20 July 2005

find her a golden retriever

I went camping this weekend in New Hampshire with three friends: B, J and L. B is a gay guy and J and L are a straight couple - J=male, L=female. (If you can't guess who they are, you can email me and I'll tell you.) I should say that the written form of this story doesn't nearly do it justice, but this is the only way I can record it for posterity.

We met Gary from Lynn, MA when he helped L carry firewood from the car to our site. The dialogue was something like:
G: you look like you could use some help with that.
L: no thanks, i think i'm ok.
G: no, it's no trouble, let me help you.
then soon after while carrying our firewood,
G: I believe that when you help someone, then that kindness gets returned on you sevenfold.
and later,
G: We're in sites 16 and 17 if you want to come party with us. All of my friends are with their girlfriends, but I'm single.

Sadly, I only overheard part of this conversation and L claims that she doesn't want to share the details of their "private moments"; I think she just forgot. In any case, Gary was clearly dismayed that L was there with her boyfriend and two other male friends, but kept up a brave face regardless.

So whatever.
We spend the next hour struggling to get a fire started with the apparently quite wet firewood we bought from the gas station, when an even drunker Gary shows up and offers us dry firewood! He brings some over and leaves, and we're finally able to cook our dinner, which rules. A little later, he wanders by again to ask how the fire is going and out of gratitude we invite him over for a beer.

It's pretty obvious that we're going to have different outlooks on the world; e.g. I ask if he and his friends are going hiking anywhere, since he said they were spending several days here, and he says something like "No time for that crap - we're partying by the river!" We do the "where are you from" thing and B says California, at which point Gary starts talking about when he was in Palm Springs and he was getting cruised by this gay guy and was thinking about throwing rocks at the faggot. We all look up at each other to make sure everyone's paying attention.

Gary realizes he's been the only one talking for awhile and says to B "but it's cool that you're from California as long as you're not a faggot or anything." J, L and I are completely silent. Eventually, there's a long slow "ummmm......" from B, and then "actually I am gay, but it's no big deal."

Then a series of amazing quotes follow, organized into different phases:
First incomprehension:
Gary: "Why? Why would you want to do that?"
B: I don't know. I wish I did.
Gary: "So you don't get turned on by women??"
B: nope

Then trying to figure out what he's gotten himself into.
"L, so you're here with three gay dudes?!"
"No, it's just B, J is my boyfriend."
Around this point, he says things like "Did it just get really quiet around here all of a sudden?" (because we're now all at the edge of our seats, not wanting to miss a word he's saying) and "I feel like I'm in the wrong place here..."

Also at some point he's grilling B about being gay, and says "since you're gay---I mean, you even admit it---then..." The tone here is key - it suggested both (a) that he would never insult B by calling him gay unless B had already admitted it, and (b) that he couldn't imagine why someone unlucky enough to be gay would ever want to admit it openly.

Then backpedalling - there's a lot of "I don't mean no disrespect" and "If you want to do that that's your business." Usually immediately followed by "but I find that stuff disgusting," or "I can't imagine why you'd ever want to do anything with a filthy, stinking, dirty cock." (B's reply: "I don't." [i.e. I like them clean.])

At some point, there's the "I'm just a nice guy" phase. He says (unprompted) "I'm the kind of guy who - when someone is broken down by the side of the road - stops to help them out."

Then there's my unsuccessful "reason with him" phase.
me: It's not like no one finds men attractive. Women do, for example.
Gary: But that's natural - women and men "fit together like puzzle pieces."
me: But even women and men fit together in other ways...
Gary: I don't care - two dudes together is disgusting. Two women on the other hand is another story. Or threesomes. But if one of my buddies were in a threesome with me and some chick, and tried kissing me, that'd be gross - I'd slap him. I'd kick his ass. Two women, though, is a beautiful thing.
me: You know how kids find any mention of sex gross? Even adults kissing they find disgusting? Maybe this is the same thing - it just seems gross because it's unfamiliar.
Gary: puzzle pieces!

Then instead of talking to B or me, he remembers why he's there (L) and turns to talk to her and J. Of course, he can't get the gay thing off his mind.

The next phase is female bisexuality. Of course he's ok with this and says something I forget about it being a beautiful thing. He asks L if she's into it, and talks about the possibility of her and J bringing in another woman - specifically, he tells L that she should "fulfill J's fantasy" and invite in another chick. They demur, perhaps saying that they're not into L's friends that way or something, and Gary tells J that the problem is that "L has been hanging around too many pit bulls. You need to find her a golden retriever."

Then he gets back to B. "But women are warm... and soft... and ....!" (B: "Maybe I don't want warm and soft.") followed by the repeated command to "just look at L" along with "how can you not want that?" It's a little awkward, but B defuses a lot of it by conceding that L is hot.

The end is kind of sad. We find out (in a single unprompted and uninterrupted narrative) that he's on parole for receiving stolen goods, and has been single for 2.5 years (or maybe it was "I haven't been laid in 2.5 years"), in part b/c of spending a year in jail for: driving drunk back from Foxwoods at 7AM going 90 with a beer bottle in his hand, then not pulling over for the cop until his engine dies, at which point the cop isn't fooled by him putting on his blinker as though he meant to pull over. It was "even after he had won [at Foxwoods]" and in his "late twenties/early thirties." Prison can't be good for homophobia. There were two other lines he repeated a couple of times: first that the sneaky cop had been hiding in the bushes and second that "those exits [on the Mass Pike] are so damn far apart!"

He kisses L's hand when he leaves.

postscript: Another story from that weekend. That night, B and I shared a tent, and as I was falling asleep, I "let out a shriek" (in B's words) and yelled "Get out! Get out!" while kicking and pushing B. Then I rolled over and went to sleep. He says he then made a comment about how my wedding night was going to be hilarious, but I remember none of this.

Also, watch out for leeches in Lonesome Lake.

14 July 2005


See the annoying gap between this post and the next?

It's obviously related to the sidebar somehow, but I don't know CSS well enough to know how to fix it. If anyone has ideas about fixing this, please let me know.


I just wanted to say that I get emailed when you (readers - whoever you are) leave comments, so if you comment even on very old posts, I'll still notice and maybe reply.

Also, all the old Haloscan comments disappeared, which I apologize for, but future comments will stay up.

old stuff

Last year I started a blog using emacs and html, thinking I didn't need this fancy blogger.com interface. Here are all the posts I made to it. The quality is a little mixed, but some of these I'm fond of.


I went to a talk by John Ehrenfeld on sustainability, and how sustainability differs from sustainable development. He says that reason, science and technology got us into this mess, and can't entirely get us out. Green technology for sure won't be enough, and tinkering with the tax code and regulatory system probably won't either. We need to change the way we relate to the world, each other and ourselves.

But does his critique really need to be that broad? Is it really "reason" and "science" that are problems (because they lead to objectifying and dominating nature and so on), or just the way they're used in the service of our current hierarchies of power? Take economics for example. Theoretical economists often say things like "trade helps everybody" and "inflation needs to be controlled" that translate into real suffering for real people. This is taken as evidence that economics is an amoral field ("can calculate the cost of everything and the value of nothing"). In reality economics can be used to figure out (say) how to help the poor, and some people do use it that way, but the people who wield power use it to hold onto their own power. Later in the day I heard a talk about how communication technology could be used either to empower or to entertain all depending on how we use the technology.

Maybe this doesn't clash with what Ehrenfeld said, or maybe he'd claim that since these technologies are alienating, they naturally lend themselves to being exploited in that way. Either way, the anarcho-Marxist approach of blaming everything on hierarchies and power relations seems more apropos. You can defend the environment with completely human-centered and scientific reasoning with the "future generations" argument (i.e. we should preserve nature because it will benefit future humans, rather than rejecting the entire anthropocentric cost-benefit framework that both this claim and status quo environmental exploitation are based on). Ehrenfeld would say that this logic isn't enough without breaking our addictive emotional patterns; a Marxist would say this logic isn't enough as long as those in power have no incentive to follow it. So maybe Ehrenfeld's way is slightly more concrete, even if it sounds more wishy-washy.

Addendum: After the talk, I was feeling down, so I bought some $100 headphones.

7/17/05 update: A recent NYT article on hybrid cars gives an argument why technology won't save us:

The two-miles-per-gallon increase over the V-6, about 8 percent, is still significant... But 8 percent is not in the range that would make a substantial dent in American oil consumption. If every car in the country were converted to a hybrid with that improved mileage, the gain would be swallowed up in three to four years by growth in driving demand.

Mr. Buford said he got just what he wanted from the Accord, a hybrid with no sacrifices. "I wasn't prepared to give up anything to 'go green' - not performance, amenities, or space," he said.

On the other hand, economics is also a technology...


A terrible last day of SAT teaching. The weather was beautiful and the students really didn't want to be there, and I was annoyed since this was something that I interrupted other plans to do entirely for them, and they were treating me like I was some teacher assigned to babysit them. High school teaches such terrible lessons about initiative. (7/14/05 update: Could be just American schools.).

Plus, I had little patience for the "I don't understand when you do it with variables. Let me do the problem with numbers." ridiculousness. Of course, this is just because their HS math teacher doesn't know any math either. In Romania they do Putnam-level problems in 10th grade.

"Powers of Darkness" was amazing, esp. for an MIT production! I should read get around to reading it now...

After a few days of increasing stress, I did an hour-long meditation class and then went rock-climbing at the MIT bouldering wall, both with Ilya.

Meditation: Normally I'm pretty skeptical of this sort of thing, and tend to note with ironic glee that the people who talk most about karma and balancing themselves and whatnot are usually the most unbalanced. But my standard "ignore" method of dealing with stress had been failing, and paying $5 to sit (or slowly walk) for an hour was really effective. I completely failed at meditation (its goal being to clear your mind of thoughts and focus on a sensation, like breathing); my mind was buzzing with thoughts the entire time, many of which were more imaginative than my dreams are. Still, even this sitting and thinking is something that I need to occasionally take time to do.

Rock climbing: Really hard. Or at least Ilya and I are really bad at it. Either way, a lot of fun.


The front page of the Boston Metro was filled with a big, ugly photo of Moqtada Sadr with the caption: "The most evil man in Iraq: Go Get Him!"

Look, folks. I try, sometimes, to identify with the blue collar Boston mindset that surrounds my little island of geeky libertarians, even if I only encounter it while waiting in line for an eggplant sub at Yoni's "God Loves America" food truck.

But can you try to meet me halfway?


I've been to three talks in the last two days, each of which was ostensibly in my field, and each of which serving mainly to teach me how little I know about things. Sean Hallgren talked about a pure math topic (finding the unit group of a number field), Ken Brown talked about something from theoretical physics (anyons in BECs) and Ike Chuang talked about experimental physics (ion traps).

I guess I can multiply two-by-two matrices and that'll have to be good enough for now.


I went to Newburyport today to try to get people to (as I pleaded verbatim a million times) "support same-sex marriages by signing a postcard" which we would then deliver to their legislators. I was there with a gay guy, Dan, and a straight girl, Geeta.

A lot of people were supportive, but there were a number of reactions that pissed me off. Primary among them is the "this isn't my problem" reaction. As though during civil rights, white Protestant men didn't need to worry about supporting the movement. Clearly only an asshole would say this (on a side note, Watermelon Man is an awesome movie), but gender/sexual orientation stuff is even more absurd than race because there's likely to be someone in your family who's affected, not to mention the heavy costs that straights incur from rigid gender lines - arguably worse than the psychic costs borne by whites engaged in colonialism and racism.

The obvious corollary to "oh, I'm straight, so I don't give a shit" is "you must be gay if you're out collecting signatures for this." This was mostly annoying because it was related to the "not my problem" attitude, although I guess it was mildly eye-opening to experience a little taste of discrimation [this was expanded in 2005 from very sketchy notes written in 2004, so the emotions aren't so fresh any more.] (Amusing interchange: at a demonstration in front of the State House, one counter-demonstrator had a sign saying "Gay marriage theatens children" and I yelled at him "People like you threaten my children!" and he yelled "you can't have kids because you're a homo!" and I yelled "no I'm not!" but it felt way more like middle school than a critique of his narrow world-view and all its ideological baggage.) What was particularly funny about everyone imagining that I was gay came at the end of the day when we left downtown Newburyport and went to a supermarket in a strip mall, where there were actually many more people. People went through a narrow area and we were kind of tired by then, so we'd take turns collecting signatures one at a time. However, it didn't work so well when Geeta was collecting them, because she'd say "would you like to support gay marriage?" and their eyes would naturally go to me and Dan, standing by the side trying to look unobtrusive, and they'd immediately assume we were a gay couple that just wanted to get married like anyone else, if only they'd sign Geeta's postcard. It was funny, but they'd get weirded out by this - I bet if Dan and I were girls it would've worked.


I read Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich a few days ago. She's written a lot for Time and Z magazine (and The New Yorker, I thought too, but maybe I just imagined that) in the past. In Nickel and Dimed, she goes "undercover" into the side of America experienced by the poor. Specifically, she tries in three different places to survive on the wages from entry-level jobs while starting with only her car, some clothes and about $1000.

Her descriptions of poverty in America shouldn't be surprising, but I found them pretty jarring. Sometimes it's hard to imagine why low-wage workers don't demand better conditions, but she does a compelling job of explaining how good corporations are at wearing down their employees and discouraging them from speaking up or taking risks. (A lot of this reminded me of high school.) This partially explains why wages are often low even in tight labor markets; employees don't have the time, energy or financial independence to look for other jobs. Also, grad school sometimes tricks us into thinking that a little poverty isn't that bad. The problem is when you don't have the security deposit for an apartment, you need to pay a lot for a hotel. Or your lack of health insurance can cause all sorts of horrible problems. Or your work is so draining (many people have to take two full-time jobs and/or have long commutes) it leaves little time to get the rest of your life in order. [7/14/05 update: Likewise giving anti-retroviral drugs to AIDS patients in Africa is of limited help if they don't have enough food to eat.] In the end, it makes the idea of lifting yourself out of poverty through hard work seem as naive as, say, getting a lot of reading done in prison where there aren't distractions.

What I found really interesting about the book, though, was the very fact of its existence as a description of American poverty addressed towards Americans with money. The book is billed as investigative journalism, but really it's more like anthropology. The star researcher leaves the lecture circuit behind to go live among the natives, get their trust, learn their ways and translate their discourse into commercial and academic success. One point of the book that this reinforces is how invisible the poor are to the middle and upper classes (and even to each other - she writes compellingly about how poor people never see anyone like them in popular culture and fail to realize how widespread their condition is).

The anthropological style of the book also hints at the enormous differences between how poor and rich people think and perceive the world. The narrator keeps reminding herself and the reader that she doesn't really belong, that's she's actually sneaking off to make mortgage payments and think subversive thoughts while remaining literally obedient to the strictures of her "experiment." She even does some union organizing to relieve the tedium and hopelessness of working at Wal-mart. This ironic distance from the way a real poor person would write furthers another point of the book, which is that the poor inhabit an America radically different from our bourgeois version. (Maybe this isn't so different from the last point. I need to figure out where I'm going with these arguments. Plus, this whole thing has probably been written before in a million freshman comp essays.)

It'd be interesting to compare this with, say, Claude Brown's Manchild in the Promised Land, another book about American poverty (among other things). Manchild moves in the opposite direction, from poverty to the middle class, and is dramatic (there's heroin, prostitutes, gangs, etc.) as opposed to the crushing banality of Nickel and Dimed. Also, the intended audience of Manchild is probably pretty different.

This is pretty rambling, but my point is that the narrator is ironically distanced from actual poverty because of her audience, language and the breaks in the narrative when she starts talking like someone involved in policy. The reality of American poverty is only inferred from these gaps and inconsistencies in the narrative which demonstrate how truly invisible it is to "people like us" and how radically different it is. Is this the Lacanian Real? I'm not sure, but maybe a better analogy is that it's like the thoughts you have when you've been on your feet washing dishes for 16 hours and you're too tired to think.


The Iraq on the Record report, prepared at the request of Rep. Henry A. Waxman, is a comprehensive examination of the statements made by the five Administration officials most responsible for providing public information and shaping public opinion on Iraq: President George W. Bush, Vice President Richard Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice.

3/16/04: A photo tour of Chernobyl.

Old stuff from Spring 2003.

Don't use the wrong words in your AIDS grant. ["Certain Words Can Trip Up AIDS Grants, Scientists Say" NYT, Apr 18, 2003.] Sorry about the lack of link, but here are the first two paragraphs:

Scientists who study AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases say they have been warned by federal health officials that their research may come under unusual scrutiny by the Department of Health and Human Services or by members of Congress, because the topics are politically controversial.

The scientists, who spoke on condition they not be identified, say they have been advised they can avoid unfavorable attention by keeping certain "key words" out of their applications for grants from the National Institutes of Health or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those words include "sex workers," "men who sleep with men," "anal sex" and "needle exchange," the scientists said.

I like how the automatic nature of the screening is an important piece of this story.

Afghanistan: the Taliban's smiling face, March 2003 http://rawa.false.net/smiling.htm

It seems the only time US-UK troops needed to wear their chemical warfare suits was when recovering a body from a friendly fire incident to protect themselves from the radiation given off by US depleted uranium ordnance -- which, of course, the Pentagon claims is absolutely harmless.
Audrey Gillian, "'I never want to hear that sound again': Five British soldiers have died under 'friendly fire'" Guardian, 3/31/03, p. 3.

pulling down Saddam's statue

404 - WMD not found

12 July 2005

the mind of the enemy

First, please watch this video. It's only a few minutes long and it's amazing. Watch it..

My reactions are pretty obvious, and not particularly original.

  1. These people are dumb as toast.
  2. But their positions aren't that far from those of any pro-choice politician in America! It's kind of like people who oppose drug legalization because it would "send the wrong signal" that "drugs are ok," while at the same time believing that users should get treatment and not jail.
On the other hand, is it the fault of pro-choicers that this needless gulf exists? Similarly, anti-abortion activists should be leading the charge for sex ed, widely available birth control and so on, so there's always talk (from pro-choicers) that there should be a glorious compromise where both sides work together on these no-brainer win-win issues. But this runs squarely into problem #1 (above)! Pro-lifers seem to prefer instead to undermine sex ed and access to birth control. Likewise, anti-terrorism liberals should have been able to compromise with anti-terrorism conservatives/craven Democrats on the only reliable way to reduce terrorism (at a cost of negative $200 billion), which would be to not invade Iraq, but this potential win-win was also DOA due to the "dumb as toast" problem above.

Of course, one consistent way to explain this is that the leaders of pro-life movements aren't so much about protecting babies but punishing women for having sex; as evidenced by general support for exceptions when it's "not her fault" as in rape. So while most followers might be dumb, the overall organization is best described as stupid and/or evil.

Well, I must say it feels good to finally understand the other side, rather than just demonizing them all the time.

10 July 2005

I'm always looking for a few good shirts

Via pandagon and a feminist livejournal, comes this charming tank-top.

While in an ideal world, these people would be called to account before some kind of ad-hoc tribunal, I couldn't help but think of how fetching I would look in this shirt, with little bits of scraggly chest hair tufting out of the top.

09 July 2005

I Got Rhythm

For all those who want to play a musical instrument and a) have a copy of matlab, but b) have no ability to keep a beat (surely these must go together often enough) here is some useful code.
function metronome(persec)
blip = sin(1:82 * 2 * pi * 1000 / 8192);
while (1)
And in stereo!
function metronome2(persec)
len = 500;
blip = sin((1:len) * 2 * pi * 1000 / 8192)';
blip1 = [blip zeros(len,1)];
blip2 = [zeros(len,1) blip];
while (1)
Matlab is good for tuning too - all you need to know is that a violin's A is 440Hz and a fifth (interval between violin strings) is seven half-steps, so the frequencies are separated by 2^(7/12).

07 July 2005

shotgun weddings make so much more sense now

From a recent NYT op-ed:
Throughout much of history, upper-class men divorced their wives if their marriage did not produce children, while peasants often wouldn't marry until a premarital pregnancy confirmed the woman's fertility.
Two conclusions:
  1. I always suspected that my understanding of shotgun weddings (a father preserving his daughter's honor) wasn't quite patriarchal enough. I think I was confused by thinking of premarital sex in more modern terms, whereas in societies where the female orgasm is quasi-taboo, the function of premarital sex would probably be different.
  2. The rest of the article is a nice reminder of why marriage should go the way of slavery - that is, replaced with something still exploitative, but less so, and more fluid and market-based. It brings up a potential double turn problem with defending same-sex marriage. Conservatives say gay marriage undermines traditional marriage, and traditional marriage is good. It's naturally to respond by saying:
    1. Same-sex strengthens marriage because it supports gay/lesbian couples who want commitment and monogamy, thereby taking legitimacy away from more flexible "domestic partner" arrangements. By contrast, acceptance of public homosexuality is pretty much inevitably increasing, and if this continues without legalized gay marriage, then the "domestic partner" model of a long-term relationship will continue to gain credibility. For example, after gay marriage was legalized in Massachusetts, many companies stopped offering health benefits to both gay and straight domestic partners, because now anyone can get married.
    2. Fuck the sanctity of marriage. Any institution where you can sue for loss of housekeeping and sexual services is based on some seriously twisted foundations. That's fucked up even aside from the sexism. Long-term monogamy is often great, but the state/religious/cultural sanction has more drawbacks than advantages.
But things get dicey when you make both arguments at the same time. I suppose you can say that same-sex marriage undermines the bad aspects of marriage and strengthens the good parts. Or you could oppose same-sex marriage outright. Some queers do oppose same-sex marriage based on the above arguments; or more often, just can't bring themselves to support it, though they also would never vote for the alternative---kind of like how radical leftists felt about Kerry. I saw a good book presenting this position, but, um, I forget the title and the author. Anyway, I think I agree more with the "best of both worlds" argument at the beginning of the paragraph, though I admit it has some problems.

rather eager than lasting

This excerpt is from Mansfield Park:
Henry Crawford ... longed to have been at sea, and seen and done and suffered as much. His heart was warmed, his fancy fired, and he felt the highest respect for a lad who, before he was twenty, had gone through such bodily hardships and given such proofs of mind. The glory of heroism, of usefulness, of exertion, of endurance, made his own habits of selfish indulgence appear in shameful contrast; and he wished he had been a William Price, distinguishing himself and working his way to fortune and consequence with so much self-respect and happy ardour, instead of what he was!

The wish was rather eager than lasting.

This suggests two rhetorical questions.
  1. How awesome is Jane Austen? I mean seriously, what the hell is wrong with people who don't like her?
  2. Who hasn't felt like Henry Crawford from time to time? Or even disturbingly often? Despite a spring I should feel pretty damn good about, I still find myself wishing I had done a million things differently; e.g. meeting someone who played the Mendelssohn violin concerto in e at 15 (and w/o being a total violin dork) made me kick myself for not putting actual effort into violin during the ten years I played it. I think this is the closest to personal revelation I'll ever put on this blog.
Anyway, the relevant passage continues with:
He was roused from the reverie of retrospection and regret produced by it, by some inquiry from Edmund as to his plans for the next day's hunting; and he found it was as well to be a man of fortune at once with horses and grooms at his command. In one respect it was better,...
and then it talks about horses and the other characters.

On that note, I think I'm going to watch a movie. Or should I pick up the violin?

Oh, and see the next post for what reminded me of Mansfield Park.

my sister can beat up your sister

What's better than publishing your first book?

Getting a positive review in the Times Literary Supplement, that's what!

Go Sha!