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.