Monday, June 9, 2008

Mexico's crystal skulls, from reel to real life

People in Palenque, Mexico, watch as Mayan priests participate in a ceremony that involves a crystal skull. Some believe the skulls can emit and focus light, project visions and even influence terrestrial forces, though scientists disagree.

The latest Indiana Jones sequel is inspired by an ancient Maya legend, one that still inspires worship today.
PALENQUE, MEXICO -- There is a legend that the ancient Maya possessed 13 crystal skulls which, when united, have the power to save the Earth -- a tale so strange and fantastic that it inspired the latest Indiana Jones movie.

Experts dismiss the hundreds of crystal skulls around as fakes that were probably made by unscrupulous antiquities traders in the 19th century. But even today Mayan priests worship the skulls and real-life treasure hunters still search for them.
The story of the skulls stretches over continents and hundreds of years, and may be even more extraordinary than the tale portrayed in the fourth installment of the Indiana Jones franchise.

Few of today's crystal skulls can be documented any further back than the 1860s, when Europe was swept by a rage for pre-Hispanic "relics." Frenchman Eugene Boban, a colorful antiques dealer with a checkered past and murky political ties, set up a store here to supply the trade after the French invaded Mexico.

Eventually he carted skulls between New York, Paris and Mexico City, selling them to private collectors.

Buyers were often told that the skulls were made by the Mayas, whose civilization peaked between 300 and 900 A.D. But no crystal skull has ever been excavated from a documented archaeological site. Some believe the skulls can emit and focus light, project visions and even influence terrestrial forces.

Today, these beliefs persist in the jungles of southern Mexico among the Lacandon, one of the few isolated Maya peoples, some of whom still worship the skulls.

In the shadow of the Palenque ruins, Lacandon priest K'in Garcia fans incense and holds a heavy crystal skull above his head during ceremonies for Hacha'kyum, the Mayan god of creation.

Garcia, son of the Lancandon's most respected elder, Chan Kin, believes the skull has special powers, including the ability to stave off sickness and deforestation in the rain forest where the last Lacandon live.

"When I am alone at night, at about 2 a.m., it starts to glow, it emits light, and it stays like that for about a minute," said Garcia.

Garcia says the skull was given to him by a local man -- and while he believes it is very old, he doesn't know where it came from.

Thousands of miles away in Washington, Jane MacLaren Walsh keeps one of the skulls in her office at the Smithsonian Institution. She doubts the ancient Mayas ever had any such skulls.

An anthropologist and antiquities sleuth, she has spent more than a decade studying the best-known skulls, such as the ones acquired by the British Museum and Paris' Quai Branly museum more than a century ago, as well as the Smithsonian's own skull.

She says they are stylistically unlike pre-Hispanic depictions of death's heads, and often show microscopic marks from cutting tools unavailable in pre-Hispanic times.

"None of them is ancient," said Walsh, who recently wrote an article for Archaeology magazine examining the legends surrounding the skulls.

About the purported powers, she notes wryly: "I've been sitting in fairly close proximity to one of the skulls for about 16 years, and I have not witnessed anything like what people say."

The British Museum keeps a skull in its collections largely as a curiosity, listing its provenance as "probably European, 19th century."

It's possible that the near-human sized fakes may have been inspired by two real crystal skulls now on display at Mexico City's respected National Anthropology Museum. Much smaller and less perfectly carved than the ones held at the museums in Europe, these jewelry-sized trinkets, about an inch in height, are in the Aztec and Oaxaca collections, where the museum classifies them as either late pre-Hispanic or early colonial.

The skulls' legend has spawned a new breed of followers. New-agers have associated the skulls with the belief that the Mayan "Long Count" calendar runs out on Dec. 21, 2012, when it reaches the end of a 5,126-year cycle. According to this theory, all 13 skulls must be reunited and lined up together to prevent the world from falling off its axis.

"I personally feel that [the skulls] are coming out now because humanity needs the information, their energy and they have probably their own purpose why they're coming out: to help us to create world peace," said Joshua " Illinois" Shapiro, 53, a self-described Crystal Skull Explorer who makes a living touring and lecturing.

Shapiro has traveled the world seeking out skulls, and believes they link us to knowledge of past worlds like the Mayas, the lost civilization of Atlantis, or even extraterrestrials.

"I was wearing the Indiana Jones hat for a very long time," he claims, "far before they ever thought about putting a crystal skull in an Indiana Jones movie."

Original here

Albinos, Long Shunned, Face Threat in Tanzania

Guillaume Bonn for The New York Times

Men waited for help at the Tanzanian Albino Society office in Dar es Salaam. At least 19 albinos have been killed in Tanzania in the past year, victims of a growing trade in albino body parts.

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania — Samuel Mluge steps outside his office and scans the sidewalk. His pale blue eyes dart back and forth, back and forth, trying to focus.

The sun used to be his main enemy, but now he has others.

Mr. Mluge is an albino, and in Tanzania now there is a price for his pinkish skin.

“I feel like I am being hunted,” he said.

Discrimination against albinos is a serious problem throughout sub-Saharan Africa, but recently in Tanzania it has taken a wicked twist: at least 19 albinos, including children, have been killed and mutilated in the past year, victims of what Tanzanian officials say is a growing criminal trade in albino body parts.

Many people in Tanzania — and across Africa, for that matter — believe albinos have magical powers. They stand out, often the lone white face in a black crowd, a result of a genetic condition that impairs normal skin pigmentation and strikes about 1 in 3,000 people here. Tanzanian officials say witch doctors are now marketing albino skin, bones and hair as ingredients in potions that are promised to make people rich.

As the threats have increased, the Tanzanian government has mobilized to protect its albino population, an already beleaguered group whose members are often shunned as outcasts and die of skin cancer before they reach 30.

Police officers are drawing up lists of albinos in every corner of the country to better look after them. Officers are escorting albino children to school. Tanzania’s president even sponsored an albino woman for a seat in Parliament to show that “we are with them in this,” said Salvator Rweyemamu, a Tanzanian government spokesman.

Mr. Rweyemamu said the rash of killings was anathema to what Tanzania had been striving toward; after years of failed socialist economic policies, the country is finally getting development, investment and change.

“This is serious because it continues some of the perceptions of Africa we’re trying to run away from,” he said.

But the killings go on. They have even spread to neighboring Kenya, where an albino woman was hacked to death in late May, with her eyes, tongue and breasts gouged out. Advocates for albinos have also said that witch doctors are selling albino skin in Congo.

The young are often the targets. In early May, Vumilia Makoye, 17, was eating dinner with her family in their hut in western Tanzania when two men showed up with long knives.

Vumilia was like many other Africans with albinism. She had dropped out of school because of severe near-sightedness, a common problem for albinos, whose eyes develop abnormally and who often have to hold things like books or cellphones two inches away to see them. She could not find a job because no one would hire her. She sold peanuts in the market, making $2 a week while her delicate skin was seared by the sun.

When Vumilia’s mother, Jeme, saw the men with knives, she tried to barricade the door of their hut. But the men overpowered her and burst in.

“They cut my daughter quickly,” she said, making hacking motions with her hands.

The men sawed off Vumilia’s legs above the knee and ran away with the stumps. Vumilia died.

Yusuph Malogo, who lives nearby, fears he may be next. He is also an albino and works by himself on a rice farm. He now carries a loud, silver whistle to blow for help.

“I’m on the run,” he said.

He is 26, but his skin is thick and leathery from sun damage, making him look 20 years older.

Many albinos in Tanzania are turning to the Tanzanian Albino Society for help. But the nonprofit advocacy group operates on less than $15,000 a year. That’s not enough for the sunscreen, hats and protective clothing that could save lives.

Mr. Mluge, 49, is the society’s general secretary. He grew up with children pelting him with chalk in class. He said he had learned to live with being constantly teased, pinched and laughed at.

“But we have never feared like we do today,” he said.

Al-Shaymaa J. Kwegyir, Tanzania’s new albino member of Parliament, said, “People think we’re lucky. That’s why they’re killing us. But we’re not lucky.”

She said it was a curse to be born in equatorial Africa, where the sun is unsparing, with little or no protective skin pigment. Albinism rates vary throughout the world; about 1 person in 20,000 is an albino in the United States.

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The New York Times

The police say the albino killings are worst in rural areas.

It is no accident that the Tanzania Albino Society’s office is on the grounds of a cancer hospital. Many of its members are sick.

The smell of the wards is overpowering, a nose-stinging mix of burn salves and rotting flesh. Many of the albino patients are covered with scabs, sores, welts and burns.

One patient, Nasolo Kambi, sat on his bed, recovering from a recent round of chemotherapy for skin cancer. His arms were splattered with dark brown splotches, like ink stains on white paper.

“People say we can’t die,” he said, referring to a superstition that albinos simply vanish when they get older. “But we can.”

Police officials said the albino killings were worst in rural areas, where people tend to be less educated and more superstitious. They said that some fishermen even wove albino hairs in their nets because they believed they would catch more fish.

On the shores of Lake Victoria, in northern Tanzania, albinos are a touchy subject. When asked if they used albino hairs in their nets, a group of fishermen just stared at the sand.

One traditional healer, a young man in a striped shirt who looked more like a college student than a witch doctor, said: “Yeah, I’ve heard of it. But that’s not real witchcraft. It’s the work of con men.”

Police officials are at a loss to explain precisely why there is a wave of albino killings now. Commissioner Paul Chagonja said an influx of Nigerian movies, which play up witchcraft, might have something to do with it, along with rising food prices that were making people more desperate.

“These witch doctors have many strange beliefs,” he said. “There was a rumor not so long ago that if you use a bald head when fishing, you’ll get rich. There was another one that said if you spread blood on the ground in a mine, you’ll find gold. These rumors come and go. The problem is, the people who follow witch doctors don’t question them.”

Mr. Mluge said whispers swirled around him whenever he walked down the sidewalk.

“I hear people saying, ‘It’s a deal, it’s a deal. Let’s get him and make some money,’ ” he said.

At home, at least, he is not an oddity. His wife is an albino. So are all five of his children. Some have already had skin cancer, in their teens.

The night used to be theirs, a time when Mr. Mluge and his fair-skinned sons and daughters could stroll outside together without worrying about the sun.

Now they bolt themselves in, peering through bars.

Just two weeks ago, while Mr. Mluge’s children were sleeping, a car pulled up to their house and four men got out to look around.

“I’m worried,” he said. “They know we are here.”

Mr. Mluge said he tried to read the license plate. But he couldn’t make out the numbers, and the car drove off.

Original here

College Drinking and Heart Problems

College students toast with beer.

In many ways, I was a pretty typical pre-med student. I studied hard with hopes of becoming a doctor, and on the weekends I drank socially with good friends. As I got older and passed through medical school and residency, my thirst for alcohol waned considerably. As it turns out, that may have been a good thing for many reasons. I didn't know it at that time, but drinking heavily, even as far back as college, could have increased my risk of heart disease.

New research from the American Heart Association (AHA) reveals that college students who drink excessively can double their levels of something known as C-reactive protein (CRP), a biological marker for inflammation that has been associated with a higher chance of cardiovascular problems. The study asked 25 college students to complete surveys assessing CRP risk factors such as smoking, medication use and alcohol use. In case you're curious (I was), heavy drinking was defined for the purpose of the study as three or more alcoholic drinks at least three days a week or at least five drinks two days of the week. Compared with those of moderate drinkers (two to five drinks at a time, one or two days a week), the CRP levels of heavy drinkers were more than double, placing them in the zone associated with a moderate risk of heart disease.

It is not clear yet whether drinking heavily during your college years means you're setting yourself up for trouble down the line. To answer that, a long-term study would have to follow students once they entered middle age. Still, the concern is significant because some studies do suggest a carry-over effect between past CRP levels and future heart disease.

"If C-reactive-protein levels are predictive of a future risk of heart disease, then students might be beginning a dangerous pattern, [and that's a] reason to be concerned about college-age drinking," warns Elizabeth Donovan, the (apparently precocious) undergrad who co-authored the study. Donovan is studying biology and nutrition at the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, Minn., and collaborated on the research with adviser Amy Olsen, a professor of nutrition.

Dr. Robert Bonow, a Northwestern University cardiologist and member of the AHA, isn't as sold on checking your levels of CRP. He reminds us that lots of things can cause the number to fluctuate. Besides an illness like a simple cold, other factors—including being overweight, smoking or having diabetes—are also known to raise CRP levels. Bonow's best advice is not to worry so much about past college drinking and focus instead on controlling current drinking and other variables.

I was surprised to find, though, that becoming a teetotaler is not necessarily the answer to a healthy heart in the future. This research and other studies that have looked at CRP levels in older populations found that nondrinkers (those who have one drink or less a week) actually have higher CRP numbers than those who drink in moderation. Somehow, moderate levels of alcohol may actually help protect against inflammation. And alcohol is known to reduce blood clotting. Also, if you're drinking red wine, there are additional beneficial chemicals in it, such as tannins, which slow down atherosclerosis, and resveratrol, which has been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects.

With that information in hand, I plan on asking my wife for a hall pass to go out and have a couple of drinks with friends tonight. "It's for my heart, I swear," I'll tell her. With two daughters, a lawn to cut and a dog to walk, I am not optimistic about her response.

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Marijuana Hotbed Retreats on Medicinal Use

This man says he makes $25,000 every three months selling marijuana grown in a bedroom in his rented house in Arcata, Calif. More Photos >

UKIAH, Calif. — There is probably no marijuana-friendlier place in the country than here in Mendocino County, where plants can grow more than 15 feet high, medical marijuana clubs adopt stretches of highway, and the sticky, sweet aroma of cannabis fills this city’s streets during the autumn harvest.

Lately, however, residents of Mendocino County, like those in other parts of California, are wondering if the state’s embrace of marijuana for medicinal purposes has gone too far.

Medical marijuana was legalized under state law by California voters in 1996, and since then 11 other states have followed, even though federal law still bans the sale of any marijuana. But some frustrated residents and law enforcement officials say the California law has increasingly and unintentionally provided legal cover for large-scale marijuana growers — and the problems such big-money operations can attract.

“It’s a clear shield for commercial operations,” said Mike Sweeney, 60, a supporter of both medical marijuana and a local ballot measure on June 3 that called for new limits on the drug in Mendocino. “And we don’t want those here.”

The outcome of the ballot measure is not known, as votes are still being counted, but such community push-back is increasingly common across the state, even in the most liberal communities. In recent years, dozens of local governments have banned or restricted cannabis clubs, more formally known as dispensaries, that provide medical marijuana, in the face of public safety issues involved in its sale and cultivation, including crime and environmental damage.

“If folks had to get their dope, sorry, they would just have to get it somewhere else,” said Sheriff Mark Pazin of Merced County, east of San Francisco, one of the many jurisdictions to impose new restrictions.

Under the 1996 law, known as Proposition 215, patients need a prescription to acquire medicinal marijuana, but the law gave little guidance as to how people were to acquire it. That gave rise to some patients with marijuana prescriptions growing their own in limited quantities, the opening of clubs to make it available and growers going large scale to keep those outlets supplied.

In turn, that led to the kind of worries that have bubbled up in Arcata, home of Humboldt State University, where town elders say roughly one in five homes are “indoor grows,” with rooms or even entire structures converted into marijuana greenhouses.

That shift in cultivation, caused in part by record-breaking seizures by drug agents of plants grown outdoors, has been blamed for a housing shortage for Humboldt students, residential fires and the powerful — and distracting — smell of the plant in some neighborhoods during harvest.

“I naïvely thought it was a skunk,” said Jeff Knapp, an Arcata resident who has a neighbor who is a grower.

In May, Arcata declared a moratorium on clubs to allow the city council time to address the problem. Los Angeles, which has more than 180 registered marijuana clubs, the most of any city, also declared a moratorium last year.

“There were a handful initially and then all the sudden, they started to sprout up all over,” said Dennis Zine, a member of the Los Angeles City Council. “We had marijuana facilities next to high schools and there were high school kids going over there and there was a lot of abuse taking place.”

But while even advocates of medical marijuana say they recognize that the system has problems, they question the bans. “I think there’s no doubt there’s been abuse, but there’s probably no system created by human beings that hasn’t been abused,” said Bruce Mirken, the director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, which promotes the drug’s legalization. “But the answer to that is not the wholesale throwing out the baby with the bath water.”

All told, about 80 California cities have adopted moratoriums with more than 60 others banning the clubs outright, according to Americans for Safe Access, which advocates for medical marijuana research and treatment. Eleven counties have adopted some sort of ban or moratorium.

Such laws have led to a kind of Prohibition patchwork of “wet” and “dry” areas. In Visalia, a city of 120,000 in the state’s Central Valley, the local club was denied a permit on Main Street, so instead set up shop on a lonely section of country highway. Other clubs have retreated into people’s homes.

Kris Hermes, legal campaign director for Americans for Safe Access, said that despite the bans, 8 counties and about 30 cities had also established regulations meant to legitimize the clubs.

Mr. Zine said the moratorium in Los Angeles would allow city officials time to develop regulations and zoning, something advocates for medical marijuana say they welcome.

“There’s tons of human behavior that you and I might not want to have anything to do with,” said Allen St. Pierre, the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or Norml, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington. “But if they are legal, there ought to be a legal means to purchase the commodity and do business.”

Such regulations were passed in 2005 in San Francisco, which now has a 10-page application for a club permit.

Kevin Reed, owner of the Green Cross, was the first owner to get a permit in January. But he said some of the city’s other two dozen clubs were struggling to get their paperwork. “It’s taking substantially more time to move through the permit process than was envisioned,” Mr. Reed said in an e-mail message. The city’s board just extended the permit deadline until next year.

New regulations are also in the offing for local and state law enforcement, which has often found itself confused by the overlapping — and sometimes contradictory — federal, state and local laws. Under a state law that took effect in 2004, counties can set their own limits on the amount of medical marijuana; in Mendocino, for example, growers are allowed 25 mature plants, while most counties allow six.

Jerry Brown, the state attorney general, plans to release guidelines this summer to clarify the differences.

“These dispensaries aren’t supposed to be big profit centers,” Mr. Brown said. “This is supposed to be for individual use.”

The 2004 law also recognized the right of patients and caregivers to cultivate marijuana as a group, something law enforcement officials say has been abused.

Bob Nishiyama, the major crimes task force commander in Mendocino County, said there were places with 500 plants and 20 Proposition 215 letters tacked to a fence. “And technically, that’s legal because people can have 25 plants,” he said.

By any measure, medical marijuana in California is a moneymaker. In March, a group of California club owners testified before the state Board of Equalization that their industry had pumped some $100 million in sales tax into state coffers, representing more than $1 billion in sales.

Like many law enforcement officials, Mr. Nishiyama says he does not have a problem with medical marijuana, just with those who are exploiting it.

“If you’re growing six plants and smoking it in your own house, I could care less,” he said.

Most states that have passed subsequent medical marijuana laws have been more precise than California voters were in 1996. New Mexico, for example, allows only patients with seven medical conditions, including cancer, AIDS and epilepsy, to receive medical marijuana.

“California is an aberration, because it does not designate specific disease types, it does not designate weights or plant source, and it has what might be the most fungible or elastic definition of care-giver,” said Mr. St. Pierre, of Norml. Every proposition after Proposition 215 has been “narrower and narrower and more restrictive in scope,” he said.

Also complicating law enforcement’s job is that marijuana is still illegal in the eyes of the federal government, which has been increasingly aggressive about prosecuting club owners they feel have crossed the line into commercial drug dealing.

Among those recently convicted in California include a doctor and his wife from Cool who were given five years each in March for conspiracy to sell marijuana and growing more than 100 plants; a club owner from Bakersfield who pleaded guilty in March to possession of 40 pounds of marijuana with intent to distribute; and Luke Scarmazzo, a 28-year-old club owner and aspiring rapper who faces 20 years to life in prison after a conviction last month for running a multimillion-dollar club in Modesto that the government called a criminal enterprise.

And last year, the Drug Enforcement Administration threatened to seize buildings from landlords who rented space to clubs, resulting in some closings across the state.

For all the federal and local opposition, marijuana as medicine has become an accepted part of life in many communities in California. Advocates say the drug helps patients with everything from the wasting effects of chemotherapy and AIDS to treatment of anxiety and headaches.

But it is not cheap. At Med X, the raided Los Angeles club, the most expensive marijuana, called Blueberry Kush, was priced at $490 an ounce. That economic impact includes numerous ancillary businesses that serve the cannabis culture, including thriving horticulture shops, and Oakland’s Oaksterdam University, a trade school where students can sign up for semester-long courses on marijuana cultivation.

For some, growing has become a second career. In Arcata, a 29-year-old man, who asked that his name not to be used for fear of arrest, said that he earned about $25,000 every three months from selling marijuana grown in a back room to club owners from Southern California.

But others in Arcata are less welcoming. Kevin L. Hoover, the editor of the local newspaper, The Eye, has made a practice of confronting people he believes are growing marijuana. Their houses are easy to spot, he said — covered windows, tall fences, cars coming and going late at night. “Sometimes the whine of fans,” he said.

Those fans, of course, are eating electrical power, something that also irks many.

“We’re all trying to reduce our carbon footprint, but in these places the meters are spinning off the wall,” said Mayor Mark Wheetley of Arcata. “When do you say, enough is enough?”

Original here

Party and Play

This pod explores the use of crystal meth in the sex lives of gay men and how it's fueling the spread of HIV.

High times for medicinal marijuana

In California, marijuana is supposed to be prescribed only to people suffering from life-threatening conditions but David Willis finds the reality is quite different.

Rolling a marijuana joint
About 250,000 Californians carry prescriptions for marijuana

A Google search revealed plenty of options.

I had typed in medicinal marijuana + Los Angeles and within seconds there was practically smoke coming out of the back of my computer.

Among the seemingly endless stream of entries was the 420 Evaluation Center (420 is a local nickname for marijuana).

It's a "medicinal clinic" where "qualified patients" could obtain a doctor's recommendation allowing them the legal use of marijuana. They offered a $25 discount for new patients. I called and made an appointment for the next day.

The 420 Evaluation Center was in a stucco-fronted brick building opposite a roast beef sandwich shop in a sweaty suburb of Los Angeles known as the San Fernando Valley.

Panic attacks

One of the walls was taken up with a Salvador Dali poster showing swans merged with elephants: perfect for those who needed a hallucinogenic fix before they got their prescription.

A man behind the counter took my money ($100 for a consultation) and handed me a questionnaire. One section dealt with my medical condition.

According to the rules you have to be virtually at death's door, suffering from cancer, Aids or multiple sclerosis or in chronic pain in order to qualify. The best I could come up with was anxiety. I am the anxious type after all.

Protest at Drug Enforcement Agency raids on medical marijuana clinics in Los Angeles on 27 May 2008
Protests were held after the owners of six medicinal marijuana dispensaries were arrested in May

Soon, the doctor appeared - a softly-spoken Vietnamese man who introduced himself as Dr Do.

He wore a white lab coat and scrubs and led me into a spartan room where he proceeded to take my pulse and blood pressure before asking precisely how long I had been anxious.

"Several years," I told him.

"Do you suffer panic attacks?" "Not really."

Dr Do wrote panic attacks in his notebook. We spent a few minutes shooting the breeze about Asian cuisine and he signed a prescription for medicinal marijuana, valid for a year.

And that was it. Done and dusted in less than 10 minutes.

Aladdin's Cave

My friend Will was waiting for me when I got outside.

A concert oboist who once performed with Pavarotti, he had developed a deep affection for the herb during his time on the road, yet managed to conceal it from his fellow musicians even after once losing concentration in the middle of the Messiah and playing all the notes in the wrong order.

There was another episode - during a performance of Stravinsky - in which he became convinced he was Petrushka but that incident he blames on rogue hash brownies.

"You see, I told you," Will beamed. "This place is like Amsterdam."

Will was keen to show me where he goes to buy his cannabis. It was a short drive from Dr Do's and recently voted dispensary of the year by one of the pot smokers' magazines (the most famous of which is, incidentally, called High Times).

Man smoking a marijuana cigarette
With more than 200 dispensaries now operating legitimately the street dealers are all but obsolete and the state is happy because it collects the taxes

It was a nondescript building next to a Thai restaurant which contained cosy couches and a big picture of the Mona Lisa on the wall with that inscrutable grin and a fat joint in her right hand. Who said pot smokers do not have a sense of humour?

Will and I were buzzed through a metal gate by an attendant, who himself looked slightly buzzed, and ushered into a small room which could pass as an Aladdin's Cave of narcotics.

Beneath a glass-topped counter were dozens of different varieties of weed laid out in plastic pots, and alongside them an arsenal of drug-taking paraphernalia including pipes and infusion implements, all in iridescent colours.

The different varieties of dope were listed on a white board. They bore exotic names such as Maui Mist, Blue Dream and my personal favourite, Super Train Wreck.

Vending machines

My prescription did not place a limit on the amount of marijuana I could buy a day and I asked the man with the trippy smile behind the counter what he recommended for anxiety. He pointed me in the direction of one called Purple Kush.

"How much should I take?" The naivety of the question seemed to catch my moon-faced pot sommelier off guard. "I guess start with two or three puffs and see how you go..."

Bud of a marijuana plant
Medicinal marijuana is outlawed by the US federal government

The benefits of medicinal marijuana to the seriously ill have been widely chronicled. People with conditions such as cancer, arthritis and Aids say the drug helps make their symptoms bearable.

With more than 200 dispensaries now operating legitimately, the street dealers are all but obsolete and the state is happy because it collects the taxes.

Yet with some dispensaries installing vending machines in order to deal with out-of-hours customers you have to wonder if the situation is in danger of becoming a farce.

Getting on for 250,000 Californians are said to carry prescriptions for medicinal marijuana, and who knows how many of them - like me - suffer from little more than the occasional bout of self-doubt.

I did not buy any weed and I am thinking that one day I will frame my prescription and put it on the wall. In the meantime - to paraphrase Bill Clinton - if I smoke, I certainly won't inhale.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 7 June, 2008 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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Walgreens Sued Over Infant Death Due to Cold Medicine

(NaturalNews) Walgreens and the parent company of Tylenol are being sued by an Illinois woman whose infant son died after being given two separate medicines marketed by those companies for use on children.

"This may be the first case against manufacturers of infant cold and cough medicines with dextromethorphan," said Ralph Davis, attorney for the plaintiff.

Dimitria Alvarez alleges that Walgreen Co. and McNeil-PPC Inc., owned by Johnson & Johnson, should have known of the dangers of the cough suppressant dextromethorphan; that slow metabolism could lead to toxic buildup of the chemical; that there had been deaths associated with the ingredient's use in children: and that its effectiveness on children had never been tested.

An FDA advisory panel recently recommended that the agency ban the marketing of cold medications to children under the age of 6, and both Walgreens and McNeil voluntarily removed such medications from the market in response on October 11.

This had not yet occurred when Alvarez' 4-month-old son Devon Mehlberg-Alvarez began sniffling and coughing on October 4. According to Davis, Alvarez gave her child Infant Tylenol Cold and Decongestant Plus and Walgreen Pediatric Drops-Cough Plus Cold.

On October 8, Alvarez found her son dead in his crib. A coroner's report concluded that he died from dextromethorphan intoxication.

According to Davis, Alvarez initially believed that it was something unique to her son's metabolism that had caused the cold medicine to be fatal to him. It was only after she learned of the FDA panel's recommendations and that other such deaths had been reported that she decided the drug companies were responsible.

In response to the lawsuit, Walgreens spokesperson Carol Hiveley suggested that Alvarez might have inappropriately given her son both medications at the same time. But Davis refuted this charge, saying that the medications were given consecutively over the course of several days, and that the indicated doses were followed.

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The Buzz About the Buzz

Energy drink plus beer equals strong sales (and bad publicity).

Food and Beverage
The Company's operations are comprised of the following principal business segments: domestic beer, international beer, packaging and entertainment.
Primary executive:
August A. Busch, IV,
I tended bar to help pay for grad school. I learned a lot about beer, and I learned an important lesson from an older guy named Paul who worked weekends with me. Around 11 o’clock on most Friday nights, Paul would get a cup of black coffee and tip a shot of Old Grand-Dad in it. He’d take a sip, smile, and say, “Catch the buzz, stay awake to enjoy it.”

I lost track of Paul over the years, so I never knew if he picked up on the whole Red Bull-and-vodka craze, a younger generation’s version of his late-night party prolonger. But the brewing industry has, with some small but solid success in the higher-priced niche of energy beers. But the rollout of these beers has also sparked a negative reaction by antialcohol institutions, which see these potions as the latest threat to America’s under-21 crowd.

Caffeinated beers have been around for a few years, bouncing from promotion to promotion as companies looked for an effective way to market them. SAB Miller has Sparks, Anheuser-Busch sells Bud Extra (originally labeled a ridiculously unpronounceable Be, which we were told was “B to the E”) and Tilt, and smaller companies have jumped in with brands like Liquid Core, Moonshot, and Rock Star 21, a spin-off from the established Rock Star energy drink.

There have been a few coffee-flavored craft beers with relatively small amounts of caffeine. That’s not the model here. When you open up a Sparks or Tilt, it’s clear from the first citrusy-fruity whiff and thickly sweet flavor that Red Bull was on the formulators’ minds. (Moonshot is the exception, a straight-up light pilsner with the caffeine of one cup of coffee hidden inside.)

Red Bull became an enormous success—they hold half of a U.S. energy drink market worth over $4 billion—by adding caffeine and taurine (along with a barrage of guerrilla marketing) to the sugars and flavor of drinks like Gatorade. Drinkers, bartenders, and spirits companies were quick to add a shot of booze. Red Bull with vodka and the Jägerbomb (a shot of Jägermeister liqueur in a glass of Red Bull) quickly became the hot tonics for the party-all-night crowd.

The energy beers have put the stimulant cocktail in a can, making for one less step in the mixing process, always a plus behind the bar or at a fast-moving house party. It’s also an easy package to pick up at the store. Volume has been relatively small—Sparks sold about 350,000 barrels last year, less than 1 percent of Miller’s total—but, like energy drinks, energy beers sell for a premium: more than $2 a can on most retail shelves, about twice as much as a mainstream beer.

What makes these prepackaged buzz bombs even more attractive to producers and retailers is that they’re still cheaper than spirits-based cocktails because they’re beer based. For arcane policy reasons, beer is taxed at a significantly lower federal rate than wine or spirits, and usually at a lower state rate as well. Drinks like Smirnoff Ice and Bacardi Silver are beer based, despite their liquor-brand nameplates, because of that tax differential.

That’s one of the things that put energy beers on the hit list of antialcohol groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which recently announced its intent to sue A.B. and Miller over the drinks, charging that they are aimed at underage drinkers and contain more alcohol than standard beers. Similar organizations have agitated for taxing the drinks at the higher liquor rate and for banning any use of caffeine in alcohol beverages. Last year 29 state attorneys general sent a letter to A.B. that sharply criticized the company’s energy beers, including a 12 percent alcohol product called Spykes—packaged in 2-ounce bottles—that has since been withdrawn.

Even though caffeine-overdose deaths are very rare, assertions are being made that alcohol energy drinks suppress the effects of intoxication, leading young people to drink more than they would otherwise. These new drinks are deemed different and dangerous, because, they note, they’re “marketed to underage drinkers.”

I don’t think much of these drinks as beers, per se. As a category, they’re overly sweet, goopy with fruit flavors, and not much for pairing with food. Yet I also don’t see them as very different from Red Bull cocktails, coffee liqueurs, and Paul’s Old Grand-Dad and coffee. Still, at some point the question will come up whether the profits from this niche are worth the negative publicity they generate. Judging from the past, once these groups start beating the drums on a topic, they don’t give up.

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Nectar of the Broke: The World's 5 Worst Ways To Get Drunk

Getting drunk on a tight budget is practically a rite of passage. Just about all of us have some tale to tell about nights spent getting shitfaced on Olde English 800 or some equally putrid swill.

But party all the time as we might, it's doubtful any of us have stories that involve being so broke, we had to resort to throwing down any of this. If we had, we'd likely not have lived to talk about it.


Nothing about tharra, a home-brewed alcohol native to India, sounds too bad at all. Granted, its 90 percent alcohol content will end your shit, but that's the point of homemade alcohol, right? But unlike other homemade swills you'll read about later, tharra is rarely mixed with other less drinkable alcohols to improve its potency. It is simply made by fermenting the mash of sugar cane pulp in large ceramic containers. It sounds kind of delicious really, and it may very well be at first.

And you can drink it right out of a bag!

But before you go dipping into that bottle of finely-aged tharra that grandma brought back from her trip to India during her days as a high school floozy, there's something you should know. Unlike other spirits, whiskey for example, tharra doesn't benefit from aging. In fact, let it sit long enough and it turns from barely consumable alcohol into full on poison.

But if the numbers are any indication, a little copper formaldehyde poisoning isn't going to stop anyone from getting their drink on, because tharra continues to kill hundreds of people each year.

Just last September in the Pakistani city of Karachi, 22 men died after drinking tharra from an illegal brewery run by a police constable. And why were they drinking tharra when regular old alcohol is plenty legal in Pakistan? For the same reason any of us would have. It was the middle of the holy month of Ramadan and the liquor stores were closed.

Russian Aftershave

For all of you who still think communism is evil, hear this. During the reign of communism in the Soviet Union, alcohol was one of the few things people could afford. In present day Russia, steep excise duties have put alcohol out of the price range for many working-class stiffs. We'd take communism any day, thank you very much.

To get around the pricing problem, many Russians have turned to the most horrible of options: surrogate alcohol. For those unfamiliar with the term, your liver thanks you, because surrogate alcohol refers to any number of products that have high alcohol contents but are not intended for human consumption. In Russia, in a pinch, common cleaning products will do, but the surrogate alcohol of choice is usually cologne or aftershave.

Boasting a 97 percent alcohol content that should earn it a skull and crossbones on the label, the cheap aftershaves are often bottled to resemble cheap vodka, because, you know, drinking out of an actual aftershave bottle would just be humiliating.

No one knows how widespread the whole "getting drunk off aftershave" thing is, in or out of Russia. "These are products that are often consumed by people living on the margins of society," said professor Martin McKee, head of the Department of Shit We Already Knew at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.


Thunderbird is far and away the most normal drink on this list. It's perfectly legal to buy and finding it is as easy as following the trail of broken souls to your nearest crime-ridden neighborhood liquor store.

But that's where the normalcy ends. Thunderbird was introduced shortly after prohibition ended by E&J Gallo Winery. According to, the brothers Gallo wanted to corner the young wine market and began selling Thunderbird in the ghettos of America. Good luck finding that info on their website.

As part of the marketing campaign for Thunderbird, they produced radio ads with the catchy lyrics, "What's the word / Thunderbird / How's it sold? / Good and cold / What's the jive? / Bird's alive / What's the price? / Thirty twice." You know what's not awesome about that? Not a damn thing.

Thunderbird is so synonymous with vagrancy that several cities have introduced legislation banning its sale in certain impoverished areas. Oh, and one more thing about Thunderbird, despite being pale yellow in color, it has the pleasing side effect of turning the lips and mouth black whenever consumed in large quantities. Scientific studies confirm, that's pretty fucked up.


Created from fruit, sugar and, oh dear, ketchup, pruno ranks just below anal rape as one of the least favorable alternatives to the luxuries of the outside world that prison has to offer.

When speaking of pruno, it's not unusual to hear words like "bile" and "vomit" used to describe its unique flavor. Even the type of hardened killers who eat a little bit of their victims probably hold their noses when downing a glass of this fermented goop. While prisoners are famously unconcerned with exactly what they use to make it, just so long as it gets made, the most famous recipe comes from a jailhouse poem and calls for ten oranges, fruit cocktail, 40 to 60 sugar cubes, water and ketchup. Minus the ketchup, that doesn't sound all that unpleasant.

But most recipes don't call for hiding the contents away in a Ziploc bag out of the line of sight of prison guards so they can ferment for days on end either. And that is the long and short of the pruno-making process. Add ingredients in a Ziploc bag, let it rot, heat it occasionally, strain it, drink it.

To add to the deliciousness, stories abound about guards who, upon finding batches of pruno being made, have opted to piss in the would-be-hooch rather than confiscate it. Because of its trademark unflinchingly foul taste, most prisoners may never taste the difference. Sometimes revenge is a dish best served lukewarm.



Look, we understand that, as a website whose main talent lies in our ability to place comic book movies in order from least to most awesome, you probably take whatever advice we give you with a grain of salt. But please, we beg of you, if ever there comes a time to view Cracked not as a symposium of dick jokes but instead as a source for information invaluable to your very existence, let it be the time you spend reading the following sentence:

If you're ever in Kenya and someone asks if you'd like to try some changaa, do not drink that shit.

In a simpler world, changaa would just be another variety of home-brewed alcohol, like moonshine in the US or tharra in India. But in Kenya, the production of changaa is often controlled by criminal gangs who are in competition with each other. With that competition comes a willingness to go to dastardly lengths to make sure one gang's changaa provides more of a "kick" than the competitor's changaa.

To up the alcohol level of their product, gangs have been known to dilute changaa with tasty mixers like jet fuel, car battery acid or formalin (a mixture of formaldehyde, water and methanol, if you're keeping score at home). In case you're wondering, yes, changaa kills a lot of people every year.

Above: Changaa, powering a small barrel across a lake.

But thanks to its considerably low price compared to traditional alcohol, people still risk it. Of course, some people have opted not to chance drinking tainted changaa and instead have made kiroro their drink of choice. What's kiroro you ask? Jet fuel, of course! Except without all those needless "meant for human consumption" ingredients. We only wish we were joking.

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Replacement Hybrid Battery Costs Plummet

When someone on the EcoModder forums asks about buying a used hybrid, there is usually a flurry of excitement coupled with cautions about the age of the car and the price of a new battery pack. Ecomodders, usually being budget-minded folks, are very wary of the seemingly astronomical price of battery replacement.

In the early part of this decade, some of the biggest worries about hybrids were how could the batteries possibly last, when would they finally give out, and how much would it cost to have them replaced. These days, concerns about batteries have largely faded out of the minds of new car buyers. Honda and Toyota have both had hybrids on the market for about a decade now, and there are no ominous junkyards filled with dead hybrids.

To underline the reliability of modern battery-electric hybrids, Honda says that out of over 100,000 hybrids on the road currently, only 200 have needed out-of-warranty battery replacement. Toyota, on the other hand, has only needed to replace 0.003 percent of its hybrid batteries out of warranty on the second generation Prius. Granted, these cars still aren’t all that old, and the batteries will likely fail eventually, but it seems that they are living up to manufacturers’ promises that they will last the life of a car.

Necessity aside, Honda and Toyota have both announced drastic cuts to the cost of replacement batteries for their hybrids. It will now cost just under $2,000 to have new batteries installed in you Honda Insight, and just under $2,500 for your Accord hybrid. These are about $1,000 reductions in the cost. Toyota, on the other hand, has dropped prices from ~$5,500 to $3,000, but that doesn’t include the installation, so the real cost is likely a bit more.

So, buyers of used hybrids, never fear! It’s unlikely that your batteries will fail prematurely, and even if they do, replacements are getting cheaper.

Source: Newsweek

Bob Dylan: He's got everything he needs, he's an artist, he don't look back

The legendary singer/songwriter has an art exhibition opening in London next week and loves to talk about it. But you risk his 1,000-yard stare if you touch on his personal life

Bob Dylan endorses Barack Obama

Odense, Denmark, and the not-quite-grand hotel that for the next two nights will be a home away from home for Bob Dylan. He arrived here from Reykjavik, four days after his 67th birthday and in the first stages of a lengthy itinerary that will take him through Scandinavia, the Baltic states, Austria, Italy, France, Andorra, Spain and Portugal between now and mid-July. To his irritation, others long ago gave this ongoing schedule the title of The Never-Ending Tour (habitually, he plays upwards of 100 concerts each year, often considerably more). As he prefers to see it: “I'm just making my living by plying a trade.”

Achieving my promised audience with the legendary singer-songwriter and now exhibited painter proves to be a two-step process. First, his road manager takes me from the lobby to a darkened, sparsely furnished meeting room in which an orange-haired woman is sitting straight-backed and reading a novel. “If you could just wait here,” he begins, then disappears, his mobile clamped to his ear. Left alone, I introduce myself to the woman but she merely smiles enigmatically and continues with her book. Who is or was she? I still have no idea.

Minutes later I am collected, taken up a flight of stairs and ushered towards a door that is ajar. As I approach it is opened by Dylan, who welcomes me inside with a soft handshake and a volley of courtesies: “How have you been?” [I have interviewed him twice before, in 1997 and 2001], “What's been going on in your life?” and “Are you OK with the dark [here in what appears to be his bedroom, all the curtains have been drawn]?”

My eyes adjusting to this premature twilight, I take in the fact that he is wearing boots, jeans and a loose sweatshirt, its sleeves pushed up above the elbows. That famous face is heavily lined and pale, but always warm and quick to smile. As we take seats at right angles to each other, he presses his fingertips into his grey-flecked curls and vigorously rubs his scalp, as if to do so will focus his mind.

I place on the low table between us the book that I have brought with me. “Heh, heh, heh!” Dylan chuckles, reaching out for it. “This is pretty handsome stuff.” He is looking at a straight-from-the-presses copy of The Drawn Blank Series, produced by the Halcyon Gallery to coincide with the exhibition of that name in Bruton Street, Mayfair. Will he visit the show itself? “I don't know,” he says, seemingly transfixed by the book's cover, his voice the familiar rasp that has inspired a million amateur impressionists. “I have all these dates to play. It might not be possible. I'd like to. We'll have to see.”

The haphazard process leading to the London show began nearly 20 years ago when he was approached by an editor at the American publishing company Random House. “They'd seen some of my sketches somewhere and asked if I'd like to do a whole book. Why not, you know? There was no predetermined brief. ‘Just deal with the material to hand, whatever that is. And do it however you want. You can be fussy, you can be slam-bang, it doesn't matter.' Then they gave me a drawing book, I took it away with me and turned it back in again, full three years later.”

Published in 1994 under the abbreviated title Drawn Blank, the resultant images had been executed both on the hoof while he was touring and in a more structured way in studios, using models (“Just anyone who'd be open to doing it”) and lights. What was going on in his life during that three-year period to inform or provide a back story to the work? “Just the usual,” Dylan shrugs, fixed in the hunkered-forward, hands-clasped position he will maintain for most of our time together. “I try to live as simply as is possible and was just drawing whatever I felt like drawing, whenever I felt like doing it. The idea was always to do it without affectation or self-reference, to provide some kind of panoramic view of the world as I was seeing it.”

Built up of work that is often contemplative, sometimes exuberant but consistently technically accomplished and engaging, that view is of train halts, diners and dockyards, barflies, dandies and uniformed drivers glimpsed in New Orleans or New York, Stockholm or South Dakota. And of women. We're left in no doubt that Dylan likes women. “They weren't actually there at the same time,” he notes quickly, pointing, when his page-turning reveals the painting Two Sisters, its subjects lounging, one clothed, the other naked but for her bra. “They posed separately and I put them together afterwards.”

There was little precedent within his own family for this talented eye, it seems. “Instead of playing cards, my maternal grandmother would do these little still lives, but I can't really say that had any influence on what I've done.” Art formed no part of his formal education and he recalls there being no public galleries in the Minnesotan communities (first Duluth, then Hibbing) of his youth. “I was in my teens before I started to see books of paintings in the school library - frescoes or the work of Michelangelo, that kind of thing. And I didn't really see the stuff that properly had an impact on me - Matisse, Derain, Monet, Gauguin - 'til later on, when I was in my twenties.”

By then, Dylan the university dropout and fledgeling folk performer had gravitated to New York, where he quickly discovered the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “It was overwhelming for me at the time, the immensity and sheer variety of stuff on display. The first exhibition I saw there was of Gauguin paintings and I found I could stand in front of any one of them for as long as I'd sit at the movies, yet not get tired on my feet. I'd lose all sense of time. It was an intriguing thing.” It was as his music career gathered pace that he found himself first trying his own hand at drawing. “Mostly when I was on a train or in a café, just to make sense of what was in my immediate world. I found it relaxed me. Some of the stuff I kept, some I didn't.”

It was sketches completed in this manner and spirit that, years later, came to the attention of Random House and led to that commission. However, little accord was given to the book on its eventual publication. “The critics didn't want to review it. The publisher told me they couldn't get past the idea of another singer who dabbled. You know, like, ‘David Bowie, Joni Mitchell, Paul McCartney...Everyone's doing it these days.' No one from the singing profession was going to be taken seriously by the art world, I was told, but that was OK. I wasn't expecting anything phenomenal to happen. It's not like the drawings were revolutionary. They weren't going to change anyone's way of thinking.”

But years later there came an approach from the Chemnitz City Art Gallery in Germany. Ingrid Mossinger, its director and a fan of the 1965 album Bringing it all Back Home, had felt it likely that someone as adept as Dylan in the use of metaphoric and abstract language might also draw or paint. Her research led her to the book Drawn Blank, in the preface of which Dylan wrote of hoping to “eventually complete” its collection of sketches. She encouraged him to do just that.

The method used to turn them into the paintings about to go on exhibition in London involved making digital scans of the original drawings and enlarging and then transferring them on to heavy paper ready for reworking. Dylan then experimented with treating individual images with a variety of colours. “And doing so subverted the light. Every picture spoke a different language to me as the various colours were applied.”

Attempts have been made to pin down and name his influences. When I mention this, Dylan wrongly takes it as a suggestion that the work is pastiche or somehow derivative. “I haven't trained in any academy where you learn how to do something in the style of Degas or Van Gogh, or how to copy Da Vinci,” he retorts. “I don't have that facility to copy note for note. Influenced by? If I had the ability to paint like any of those guys I might see the similarity, but I don't. If there is anything it's just by accident and instinctive.” Which is all that any critic was suggesting, after all. But, it seems, he is as uncomfortable at having his paintings deconstructed as he is his songs.

Of the latter process, he said on our last meeting: “These so-called connoisseurs of Bob Dylan music? I don't feel they know a thing or have an inkling of who I am and what I'm about. That such people have spent so much time thinking about who? Me? Get a life, please.”

Today he expresses similar impatience with the critics who have read into his art a variety of underlying feelings - anonymity, transience, rootlessness, even loneliness. Reaching again for the Halcyon book. “Let's have a look, shall we [the pages fall open at Woman in Red Lion Pub, her dress executed in a vivid yellow]? Do you see loneliness in that? Or that [Six Women]? I don't. And this one's just a pastoral scene [Sunday Afternoon]. What's rootless, transient and lonely about that? It's a mystery why anybody would say or think such a thing.”

And the idea that, in framing various images with windows and doors, he is revealing himself as a perennial outsider, forced by his name and status to observe the world rather than connect directly with it? Dylan rolls his eyes. “I just find it to be less satisfying to have the ends [by which he means the edges of the image] being endless, so I'll put a window there or block it in some way. It just looks better to me that way.” So he would prefer a purely emotional, instinctive response to the work rather than any searching for themes and insights? “If it pleases the eye of the beholder...There's no more to it than that, to my mind. Or even if it repels the eye. Either one is fine.”

On both our previous meetings, Dylan voiced his disdain for those completists who wish to see every scrap of paper he has written on or hear every studio out-take that he has rejected. With that in mind, I ask if it was a big deal for him to sign his name on each of the Drawn Blank paintings. “Yes!” he exclaims, laughing. “I finally grew into it, but yes, it was.” And did he perhaps practise his signature in advance? “I did, because it's tricky getting it just right. Finally you think, ‘Oh, to hell...' and just go for it, like you're writing a cheque or something.” He has, he says, no particular favourite among the images. “It's the same as with the early songs...In the Sixties, by the time they came out we were way past the recorded versions and were saying, ‘No, don't release that. We are playing it this way now.' So it is with the art. I find myself thinking, ‘I could have done this or that to make it better'. In the end, though, you've just got to let the work go and hope you'll know to do better next time.”

When I ask if he finds the art establishment preferable to the one he is more used to, Dylan grins and pulls a face of mock disgust. “The music world's a made-up bunch of hypocritical rubbish. I know from publishing a memoir [2004's Chronicles Volume One] that the book people are a whole lot saner. And the art world? From the small steps I've taken in it, I'd say, yeah, the people are honest, upfront and deliver what they say. Basically, they are who they say they are. They don't pretend. And having been in the music world most of my life [he laughs again], I can tell you it's not that way. Let's just say it's less...dignified.”

He tells me that he continued to draw for his pleasure after the Random House commission was fulfilled. “Not as intensely but yes, I have sketchbooks from the years since then. Of course, what I release to the public and what I keep for myself are two different things.”

He has had proposals for two future series of paintings, the first of which would involve having celebrities sit for him. “I could pick the names but don't want to. I'd rather be given a list and have someone else contact the people to find out if they're up for it. So I'm waiting to see who they might be thinking of. I assume it's movers and shakers. You know, inventors, mathematicians, scientists, business people, actors...We'll see.

“But what interests me more is the idea of a collection based on historically romantic figures. Napoleon and Josephine, Dante and Beatrice, Captain John Smith and Pocahontas, Brad and Angelina [here he laughs]... I could use my own imagination for that. It wouldn't have to be the actual people, obviously.” But the latter two might be delighted to sit for him, no? Dylan chuckles at the possibility. “Maybe. Who knows? All I'll say is that I'm intrigued by the basic idea. Whether or not it comes to fruition, time will tell. This [The Drawn Blank Series] was easy to do because it didn't clash with any other commitments. If something does, then I simply cannot do it.”

By commitments, one presumes Dylan means not just his touring schedule but also his personal and familial relationships. Only the bald facts are known in this regard. He has four grown-up children (Jesse, Anna Lea, Samuel and rock singer Jakob) from a ten-year marriage to former model Sara Lowndes that ended in divorce in 1977. And in 2001 it was revealed by a biographer that he was married from 1986 to 1992 to one of his former backing singers, Carol Dennis, and has another daughter, Desiree, also now an adult, from the union.

But inquiries about his non-work life causes him to shut down. Not even a fact as basic as that of where he lives (his main home is believed to be a mansion on the coast beyond Los Angeles) receives ready validation, and when I ask if he has a studio in which he worked on the paintings, he will offer only, “Well, there are spaces in some of the properties where I can do just about any old thing”, before looking off into the middle distance, awaiting the next question.

Such reticence has earned him a reputation as rock's grumpy old man, a curmudgeon who refuses to appear grateful that he is revered and adored. But whether or not he intends it to do so, such determined self-protection merely enhances the myth and mystery. Today and after spending much of the 1980s through to the mid-1990s out in the critical cold, Dylan's star is higher than at any time since the 1960s, the decade with which he is most closely associated (erroneously in his view). Honours, awards and citations all but rain down upon him these days: it is as if we have all awoken to the fact that we will not see his like again. Not that anyone doubts that he has a long life still to live. “Well, thank you for that!” he notes with a laugh.

For any further insights into his private world we must wait to see if any crumbs are thrown in the next instalment of the intended three-book Chronicles (“I could do more. It wouldn't be a problem in terms of material”), at which he is already at work. Yes, he allows, he was gratified by the critical and commercial success of Volume One. “Especially given the effort that went into it. Writing any kind of book is a lonely thing. You cut yourself off from friends and family to find that necessarily quiet place in your mind. You have to disassociate and detach yourself from just about everything and everybody. I didn't like that part of it at all.

“It took me maybe two years in total. I was touring so much in the beginning, on days off or on a bus, I'd write my thoughts out in longhand or on a typewriter. It was the transcribing of the stuff, the rereading and retelling of it, that was time-consuming and I came to figure that there had to be a better way. I know what that is now. You need a full-time secretary so that you can get the ideas down immediately, then deal with them later.”

Meanwhile, there is the continuing delight that is his own radio show (he smiles at the mention of it), Theme Time Radio Hour with your Host Bob Dylan, the brainchild of America's XM Satellite Radio and now broadcast weekly here on Radio 2. And later this year he will release a further volume within the ongoing Bob Dylan Bootleg Series, featuring previously unreleased or rare material alongside alternative versions of existing tracks recorded between 1989 and 2006.

Coming on top of the recent award to him of a special Pulitzer prize recognising “his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power” (“I hope they don't ask for it back!”), all of this would suggest that he has arrived at a very creative but also contented period within his life.

“I've always felt that,” he says. “It's just sometimes I've got more going on than at other times.” But life is good? “To me, it's never been otherwise.”

My time with Dylan is up and we stand in preparation for my leaving the room. As a last aside, I ask for his take on the US political situation in the run-up to November's presidential election.

“Well, you know right now America is in a state of upheaval,” he says. “Poverty is demoralising. You can't expect people to have the virtue of purity when they are poor. But we've got this guy out there now who is redefining the nature of politics from the ground up...Barack Obama. He's redefining what a politician is, so we'll have to see how things play out. Am I hopeful? Yes, I'm hopeful that things might change. Some things are going to have to.” He offers a parting handshake. “You should always take the best from the past, leave the worst back there and go forward into the future,” he notes as the door closes between us.

For more, see www.halcyongallery.comand

The Drawn Blank Series exhibition opens on June 14 at The Halcyon Gallery, Bruton Street W1.

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Council paints over street artist Banksy's graffiti murals - worth a fortune!

They are coveted pieces of modern art which fetch up to £1million in auction and are owned by Hollywood royalty.

But to one council, murals by the reclusive street artist Banksy appear to be little more than worthless graffiti.

For soon after Banksy’s latest work appeared on a North London street, conscientious workers from Islington Council have obliterated it, by whitewashing the offending wall.

Cover up: A whitewashed wall now hides the latest work by street artist Banksy

The 4ft by 4ft stencil, set on a lime green background, depicted two young girls sitting at a desk with a Kalashnikov rifle, playing with bullets rather than pencils.

The elusive Banksy, with his face hidden, was spotted painting the scene towards the end of last month.

But the mural, which would have been worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, was promptly painted over with masonry paint, after residents complained.

A local trader watched the artwork take shape and chatted to the secretive artist, who jokingly denied he was Banksy and said he was there to create an ‘advertising promotion’.

A possible self-portrait of the elusive artist

The trader described the guerrilla painter, whose real identity has never been revealed, as ‘a very nice and pleasant chap’ in his 30s with a regional accent who was dressed in a green cotton army jacket and black jeans with closely-cropped mousy hair.

The trader, who did not want to be named, said Banksy told him he had painted the background colour on too thickly, and would have to wait until it dried before being able to use his stencils.

He said: ‘I saw Banksy literally watching paint dry! I told him it could be ruined soon, but he said as long as a few people saw it and enjoyed it, that was OK with him.

‘The final mural was beautiful. The council are idiots. Why don’t they concentrate on the real graffiti and leave street art for people to enjoy?’

A coveted piece of modern art: Art terrorist Banksy's paintings' are viewed by the council as graffiti

Last year, Islington Council compiled a list of works by Banksy in their area to prevent them being painted over by clean-up teams.

But one council spokesman now says: ‘It’s graffiti and we treat it that way, whether it’s Banksy or not. Residents in the houses opposite complained and we covered it up.’

Banksy’s work has been bought by stars such as Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. At an auction in New York earlier this year, a piece sold for £950,000.

In an interview in The Mail on Sunday’s Live magazine today, Banksy talks about his recent artistic assault on an entire street near Waterloo Station in London. He said:

‘Graffiti doesn’t always spoil buildings. In fact, it’s the only way to improve a lot of them. In the space of a few hours with a couple of hundred cans of paint, I’m hoping we can transform a dark, forgotten filth pit into an oasis of beautiful art – in a dark, forgotten filth pit.’

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