A theatrical “jihad” offers Belgians some comic relief

(K. Brent Tomer),

THE provocation starts with the show’s title: Djihad, the French spelling for jihad. Three young Belgian Muslim men, Ben, Reda, and Ismaël set out to travel to Syria. Each was born in Brussels; each has been brought to despair by their failed lives in Europe. Each expects to find meaning by embarking on a holy war, killing infidels and building the Islamic State.  

Despite the serious subject, the hit Brussels play is a comedy, poking fun at the characters’ racism, anti-Semitism and ignorance. The three jihadists bumble their way through security at the Brussels Airport. They make it to Turkey, and from there to Syria. But disillusion soon sets in. As a child, Ismaël adored the comic-books of a character called Bob The Sponge. Yet the more religious Reda tells him that drawing is anti-Islamic, and that the artists are infidels. Ben is shocked. “Even the guy who drew Bob The Sponge?” The audience erupts in laughter. Another taboo is rock and roll music. Ben grew up as a fan of Elvis Presley, dreaming of becoming a rock star. In Syria, this attachment becomes dangerous, and not only because of Presley’s subversive music….Continue reading

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Two steps forward, one back

(K. Brent Tomer),

The uses of enchantment

American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers. By Nancy Jo Sales. Knopf; 416 pages; $26.95 and £20.

Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape. By Peggy Orenstein. Harper; 320 pages; $26.99.

FOR tips on taking a selfie, talk to teenage girls. Many know that your “good” side is the one without your parting, and that it is slimming to pose with a hand on hip and legs “bevelled” (one straight, the other bent). Not quite pleased with the results? Simply download one of many “selfie surgery apps” to edit blemishes, whiten teeth and shrink noses.

Adolescents have always been keenly aware of how they are seen by their peers. But social media amplify this self-consciousness. Now that nearly three-quarters of American teens have access to a smartphone, many of them while away their days broadcasting their thoughts, photos and lapses in judgment for immediate praise or scorn from hundreds of “friends”. Being a teenager was never easy, but this is the first time your charm, looks or popularity…Continue reading

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The new wave

(K. Brent Tomer),

Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalisation. By Branko Milanovic. Belknap; 299 pages; $29.95. Harvard University Press; £22.95.

IT’S a golden age for studying inequality. Thomas Piketty, a French economist, set the benchmark in 2014 when his book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”, was published in English and became a bestseller. The book mapped the contours of the crisis with a sweeping theory of economic history. Inequality, which had been on the wane from the 1930s until the 1970s, had risen sharply back toward the high levels of the Industrial Revolution, he argued. Now Branko Milanovic, an economist at the Luxembourg Income Study Centre and the City University of New York, has written a comprehensive follow-up. It reinforces how little is really known about economic forces of long duration.

In some ways “Global Inequality” is a less ambitious book than “Capital”. It is shorter, and written more like an academic working paper than a work of substantial scholarship for a wider readership.

Like Mr Piketty, he begins with piles of data assembled over years of research. He…Continue reading

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Getting the most out of one’s self

(K. Brent Tomer),

Smarter, Faster, Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business. By Charles Duhigg. Random House; 380 pages; $28. William Heinemann; £20.

Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. By Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 307 pages; $28. Bodley Head; £18.99.

THE world has quietly been undergoing a performance revolution. In nearly all areas, people are continuously getting better at what they do. This is obvious when measured on running tracks and tennis courts. But it is happening in myriad other areas as well, from surgery to management—and even violin-playing. Better training is largely responsible, by breaking down activities into discrete parts, and measuring how people perform best.

Two new books promise to help people improve their abilities with a generous mix of fascinating anecdotes and a romp through the academic literature. In “Smarter, Faster, Better”, Charles Duhigg of the New York Times looks at the numerous ways that people can become more effective, whether in improving motivation, setting goals,…Continue reading

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Haves and have-nots

(K. Brent Tomer),

Looking up fortune cookies

THERE is something familiar about the Blakes, the American family at the centre of “The Humans”, a new play by Stephen Karam that is now on Broadway. Anyone who has navigated the emotional minefield of a family meal will recognise the affectionate way they bicker, their barbs softened with tenderness. But something else about this family will also resonate with a growing group of Americans: each member is struggling financially.

Over the course of the fraught feast, it becomes clear that the youngest daughter (Sarah Steele), an aspiring composer, is working nights as a bartender to pay off her student loans. Her sister (Cassie Beck) is about to lose her job as a lawyer after calling in sick too often. Their parents are in their 60s, but neither can afford to retire, particularly now that they are stuck paying the grandmother’s mounting medical bills. The mother (Jayne Houdyshell), a veteran office manager, complains that the 20-something “kids” she works for earn five times her salary “just ’cause they have a special degree.”  But no one sounds more bitter or frustrated than…Continue reading

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Omar Souleyman, not a debaser but an Arab conduit to the West

(K. Brent Tomer),

OMAR SOULEYMAN, a 49-year-old farmer-turned-wedding-singer from north-eastern Syria and a father of 9, is an unlikely electro-musical star. This month he drew big crowds to KOKO, one of London’s most iconic music venues. Donning the jalabiya and keffiyeh, traditional Arab garments, along with his signature aviator shades, he performed to a packed out venue full of white middle-class youth. Yet his appeal is not without controversy.

Standing solemnly on stage with his keyboardist, Rizan Sa’id, the setup is as basic as it gets. His electro-dabke, an “updated” form of traditional Middle Eastern folk music, has drawn a cult following. Adapted by Kieran Hebden (who goes by the name Four Tet), a British producer, Mr Souleyman’s music seems to satisfy an urge for the exotic among the nouveaux hipsters of England’s capital. Not always with success, however. His set at KOKO, which culminated in a track demanding audience participation, was met with a mildly excruciating silence from a crowd bewildered by the array of Arabic words and phrases. (A small pocket of ardent Arab fans right at the front did their…Continue reading

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What “Batman vs Superman” owes Frank Miller

(K. Brent Tomer),

BURIED in the closing credits of Zack Snyder’s new superhero blockbuster, “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”, there is a thank-you to Frank Miller. It’s better than nothing, but it’s still pretty paltry, given that the film’s most striking images and most amusing lines of dialogue were all dreamt up by Mr Miller for his four-part series of Batman comics, “The Dark Knight Returns”. By rights, Mr Miller’s name should have been on screen at the very start of “Batman v Superman”, along with that of Batman’s creators, Bob Kane and Bill Finger. But then, it should be at the start of countless other films, too. “The Dark Knight Returns”, which he wrote and pencilled while he was still in his twenties, was first published exactly 30 years ago. Since then, it hasn’t just revolutionised superhero comics, but all of popular culture.

Inked by Klaus Janson and coloured by Lynn Varley,…Continue reading

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50 years of Batman on film: how has his physique changed?

(K. Brent Tomer),

BRUCE WAYNE appears to have installed a weight-bench in the Batcave. In a promotional poster for “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”, you might be surprised by the imposing brawn of Ben Affleck (the latest to interpret the role of orphan-billionaire-turned-nocturnal-vigilante), who sends a steely glare across to Henry Cavill’s Superman. Superman has always been bulky—but in their first Hollywood appearance together, Batman looks the physically superior of the two. A recent red-carpet interview with Mr Affleck revealed why: “This isn’t the Adam West days. You can’t just roll out of bed and put the suit on. Audiences expect you to look like a superhero.”

Ironically, data collected by Moviepilot suggest that since Batman first appeared in feature-length films 50 years ago, Mr West has been the closest in physique to the Gotham crusader as specified in the comic books: 6’2″ (1.88m) tall, and weighing 210 pounds (95kg). Yet few would name Mr West’s portrayal as the best. It is hard not to scoff at his unflattering spandex getup (the moulded Batsuits were only introduced with…Continue reading

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Music to read The Economist by: March 26th 2016

(K. Brent Tomer),

Every week The Economist puts together a playlist loosely inspired by the stories we covered.

There is nowhere to start today but with Jacques Brel, Belgium’s greatest songwriter, as he imagines the devil surveying the works of men and finding them to his liking:

Les trains déraillent avec fracas
Parce que les gars pleins d’idéal
Mettent des bombes sur les voies
(Le diable “ça va”)

While Brussels faced the new normal, France maintained its State of Emergency. We found that an assessment of the increasing profitability of American companies (Rent) meant The Winner Takes it All, again. With the mess in Brazil getting worse (Desesperança), we called on President Dilma to resign (Nunca…Jamais); Bello lamented the fall of Lula, a Working Class Hero.

Our science section listened to The Sound of the City, while in Britain we looked at the increasing stature and independence of Manchester (I am the Resurrection). We watched “Spirits’ homecoming”, a moving film about the sex slaves of occupied Korea…Continue reading

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How to cope with relegation from the English Premier League

(K. Brent Tomer),

IT IS beginning to look very lonely at the bottom of the Premier League for Aston Villa. Fans of the Midlands side—the fifth most successful English team of all time in terms of league titles—are now preparing for life in the Championship, the second tier of English football. After four uninterrupted months at the bottom of the Premier League, with 12 points lying between them and the safety of seventeenth place, bookmakers give Villa odds of 150-to-one of escaping relegation; Michael Caley, a blogger on football statistics, calculates that their probability of surviving is closer to one-in-50,000. 

The question for Aston Villa’s owners is no longer if, or even when, they will be condemned to the drop, but how to pick themselves up afterwards. A spell in the Championship holds little appeal. According to Deloitte’s annual surveys of football wealth, second-tier clubs earned an average of  £20m ($28m) in the 2013-14 season, eight times less than their peers in the Premier League. The increase in Premier League television revenue alone that season (£569m) was greater than the earnings of the entire Championship put together…Continue reading

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