000 people on the main northern island of Luzon.

A 7.1-magnitude earthquake set off by a local fault near Lubang whipped up a tsunami that killed 78 people on Mindoro in 1994.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Indie comics: The long road to glory
By Fidelis Tan

Although there isn’t an equivalent for Marvel or DC in the Philippines, there is a local comics scene. It’s not quite an industry – you won’t find companies exclusively dedicated to the production of comics, and it’s not often you’ll find a comics maker who doesn’t have a day job. It’s also difficult to find serialized comics that come out on a regular basis the way the old newsprint komiks did in decades gone past.

But despite the largely "underground" and "independent" nature of Philippine comics, writers and artists are generally optimistic about the direction the scene is taking.

“Comics is still alive,” said komikero Gerry Alanguilan during the artistic gathering dubbed "the Renaissance." “Comics has evolved, the formats have changed, but it’s still alive.”

“Not only are we talented, but we do our best work by showcasing our own stories,” added Beerkada creator Lyndon Gregorio, about the crop of Filipino writers and artists getting involved in making comics.

And the number is growing. Comics conventions grow larger and more elaborate every year, to accommodate the lengthening list of writers and artists delving into sequential art. Most of them come out with zines or ash-cans – those cheap, photocopied pages of comics stapled together into a book and then sold at around P30 each during comics conventions.

Other comics makers, especially those who have been devoted to the craft over the last ten years, can get themselves published by companies which traditionally publish textbooks or magazines. Summit Media, for instance, recently came out with Underpass. Around the same time Vibal came out with El Indio, a re-printing of the old Francisco Coching comic. Anvil publishing also foraged into comics, producing the Renaissance book, which debuted during the event of the same name.

Despite the flourishing of comics in the Philippines, pundits invite both readers and makers to take a more critical standpoint. It’s true that more titles are coming out, and those who frequent comics conventions have more Pinoy superheroes, enkantos, slice of life and anime knock-offs to choose from. According to comics aficionados and critics Adam David and Carljoe Javier, it takes far more than a healthier show of comics produced to signal a true elevation of Philippine comics.

Different faces, same stories

The problem, says Javier, a voracious consumer of both local and international comics, is that many of the local comics books out there are still largely derivative of the foreign comics types that inspired them.

“We’re like James Cameron and Avatar—we’re just plugging in different settings using the same story all over and there’s no movement,” he said.

“Oftentimes, we just get a Western or Japanese concept and plunk it into a Filipino setting. That, or the problems in Filipino comic books aren’t rooted in Filipino concerns at all.”

A comic book about Filipino superheroes, for instance, transplants the tropes and storylines of American superheroes into the Philippine setting. Names and costumes are changed but the stories are largely the same.

“Our superhero comics don’t bother to imagine the socio-cultural or political impacts of the existence of superheroes in the Philippines. So even if you do have Pinoy superheroes, it’s like you didn’t think of how our history would be different if they had existed then, or what kind of impact that would have on society.”

And when it isn’t American comics the locally-made comics seem to be emulating, it’s Japanese manga.

Ang younger creators, para kang nagbabasa ng Japanese manga sa problema ng mga character, sa mga nangyayari sa kanila. It seems very detached,” said Javier. (With our younger creators, it’s like you’re reading Japanese manga given the problems of their characters, or what happens to them. It seems very detached to the Philippine setting.)

“We’re not saying it has to be political,” he added. “But these comics should show a certain cultural consciousness which at present is absent from a lot of comics.”

The key to a successful comics story, said Javier, goes beyond simply “plunking in” Filipino characters or cultural icons into archetypes grown from foreign traditions.

“It’s misappropriations of certain cultural conventions,” he said.

Instead, what comics creators should strive for is “to re-contextualize and to re-imagine” their stories.

Practice, practice, practice

The other problem, according to David—who is a writer and comics maker in his own right, has more to do with how the works themselves are executed.

Good concepts alone don’t make a good comic, and David emphasized that the only way for an aspiring comics maker to get over delivering derivative works or average comics is to continually strive to be better.

“There’s a tendency for a lot of the people who delve in the arts to not be critical of their own works,” he said.

The comics makers who produce the best works, he says, are the ones who not only repeatedly produce new works, but the ones who listen to criticism and inculcate them into their newer works. He added that it helps to educate oneself in the art of making comics, for instance by reading up on what has been written in the subject, such as "Understanding Comics" by Scott McCloud, whose works are easily available online.

Having a good idea, he stated, will only work if one has the artistic or writing skills to match it. Such skills however, are developed over a long span of time and often, over many failed works.

“The sickness of most people is that they get an idea and just go with it even if they haven’t thought it over very well,” said David. “Otherwise, they come up with works where the idea was much better than the way it was executed because maybe the way they write isn’t up to par with the concept, or maybe they haven’t matured in the use of their medium to encapsulate their vision.”

“We’ve been talking about craft,” added Javier. “It’s a matter of people studying their craft and really working on it and realizing, before you can make something good, you’ll be making a lot of lousy things first. Other people will definitely criticize you at first, and you have to be ready to take it.”

Javier warned that simply producing as many works as one can will not necessarily make one a better comics creator.

“You should read up on it first, or think of comic books and story-telling on a more theoretical level. You have to understand comics as its own specific art form, with its own conventions and its own rules,” he said.

Javier referred to Sturgeon’s Law, pointing out that “90% of what you produce will be crap.”

“So produce 100%,” he said. “And then take the 10% which is good. That’s what you bring out.”

Commitment issues

David added that it usually takes a long time before a comics maker is able to reap the fruit of their efforts. For instance, he said, comics makers Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo worked for many years before they were able to come out with Trese.

Trese, which was originally conceptualized almost a decade ago, grew into a project between Tan and Baldisimo, who created the script and pages for the comics over their lunch hours during work. Today, Trese is one of the most popular locally-produced comics books, with three compiled volumes being sold in bookstores alongside graphic novels from the likes of DC or Marvel.

According to David however, the long and oftentimes circuitous route to producing quality comics is marked by compromises with the real world – that is, the writer or artist’s need to produce a stable income.

Making and selling comics is rarely lucrative. As mentioned by David, the entirety of comics being produced nowadays, from the P30 ash-cans which can only be sold during comics conventions, to the textbook-quality comic books produced by mainstream publishers, can all be considered "independent." This is because it is usually the makers themselves who have to put money forward to put their works into print, whether or not they are able to make up for the losses.

“It’s something to think of, for those who want to make comics—there’s no money, no market for our dreams to come true at the level we want them to, so we have to compromise,” said David.

Producing cheap zines for comics conventions is a compromise, he said. So is finding time in between one’s other priorities to continue working on one’s stories, as was the case with Tan and Baldisimo.

“You can find a way to do it even with work,” he said. “The plans you have in mind, that epic you’ve been thinking of since you were 16 years old, you don’t have to finish all that in a month. You just have to work on it, work on your comics, even while being realistic about your situation.”

“You might have to find a job, or do something else in between that thing you really want to do. For everyone with that kind of experience—hang in there.”

* Photo taken from Felix_Nine on Flickr.

Child’s church picture of stirs Lenten passions
10-year-old depicted nightstick-wielding policeman beating bleeding child
The Associated Press

David J. Phillip / AP
Some find Jackson Potts II's photograph of a nightstick-wielding policeman beating a fallen, bleeding child violent and offensive, conjuring images of police brutality and child abuse. But to Jackson and a cadre of art lovers, the disturbing image has religious symbolism.

DALLAS - Some find Jackson Potts II's photograph of a nightstick-wielding policeman beating a fallen, bleeding child violent and offensive, conjuring images of police brutality and child abuse.

But to Jackson, a talented 10-year-old Houston photographer, and a cadre of art lovers, the disturbing image has religious symbolism.

Jackson shot the photograph for an exhibit depicting the Stations of the Cross, but the show's organizers rejected it, sparking a controversy some say is overshadowing remembrance of Jesus' final hours during the season of Lent.

Jackson was the only child among 15 artists invited to participate in the exhibit. Curator Marc Brubaker said he thought the boy would bring a unique perspective.

But comments posted anonymously on blogs and callers to radio talk shows have questioned whether such a sophisticated piece could really be the work of a child.

Jackson was assigned to portray the seventh Station of the Cross, where Jesus fell for a second time while carrying the cross to the site of his crucifixion. The home-schooled fifth-grader, who is taking a class on religious symbols in art at a Catholic church, decided to do a modern depiction of Christ being beaten by a Roman soldier.

"I thought about how innocent Jesus was, like a kid," Jackson said. "I thought a police officer was sort of like a Roman guard."

His younger brother played the Christ-child role, with stage blood splattered on his head and arms. Neighbors and friends portrayed an angry mob and brutal police officer.

Carefully crafted picture
Although Jackson has gone on more than a 100 photo shoots in recent years, mainly working as an apprentice for his father, a professional photographer, the show at Xnihilo (NY'-low) Gallery was to be his first public exhibition.

He worked for months to get the details right, taking advice on everything from makeup to lighting. But the concept and execution were his own, he and those who know him say.

Jeremy Martin-Weber, who was part of the angry crowd, said Jackson held the camera during the entire photo shoot.

"Jackson told us where to go, how to stand and every once in a while, Jack (his dad) would ask a general preference question, 'Do you want them in a row or a little bit curved?' Jackson would make the call," Martin-Weber said. "Jackson was in charge of the whole thing."

But when Jackson submitted the finished piece, he was told it wouldn't be shown.

The fine arts gallery also serves as the sanctuary for the 1,100-member Ecclesia Church, and "a church should be a place where people can feel safe," Brubaker said.

Provocative in 'wrong way'
Church elders said they thought the photograph would scare young children who trust and respect police officers, some of whom are also church members. Elders said they also wanted to be sensitive to a congregation member whose mentally impaired son was fatally shot by police around this time last year.

"Certainly we don't want to be censoring art or anything like that," said Jeremy Wells, a gallery board member, church elder and artist. "Artwork being provocative in nature can be beneficial to the church if it's provocative in the right way.

"We felt it was provocative in the wrong way," Wells said. "The image, being as graphic as it is, did not draw people closer to the risen Christ."

He praised Jackson's "phenomenal talent," saying the rejection wasn't made lightly. The church paid the boy about $250 for the loss of material and time and asked him to create and submit a replacement photograph in the two weeks before the show opened, which he reluctantly did.

Jackson's father recalled the boy's frustration.

"I could tell that he's on the verge of tears," Jack Potts said. "I give him a hug. He tells me he can't make Jesus smiling, because he feels like that's what they want."

Simple second photograph
Jackson kept his second photograph simple, showing Jesus, still as a child, holding the cross in his hands.

Suggestions by some gallery board members to have the original photograph behind a curtain where only adults could see it were rebuffed.

Two of the gallery's seven board members resigned in protest.

One of them, Jessica Martin-Weber, said she felt Jackson's photograph was appropriate for the exhibit and parents should decide whether their children could see it. A three-dimensional piece that hung in the show last year, a mannequin "corpse" draped in a blood-soaked cloth, was just as shocking, she said.

Elders eventually allowed Jackson's original piece to be shown but only during the opening reception last week.

To the boy's delight, a stranger bought it for $350, and a copy is now hanging in another Houston gallery.

"I'm not a big religious freak," G Gallery owner Wayne Gilbert said. "The idea that he couldn't show that or it was something that couldn't go on the wall was sort of ridiculous to me."

Sandman Hearts The Dork Knight
By RJ Ledesma
The Philippine Star

Fanboy: Sandman creator Neil Gaiman gets a bit of fan worship from author RJ Ledesma. Photography by Everywhere We Shoot

I have been a horrendously rabid comic book fan since before I developed hair in my erogenous zones. I have spent enough money on my comic book collection to pay for a presidential campaign. I know the history of the DC Comics Universe better than I know Philippine history. And I mark significant moments in my life — like marriage and the birth of my baby daughter — by what issue of the Justice League of America came out that month.

When I discovered that Neil Gaiman would be materializing in the Philippines for the awarding ceremony of “Revelations: Stories of Light and Darkness, the Third Philippine Graphic/Fiction Awards Night” organized and sponsored by Fully Booked, I threatened to rally outside every day dressed in a mask, cape and underwear outside of my pants unless I got to interview the prolific author of such books as American Gods, Coraline, Stardust, Good Omens, Neverwhere, The Wolves in the Wall, The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish . And, of course, Sandman.

Neil famously described his work on Sandman, over a period of nine years and 2,000 pages, in one sentence: “The Lord of Dreams learns to change or die, and has to make a decision.”

In an interview conducted at the Edades model unit in the Rockwell Power Plant, Neil shared his thoughts on what makes him incredibly happy, the greatness of our Filipino komiks talent, and why we may never see another Sandman story again.

PHILIPPINE STAR: When you first came to the Philippines in 2005, you mentioned at a writer’s workshop your admiration for several Filipino artists who had made it big in the US comic book industry — Nestor Redondo, Alfredo Alcala and Alex Nino. You described their art as “beautiful line work, elegant lines, beauty and proportion, a sense of quirkiness and beauty.” Did their artistic style influence the themes that you have explored in your comic book and prose works?

NEIL GAIMAN: I honestly don’t know. (Laughs) Because that’s the kind of thing when you say “What would you have been like if you had not met this woman?”, “If you had not seen this art?” or “If you had not read this story?” You don’t know. But the enormous effect that these artists had on me was that it gave me a respect for the Philippines. When I first came here, these artists were all I knew about the country. I knew nothing about Filipino culture, I knew almost nothing about Filipino politics.

That might actually be a good thing.

I knew almost nothing about Filipino history. But what I knew was that this was the country here Alex Nino and Tony de Zuniga and Alfredo Alcala and all these artists came from. They were some of the people who got me through my teens. I liked at how Alfredo crosshatched, he came up with the whole technique of crosshatching of one way and then crosshatching the other way. That was his line work. Looking at things like Alex Nino’s retelling of (Harlan Ellison’s short story) “Repent, Harlequin! Said the Tick-Tock Man.” This was glorious artwork, and these were guys were so good. And I honestly don’t know that I would have started this whole Philippine Graphic/Fiction Awards contest if it hadn’t been for those guys, in some ways.

Those guys were really the pioneers who brought Filipino comic art to a global audience. It’s a shame they aren’t as popular as they should be back here in their homeland.

When I came out here, everyone was telling me that being a (fiction/comic book writer) is so cool in America and in England. “But here in the Philippines, we don’t really do that fiction of comic ‘stuff.’” I said, “What do you mean you don’t do it? You started it!” Some of the greatest artists (from the medium) came from here. What was strange during that period was that when I’d say this, people would say “Really?” I’d ask “Have you heard about Alex Nino?” And they would say “No.”

Shocking, isn’t it?

It really is. I hope that one of the little things that I got to do as part of the strange cultural exchange that has been going on between me and the Philippines for the last five years is actually to remind the Filipinos that some of the greatest artists in comics in the latter half of the century came from here.

Interestingly enough, many of these “classic” artists were influenced by the work of the late great Francisco Coching, who was a pillar in the local komiks industry and was known as the dean of Philippine comics. In fact, he was twice nominated as a National Artist for the Visual Arts. How many nominees for National Artists do you know from the comic book profession?

Awesome! I love the respect with which (art) is still held out here. Among the local comic book creators, I find Gerry Alanguilan’s Elmer is one of my favorite comics. It’s just heartbreaking and funny and so beautifully drawn.

What do you think of our younger crop of komiks creators?

I love Arnold Arre’s stuff (Arnold is the creator of The Mythology Class, Trip to Tagaytay and Ang Mundo ni Andong Agimat). In fact, when I first came out here I kept running into Arnold’s art. I told Jaime (Daez, owner of Fully Booked) “I really want to meet this guy. He’s really good.” And I kept failing to meet Arnold until we were in the toilet together.

There’s a story somewhere there for both you and Arnold. Did you also like Budjette Tan’s Trese?

I really liked it. What I’m really enjoying right now is that people from the Philippines send me and give me comics. This makes me happy. And I just love the fact that these are comics using Philippine culture and folklore. One of the things I really love about the contest is the feeling that I got to point out to people that this stuff is cool. Because when I first came out here, people were giving me books of local folklore and I was reading them. And I was loving them. People would then ask me, “What do you like?” and I would tell them “I liked the aswangs and the manananggals.” After that, they would ask me if I would put them in my stories. Then I started feeling as if I did (write about them) it would lend them some kind of legitimacy, but I would be like a cultural tourist. But what about you guys? This stuff is yours!

Everybody’s got their neighborhood manananggal.

This is incredibly fertile ground. Why aren’t you using it? And one of the things that I love in the (local) comics that I’ve seeing — and more and more in the stories — is the feeling that they are not only using the folklore but they are using the culture around. You’re getting really good, angry, smart, satirical science fiction, you’re getting heartbreaking little horror stories, you’re getting smart social commentary like the Cherry Clubbing story (by Kerry Yu, third place winner in the prose category of this year’s contest). I love it, because it’s talking essentially about sexual tourism of the worst kind and then taking it over into myth. And it’s a beautiful story of outrage and it’s all the voice that it’s told in. Filipina: The Super Maid (by Irene Carolina Sarmiento, second place winner in the prose category), great little story, so angry and so funny. The idea of pointing out that — for some of the world and here in the Philippines — people can be product and just how wrong that is. And what happens when the people that are product become people again.

After reading the works of all the winners in the contest and the current comic book professionals working for US comics — Leinil Francis Yu, Harvey Tolibao, Whilce Portacio — what do you see as the emerging voice of the Filipino in contributing to the global comic and prose community?

When I was here five years ago and I would talk to Filipinos — artists, writers, creators — it was as if I was talking to people who felt that they were at the bottom of a gravity hole. That, from a cultural standpoint, making it out of the gravity pit that was the Philippines and into the rest of the world was so impossible that it simply wouldn’t happen. But what I am seeing more now is that Filipino creators are out there and they are out there as themselves. You don’t get the feeling that people are pretending to be American or English. You now get the feeling that there are brilliant Filipino writers who are willing to write science fiction, fantasy, horror, magical realism, real imaginative stuff and draw and create their own comics. And they are going to it as Filipinos going head-to-head with anybody else in the world.

Just what is in the water in the UK that makes you guys so damn brilliant? Do you have some muses chained up in your basements?

For me, the key to it is that whenever I get together with Alan or Grant, we never talk about comics. We talk about poetry or movies or plays or sociology or whatever’s caught our attention. With Alan, it’s snake gods and local history. I think we all came along from the same kind of “time zone” where a generation read American comic books and thought “These things are brilliant! Imagine what they could be.” And then went off to do another things and kept growing up.

Like how you went off to write the biography of Duran Duran. (Really.)

And when we were offered the chance to do American comics, we went “Oh my God! Those things that we thought you could do, those things that we thought this thing could be, it could! Why don’t we go and make it?” Each of us got to reinvent comics in our own image. I love what Grant does. I love what Alan does. And I love the fact that, as we get older, we all get crankier. (Laughs) We all go off and explore other things and are less concerned whether or not people will like things. For example, I loved doing Metamorpho in Wednesday Comics. I can’t imagine having done that 15 years ago. When I went into it, I thought I’d do a comic that was going to be a goofy sort of tribute to the Bob Haney and Ramona Fradon and I’m going to do it as if it’s set in 1965 in a world wherein Metamorpho was the biggest comic out there instead of being this strange little forgotten hero. The idea just made me incredibly happy that I’d be doing this thing that people would think “This is so strange and so quirky and so odd” and some people would go “They are mad.” I didn’t really mind. It made me happy to do it just as it made me happy to hold Batman’s funeral.

Why do you think you’ve been so successful in all these mediums?

I think it’s because that was what I was interested in doing. I wanted to keep moving. The entire nature of my career has been: Given the choice between two things that I could be doing, one of which I know how to do and have and I have an audience waiting and I am guaranteed to be paid. And one of which I have no idea what to do and that nobody is waiting for and I definitely don’t have an audience and I may well absolutely f&*% up and fall on my face, I will pick the latter. I will go for the thing nobody is waiting for that I can f&*% up. Then I can find out if it worked or not.

And that’s how your children’s books came about.

Yeah! It’s the same in all of these things. Nobody was waiting for my children’s books, so it was great doing them. Right now, we are in a world where nobody is waiting for me to direct a movie. So it’s really fun for me to direct my little film Statuesque.

I caught that online, courtesy of an online link with Budjette Tan.

Oh, good! Lots of people didn’t because whenever it would go up in places, Sky would come in and take it down. The sad thing for me whenever it would come up online was that nobody had pirated an HD version of the film and put that online.

Don’t worry, this is the Philippines. We will find a way. And despite the fact that you are successful in these other mediums, you still keep on coming back to comic books?

Because there are things that you can’t say no to. When somebody phones you up and asks you “Would you like to do the last Batman comics? And you could do whatever you like.” You sort of go, “Yeah, I’ll do that” because that call doesn’t get made very often. The last phone call was made to Alan Moore 25 years ago when he wrote “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” (As far as I am concerned, the definitive last Superman story – RJ’s note). I loved the idea of getting together with the artist Andy Kubert.

And you also brought in some children’s literature into the last Batman story with the allusion to Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon, a book that I read to my own daughter at bedtime.

The Goodnight Moon ending was that weird point where whenever I’ve done anything interesting, there is always a point where you’re going “Either this is going to work or it’s really not going to work.” There’s no two ways about it. What fascinates me is that it worked for half the people and it didn’t work for half the people. For the people it didn’t work for, they would say, “Dude, it was okay, then it turned into Goodnight Moon!? What the hell was that about!? Are you on crack?” (Laughs) But for the people it worked for, I got people who cried reading a Batman comic and I am 40 years old. How the f^&* did you do that? That was wonderful.

The basic idea in the last Batman story was “Okay, you’re Batman. What happens to you when you die? Do you go to heaven? What would Batman’s heaven be like?” He’d probably spend five minutes in heaven and say “I have to be out of here and fighting crime.” On the other hand, heaven is just sitting with his mum and dad before they got shot. That’s in term of dream ideas. So, going into that, as you’re dying where you get to go? You get to sit on your mum’s lap and say good night.

Is there any hope that we will see Dream/Morpheus again?

I honestly don’t know. I was incredibly disappointed. I was even hurt by what I saw with DC Comics when it came to negotiating for Sandman’s 20th anniversary. You are looking at a book that has made them hundreds of millions from Sandman and their attitude was that they would really, really want me to do this book as long as I would do it under the same terms that I signed up to do Sandman when I was 26 years old in 1987. I put together a proposal for them where, in 16 years, I would have made as much as I would have got for an advance on a novel 10 years ago. I thought the proposal (I made) was the least I could get for this (project) and still feel that honor was satisfied. And they just said no. It wasn’t even like we were negotiating. And I thought, “Why even bother?” So I walked away.

Earlier, you talked about being a “cultural tourist” if you were to use some of our local folklore in your stories. But you weren’t a cultural tourist when you brought in a lot of “Old World” gods into American Gods.

No, I was more of a “cultural immigrant” in American Gods. Honestly, if I had known about Filipino myth while I was writing the book, it would have absolutely made it in there. There will probably be more American Gods books before I die. Shadow’s story (the main protagonist of American Gods) is not over. It is not impossible that you will find some Filipino folkloric figures who have come over and, again, be abandoned in America just like everybody is. That I can completely see happening.

* * *

Check out Fully Booked ( for all the graphic novels and authors mentioned in the interview. And check out for a gallery of our great Filipino komiks artists.

For comments, suggestions or if you would like to write to DC Comics and demand new Sandman stories, please text PM POGI to 2948 for Globe, Smart and Sun subscribers. Or you can e-mail or visit You can also subscribe to

Friday, March 19, 2010

New Finding Puts Origins of Dogs in Middle East
By Nicholas Wade

Julie Fletcher/Getty Images
The dingo was one of the breeds studied to determine where dogs were first domesticated from wolves.

Borrowing methods developed to study the genetics of human disease, researchers have concluded that dogs were probably first domesticated from wolves somewhere in the Middle East, in contrast to an earlier survey suggesting dogs originated in East Asia.

This finding puts the first known domestication — that of dogs — in the same place as the domestication of plants and other animals, and strengthens the link between the first animal to enter human society and the subsequent invention of agriculture about 10,000 years ago.

A Middle Eastern origin for the dog also fits in better with the archaeological evidence, and has enabled geneticists to reconstruct the entire history of the dog, from the first association between wolves and hunter gatherers some 20,000 years ago to the creation by Victorian dog fanciers of many of today’s breeds.

A research team led by Bridgett M. vonHoldt and Robert K. Wayne of the University of California, Los Angeles, has analyzed a large collection of wolf and dog genomes from around the world. Scanning for similar runs of DNA, the researchers found that the Middle East was where wolf and dog genomes were most similar, although there was another area of overlap between East Asian wolves and dogs. Wolves were probably first domesticated in the Middle East, but after dogs had spread to East Asia there was a crossbreeding that injected more wolf genes into the dog genome, the researchers conclude in Thursday’s issue of the journal Nature.

The archaeological evidence supports this idea, since some of the earliest dog remains have been found in the Middle East, dating from 12,000 years ago. The only earlier doglike remains occur in Belgium, at a site 31,000 years old, and in western Russia from 15,000 years ago.

Humans lived as roaming hunters and gatherers for most of their existence. Dr. Wayne believes that wolves began following hunter-gatherer bands to feed on the wounded prey, carcasses or other refuse. At some stage a group of wolves, who happened to be smaller and less threatening than most, developed a dependency on human groups, and may in return have provided a warning system.

Several thousand years later, in the first settled communities that began to appear in the Middle East 15,000 years ago, people began intervening in the breeding patterns of their camp followers, turning them into the first proto-dogs. One of the features they selected was small size, continuing the downsizing of the wolf body plan. “I think a long history such as that would explain how a large carnivore, which can eat you, eventually became stably incorporated in human society,” Dr. Wayne said.

The wolf DNA in the study was collected over many years by Dr. Wayne from wolf packs around the world. A colleague, Elaine Ostrander, gathered much of the dog DNA by persuading owners at dog shows to let her take a scraping of cells from inside the cheek. The dog genome has been decoded twice: scientists at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass., have sequenced the boxer’s genome, and Craig Venter, a pioneer of DNA sequencing, has decoded his poodle’s genome.

With these two genomes in hand, the Broad Institute designed a dog SNP chip, similar to those used to scan the human for genetic disease. SNPs, or “snips,” are sites of common variation along the DNA. Affymetrix, a SNP chip maker, manufactured the dog SNP chip for Dr. Wayne’s team, letting him have 1,000 chips free, though thereafter they cost $250 apiece. The dog SNP chip brought to light the close relationship between dogs and wolves in the Middle East and also the genetic relationship between various breeds.

Dr. Wayne was surprised to find that all the herding dogs grouped together, as did all the sight hounds and the scent hounds, making a perfect match between dogs’ various functions and the branches on the genetic tree. “I thought there would be many ways to build a herding dog and that they’d come from all over the tree, but there are not,” Dr. Wayne said.

His team has also used the dog SNP chip to scan for genes that show signatures of selection. One such favored dog gene has a human counterpart that has been implicated in Williams syndrome, where it causes exceptional gregariousness. Another two selected genes are involved in memory. Dogs, unlike wolves, are adept at taking cues from human body language, and the two genes could have something to do with this faculty, Dr. Wayne said.

From Ancestral Wolf to Modern Dog

An earlier survey of dog origins, based on a small genetic element known as mitochondrial DNA, concluded that dogs had been domesticated, probably just once, in East Asia. The author of the survey, Peter Savolainen of the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, said he was not convinced by the new report for several reasons, including that it did not sample dogs in East Asia from south of the Yangtze, the region where the diversity of mitochondrial DNA is highest. Also archaeologists in China have been less interested in distinguishing dog and wolf remains, he said.

Two other experts on dog genetics, Carlos Driscoll and Stephen O’Brien, of the National Cancer Institute, said they believed that Dr. Wayne’s team had made a convincing case. “I think they have nailed the locale of dog domestication to the Middle East,” Dr. O’Brien said in an e-mail message from Siberia, where he is attending a tiger management workshop.

Dog domestication and human settlement occurred at the same time, some 15,000 years ago, raising the possibility that dogs may have had a complex impact on the structure of human society. Dogs could have been the sentries that let hunter gatherers settle without fear of surprise attack. They may also have been the first major item of inherited wealth, preceding cattle, and so could have laid the foundations for the gradations of wealth and social hierarchy that differentiated settled groups from the egalitarianism of their hunter-gatherer predecessors. Notions of inheritance and ownership, Dr. Driscoll said, may have been prompted by the first dogs to permeate human society, laying an unexpected track from wolf to wealth.

How Privacy Vanishes Online
By Steve Lohr

Ross Mantle for The New York Times
Alessandro Acquisti mined Web data to successfully predict Social Security numbers.

If a stranger came up to you on the street, would you give him your name, Social Security number and e-mail address?

Probably not.

Yet people often dole out all kinds of personal information on the Internet that allows such identifying data to be deduced. Services like Facebook, Twitter and Flickr are oceans of personal minutiae — birthday greetings sent and received, school and work gossip, photos of family vacations, and movies watched.

Computer scientists and policy experts say that such seemingly innocuous bits of self-revelation can increasingly be collected and reassembled by computers to help create a picture of a person’s identity, sometimes down to the Social Security number.

“Technology has rendered the conventional definition of personally identifiable information obsolete,” said Maneesha Mithal, associate director of the Federal Trade Commission’s privacy division. “You can find out who an individual is without it.”

In a class project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that received some attention last year, Carter Jernigan and Behram Mistree analyzed more than 4,000 Facebook profiles of students, including links to friends who said they were gay. The pair was able to predict, with 78 percent accuracy, whether a profile belonged to a gay male.

So far, this type of powerful data mining, which relies on sophisticated statistical correlations, is mostly in the realm of university researchers, not identity thieves and marketers.

But the F.T.C. is worried that rules to protect privacy have not kept up with technology. The agency is convening on Wednesday the third of three workshops on the issue.

Its concerns are hardly far-fetched. Last fall, Netflix awarded $1 million to a team of statisticians and computer scientists who won a three-year contest to analyze the movie rental history of 500,000 subscribers and improve the predictive accuracy of Netflix’s recommendation software by at least 10 percent.

On Friday, Netflix said that it was shelving plans for a second contest — bowing to privacy concerns raised by the F.T.C. and a private litigant. In 2008, a pair of researchers at the University of Texas showed that the customer data released for that first contest, despite being stripped of names and other direct identifying information, could often be “de-anonymized” by statistically analyzing an individual’s distinctive pattern of movie ratings and recommendations.

In social networks, people can increase their defenses against identification by adopting tight privacy controls on information in personal profiles. Yet an individual’s actions, researchers say, are rarely enough to protect privacy in the interconnected world of the Internet.

You may not disclose personal information, but your online friends and colleagues may do it for you, referring to your school or employer, gender, location and interests. Patterns of social communication, researchers say, are revealing.

“Personal privacy is no longer an individual thing,” said Harold Abelson, the computer science professor at M.I.T. “In today’s online world, what your mother told you is true, only more so: people really can judge you by your friends.”

Collected together, the pool of information about each individual can form a distinctive “social signature,” researchers say.

The power of computers to identify people from social patterns alone was demonstrated last year in a study by the same pair of researchers that cracked Netflix’s anonymous database: Vitaly Shmatikov, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Texas, and Arvind Narayanan, now a researcher at Stanford University.

By examining correlations between various online accounts, the scientists showed that they could identify more than 30 percent of the users of both Twitter, the microblogging service, and Flickr, an online photo-sharing service, even though the accounts had been stripped of identifying information like account names and e-mail addresses.

“When you link these large data sets together, a small slice of our behavior and the structure of our social networks can be identifying,” Mr. Shmatikov said.

Even more unnerving to privacy advocates is the work of two researchers from Carnegie Mellon University. In a paper published last year, Alessandro Acquisti and Ralph Gross reported that they could accurately predict the full, nine-digit Social Security numbers for 8.5 percent of the people born in the United States between 1989 and 2003 — nearly five million individuals.

Social Security numbers are prized by identity thieves because they are used both as identifiers and to authenticate banking, credit card and other transactions.

The Carnegie Mellon researchers used publicly available information from many sources, including profiles on social networks, to narrow their search for two pieces of data crucial to identifying people — birthdates and city or state of birth.

That helped them figure out the first three digits of each Social Security number, which the government had assigned by location. The remaining six digits had been assigned through methods the government didn’t disclose, although they were related to when the person applied for the number. The researchers used projections about those applications as well as other public data, like the Social Security numbers of dead people, and then ran repeated cycles of statistical correlation and inference to partly re-engineer the government’s number-assignment system.

To be sure, the work by Mr. Acquisti and Mr. Gross suggests a potential, not actual, risk. But unpublished research by them explores how criminals could use similar techniques for large-scale identity-theft schemes.

More generally, privacy advocates worry that the new frontiers of data collection, brokering and mining, are largely unregulated. They fear “online redlining,” where products and services are offered to some consumers and not others based on statistical inferences and predictions about individuals and their behavior.

The F.T.C. and Congress are weighing steps like tighter industry requirements and the creation of a “do not track” list, similar to the federal “do not call” list, to stop online monitoring.

But Jon Kleinberg, a professor of computer science at Cornell University who studies social networks, is skeptical that rules will have much impact. His advice: “When you’re doing stuff online, you should behave as if you’re doing it in public — because increasingly, it is.”

I Need to Vent. Hello, Facebook.
By Douglas Quenqua

Michael Stravato for The New York Times
THE LAST WORD Ashley Andrews and James Gower use Facebook as a court of public opinion for many of their grievances.

WHAT is the sound of an awkward silence on Facebook? If you have to ask, then you probably don’t have friends like James Gower and Ashley Andrews, high school sweethearts from Spring, Tex., who are both 22 and engaged to be married this May.

Peter DaSilva for The New York Times
SO I SAID... Leah Ackerman-Hurst with her husband, Caleb.

Mr. Gower, a master of the passive-aggressive status update, lobbed this one in January: “How is it my birthday is only one day, but my woman’s last a whole damn week?”

Ms. Andrews, seemingly not one to watch a ball go by, took a full swing with this comment: “GET OVER IT!!! UGH!!!!!!”

Mr. Gower replied by calling his fiancée a name that can’t be printed here, until the exchange became the social networking equivalent of shattered china at a dinner party.

Eventually, Skyler Hurt, 22, a friend and a bridesmaid, intervened: “Hey, you guys know we can still see this right ...?”

It’s a question being asked a lot these days as couples, who once had to leave the house to fight in public, take their arguments onto Facebook. Whether through nagging wall posts or antagonistic changes to their “relationship status,” the social networking site is proving to be as good for broadcasting marital discord as it is for sharing vacation photos. At 400 million members and growing, Facebook might just replace restaurants as the go-to place for couples to cause a scene.

As score-settling on Facebook has grown commonplace, sites like Lamebook have begun documenting the worst spats (which also happen to be the most humorous). On Facebook itself, people can join several groups with names like “I Dislike People/Couples Who Argue Publicly on Facebook.”

For most couples, the temptation to publicly slander each other is overpowered by the instinct to prove to their friends how happy they are, reality notwithstanding. But for others, arguing in front of others comes as naturally as slamming doors.

While a hot temper (or two) is often to blame, there are people, like Mr. Gower, who view Facebook as an opportunity: How better to show everyone what his future wife puts him through?

“My friends have a biased opinion of her, and her friends have a biased opinion of me,” Mr. Gower said. Broadcasting his gripes on Facebook is “a way to get your side of the story out there to everybody. That way, they don’t just hear her side.”

Ms. Andrews shares her fiancé’s view. “A lot of people aren’t with us if we have a fight at home," she said. This way, “All our friends can kind of comment on it.”

For the record, both Mr. Gower and Ms. Andrews say they are happy together and anticipate marital bliss. They find their Facebook parrying hilarious, and are not bothered by any loss of privacy.

Privacy on Facebook is a squishy thing to begin with, as most members know. Not only are there those advertisements from companies that — surprise! — know where you went to college, but there’s also the fact that Facebook accidentally sent private messages last month to the wrong people. In one case, a Wall Street Journal editor found his Facebook in-box flooded with other people’s pillow talk.

To some couples who fight on Facebook, the battle for public opinion seems to be a driving force. Ryan Stofer, a 19-year-old college student from Hutchinson, Kan., said his arguments with an ex-girlfriend were little more than attempts to protect his reputation.

“She’d be talking to her friends on Facebook about how bad a boyfriend I was, and I would be like, ‘No, I was decent,’ ” he recalled. Eventually, Mr. Stofer’s friends became so fed up with the constant sniping that they started a Facebook group to protest it.

Leah Ackerman-Hurst, 34, a soon-to-be nursing student in Alameda, Calif., says she occasionally uses Facebook to vent to her friends about her husband, Caleb. In a recent status update, she called him “Jerky McJerk Jerk” after he insisted she get rid of their pug. She says the comments are meant as jokes (mostly), though friends often end up taking sides anyway.

“I’ll say something joking about him, but others will take it seriously,” she said. The situation came to a head a few weeks ago when two friends planning a girl’s night out intentionally didn’t invite her because “they thought I was disrespectful to my husband on Facebook,” she said with a laugh. “My husband was like, ‘They obviously don’t know you.’ ”

But some marriage experts say that taking your disagreements to Facebook, even jokingly, is nothing to LOL about. Instead, the urge to make private disagreements public represents a gradual but significant degradation of our regard for marriage.

“From the Victorian era through the 1950s, marriage was viewed as the source of all safety from a predatory world,” said Michael Vincent Miller, a psychologist and the author of the book “Intimate Terrorism: The Crisis of Love in an Age of Disillusion.” Striving for that ideal, he said, meant keeping your disagreements private, “to keep a public face of harmony.”

But as the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s ushered in a new openness among married couples, “that ideal of marriage began to pass away,” he said. Soon, the idea that lovers should present a united front at all times came to seem quaint or even naïve, particularly to a generation raised on Oprah and Jerry Springer.

Today, popular representations of marriage tend toward “two very self-protective egos at war with one another,” Mr. Miller said, “each wanting vindication and to be right by showing that the other is wrong.”

That characterization has just received some prime-time reinforcement in the form of “The Marriage Ref,” a new NBC show created by Jerry Seinfeld in which a celebrity panel hears a fight between a married couple and discusses who is right. “For the first time, audiences will be able to look at these fights, analyze them and declare a winner,” reads a description of the show on NBC’s Web site.

But rather than win support, fighting in front of your friends will more likely convince them that you shouldn’t be together in the first place, marriage counselors say. That certainly seems to be the case among friends of Facebook fighters, who, like any witnesses to a public spat, are caught in the middle, unsure whether to intervene or mind their own business.

“This is my only exposure to how you two are interacting, and it’s not good,” said Ms. Hurt, the friend of Mr. Gower and Ms. Andrews.

She likely spoke for many Facebook bystanders when she said her attempts at peacemaking between her friends — whether online or off — were partially intended to shame them into behaving.

“I’m spending over $200 on apparel to be in this wedding,” Ms. Hurt said in a telephone interview. “We’re having fitting after fitting and showers and parties. Meanwhile, their whole relationship is falling apart on Facebook.”

Losing the support of friends and loved ones does not bode well for a couple’s long-term prospects, said Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.

“People tend to do better in their marriage when friends and family are supportive,” Mr. Wilcox said. “When that support dries up, that can be a really big problem.”

Mr. Gower and Ms. Andrews both laughed off the suggestion that their relationship was in trouble. They insist they are a stable couple very much headed to the altar this May. This, in spite of Mr. Gower’s recent change in relationship status: from “Engaged” to “It’s Complicated” and back again, all in a single day.

“That was just a joke to mess with her,” he said, followed by a pause. “She just gave me a dirty look.”

Skin Deep
Appreciating Your Value as You Age
By Catherine Saint Louis

Joshua Bright for The New York Times
PAPER TRAIL Evidence that Dr. Vivian Diller and Dr. Jill Muir-Sukenick (Dr. Diller’s photo is at left) once worked as models.

AGING is an indiscriminate leveler. You might have been a shapely bombshell who made heads turn. You might have honed your intellect and résumé and let looks take a backseat. Still, most of us will pass a mirror one day and wonder who is that stranger with the droopy eyelids.

Joshua Bright for The New York Times

UP FRONT Dr. Vivian Diller, left, and Dr. Jill Muir-Sukenick are trying to help women better accept themselves and the aging process.

It would be easy to dismiss worries about such an aesthetic concern as weak. But two models-turned-psychotherapists argue in “Face It,” their new guide for women, that struggling with changing looks can be no less daunting than dealing with a financial loss, a demotion at work or a divorce.

After decades of counseling patients, Dr. Vivian Diller and Dr. Jill Muir-Sukenick say that dread about growing older can spur an existential crisis of sorts. Such dread isn’t about vanity per se, but has more to do with a loss of potential and questioning one’s place in the world. It can lead to depression, alcohol abuse or sleep disorders, they say.

Yet, therapy isn’t usually on the short list of solutions for those bothered by an aesthetic “problem.” A lunchtime laser treatment or a $180 face cream is.

Dr. Diller, 56, and Dr. Muir-Sukenick, 57, are here to tell American women — no matter how stellar their accomplishments — that it’s not superficial to admit that aging is upsetting. They encourage their readers to figure out what’s driving them to have daydreams about a refined face-lift rather than scheduling one.

At a time when cosmetic surgery is increasingly seen as a casual endeavor, and anti-aging injections as inevitable, “Face It” gives women practical steps to parse how they feel about this beauty paradox. “Should women simply grow old naturally, since their looks don’t define them, or should they fight the signs of aging, since beauty and youth are their currency and power?” the authors ask in their book.

The answer isn’t simple , if the 20 years’ worth of patient information that the book draws upon is any indication. (They also surveyed other women, 30 to 65, including models because they sometimes consult for modeling agencies.)

The mandate to not look your age has never been stronger. “We’re talking about a generation of pioneers,” said Dorree Lynn, a psychologist in Washington whose book about sex after 50 is expected to be released in April. “They don’t have role models for the way they are aging.”

Sixty isn’t the new 40. “That’s an outright lie,” Dr. Lynn said. “What is true is 60 is the new 60.”

Admitting that appearance matters can be painful for women who feel “slightly insulted by the fact,” Dr. Diller said. Wasn’t feminism supposed to make promotions and ceiling-shattering the attention getters, not a taut brow?

The book’s most intriguing stories come from patients who are surprised to find themselves mourning their sags and veiny legs. Katherine, who did not use her real name in the book, is a 53-year-old science researcher and mother of three who considered herself in the “More Important Things to Worry About” camp. But when she nixed a beach getaway with her husband because she didn’t feel comfortable in any swimsuit, she was troubled by how much she cared. Belatedly, she came to recognize that her family may have taught her that caring about appearance is superficial, but that she could be a woman of substance who happened to use a retinoid at night or visit a spa on occasion.

This can-do age of aesthetics is particularly stressful because the playing field is no longer equal. A baby boomer is pressured to choose whether her brow will be au naturel or smooth during her later years — a decision her mother did not face. Ann Kearney-Cooke, 54, an expert in body image in Cincinnati, said the message those grandmothers heard as their looks went was insulting: “You’re not going to be pumping out babies anymore — you’re not as much use to society.” But at the very least, the sight of peers with just as many wrinkles was a comfort. They could think we are “all in the same boat,” said Dr. Kearney-Cooke, a psychologist.

The authors of “Face It” point out that today an odd morality creeps into our calculations of what we find acceptable. Ridiculing too-obvious cosmetic surgery is now a great American pastime. A post on Gawker asking why people still get plastic surgery recently garnered more than 400 comments, many sent by e-mail from high soapboxes.

Far more fascinating are the 60-something celebrities the masses anoint for having the courage to grow old “naturally” in the spotlight (gasp!), or at least not avail themselves of all the work available to them. Meryl Streep is one such actress. Helen Mirren is another. We like to imagine they are somehow inoculated against self-doubt.

And so, in January, it was vaguely unsettling to hear that Ms. Mirren has a laissez faire attitude toward cosmetic surgery rather than the staunch just-say-no stance her fans had assumed. On a British morning show, she said, “You go, ‘I don’t want to look at that face anymore,’ and I understand that, absolutely.”

But why does that make her a sellout, Dr. Diller asks. In an interview for this article, the authors said they were not against plastic surgery nor less-invasive efforts to slow time’s march. Choosing an intervention out of fear or unquestioningly is what irked them. Sounding quite laissez-faire herself, Dr. Muir-Sukenick said she prefers that women reflect first, before acting.

Yet, just as both Dr. Diller and Dr. Muir-Sukenick urge women to savor their futures, not their pasts, their modeling headshots keep stalking them like ghosts of Christmases past. They appeared on screen during the authors’ March 11 appearance on the “Today” show, and the two women brought them out after the interview for this article. So, why can’t their 50-something faces — lined with wrinkles — speak for themselves?

As Betty Friedan once said of a woman’s later years, “If you are going to pretend it’s youth, you are going to miss it.”

An earlier version of this article misspelled Betty Friedan's last name as Freidan.

Animal Abuse as Clue to Additional Cruelties
By Ian Urbina

Responding to growing evidence that people who abuse animals often go on to attack humans, states are increasing the penalties for animal cruelty and developing better methods for tracking convicted offenders.

Joe Rock/Franklin County Dog Shelter
At a mobile home site in Perry County, Ohio, two years ago, animal control authorities impounded 50 dogs and discovered the dead bodies of 18 others.
Joe Rock/Franklin County Dog ShelterCrates at a shelter in Columbus, Ohio, held some of the 94 cats and 23 dogs that were removed from a single home in 2007.Kenneth Lang Jr. pleaded guilty to animal cruelty charges.

State lawmakers are paying especially close attention to animal hoarders — people who keep large numbers of pets without providing for their most basic needs — because these offenders are prone to recidivism and can cost counties huge sums for cleanup costs and the care of rescued animals.

At least 27 states now allow courts to bar convicted animal abusers from owning or coming into contact with pets, nearly double the number from a decade ago, and 3 other states are considering similar measures this year. Tennessee and California are considering bills to create online registries of animal abusers.

“It’s not that animal abuse is more prevalent,” said Stephan Otto, director of legislative affairs with the Animal Legal Defense Fund. “What has changed over the past few years is the recognition that animal abuse is often a warning sign for other types of violence and neglect.”

“States also just have much less money to handle the clean up, veterinary care and other costs associated with these cases,” Mr. Otto added.

In Franklin County, Ohio, for example, animal rescue officials estimate that one case alone cost them more than $1.2 million just to rescue and care for more than 170 dogs from a hoarder’s home.

In Dearborn, Mich., the county paid more than $37,000 to clean up the home of a convicted hoarder, Kenneth Lang Jr., where the authorities found more than 150 dead Chihuahuas and Chihuahua mixes and over 100 other dogs, covered in feces and filth, living there. Many of the dead dogs were found in refrigerators and freezers at the residence.

More than 30 states now have laws that shift the financial burden of caring for abused or neglected animals from taxpayers to the defendants. The same number of states now authorize veterinarians to report suspected animal abuse.

And in the last three years, Arkansas, Illinois, Oregon and Washington, D.C., have enacted laws that require or authorize child or spousal abuse investigators and animal control officers to inform each other when they find something potentially amiss in a home. Eight states now have such laws.

Law enforcement officials often do not pursue charges against animal abusers because of limited resources, opting instead for noncriminal remediation that results in animals remaining in the custody of their abusers.

“In addition to protecting animals from suffering during a lengthy legal process, we used to have to worry about not bankrupting our county while caring for hundreds of animals for an extended period,” said William Lamberth, a prosecutor in Sumner County, Tenn., where the state legislature passed a law in 2007 giving courts the ability to require that those charged with animal abuse pay for care for their impounded animals or lose ownership.

He added that the new law had already saved his county tens of thousands of dollars.

States are also pushing for improved tracking of offenders.

Advocates for the registries say they will be useful because they will allow animal shelters to screen potential adopters, alert law enforcement to the presence of residents with a history of hoarding and warn communities about violent offenders. But opponents argue that once people have served their time and paid their fines, they should not be punished indefinitely for their crimes.

The proposed registries in Tennessee and California would include only adult and convicted offenders of felony level animal abuse.

The cost of building registries or mandating new reporting requirements has also been a concern.

According to a report issued by the Tennessee General Assembly in 2009, a registry there would cost the state $26,200 per year. Colorado conducted a similar analysis in 2002, which found the costs for developing and maintaining an abuser registry at $18,514 the first year and $10,994 for subsequent years.

But advocates say cost should not deter states from taking up this issue.

“Animal abuse is one of the four indicators that the F.B.I. profilers use to asses future violent behavior, so I don’t see why we should not use it too,” said Diana S. Urban, a Democratic state representative in Connecticut who sponsored a bill mandating that animal control workers and child welfare workers cross-report suspected animal, child or domestic abuse.

Frank R. Ascione, a professor at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work who has extensively studied the topic, said, “The research is pretty clear that there are connections between animal abuse and domestic violence and child abuse.”

One study found that in 88 percent of homes where children were physically abused, pets were mistreated too. A 2007 study found that women abused by their intimate partner were 10 times more likely to report that their partner had hurt or killed one or more of their pets than women who were not abused.

Professor Ascione, who also advises law enforcement officials in abuse cases, said that cross-reporting requirements helped foster early intervention.

In several recent cases, he said, children hinted at animal abuse to teachers who alerted animal protection agencies. Those workers spotted warning signs of other types of abuse, and child welfare workers intervened only to find that the children themselves were being abused.

“Often children are not willing to talk about what is happening to them, but they will talk about their concerns about what they are seeing done to their pets,” Professor Ascione said.

States have grown increasingly intolerant of animal abuse over the years. Two decades ago, just six states had felony level animal cruelty laws. Now all but four do.

Some states are bucking the trend. In Idaho, which is one of the states without a felony cruelty penalty, farmers and ranchers are pushing a bill that would more clearly distinguish livestock from pets and would exempt livestock from the protections afforded pets.

A Host of Mummies, a Forest of Secrets
By Nicholas Wade

Liu Yu Sheng
SYMBOLISM Archaeologists believe the hundreds of 13-foot poles at the Small River Cemetery in a desert in Xinjiang Province, China, were mostly phallic symbols.

In the middle of a terrifying desert north of Tibet, Chinese archaeologists have excavated an extraordinary cemetery. Its inhabitants died almost 4,000 years ago, yet their bodies have been well preserved by the dry air.

Wang Da-Gang
WELL PRESERVED The mummy of an infant was one of about 200 corpses with European features that were excavated from the cemetery.
Wang Da-Gang
A 3,800-year-old mummy, the Beauty of Xiaohe, found at the Small River Cemetery.

Many of the women buried there wore string undergarments like the one in this drawing.Wang Da-Gang

The cemetery lies in what is now China’s northwest autonomous region of Xinjiang, yet the people have European features, with brown hair and long noses. Their remains, though lying in one of the world’s largest deserts, are buried in upside-down boats. And where tombstones might stand, declaring pious hope for some god’s mercy in the afterlife, their cemetery sports instead a vigorous forest of phallic symbols, signaling an intense interest in the pleasures or utility of procreation.

The long-vanished people have no name, because their origin and identity are still unknown. But many clues are now emerging about their ancestry, their way of life and even the language they spoke.

Their graveyard, known as Small River Cemetery No. 5, lies near a dried-up riverbed in the Tarim Basin, a region encircled by forbidding mountain ranges. Most of the basin is occupied by the Taklimakan Desert, a wilderness so inhospitable that later travelers along the Silk Road would edge along its northern or southern borders.

In modern times the region has been occupied by Turkish-speaking Uighurs, joined in the last 50 years by Han settlers from China. Ethnic tensions have recently arisen between the two groups, with riots in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. A large number of ancient mummies, really desiccated corpses, have emerged from the sands, only to become pawns between the Uighurs and the Han.

The 200 or so mummies have a distinctively Western appearance, and the Uighurs, even though they did not arrive in the region until the 10th century, have cited them to claim that the autonomous region was always theirs. Some of the mummies, including a well-preserved woman known as the Beauty of Loulan, were analyzed by Li Jin, a well-known geneticist at Fudan University, who said in 2007 that their DNA contained markers indicating an East Asian and even South Asian origin.

The mummies in the Small River Cemetery are, so far, the oldest discovered in the Tarim Basin. Carbon tests done at Beijing University show that the oldest part dates to 3,980 years ago. A team of Chinese geneticists has analyzed the mummies’ DNA.

Despite the political tensions over the mummies’ origin, the Chinese said in a report published last month in the journal BMC Biology that the people were of mixed ancestry, having both European and some Siberian genetic markers, and probably came from outside China. The team was led by Hui Zhou of Jilin University in Changchun, with Dr. Jin as a co-author.

All the men who were analyzed had a Y chromosome that is now mostly found in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Siberia, but rarely in China. The mitochondrial DNA, which passes down the female line, consisted of a lineage from Siberia and two that are common in Europe. Since both the Y chromosome and the mitochondrial DNA lineages are ancient, Dr. Zhou and his team conclude the European and Siberian populations probably intermarried before entering the Tarim Basin some 4,000 years ago.

The Small River Cemetery was rediscovered in 1934 by the Swedish archaeologist Folke Bergman and then forgotten for 66 years until relocated through GPS navigation by a Chinese expedition. Archaeologists began excavating it from 2003 to 2005. Their reports have been translated and summarized by Victor H. Mair, a professor of Chinese at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert in the prehistory of the Tarim Basin.

As the Chinese archaeologists dug through the five layers of burials, Dr. Mair recounted, they came across almost 200 poles, each 13 feet tall. Many had flat blades, painted black and red, like the oars from some great galley that had foundered beneath the waves of sand.

At the foot of each pole there were indeed boats, laid upside down and covered with cowhide. The bodies inside the boats were still wearing the clothes they had been buried in. They had felt caps with feathers tucked in the brim, uncannily resembling Tyrolean mountain hats. They wore large woolen capes with tassels and leather boots. A Bronze Age salesclerk from Victoria’s Secret seems to have supplied the clothes beneath — barely adequate woolen loin cloths for the men, and skirts made of string strands for the women.

Within each boat coffin were grave goods, including beautifully woven grass baskets, skillfully carved masks and bundles of ephedra, an herb that may have been used in rituals or as a medicine.

In the women’s coffins, the Chinese archaeologists encountered one or more life-size wooden phalluses laid on the body or by its side. Looking again at the shaping of the 13-foot poles that rise from the prow of each woman’s boat, the archaeologists concluded that the poles were in fact gigantic phallic symbols.

The men’s boats, on the other hand, all lay beneath the poles with bladelike tops. These were not the oars they had seemed at first sight, the Chinese archaeologists concluded, but rather symbolic vulvas that matched the opposite sex symbols above the women’s boats. “The whole of the cemetery was blanketed with blatant sexual symbolism,” Dr. Mair wrote. In his view, the “obsession with procreation” reflected the importance the community attached to fertility.

Arthur Wolf, an anthropologist at Stanford University and an expert on fertility in East Asia, said that the poles perhaps mark social status, a common theme of tombs and grave goods. “It seems that what most people want to take with them is their status, if it is anything to brag about,” he said.

Dr. Mair said the Chinese archaeologists’ interpretation of the poles as phallic symbols was “a believable analysis.” The buried people’s evident veneration of procreation could mean they were interested in both the pleasure of sex and its utility, given that it is difficult to separate the two. But they seem to have had particular respect for fertility, Dr. Mair said, because several women were buried in double-layered coffins with special grave goods.

Living in harsh surroundings, “infant mortality must have been high, so the need for procreation, particularly in light of their isolated situation, would have been great,” Dr. Mair said. Another possible risk to fertility could have arisen if the population had become in-bred. “Those women who were able to produce and rear children to adulthood would have been particularly revered,” Dr. Mair said.

Several items in the Small River Cemetery burials resemble artifacts or customs familiar in Europe, Dr. Mair noted. Boat burials were common among the Vikings. String skirts and phallic symbols have been found in Bronze Age burials of Northern Europe.

There are no known settlements near the cemetery, so the people probably lived elsewhere and reached the cemetery by boat. No woodworking tools have been found at the site, supporting the idea that the poles were carved off site.

The Tarim Basin was already quite dry when the Small River people entered it 4,000 years ago. They probably lived at the edge of survival until the lakes and rivers on which they depended finally dried up around A.D. 400. Burials with felt hats and woven baskets were common in the region until some 2,000 years ago.

The language spoken by the people of the Small River Cemetery is unknown, but Dr. Mair believes it could have been Tokharian, an ancient member of the Indo-European family of languages. Manuscripts written in Tokharian have been discovered in the Tarim Basin, where the language was spoken from about A.D. 500 to 900. Despite its presence in the east, Tokharian seems more closely related to the “centum” languages of Europe than to the “satem” languages of India and Iran. The division is based on the words for hundred in Latin (centum) and in Sanskrit (satam).

The Small River Cemetery people lived more than 2,000 years before the earliest evidence for Tokharian, but there is “a clear continuity of culture,” Dr. Mair said, in the form of people being buried with felt hats, a tradition that continued until the first few centuries A.D.

An exhibition of the Tarim Basin mummies opens March 27 at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, Calif. — the first time that the mummies will be seen outside Asia.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly described Xinjiang as a province rather than an autonomous region.