19 December 2004

love those republicans

on the importance of male-male relations:

Viacom's Gail McKinnon sent an e-mail this week to offices in the U.S. House of Representatives regarding a job opening in Viacom's government relations department. The e-mail calls for a male, Republican to fill the open position and reads as follows: "Importance: High We need to hire a junior lobbyist/PAC manager. Attached is a job description. Salary is $85-90K. Must be a male with Republican stripes."

but of course not that kind!

Bush is interested in Allen's opinions because Allen is an elected Republican representative in the Alabama state legislature. He is Bush's base. Last week, Bush's base introduced a bill that would ban the use of state funds to purchase any books or other materials that "promote homosexuality". Allen does not want taxpayers' money to support "positive depictions of homosexuality as an alternative lifestyle". That's why Tennessee Williams and Alice Walker have got to go.
On a side note, the whole "educated tolerant liberals vs. red-state neanderthals" narrative (c'mon! Tennessee Williams! Hamlet! These people are against Shakespeare.) makes me uncomfortable, even though in this case there does seem to be some truth to it.

dear reader(s)

To be honest, I have trouble thinking about this blog as me communicating to you, rather than me communicating to myself in a way where I don't mind others listening.

On that note, here is me writing about movies I've seen recently, so I won't forget what I thought about them a year from now.

  • About Baghdad - Great documentary made by this Iraqi-American who goes to Baghdad in June 2003 (the occupation's "honeymoon," though it might not have seemed so at the time) to ask Iraqis how they felt about the war, the end of Saddam, etc... He had wanted to go all over Iraq, but it wasn't safe to leave Baghdad. He said that today he wouldn't feel comfortable doing even that.

    I mostly liked it because it felt like a conversation among Iraqis, so it wasn't narrowly directed at the American political scene like Fahrenheit 9/11, and it didn't have Westerners constantly speaking for Iraqis, which gets annoying as shit after awhile (kind of like "would someone please remember the children?"). Also the director is more honest about his biases than e.g. Michael Moore in Fahrenheit 9/11, and gives plenty of air time to opinions that he clearly disagrees with. There's this awesome scene towards the end when he's arguing with a taxi driver: the director is saying that the U.S. is to blame for the Iran-Iraq war and for Saddam crushing the Shiite uprising in 1991, while the taxi driver says that Iraqis should take responsibility for their own leaders. Eventually the driver pulls over and turns off the meter in order to get more into the argument, which goes on for awhile.

  • outfoxed - Less good. Mostly stuff I had seen before and doesn't really address how much other TV news sucks, not to mention the NYT, NPR, etc... Random example: Maureen Dowd saying we need "positive profiling" (sorry, forgot to permalink) of air travellers, so that we stop wasting time on nonthreatening white grandmothers. Also, everything Thomas Friedman writes. There was a good excerpt of a Bill O'Reilly interview with an anti-war activist whose father died in the WTC. But it would've been better just to watch the interview w/o commentary.

    While I'm writing, I'll post some quality O'Reilly links that the gay-book-banning article in my last post vaguely reminded me of.

    I guess I'm trying to say that FOX is pretty well covered by the internet, without the need for movies to profit from us being pissed off. Speaking of the latter, I get annoyed at movies that little attempt to engage the mainstream because of the profit motive in preaching to the converted.
  • The Lonely Wife by Satyagit Ray. Losing blog patience, but awesome blend of personal and political. Plus I like to identify with out-of-touch theorists/idealists. I need to see more by this guy.
  • he loves me, he loves me not (a la folie, pas du tout!), starring Audrey Tautou. Medium good, but I think I'd rather watch Mulholland Drive a third time.
  • women on the verge of a nervous breakdown by Almodovar. Decent, but my hopes were so high after All about my mother and Talk to her that I was a little disappointed.
  • Watermelon Man by Melvin van Peebles and starring Jeff Gerber. Solid movie about 1970's-style racism. ("This neighborhood was getting a little Jewish, anyway.") Next up is Sweet Sweetback's Badassssssssss Song.
  • Castles Made of Namm - words fail.
  • reassemblage - a little too much like a lecture for my tastes. update!: My dad says that Trin T. Minh-ha (the director) made another movie, Naked Spaces, which is mostly the anthropological African breast footage that she mocksdeconstructs in this one. In fact, Reassemblage might even be confusingly-editted outtakes from Naked Spaces, but for some reason Naked Spaces gets much less attention. Strange...
  • Sideways was excellent, but American Splendor may have been even better.
Also, I want to save this quote from "The Body as Property" by Rosalind Pollack Petchesky in Conceiving the New World Order (1995):
[examples of why "consensual contracts" are not totally plausible:] "the trade of sterilization for jobs in Brazil or Norplant for nonimprisonment in the United States" (p. 396, citing The Alchemy of Race and Rights by Patricia Williams).

"The language of reproductive freedom is still burdened with 300 years of the dominant Euro-American model of dichotomization between self and community, body and society." (p. 404)

09 November 2004

in the spirit of ahren's comment

Here's my try at a consistent line of communication through history:



And even further back to the Declaration of Independence:

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty and perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

22 October 2004

we decide, you report

From a Bush aide being interviewed by the NYT magazine:
The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''

01 September 2004

"you found me beautiful once"

This is old news by now, but in June, Maureen Dowd wrote a reaction to Clinton's book that brought me back to the good old impeachment days. My letter to her is posted below, but I recently found a much better explanation of what I was trying to say.
Dear Maureen Dowd,

I fully agree with Clinton's rant. My career has little to do with politics, so I always assumed that those who choose political reporting must have far more interest in policy than I do. When columnists (sadly including you during the Lewinksy affair) focus on personality and style so completely as to ignore policy questions, I find it extremely upsetting.

What's your opinion about American in-kind food donations to the UNWFP, and how we use them to push GM crops on unwilling African nations? How appropriate was Clinton's response to the currency crises in SE Asia? How many died in Afghanistan when we interrupted food aid there?

Any one of these questions should be millions of times (in terms of lives affected) as important as Clinton's disgusting abuse of power with Lewinsky. Even if he killed and ate her, they would be millions of times as important, though I'm not sure the press would agree with me here.

I realize that you're not the only one responsible for this, and appreciate how you've changed somewhat during the Bush presidency. Nevertheless, Clinton is completely right that he deserves more scrutiny on Bosnia than on Lewinsky.


aram harrow

10 August 2004

announced on twenty-six, twenty-seven, or twenty-eight July

So is anyone really surprised that the Bush administration would pressure Pakistan to announce the capture of al-Qaeda "high value targets" during the Democrats' convention? Or that the media would complacently shift their attention to the new headline? Or that even the attention they gave the convention would ignore all the substantive issues discussed there?

In fact, this NYT oped mentions all the other news we've been missing. But I think the real stories last week, over which governments deserve much more political heat than over Iraq, are financial:

  • The World Bank considered a proposal to reform and ultimately eliminate its funding for oil and gas development. The NYT, generally pro-globalization, endorsed the proposal, but on Aug 2 the Bank rejected the plan. However, they're reconsidering some kind of watered down version in a few weeks, so the short-term issue is not yet settled.

    For a broader perspective, this recent Foreign Affairs article explains why being rich in natural resources can make a country poorer. (Email me if you don't have lexis-nexis and want the full text.)

  • The WTO talks in Geneva came up with an agreement to agree on opening agricultural markets, mainly by reducing subsidies from rich countries. Though this is widely seen as a good idea, especially for the poor countries that have long been demanding it, it's not clear how much will actually be implemented any time soon. Again an issue that's probably far more consequential than the Iraq war, but it continues to get zero attention from the public. Though there is now a blog devoted to the subject.

feces are people too

NEWSWEEK reports that George W. Bush, appearing before a right-to-life rally in Tampa, Florida on June 17, stated: "We must always remember that all human beings begin life as a feces. A feces is a living being in the eyes of God, who has endowed that feces with all of the rights and God-given blessings of any other human being." Bush repeated his error at least a dozen times, before realizing that he had used the word 'feces" when he meant to say "fetus."

06 August 2004

decades apart

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the author talks about how he likes to read to his 11-year old son, Chris, in a way that made me somewhat look forward to having kids myself.
I try always to pick a book far over his head and read it as a basis for questions and answers, rather than without interruption. I read a sentence or two, wait for him to come up with his usual barrage of questions, answer them, then read another sentence or two. Classics read well this way. They must be written this way. Sometimes we have spent a whole evening reading and talking and discovered we have only covered two or three pages. It's a form of reading done a century ago... when Chautauquas were more popular. Unless you've tried it you can't imagine how pleasant it is to do it this way. (p. 46-47)
That was written in 1974. The 1980's brought us, among other things,

Then the narrator talks about the crisp autumn morning air and wanting to share it with those around him.

I'm afraid these other characters will sleep all day if I let them. The sky outside is sparkling and clear, it's a shame to waste it like this.

I go over finally and give Chris a shake. HIs eyes pop open, then he sits bolt upright uncomprehending.

"Shower time," I say.

I go outside. The air is invigorating. In fact--Christ!--it is cold out. I pound on the Sutherlands' door. (p. 48)

I'm sure you know the relevant Calvin and Hobbes strips, but because of copyright laws, all I could find on the web about character building camping trips was this site. This site is better, but less relevant.

Finally, I went to Shaolin Soccer with two physicists, so naturally the conversation turned to some recent heated arguments over the anthropic principle. (Yes, these things are what we get excited about.)

Anyway, I found it a funny coincidence that as soon as I got home and picked up Zen, the page after I had left off contained this passage:

At first he found it amusing. He coined a law intended to have the humor of a Parkinson's law that "The number of rational hypotheses that can explain any given phenomenon is infinite." It pleased him to never run out of hypotheses. ... It was only months after he had coined the law that he began to have doubts about the humor or benefits of it.

If true, that law is not a minor flaw in scientific reasoning. That law is completely nihilistic. It is a catastrophic logical disproof of the general validity of all scientific method!

...[If] the number of hypotheses grows faster than experimental method can handle, then it is clear that all hypotheses can never be tested..., then the results of any experiment are inconclusive and the entire scientific method falls short of its goal of establishing proven knowledge. (p. 115)

04 August 2004

go see these movies

Shaolin Soccer:

Just from the title you can get an idea of how amazing this movie is. It evokes all that is good in Jackie Chan, Tunak, Mortal Kombat, Cool Runnings and middle-school anime. This may sound like faint praise, but the movie is seriously amazing.

Crimson Gold:

The underdog doesn't do quite as well in this movie. If only he knew some kung-fu. Rather than talk about the movie (which showed the ugliness of life as beautifully as anything I've seen) I just want to mention two things about the Q&A session with the director afterwards. (It was directed by Jafar Panahi, who also did The White Balloon, and written by Abbas Kiarostami.)

My respects to the Iranian censorship board
One of the reasons this movie was banned in Iran was the following scene.
Guest: Mind if I smoke?
Host: Go ahead.
Guest: Want a cigarette?
Host: What kind do you have?
Guest: 57's
Host: Oh, those are too strong for me.
Guest: They're too strong for me too.
Doesn't seem too bad, does it? Apparently, since 1957 is the year of the revolution in Iran, this scene was deemed counterrevolutionary. Whatever else you might think about the censors in Iran, at least they're on top of their symbolism. I certainly wouldn't have caught that.

The postmodern condition
Skip this part if you don't like hearing about the plot, though everything I write will be obvious in the first 10 minutes.

The movie is framed by a failed robbery attempt by the protagonist, a pizza deliveryman named Hussein. One way to interpret the entire rest of the movie is as expressing the humiliations and class pressures that lead Hussein to this. During the Q&A, one guy asks the director "why, in your opinion, does Hussein attempt the robbery?"

There's this collective groan from the audience, and in the dark a collective roll of the eyes, as we feel sympathy for the director having to explain through a translator that, unlike Hollywood directors, he doesn't want to force any one interpretation on the movie, but prefers to leave the viewer free to blah blah blah... Ok, maybe it's just me and I'm projecting, but I really think the whole audience had so internalized the postmodern project that what the director said was just part of a no longer questioned canon.

Except that it was obvious why Hussein tried the robbery! The whole movie was classic social realism! When the rich guy invites Hussein to his table (where he later asks if he can smoke), Hussein first says "I'm too dirty for your table" and goes upstairs to wash and shave. Freedom of interpretation, my ass.

What's the moral of the story? Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer? The NYT public editor says that the word "postmodern" appears in the NYT in an average of four article a week. I think it says something about what we take for granted when of course we expect directors to refuse to admit a dominant interpretation of their movie.

Of course, this only holds among the subset of the population that doesn't know whether to laugh or cry at the phrase "they hate us because of our freedom."

29 July 2004

why are they such meanies??

Why are emigres from places like Cuba or Vietnam so often the most strongly in favor of hardline sanctions? You know, the kind that make the people there miserable without doing anything to improve human rights. Either I'm totally confused about how sanctions work, or people who come to the U.S. from places with shitty governments tend to go off the deep end, like Ayn Rand did.

In any case, at least this might be starting to change for Cuban-Americans, since the ones who have family members in Cuba care a little more about conditions there.

27 July 2004

survival of the theorists

There are probably many different morals to this story, but I'll take it as endorsement for my non-experimental kind of physics.
May 21, 1946 – Canadian physicist Louis Slotin manually assembled a critical mass of plutonium while demonstrating his technique to visiting scientists at Los Alamos, New Mexico. The device consisted of two half-spheres of beryllium-covered plutonium, which can be moved together slowly to measure the criticality. Normally the device would be operated by machinery, but Slotin distrusted the devices and manually operated it by holding the upper sphere with his thumb inserted in a hole in the top like a bowling ball. In most experiments, a number of washers would be arranged to prevent the two hemispheres from falling together completely, but he had removed them. In order to slowly bring the two pieces together, he rested one edge on the lower sphere and rotated a slot screwdriver between the other edge to control the separation. At one point, the screwdriver slipped and the assembly went critical while he was still holding onto it. None of the seven observers received a lethal dose, but Slotin died on the 30th from massive radiation poisoning, with an estimated dose of 1000 rad, or 10 gray (Gy). This was dramatized in the movie Fat Man and Little Boy, except that the movie placed the event before the Trinity test [1]—in reality, a device that Slotin had helped to assemble.[2]

fly-over states

I drove to Wyoming recently with my family.

Grand Teton was okay, I guess. Anyway, here are some random notes from along the way.

please folks!
Found posted on the door of an opera house in a small Minnesota town:

The Fairmont Opera House would like to remain gun-free, so please: NO GUNS ALLOWED.

freedom tickling
In several gas stations, one of the choices on the condom dispensers was:

French freedom tickler - Tickle her fancy with the real thing! It's the patriotic thing to do.

blood for oil
A blood drive in Minnesota offered gas cards to those who participated.

29 June 2004

Greek yogurt

The other night I had fresh blackberries, cubed mango, and, most importantly, thick slightly-lemony Greek yogurt. I think I'm in love...

22 June 2004

21 June 2004

hand-packed pint

Along the lines of "small, medium, large" being replaced by "large, super-size and Gigantor," I recently went to a Friendly's in the Long Island town of Lake Success for ice cream. Having entered the restaurant so full from dinner that breathing was difficult, I was looking for size along the lines of "wafer-thin". Instead, the smallest cone size was "big," followed by "biggest," a description apparently only intended metaphorically, since the "hand-packed pint" was a yet larger option.

On a vaguely related we're-doomed-and-probably-deserve-it note, this NYT article describes how hybrid cars have become hip in part because they involve not changing consumption patterns, but if anything more consumption: spending more money on a high-tech status symbol. This explains why there's no contradiction when a young well-off friend of a friend bought a Prius after his last three cars were SUVs. (Not that this isn't positive; it's just a disappointingly small change in world-view.) Continuing the anecdotal free association, drug companies spend lots of money convincing us that cheap Canadian drugs are somehow unsafe, but only our own good sense tells us not to waste our money.

17 June 2004

don't cry for me, east campus

This was sent to reuse-sell recently, by someone who suddenly realized she had more shoes than she needed. Is it just a male thing to find it absurd to own this many?

16 June 2004

spring, summer, fall, winter, ... and spring

If you don't like knowing the plots of movies in advance, then a) you should go see this movie, preferably on a big screen, and b) don't read any more. Otherwise, here are some of my thoughts.

The movie promoted the idea of self-restraint, both literally and figuratively, as a way of preventing violence and suffering. We should deny our anger, lust, desire for possession and so on; monks even tie rocks around themselves to do penance when their internal restraints aren't enough. With this such a strong theme, it was disappointing that the filmmakers didn't always show the same restraint they demanded of their characters. For example, the wife didn't need to be killed to expose the evils of possession; it would have been enough for her simply to have ran off and left the husband heartbroken. And the flashbacks to the animals with rocks tied around their bodies made me think of disaster pornography [also].

possession and appropriation
The movie is visually so stunning that I started daydreaming about how cool it would be to have a video projector in my apartment. Irony aside, it's funny how elements of Buddhism and "Eastern religions" are adapted to or appropriated by Western consumer culture. For example, LancĂ´me sells a small container of "Hydra Zen cream" (described as an "Advanced destressing moisturizing cream") for about $40. New York City seems to me a good place to find contradictions like expensive yoga classes attended by people financially locked into stressful livestyles. In Saturday's NYT Review of Books there was a piece by Lucinda Williams on Bob Dylan next to an article by David Frum on Walter Russell Mead. Trying to imagine the reader who would appreciate both articles led me immediately to the stereotype of a rich conservative (New Yorker) who grew up listening to Dylan.

violence is natural
since our innate human urges inevitably lead us towards it and because children start off violent unless they're taught otherwise. This is both negative, since it means we'll never abolish violence, and positive, since placing violence within a larger cycle of life (more snakes are born by summertime) seems to lessen its evil. This subverts the seemingly anti-violent message of the movie (and of Buddhism); even if we are always struggling against violence, we shouldn't ever expect total victory. For example, if every life were sacred, the old monk could have stopped the boy in Spring from tying rocks to the three animals, but he wanted to teach the boy a lesson (which didn't even stop him from killing again). This makes me suspect that the ultimate goal is not so much to end suffering, but to achieve some sort of enlightenment, which brings me to the next point:

learning as fetish
Korean characters are written beautifully, but not subtitled. The old monk carefully practices calligraphy, but writes with water on wood, so the words fade as soon as they're written. A long scene revolves around carving letters out of wood, but we never get a complete shot of them, so that even reading Korean wouldn't help us learn what they mean. It seems that learning, study and literacy have value beyond the meaning of the texts being read.

This is of course bigger than Buddhism. For example, literacy often has class implications. L. said there was one village in Sudan where after the government cut funding for schools people hired an illiterate man to teach, since they had a not-quite-understood notion that there was a connection between sitting in a classroom every day for a long time and getting a government job with good pay and status.

The idea of fetishized learning could also apply to the way that Western audiences receive the movie as a whole; we feel we should learn or appreciate or take away something from it more profound than we'd get from, say, Bruce Almighty. This connects to the particularly American drive for self-improvement [also]. Not that this drive is a bad one; it's just interesting to see what brings it out.

More movie reviews

Soon after I saw Evil Dead, the Army of Darkness predecessor in which a woman is raped by a tree before she turns into a flesh-eating zombie. I'm not sure what more to write about the contrast.

Balancing the gross-out with the political, I next saw Super Size Me, the recent documentary about a guy who eats nothing but McDonald's for a month. It was definitely successful at making me care about the importance of having healthy choices in school cafeterias (my high school gave Coke a monopoly of 20oz pop machines in the cafeteria in exchange for the rather lame ProQuest for the library), and in general validating my trend towards healthy, organic, home-cooked, vegetarian eating. (Recently I realized how thoroughly I had become part of this demographic when I caught myself getting excited at finding organic lactose-free milk in the grocery store.) As a movie, though, it had some problems. The central conflict seemed to be about the filmmaker's deteriorating health, but after the scene where the doctor talked about "pickling his liver" and he seemed on the verge of sudden death, the days started flying by without any more incidents. The style was watered down Michael Moore, of which the high point was probably visiting the middle school cafeterias where he asked school officials what they were doing to promote healthy eating, but it was mostly toned down a lot. For example, the food industry lobbyist never got challenged when he said that they marketed responsibly; obviously he didn't come across as credible, but we bought our tickets to see public humiliation! The statistics came by a little fast, and didn't have much context. Come to think of it, most of the movie didn't have much context: why are people exercising so little? and is the non-McDonald's portion of the American diet that much better? The stomach-stapling scene was reminiscent of Requiem for a Dream, a comparison which was a jarring reminder of how much more powerful movies (or should I say 'cinema'?) can be. The music (Beethoven? I can't remember.) during the scene suggested A Clockwork Orange, again to the current movie's profound disadvantage. I don't mean to deter people from seeing this movie; just think of it as a good student film and you won't be disappointed.

Natural Born Killers: The only thing I wanted to mention was Mrs. Marks' reaction. She came in halfway through and read her newspaper the whole time. As soon as the credits rolled she asked "Is that damn thing over yet?" and then launched into a tirade about how much she hated it, mostly because of violence but including the line "and I can't stand that damn language!"

The Abyss: Again I'm going to ruin the plot, if you care about these things. The underwater shots were pretty, but as with many movies involving aliens, I felt it suffered from a lack of imagination on a grand scale. Would aliens really care if we kill each other, or fight wars or movingly reconcile with our divorced spouses? The same complaints have been made about religion: wouldn't an all-powerful deity have more to worry about than our sexual indiscretions? Even a nuclear war would probably leave this planet better off for everything non-human; Chernobyl has been great for wildlife since so much land is now considered too dangerous for humans to enter. The only plausible sci-fi account of alien motivations that I've found was in Isaac Asimov's The Gods Themselves.

05 June 2004

talk with L.

I just had lunch with L., a Sudanese guy I met doing a recent fundraiser. Before I forget what he said, I'm going to blog it.

Issues with food aid

He worked with an indigenous aid group called IFRA (International Famine Relief Assoc.) or something. Because of the civil war, parents sent their kids to Khartoum, imagining it to be big village, but really the kids ended up in the slums. First L's aunt gave them ice cream, then his dad gave them medical care, then various family members adopted them, then they started doing organized relief work.

The biggest thing that he said backfired was trying to change the social order in villages by giving food to everybody, or to only women or otherwise marginalized people. He said this encouraged dependency, by disrupting their social structures, and he would later see the people begging in Khartoum. Instead, he said it was best to give the food to the headman or chief, who'd then distribute it as he saw fit, as counter-intuitive as it seemed.

As for international organizations, he said the WFP was the "least bad" because they did their research well. He said GOAL (from Ireland) and MSF were good too.

Why Sudan is fucked

The US supported Nimeiri for decades as a corrupt Cold War proxy and then the IMF used the debt he incurred as leverage to force SAPs on the country. There were some interesting consequences of this, like school fees forcing kids out of public schools into Muslim schools.

Right now, he said the biggest thing that would make a difference is access to markets, of which US/EU agricultural subsidies were the most important barrier. He said this was more important even than debt relief. There was an article in May/June '04 issue of Foreign Affairs by the president of Tanzania about the failed WTO talks at Cancun with pretty similar conclusions.

As for Western Sudan, the problems were largely caused by extended and severe drought, the doubling of the population over a short period and the availability of lots of cheap weapons left over from the Chad-Libya conflict in the 1980's. Of course, also the economic problems of the entire country were a factor, as well as the government marginalizing the region economically and politically, disrupting traditional forms of dispute resolution, exploiting ethnic tensions, and finally arming the Janjaweed and giving their attacks the green light.

Also, the JEM, one of the main rebel groups in Darfur, is the remnant of the hated NIF that was forced out of power a few years ago. Who knew? (Not me.) Things are kind of complicated there.

US intervention

It's a two-edged sword. You can kind of guess this part. The culture, values, products, etc. have many appealing things about them, but it's all the supporting illegitimate governments that people aren't so crazy about. Actually American (or rather modern capitalist) culture is sometimes a little tough too, because it's changing lifestyles so quickly that people from different generations don't quite understand each other.

28 May 2004

"I'm sorry Mrs. Marks, I'll try to be more careful next time."

While in Westchester, I'm renting a room from Mrs. Marks, a diminutive but feisty German octogenarian. I arrived while she was travelling, but in the first two days of her being back, here's what I've been yelled at for:
  • Not parking my car far enough forward.
  • Leaving the light on in the bathroom. (She left a note saying that if it happened again I wouldn't be allowed to use the bathroom anymore; then found on me on the porch to personally deliver the message.)
  • Using a metal fork to stir pasta in an enamel pot instead of a wooden chopstick.
  • Using a plastic (salad) fork to scoop rice out of a pot instead of a wooden spoon. (Followed up three minutes later by a somewhat quieter "Didn't your mother have different salad and serving spoons?")
  • Throwing tissues in the trash can in my room without putting a garbage bag in.
  • Letting pasta boil over, and dropping bits of dried pasta on the floor (can't argue with these).
  • Putting my cup in a random part of the dishwasher instead of lined up with the others.
  • Using too soft of a sponge to clean rice out of a pot.
  • While sitting on the porch at night, opening the door too wide so that moisture would come into the house.
  • Inadequately making my bed in the morning (She left a note "Welcome back, but have you forgotten how to make beds??").
  • Sitting in her chair in the TV room. (This was not actually due to Mrs. Marks, but one of the other "inmates" (yes, that's what she calls boarders here) who warned me that she'd be displeased if she found me there.)
Mind you, I've had a few summers to get used to her. Hopefully this will all be worth it when Mrs. Marks lets me take pictures of her wielding her chainsaw.

25 May 2004

rational economic agents

We consume largely to fill psychological needs ("false needs" as Marx would say) and not material needs. Economically, we're like drunk giants crashing through the world unaware of our power and how we're using it. Advertisers understand this implicitly, but economists and other social thinkers don't seem to talk about it much.

A few examples

1. Giving to charity: When soliciting people in Lobby 10 recently to give money to Sudanese refugees and IDPs, one man asked me "Well, how much would you like me to give?" He clearly had somewhere to be, so I said "people have been donating $10 or $20 lately, but you can give whatever you want" and he handed me a five dollar bill. (I started a conversation with another guy, or maybe the same one, with me: "Do you want to help Sudanese refugees?", him: Sure. What do you want from me? me: Mainly money. [He reaches for his wallet.])

He asked me how much to give because he wanted to know what would satisfy me. I was the one who had made him feel guilty about not helping (previously unknown) Sudanese refugees, so if he paid me off I would stop bothering him and he could stop thinking about the issue. Giving money would simultaneously relieve his guilt and end the awkward social situation in which I was demanding his attention.

Giving money is a clear way out, but he still needed to know how much was necessary. If I could have answered him honestly, I would have said something like "The WFP has asked for $98 million to feed everyone through the rainy season. I'd like you to think carefully about their appeal, research the alternatives, think about what your money means to you and decide yourself how much, up to $98 million, is appropriate." But this would violate all the rules of the game. Instead I told him how much money would make him fit in with the other donors, so that he could avoid both appearing stingy or easily manipulatable.

This may seem an uncharitable (haha) view of this donor's motives, but I would bet that many people give money away for similar reasons, even after devoting more serious thought to it.

Our fundraising methods ended up being affected by this, as we started to think more like advertisers. For example, should we ask people to write checks to our student group, which we would then donate to the WFP a week or so later, or ask them to donate directly on the WFP web site? If the former, we get the satisfaction of knowing how much we've raised; they get the instant gratification of our thanks, which is especially important if we were the cause of their guilt a minute earlier. (Also people might not follow through after promising to donate in person.) On the other hand, donating at home would mean larger and faster donations, which were especially important in this case since the rainy season would make aid much harder to deliver as time went on.

Our campaign tried to make people aware of how their donations would be used, but there were plenty of these small compromises with expendiency and public relations.

2. Driving: People get an emotional rush from driving far beyond the mere joy of travelling the 5 miles to Walmart in 12 minutes rather than an hour and a half. While a Zipcar model of car ownership might make sense economically and environmentally, Americans like to express personality and status in their choice of car. Cars are associated with independence, freedom, power and excitement. Nevermind that often the opposite is true; with public transportation you don't sit in traffic, worry about parking or have to watch how many drinks you have. More to the point is how people transfer their other desires onto their cars, so that they'll buy a sports car because of a mid-life crisis.

3. Smoking: Nearly 20% of deaths in the U.S. are caused by a need that is mostly social and psychological. Or do people actually start smoking because they want to get a buzz from it? Supposedly when sex was taboo in movies, filmmakers would use smoking as a metaphor for it. Now some people in Congress want the MPAA to give movies an R rating for smoking.


We fill our actual needs inefficiently. Since the needs persist, growth becomes an addictive behavior, like drinking to deal with emotional problems. Domestic violence ensues.


Maybe if we had a lot less money we'd take it more seriously? Maybe there needs to be some sort of social movement to explicitly raise moral questions about how we spend? Maybe the environmental movement could be this movement, if they'd stop pretending it's enough to make everything cleaner and more efficient? Quizas, quizas, quizas...

07 May 2004

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

by James Thurber

"WE'RE going through!" The Commander's voice was like thin ice breaking. He wore his full-dress uniform, with the heavily braided white cap pulled down rakishly over one cold gray eye. "We can't make it, sir. It's spoiling for a hurricane, if you ask me." "I'm not asking you, Lieutenant Berg," said the Commander. "Throw on the power lights! Rev her up to 8500! We're going through!" The pounding of the cylinders increased: ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa. The Commander stared at the ice forming on the pilot window. He walked over and twisted a row of complicated dials. "Switch on No. 8 auxiliary!" he shouted. "Switch on No. 8 auxiliary!" repeated Lieutenant Berg. "Full strength in No. 3 turret!" shouted the Commander. "Full strength in No. 3 turret!" The crew, bending to their various tasks in the huge, hurtling eight-engined Navy hydroplane, looked at each other and grinned. "The Old Man'll get us through," they said to one another. "The Old Man ain't afraid of hell!" . . .

"Not so fast! You're driving too fast!" said Mrs. Mitty. "What are you driving so fast for?"

"Hmm?" said Walter Mitty. He looked at his wife, in the seat beside him, with shocked astonishment. She seemed grossly unfamiliar, like a strange woman who had yelled at him in a crowd. "You were up to fifty-five," she said. "You know I don't like to go more than forty. You were up to fifty-five." Walter Mitty drove on toward Waterbury in silence, the roaring of the SN202 through the worst storm in twenty years of Navy flying fading in the remote, intimate airways of his mind. "You're tensed up again," said Mrs. Mitty. "It's one of your days. I wish you'd let Dr. Renshaw look you over."

Walter Mitty stopped the car in front of the building where his wife went to have her hair done. "Remember to get those overshoes while I'm having my hair done," she said. "I don't need overshoes," said Mitty. She put her mirror back into her bag. "We've been all through that," she said, getting out of the car. "You're not a young man any longer." He raced the engine a little. "Why don't you wear your gloves? Have you lost your gloves?" Walter Mitty reached in a pocket and brought out the gloves. He put them on, but after she had turned and gone into the building and he had driven on to a red light, he took them off again. "Pick it up, brother!" snapped a cop as the light changed, and Mitty hastily pulled on his gloves and lurched ahead. He drove around the streets aimlessly for a time, and then he drove past the hospital on his way to the parking lot.

. . . "It's the millionaire banker, Wellington McMillan," said the pretty nurse. "Yes?" said Walter Mitty, removing his gloves slowly. "Who has the case?" "Dr. Renshaw and Dr. Benbow, but there are two specialists here, Dr. Remington from New York and Dr. Pritchard-Mitford from London. He flew over." A door opened down a long, cool corridor and Dr. Renshaw came out. He looked distraught and haggard. "Hello, Mitty," he said. `'We're having the devil's own time with McMillan, the millionaire banker and close personal friend of Roosevelt. Obstreosis of the ductal tract. Tertiary. Wish you'd take a look at him." "Glad to," said Mitty.

In the operating room there were whispered introductions: "Dr. Remington, Dr. Mitty. Dr. Pritchard-Mitford, Dr. Mitty." "I've read your book on streptothricosis," said Pritchard-Mitford, shaking hands. "A brilliant performance, sir." "Thank you," said Walter Mitty. "Didn't know you were in the States, Mitty," grumbled Remington. "Coals to Newcastle, bringing Mitford and me up here for a tertiary." "You are very kind," said Mitty. A huge, complicated machine, connected to the operating table, with many tubes and wires, began at this moment to go pocketa-pocketa-pocketa. "The new anesthetizer is giving away!" shouted an intern. "There is no one in the East who knows how to fix it!" "Quiet, man!" said Mitty, in a low, cool voice. He sprang to the machine, which was now going pocketa-pocketa-queep-pocketa-queep . He began fingering delicately a row of glistening dials. "Give me a fountain pen!" he snapped. Someone handed him a fountain pen. He pulled a faulty piston out of the machine and inserted the pen in its place. "That will hold for ten minutes," he said. "Get on with the operation. A nurse hurried over and whispered to Renshaw, and Mitty saw the man turn pale. "Coreopsis has set in," said Renshaw nervously. "If you would take over, Mitty?" Mitty looked at him and at the craven figure of Benbow, who drank, and at the grave, uncertain faces of the two great specialists. "If you wish," he said. They slipped a white gown on him, he adjusted a mask and drew on thin gloves; nurses handed him shining . . .

"Back it up, Mac!! Look out for that Buick!" Walter Mitty jammed on the brakes. "Wrong lane, Mac," said the parking-lot attendant, looking at Mitty closely. "Gee. Yeh," muttered Mitty. He began cautiously to back out of the lane marked "Exit Only." "Leave her sit there," said the attendant. "I'll put her away." Mitty got out of the car. "Hey, better leave the key." "Oh," said Mitty, handing the man the ignition key. The attendant vaulted into the car, backed it up with insolent skill, and put it where it belonged.

They're so damn cocky, thought Walter Mitty, walking along Main Street; they think they know everything. Once he had tried to take his chains off, outside New Milford, and he had got them wound around the axles. A man had had to come out in a wrecking car and unwind them, a young, grinning garageman. Since then Mrs. Mitty always made him drive to a garage to have the chains taken off. The next time, he thought, I'll wear my right arm in a sling; they won't grin at me then. I'll have my right arm in a sling and they'll see I couldn't possibly take the chains off myself. He kicked at the slush on the sidewalk. "Overshoes," he said to himself, and he began looking for a shoe store.

When he came out into the street again, with the overshoes in a box under his arm, Walter Mitty began to wonder what the other thing was his wife had told him to get. She had told him, twice before they set out from their house for Waterbury. In a way he hated these weekly trips to town--he was always getting something wrong. Kleenex, he thought, Squibb's, razor blades? No. Tooth paste, toothbrush, bicarbonate, Carborundum, initiative and referendum? He gave it up. But she would remember it. "Where's the what's-its- name?" she would ask. "Don't tell me you forgot the what's-its-name." A newsboy went by shouting something about the Waterbury trial.

. . . "Perhaps this will refresh your memory." The District Attorney suddenly thrust a heavy automatic at the quiet figure on the witness stand. "Have you ever seen this before?'' Walter Mitty took the gun and examined it expertly. "This is my Webley-Vickers 50.80," ho said calmly. An excited buzz ran around the courtroom. The Judge rapped for order. "You are a crack shot with any sort of firearms, I believe?" said the District Attorney, insinuatingly. "Objection!" shouted Mitty's attorney. "We have shown that the defendant could not have fired the shot. We have shown that he wore his right arm in a sling on the night of the fourteenth of July." Walter Mitty raised his hand briefly and the bickering attorneys were stilled. "With any known make of gun," he said evenly, "I could have killed Gregory Fitzhurst at three hundred feet with my left hand." Pandemonium broke loose in the courtroom. A woman's scream rose above the bedlam and suddenly a lovely, dark-haired girl was in Walter Mitty's arms. The District Attorney struck at her savagely. Without rising from his chair, Mitty let the man have it on the point of the chin. "You miserable cur!" . . .

"Puppy biscuit," said Walter Mitty. He stopped walking and the buildings of Waterbury rose up out of the misty courtroom and surrounded him again. A woman who was passing laughed. "He said 'Puppy biscuit,'" she said to her companion. "That man said 'Puppy biscuit' to himself." Walter Mitty hurried on. He went into an A. & P., not the first one he came to but a smaller one farther up the street. "I want some biscuit for small, young dogs," he said to the clerk. "Any special brand, sir?" The greatest pistol shot in the world thought a moment. "It says 'Puppies Bark for It' on the box," said Walter Mitty.

His wife would be through at the hairdresser's in fifteen minutes' Mitty saw in looking at his watch, unless they had trouble drying it; sometimes they had trouble drying it. She didn't like to get to the hotel first, she would want him to be there waiting for her as usual. He found a big leather chair in the lobby, facing a window, and he put the overshoes and the puppy biscuit on the floor beside it. He picked up an old copy of Liberty and sank down into the chair. "Can Germany Conquer the World Through the Air?" Walter Mitty looked at the pictures of bombing planes and of ruined streets.

. . . "The cannonading has got the wind up in young Raleigh, sir," said the sergeant. Captain Mitty looked up at him through tousled hair. "Get him to bed," he said wearily, "with the others. I'll fly alone." "But you can't, sir," said the sergeant anxiously. "It takes two men to handle that bomber and the Archies are pounding hell out of the air. Von Richtman's circus is between here and Saulier." "Somebody's got to get that ammunition dump," said Mitty. "I'm going over. Spot of brandy?" He poured a drink for the sergeant and one for himself. War thundered and whined around the dugout and battered at the door. There was a rending of wood and splinters flew through the room. "A bit of a near thing," said Captain Mitty carelessly. 'The box barrage is closing in," said the sergeant. "We only live once, Sergeant," said Mitty, with his faint, fleeting smile. "Or do we?" He poured another brandy and tossed it off. "I never see a man could hold his brandy like you, sir," said the sergeant. "Begging your pardon, sir." Captain Mitty stood up and strapped on his huge Webley-Vickers automatic. "It's forty kilometers through hell, sir," said the sergeant. Mitty finished one last brandy. "After all," he said softly, "what isn't?" The pounding of the cannon increased; there was the rat-tat-tatting of machine guns, and from somewhere came the menacing pocketa-pocketa-pocketa of the new flame-throwers. Walter Mitty walked to the door of the dugout humming "Aupres de Ma Blonde." He turned and waved to the sergeant. "Cheerio!" he said. . . .

Something struck his shoulder. "I've been looking all over this hotel for you," said Mrs. Mitty. "Why do you have to hide in this old chair? How did you expect me to find you?" "Things close in," said Walter Mitty vaguely. "What?" Mrs. Mitty said. "Did you get the what's-its-name? The puppy biscuit? What's in that box?" "Overshoes," said Mitty. "Couldn't you have put them on in the store?" 'I was thinking," said Walter Mitty. "Does it ever occur to you that I am sometimes thinking?" She looked at him. "I'm going to take your temperature when I get you home," she said.

They went out through the revolving doors that made a faintly derisive whistling sound when you pushed them. It was two blocks to the parking lot. At the drugstore on the corner she said, "Wait here for me. I forgot something. I won't be a minute." She was more than a minute. Walter Mitty lighted a cigarette. It began to rain, rain with sleet in it. He stood up against the wall of the drugstore, smoking. . . . He put his shoulders back and his heels together. "To hell with the handkerchief," said Waker Mitty scornfully. He took one last drag on his cigarette and snapped it away. Then, with that faint, fleeting smile playing about his lips, he faced the firing squad; erect and motionless, proud and disdainful, Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last.

12 April 2004

we really did tell you so

Can we stop saying "clear in retrospect"? How about "finally undeniably clear to everyone, though it was really pretty easy to anticipate"? [NYT, Apr 11]
But before Fallujah two things happened -- clear in retrospect -- that helped unravel what little hope was here.

The first was hundreds of miles away. On March 22, in the Gaza Strip, Israeli forces assassinated Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the leader of Hamas who was a hero to Palestinians. Outraged Arabs hit the streets in Baghdad and other Middle Eastern capitals. Many Americans in Iraq braced themselves for reprisals.

A few days after Yassin was killed, U.S. authorities shut down the Hawza newspaper, the mouthpiece of Muqtada al-Sadr, a radical Shiite cleric. The paper had been accused of printing lies. But closing it only played into al-Sadr’s hand, fueling huge protests by his followers.

Then Fallujah happened. The group that took responsibility said it was avenging Yassin.

The sheik’s ghost returned to Iraq once more, on April 2, when al-Sadr announced that he was opening the Iraqi chapters of Hezbollah and Hamas, pro-Palestinian groups responsible for attacks on Israel.

11 April 2004

Curious George

Condi says that the Aug 6 PDB was unusual in that it was a response to a specific request from Bush for background on al-Qaeda.

I wonder why he made that request when he did? Was it because of the general increase in ominous terrorist chatter over the summer? Or did they have more clues than they've told us about? Without the context of all the other PDBs it's hard to tell, but we can always insinuate.

09 April 2004

Liberal media misses atrocity in Falluja

Apparently, besides the four U.S. civilians/private security guards/mercenaries killed in Falluja last week, there have been 280 Iraqis killed, 400 wounded and the whole town is under siege. Who knew?

Actually, the paper of record does mention this in an April 8 article, but with slightly different emphasis.

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Polish and Bulgarian troops battled Shi'ite militiamen in the Iraqi shrine city of Kerbala on Thursday as U.S.-led forces struggled to quell the worst violence since Saddam Hussein's fall a year ago.

The United States said it might keep combat-hardened troops in Iraq longer than planned to help tackle Sunni and Shi'ite Muslim insurgents trying to expel American-led occupiers.

This week's intense two-front fighting has killed 35 American and allied soldiers and several hundred Iraqis. It has elicited U.S. assertions of resolve, but prompted signs of nervousness among some other countries with troops in Iraq.

Speaking of casualties, and emphasis, michaelmoore.com was briefly featuring this photomosaic, titled "War President."

As of April 8, 2004, there have been 645 American soldiers killed in Iraq. Even if flag-draped coffins don't appear on TV, it's safe to say that these deaths are pretty well publicized.

In contrast, even though the Iraqi body count is now above 10,000, the most complete listing I've found has "names and/or personal details" for only 692 (like "29 deaths; family of Metaq Ali; near Talil") and full names for only 468.

I know this isn't surprising, but I like to see these things quantified.

31 March 2004


scrof.u.lous \-l*s\ aj 1: of, relating to, or affected with scrofula 2a: resembling scrofula 2b: morally contaminated

scrof.u.la \'skro.f-y*-l*, 'skra:f-\ n [ML, fr. LL scrofulae, pl., swellings of the lymph glands of the neck, fr]. pl. of scrofula, dim. of L scrofa breeding sow : tuberculosis of lymph glands esp. in the neck