Friday, April 25, 2008

Dance crazes

Speaking of pop and dance... With YouTube, teen dance trends are documented in great detail, often via self-video and rapid upload from dancers' living rooms or the neighborhood internet cafe. Not exactly in preparation (who wants a doctor who tries to act like he's just like you?) but kind of to get in the mood for the "youth" clinic I'll be working in starting in a couple of months, I'm taking a little bit of time to catch up with the latest.

My home territory of California, having produced krumping (in the South) and hyphy and turf dancing (in the North) appears to be resting on its laurels--I'm not seeing what's new. Maybe I'm just not cool enough to know the right keywords. But here's what I found from elsewhere...

It's civil war--ON THE DANCE FLOOR! YouTube has a bunch of videos with dancing from Angola, part of a new movement ("It's not just a dance, it's a way of life" etc etc) called kuduro. Seriously, though, the fact that kids are having dance battles and making videos off their cell phones and posting them on the Internet, in Angola, is probably a pretty good sign. Here's a dance battle between two guys--the second is the one to watch, as the crowd reaction will demonstrate.

In France, the kids have been doing a techno dance they're calling techtonik, which has now spread at least to Greece, Turkey and Korea based on a quick YouTube survey; here's a young man who appears to be a YouTube techtonik superstar:

But wait! You say that techtonik is a registered trade mark of some party promoter and there's a South African technology trends article about the integrity of the techtonik "brand" in which we hear that "for French sociologist Francois de Singly, the phenomenon shows how 'capitalism has moved into such high gear that movements are becoming brands even before they are really born'"???

Sociologist? Isn't that just another way to say "cranky old hippie"???

Jumpstyle is a club dance from Belgium and the Netherlands; here's the obligatory cheerful Northern European news feature about that dance those nice kids are doing in the mall:

The above newscast demonstrates the reason that the United States will still be the triumphant master of deeply-persisting teen trends (instead of flash-in-the-pan goofy techno dances). In the United States, mall security would be kicking these kids out and the police would be linking the new dance to gang activity, thereby giving the dance much more credibility and long-term prospects for product tie-ins. Which is how our security state collaborates with our entertainment export industry to make America still the greatest producer of pop culture the world has ever seen.

Like I say, I'm not cool enough to know the keywords to find the latest in YouTube crazes from Northern California. But the Bay Area has been producing "hyphy" for some time, as in the "hyphy movement" which includes up-tempo hip-hop, "turf dancing" and doing cavalier stunts with cars; here's a 2006 video which will illuminate how the American security/entertainment conflict/collaboration works, and provides an excellent contrast to the perky Dutch account of their new trend:

And here's some kids in 2006 at Berkeley High, explaining (or, sort of explaining) hyphy from the inside.

...and the inevitable documentary glorifying the trend, with the title of the movie celebrating one of its most dangerous and disturbing aspects, namely automotive disasters-in-the-making (truly):

Kind of makes European teenagers--and even Angolan teenagers--look pretty wholesome.

ADDENDUM: Yes, I recognize the red flags for diagnosticians and disability rights activists alike in a Northern California youth trend called "hyphy" as an abbreviation for "hyper" and by implication "hyperactive"; and in which positive adjectives include "stupid" and "retarded"; and in which there is the ironic glorification of the short yellow bus; and this trend is emerging among poor African American teenagers and other young people of color, who are disproportionately over-labelled and under-helped by the "special education" system. And obviously this would be a natural topic for this blog. But as you may have noticed, in a brief period of my internship in which I've been working fewer hours, I seem to be willfully off-topic.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Pop non-stop

video: Rihanna performing for the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. (?!) Below, Madonna's "Hung Up" and the trailer for Rize.

I'm listening to Rihanna's "SOS" with that mash-up-style "Tainted Love" sample, and her "Don't Stop The Music" which includes a little synthesizer riff that echoes another woebegone 80s hit "I Wear My Sunglasses at Night". And while appreciating the latest in trashy but quite satisfying pure pop, I finally remembered to download the single "Hung Up" from Madonna's last album, even as her new album is about to come out. It's got a bore-into-your-body catchiness, with its roots sunk deeply into the dance floor. Absurd though Madonna may be in many ways, you have to give her credit: she knows how to make a pop song.

Let me say for the record that in college I wrote a fairly serious 35 page paper about the semiotics of dance in Madonna's videos. To put this in historical context, this was during the same semester that a group of women students at my college put on an equally serious forum and discussion entitled "Is Madonna a Feminist?" (Though I think it has always been clear that the answer to that question must be given in three parts: yes, no, and who cares?)

Madonna is a genius of pop music, whose calculating intelligence about the genre has allowed her to outlast just about every other pop star of her original era. She is no longer the center of pop music, and she will never be the startling new thing. Now that she is the age of the mothers of the most ardent pop music consumers (teenage girls), her place in the pop world is as a commenter as much as a practitioner.

This music video is one example: it's a little visual review essay about the dance trends of the time it was made. Those trends, and the kids who create them, are juxtaposed against Madonna wearing the kind of clothes and haircut she likely wore when she was their age.

Madonna, like anyone serious about pop music, knows that pop music and dance are always being born and reborn again and again in poor neighborhoods and gay clubs. So, at the end of this video, you have a group of kids from South Central LA taking a taxicab which ends up at a club in London. In reality, the only link between Madonna's world in London and these kids is probably a DVD of the documentary Rize, about krumping. But I don't think Madonna is asking us to believe that she is from the South Central LA world of krumping, or even that she understands it. Just that she celebrates it, along with Dance Dance Revolution (the dance video game seen at the end), the French acrobatic street stunts of parkour, and some kind of crazy disco dance with a fish in an Asian restaurant which for all I know represents some other kind of trend.

Now that this video has become dated, its underlying idea is actually more clear. It's about the enthusiasms of youth, which always date themselves in their details, but are also timeless in their general outlines: combinations of dance, desire, doubt, determination. It's about a woman who's now much older, remembering that time and that way of living, the time in her life when she was driven to make her mark but had not yet made it. Dance songs then were about "You don't appreciate me so I'm going to go on without you" (Gloria Gaynor was playing on the club speakers singing "I Will Survive" when Madonna came to New York) and this dance anthem is yet another variation on that eternal club anthem theme.

As for me, I remember the nerdy earnestness of the teenage record store guy who spent hours listening over and over again to a jazz record and then more hours listening over and over again to a 12" club remix of a pop song; then goes to a college and writes a paper about Madonna; goes to San Francisco and gets caught up in AIDS with the same nerdy earnestness; and then becomes a doctor, which in fact is the ultimate culmination of nerdy earnestness. Which I think makes this post the equivalent of Madonna's pink late-disco-era leotard, my memory of who I was when I was young.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Meta-analyses and

The race for Minnesota's US Senate seat, US data on hypothetical McCain-Obama matchup for the general presidential election, and Pennsylvania Democratic primary polling, as shown by

I have a new addiction.
is the website political junkies have been jonesing for even before we knew what it was. It clusters the results of polls that ask the same question--like, Who are you going to vote for? or, Do you think the country is on the right track? Then it puts them together into a single graph with a unifying trend line. It's imperfect--I can't satisfy myself that the trend line weights for sample size--but it's a lot better than reading the polls one by one.

The medicine parallel is in what we call meta-analyses--when we try to figure out a medical question by combining a number of studies that try to answer that question. Even if a bunch of smaller studies contradict each other, the idea is that by combining a number of studies you get the effect of having one huge study, and in this kind of data (with simple results like "worked better" vs "worked the same"), sample size is all. Thus, if you can create a meta-analysis that has the effect of creating one very large set of data, the answer those data give may be more reliable.

Like any kind of statistics, the problems get more complex as you try to get around the simplest problems. For instance, even when you weight for sample size, you can't throw less-reliable studies and more-reliable studies together and act like they're equivalent--so an ideal meta-analysis gives the data from more reliable studies more weight in the final result. But judging quality, and the appropriate weight given to difference between studies, begins to become a bit more subjective the more you try to fine-tune this problem. (What is quality? And how much weight does which measure of quality get?) doesn't seem to do any weighting for sample size or other aspects of reliability, but even their relatively straightforward trend line is better than a lot of nonsense political handicapping you hear on TV politics talk shows. By giving more raw data and by combining large sets of data, these graphs and datasets allow you to begin cutting through some of the worst excesses of data-mining by stupid or biased pundits. In other words, you can be your own pundit.

I am aware, of course, that one of the ways that I manage to avoid coherent political action is by being a political junkie--an observer rather than a participant. Another thing that I need to change a little bit in the coming years.

Wikipedia on meta-analysis on their trend-line method

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Dockworkers, doctors, and democracy

Photo from the Sydney Morning Herald: the Chinese ship, and South African church members protesting its cargo.

The dockworkers of Durban, South Africa, did what their government wouldn't: stopped a shipment of arms from China to Zimbabwe, including 3 million rounds of ammunition for AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades, and mortar rounds. The arms would help the doddering dictator Robert Mugabe try to hold on to power, after an election that appears to have not gone well for him.

The Durban dockworkers refused to unload the arms. Then an Anglican archbishop filed a motion in court to stop the shipment. When the court affirmed the motion, the Chinese ship pulled up anchor and headed for Mozambique--or was it Angola?

Whichever port it heads towards next, the Chinese ship will likely eventually find a port, and a road to deliver its bullets. Nonetheless, the collaboration between the church and the unions exposes the banal exchanges of money, bullets and bureaucratic documents which move violence around the world. Mugabe sends money (though surely not in his own currency, which he has made worthless). The Chinese send bullets. The South African government signs the papers which allow the bullets to move from its ports to landlocked Zimbabwe. Stopping the bullets for a few days or weeks may or may not influence the outcome of the struggle in Zimbabwe, but it does help highlight who may share responsibility for the violence of that struggle.

The collaboration recalls some of the proudest moments of the fight against apartheid in South Africa, when the church and the unions led the struggle in the streets while much of the African National Congress leadership was in exile or prison. It also reminded me of a moment closer to home, when dockworkers in Oakland, California, refused to unload a South African ship's cargo as a protest against apartheid. At that time, they were supporting the work of the African National Congress as well as the Congress of South African Trade Unions in their collective struggle for justice and democracy.

This time, though, the unions and officials of the African National Congress were on two different sides of the question. COSATU members refused to unload the Chinese ship, while African National Congress government officials had already cleared the cargo to cross South Africa on the way to Zimbabwe, and the president of South Africa continues to coddle Mugabe.

The dockworkers' refusal to unload the cargo illustrates a broader political principle. In Zimbabwe, the ruling party was able to assert its primacy above all other political organizations. In South Africa, even those who have been fiercely proud members of the African National Congress also remained part of other organizations, like churches and unions, and these organizations remain an active and vital part of the political landscape. (In fact, they've helped change the leadership of the ANC, and President Mbeki's faction appears to be on the way out.)

When people in South Africa split their loyalties--voting for the ANC, but marching in a COSATU or Treatment Action Campaign march, and supporting an Anglican archbishop who speaks truth to power--their nation's politics, their own interests, and the well-being of the entire region are better served.

Thinking about the dockworkers' choice, it seems to me that in this election season, we should choose our candidate wisely, and then join an organization that also reflects our values but stands ready to oppose our chosen candidate. This is how we create the checks-and-balances of true democracy--not just by courts and legislatures, but by votes and protests, and by support and opposition by issue rather than by allegiance. Democracy is formal and informal; it involves the dockworkers refusing to unload the cargo, and the Anglican church going to court to stop it, and an independent judicial system willing to fairly judge the motion.

I've often been disappointed with myself during my medical training that I have not as been politically active as I think I should be. The dockworkers are a reminder of why a vote is not enough. My excuse this year is internship, which is my excuse for a lot of things; but that excuse will be over at the end of June. And then I will need to think about what I can do to make the world a better place, and to do my small part in exposing its violence.

Doctors sometimes convince ourselves that we are taking our own stands for what is right when we refuse to order a useless study, or fight for a medicine that an insurance company seeks to deny. But these actions are the quiet battles that take place inside the industrial process of healthcare delivery. Unlike the dockworkers, we actually conceal the violence of the system when we make private phone calls to soften its blows. Sometimes we should be ready to choose our times when we simply refuse to unload the ship.

I don't know which times these would be. The work of doctors and dockworkers is very different. Our struggles are rarely as clear-cut as stopping a shipment of arms to someone who will use them to kill civilians and suppress democracy. And a leader of a grassroots healthcare workers' movement could not in good conscience make this classic dockworkers "just try to fight us" threat:

Randall Howard, general secretary of the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union, said the dock workers had no intentions of allowing the Chinese cargo to be unloaded. "If they bring in replacement labor to do the work, our members will not stand and look at them and smile," he said.

Still, if the nature of who we are and what we stand for forbids busting heads for political gain, we can do more than vote and make quiet phone calls. What this will be for me, I'm not sure. But I'm in a mood for change, and I'm pretty sure that Obama won't be enough.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Hospitals and farmer's markets

Should every medical center have a farmer's market?

This is the brilliant idea of a Kaiser Permanente physician in Northern California, who has convinced Kaiser to host farmer's markets at many of its medical centers.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Your glamour was their genius

photo of ACT UP Chicago demonstration from

An essay I wrote a while ago, that grew out of my ongoing project in AIDS history:

I have to admit that despite a lifelong professed hatred of musicals, I went to the movie version of Rent when it came out, and I started getting a little teary almost as soon as it started. Rent shows earnest people with AIDS singing about their lives until interrupted by beepers reminding them to take their next dose of AZT; it shows a support group of people with AIDS sharing their fears and finding community. Plus there’s an almost unforgivably sentimental but nonetheless lovely song about measuring the quality of one’s time in the world by the love you find in it. Sometimes I am a sentimental person, and Rent’s sentimentality hits me right where I live.

seemed at first to be an unlikely candidate for mainstream success; half of its characters are HIV-positive, half are gay or lesbian, and two are heroin addicts. But that’s how some of the biggest hits are made. To understand Rent now, we have to remember what preceded it.

Fear and hate of people with AIDS are still widespread in our society, but those feelings were so common, so intense and so irrational in the nineteen-eighties that the counter-reaction eventually created a strange kind of glamour. AIDS acquired a glamour of stigma, like the glamour of Billie Holiday or drag queens. As the glamour gained momentum, politicians who voted for money for AIDS, or scientists who did AIDS research, or celebrities who wore red ribbons all got to benefit from the glamour, without having to suffer from the stigma. To stand up for the stigmatized is to cloak one’s self with the righteousness of the underdog and the aura of the enlightened.

But if we view AIDS simply through the glamour of stigma, we miss essential parts of the story. The lesbian writer and activist Sarah Schulman has written about the way that Rent combines parts of the opera La Boheme with elements of a novel of hers, People in Trouble, for important parts of its plot. But as she herself argues, whether you view Rent’s similarities to her novel as theft, honest borrowing, or coincidence, the bigger problem with Rent is the part of the story it does not tell.

You can find Schulman’s side of the story by reading her novel or in her essay critiquing Rent’s approach to AIDS and gay and lesbian lives in her book Stagestruck. But I think her point is actually made most forcefully by another project of hers that has nothing to do with Rent: an extensive set of interviews, found at, with members of the AIDS activist group ACT UP.

The interviews make clear that in real life, it would have been essentially impossible for the characters of Rent to avoid ACT UP. In the time and neighborhood where the story takes place, ACT UP’s posters and protests were everywhere. Mimi might well have traded in her used needles for new ones at a needle exchange set up by ACT UP activists. Activists wearing ACT UP t-shirts would have been at the eviction protest staged by Maureen, passing out flyers for their next protest. And the people in the AIDS support group might have worried about losing their dignity, as they do in Rent, but they also would have traded ACT UP activists’ insider tips about clinical trials and experimental drugs.

One part of ACT UP’s legacy comes from building collective expertise that allowed activists to sit across the table from scientists and bureaucrats and demand new approaches to health policy and scientific research. But another part of ACT UP’s brilliance could be found in their demonstrations. Some were huge and carefully orchestrated, as when they took over the headquarters of the Food and Drug Administration. Others were smaller, including political funerals in which activists carried coffins out into the streets, blocking traffic while they marched with the bodies of their dead friends, protesting against a government and a healthcare system that seemed not to care about their deaths. At the time, that sort of thing made a lot of people furious, and all sorts of people hated ACT UP for their in-your-face stridency.

But with more than a decade gone by, it’s now clear that the provocations of ACT UP and other AIDS activists worked. They changed the science, politics and culture of AIDS. It was after ACT UP that scientists started listening to activists, and after ACT UP that federal lawmakers passed legislation to fund comprehensive AIDS care.

Let us not distort history by thinking that Hollywood led the way to tolerance. It was only after the scientists and politicians had already signed on that celebrities started wearing red ribbons. Even then, though, the red ribbons carried a little of the electricity of being on the right side of a struggle.

AIDS activists had succeeded by transforming the stigma that marked them into a weapon of power and social change. A few years later, based on the energy they had created by angrily drawing a line between right and wrong, Rent became a runaway hit. Viewed in the light of this history, Rent is a musical about the glamour of stigma. The ACT UP oral histories document the genius of the stigmatized.