Dec 14, 2007

Cognitive Dissonance [LINK]

Across Massachusetts, environmental activists organized plunges into freezing waters to draw attention to global warming.

No, I don't get it either. Are you saying the water's not really that cold?

UPDATE: Okay, now I get it. Maybe it's: "this is what polar bears have to do -- plunge into arctic waters -- when the ice floes they're standing on break up from all the global warming." Glad I figured that out, since I was starting to think some of my neighbors' kids were a bit nutty in the head.

Dec 10, 2007

Elevator Pitch: An Elegant Solution for Networks to Cope with Ongoing Television Writers' Strike [LINK]

A new elimination-style reality show. Participants are judged by their ability to pitch ideas for new reality shows to a panel of television executives and/or celebrity experts. Regardless of whether they win each round, participants retain rights if network decides to go ahead and develop their idea into a new show. Such shows have potential to replicate virally at low cost to network, with huge pool of boundlessly creative ideas not yet considered. (For example, proposed shows may or may not feature snide British twit on celebrity judging panel.) Final winner may not have the best ideas overall, but be able to outlast rivals and reserve their better ideas for later rounds. Those who lead with their best ideas develop intense viewer loyalty, resulting in highly desirable "loser wins" controversy when they are outlasted by perceived mediocrities.

Idea may serve as a template to generate all-purpose content at low cost to networks with no need for actual "writers." Task of reality show participants may be to write late-night monologue jokes, SNL skits, sitcoms, or police/medical comedy/dramas -- whatever. Much attention can be paid to how well they collaborate on a creative team to deliver best final product, continuity from one show to the next, etc. As participants are eliminated and the burden of creating large volume of content falls on fewer participants, they are allowed to hire and manage their own staff of "writers," with much opportunity for return appearances by previously eliminated participants. Much opportunity for cross-pollination of interest between the show and the reality show that parented it. Or for something less involved, participants may simply be judged by their ability to produce an engaging series of YouTube videos. Whatever. Content is irrelevant.

Hype it as "Meta-Reality" and get trend-spotting tastemakers to tie it into popularity of user-generated content.

Nov 25, 2007

Plain Language Independence [LINK]

My latest letter to the Glob:

To achieve energy independence, Burton Klein insists that one of the measures we absolutely must not consider is "drilling for more oil anywhere in the 50 states." The only way I can make sense of this statement is to assume that the phrase "energy independent" doesn't mean what it clearly says. Perhaps a phrase like "energy conservation" or "energy reduction" wouldn't be so "plain language independent."

Nov 14, 2007

A Lesser Writer, Toiling in the Shadow of a Modern Master [LINK]

Today's letter to the Globe:

I don't expect I'll read anything funnier today than Christopher Busa's letter defending Norman Mailer's legacy. Responding to Thomas Gagen's criticism that Mailer's 1957 essay "The White Negro" glorified violent criminals, Busa declares such criticism inappropriate so soon after his death: "a pen is not a knife to stab someone when he is down." That imagery, plus the characterization of Mailer as a beloved "family man," might have been a wise choice had Mailer not actually stabbed one of his wives with a pen knife.

Nov 13, 2007

How Not to Save Racial Preferences [LINK]

Today's letter to the Globe, concerning a Massachusetts busing program:

Richard Kahlenberg makes a solid argument that to withstand legal challenge in the wake of recent Supreme Court rulings, Metco should reorient itself to base eligibility on income rather than race. He provides ample reason not to be concerned about the tiny minority of low-income whites who might attend suburban schools as a result.

I'm puzzled why he would then go on to advise Metco institute a two-tiered system using income as the first test and race as the second. Yes, it may conceivably survive swing vote Justice Kennedy's requirement that racial categorization be used only as a secondary alternative, but it begs the question of why such a racial test would be necessary in the first place. If Metco is to be worthy of survival, why must it be based on race in any way? Why should there be any mechanism, primary or secondary, that would keep poor white students from slipping through the cracks?

Oct 19, 2007

No good reason to leave New Jersey? [LINK]

The editorial board of the New York Times now has a blog. If this post offers a fair sample, it may well become the biggest "kick me" sign in all the Internet.

This post concerns the large number of New Jersey residents who, in a poll, expressed a strong desire to leave, one of the big reasons apparently being New Jersey's high tax rates. But the editorialists think they should stay put:

[T]here is a flaw in the grass-is-greener thinking. As more and more people needing more and more government services head to less populated areas, over-development, and congestion, and taxes are likely to increase there as well.

Adhering to this logic, I can scarcely think of any good reason to leave New Jersey. If I want to leave because, say, the air is polluted, the response would essentially be that wherever you're moving to is likely to also become polluted eventually as a result of the influx. So whatever you do, don't move!

Key word is "eventually", since if it becomes unbearable there, you have the option to move yet again. There may also be good reason to believe that the place you're moving to won't become nearly as polluted -- maybe New Jersey is unusually polluted.

Same for the tax issue. If other states provide basic services for much less, then the sooner you leave, the sooner you can enjoy those low rates. Even if taxes there eventually do rise (i.e., to build new schools and subdivisions), they may still be able to keep overall costs lower than New Jersey's presumably over-market rates. After all, low tax rates are not necessarily a function of low population.

Note the overwrought, imprecise language: "As more and more people needing more and more government services head to less populated areas..." Yes, "more and more" people are leaving, but they do not need "more and more" services than they did in New Jersey. The opposite may well be the case: they may be happier with a smaller set of services. (I understand: the places they're moving to need to provide more services.)

Another paragraph states:

There's an irony here. If more and more relatively high-income residents leave New Jersey, the tax situation will only get worse. The reason: many of the costs, such as local schools and debt, will remain the same, but there will be fewer people to share the burden.

There's no "irony" at all. Saying "the tax situation will only get worse" for those who remain assumes there's absolutely no way to lower the cost of government to keep New Jersey competitive, and at any rate is irrelevant to those who decide to leave.

Oct 5, 2007

Diversity for Diversity's Sake [LINK]

Today's letter:

John Sperber argues that, to achieve greater diversity, elite universities such as Harvard should admit academically underachieving students on the basis of "pedigree." Arguments about the benefits of diversity now appear to be orbiting Neptune. To be truly diverse, Harvard should scrap its admissions process altogether and institute a random lottery.

Oct 3, 2007

Return of the Son of Rathergate [LINK]

George Pyle, editorial writer for the Buffalo News, packages up an exceedingly stupid old meme about Rathergate for the benefit of a whole new set of innocents. At least he says he has "no proof," but then why bother?

Here is my theory, for which I have absolutely no proof: Those documents that supposedly proved that George W. Bush ditched much of his service in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War, the ones that were attacked as fakes and eventually got Rather ousted as anchor of the CBS Evening News, were indeed forgeries. They were forged by the Bush campaign, floated second-hand to some overly eager producers at CBS, who put Rather's voice-over on their report and went with it. When the documents were later widely seen as fakes, the story stopped being about Bush and his service and started being about Rather and CBS.

He says that while he usually doesn't go for conspiracy theories, "I like this one mostly, I think, because I invented it." Instead, the text should read: "I like this one mostly because I think I invented it." No, this suggestion that Rove was behind Rathergate is hardly new. At the time, DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe made the same suggestion, and most recently Sidney Blumenthal repeated it in a Salon article. It's a wonder the planets continue in their course now that Rove no longer serves as Bush's adviser, but I suppose he still pulls the strings from the shadowy background.

Pyle's theory is interesting not only for its lack of evidence, but for the main assumption it relies upon: that not only Dan Rather but all the journalists who worked with him on the story -- for the producer Mary Mapes, years -- were so reckless and gullible that they could be relied upon run with such a transparent forgery.

If Rove were to engineer such a scenario, I would think he'd put a couple of tiny, esoteric details that would make it more likely to get past CBS's formidable fact checking apparatus [ha!], but later be exposed as a fraud.

As it transpired, the documents CBS presented were bogus in so many immediately obvious ways that it became difficult to keep track of them all as details emerged in the wake of the broadcast. Anybody who's glancingly familiar with military jargon would have recognized errors in the terminology used. Anyone who has even a weak grasp of typography would have realized that nothing short of an enormous, expensive typesetting system could have produced those documents during the early 1970s, when they were supposed to have been written on an IBM Selectric. Even a little bit of digging would have revealed them to be inconsistent with every other document that genuinely did come from the same Texas National Guard office during the same period, and would have revealed that the officer who supposedly wrote them (since deceased) had retired by that point.

So the Killian documents were effectively on par with a hand-drawn $100 bill. The only reason they made it on the air is that the CBS team, in a transparent effort to affect the 2004 election, desperately wanted to make a scandal out of what otherwise consisted of some gaps in records on Bush's national guard service. (Note that there were similar gaps in records on Kerry's service.)

The current (stupid) discourse has it that these memos were not essential to establish the main story that Bush had been "AWOL," but the fact remains that while his attendence was lower towards the end of his service than before, Bush was certified to have completed his service. Aside from these bogus memos, I'm aware of no evidence that Bush's superiors were actively displeased with his service or that they regarded him as having been "AWOL."

So it's thoroughly appropriate that "the story stopped being about Bush and his service and started being about Rather and CBS," because of the latter's manifest bad faith in presenting the bogus documents as evidence in the first place (against the advice of CBS-hired document experts), and for later stone-walling efforts to validate them. Long after a mountain of evidence had been produced establishing the memos as fakes, it took two weeks for CBS to admit to the possibility.

UPDATE: As proof of how stupid all this has become, here's the relevant portion of Sidney Blumenthal's article in Salon:

Within minutes of the conclusion of the broadcast, conservative bloggers launched a counterattack. The chief of these critics was a Republican Party activist in Georgia. Almost certainly, these bloggers, who had been part of meetings or conference calls organized by Karl Rove's political operation, coordinated their actions with Rove's office.

How could it be possible that such a complex set of information could circulate among so many people so quickly, from which emerged a quick consensus, without prior planning from a malefactor such as Karl Rove? How can one even imagine the possibility? Sarcasm aside, Blumenthal appears utterly ignorant of the Internet's defining feature.

"The chief of these critics" apparently refers to Atlanta attorney Harry MacDougald, who under the name of "Buckhead" was the first to question the memos' veractity on Thereafter he played no perceivable part in advancing that idea. That he is a "Republican Party" activist, of course, does not imply coordination with Rove.

Oct 2, 2007

The Anti-Having-Fun Crowd [LINK]

My latest letter to the Globe:

H. Knuttgen complains that Red Sox players should not spray each other with champagne after clinching the AL East title, at least not while Somalians are going hungry. Please, I implore you: there is far too much self-righteousness in this great land of ours. Let's send it somewhere in the world where it is desperately needed.

Sep 12, 2007

No, as a matter of fact I haven't [LINK]

The compelling opening sentence of a theater review by James Hannaham in the Village Voice:

Surely you've occasionally said to yourself, "I live in New York. I'm a sophisticated theatergoer. Why have I never seen a mime simulating anal sex, cannibalism, and 9/11 onstage?"

Sep 4, 2007

The ever-expanding definition of "tolerance" [LINK]

From the website of Hot Springs Bed, Breakfast & Books, "an open minded tolerant [read: gay-friendly] house perfect for couples or those on their own exploring Hot Springs National Park" in Arkansas:

Hot Springs National Park... A rich history of peace and tolerance dating back to indigenous times. Hot Springs, known as "The Valley of Peace" to native Americans was a neutral zone where even tribes at war could send their elders and sick to restore their health in the local spring waters. Hot Springs' mission of tolerance continued through the 1960's with tolerated gambling, vice and as a neutral zone for the mob.

Aug 20, 2007

Rove Derangement Syndrome [LINK]

My latest letter to the Globe, mostly concerning these letters and more recently one of these:

Following Karl Rove's accouncement that he would resign, various letter writers compared him to a snake oil salesman, to tyrants who rig elections and eliminate opposition by any means, to Barry Bonds in the illegitimacy of his political victories, and most recently to a feral tomcat "who sprayed his nastiness everywhere to claim dominance." One voiced suspicion of Rove's motives for leaving, expecting him to be part of some future scheme "to bring us down even lower."

The more I encounter such unhinged rhetoric, the less I credit the conventional wisdom that it was Rove who was responsible for sharply dividing Americans into red and blue states. I think these people had more to do with it than they're willing to admit.

Jul 27, 2007

Global Warming may change the feel of baseball bats [LINK]

Another in an endless series of bubble-headed global warming stories, originally from the New York Times. The devastation wrought by global warming may one day make baseball bats feel... slighly different. Maybe just a little softer. Good grief. Is this is what you can expect when you let TV meteorologists do actual news stories? Can you expect them to be as reliable? Is this another attempt to sell global warming to otherwise impenetrable sports fans?

What's especially maddening about the story is that there is a genuine, major threat to ash trees (used to make baseball bats) from the emerald ash borer, but it is by far the most speculative and inconsequential risk that gets the lede. There are basically no more ash trees left in Michigan. Everywhere you looked in suburban Detroit a few years ago, there were little spray-paint marks on doomed trees destined for cutting, desperately sending out shoots while getting choked by the newly introduced pest. Since ash trees are fast-growing, they were heavily favored when planting for subdivisions and other new developments, a dangerous practice that hastened the spread of the pest. Perhaps they could focus on how to counter such monocropping, or the potential effects of the Asian wasp federal authorities plan to introduce into the environment to halt the pest's progress towards the woods of Pennsylvania. No, we have to make it seem that global warming is a threat to our beloved Red Sox.

Then there's the insinuation that the pest "may do more damage in warmer weather." They quote a local botanist: "Climate change can introduce a lot of environmental stresses, which prevent a plant from combating the normal suite of insect pests or pathogens." But this is not "the normal suite of insect pests"; it is an unusually destructive pest unknown in North America before 2002. The story does relay the skepticism of the Ohio State entomologist quoted in the Times piece: that the emerald ash borer thrives in all sorts of weather in its native Asian habitat.

What's most troublesome about the story is that it's an explicit appeal to superstition. Yes, baseball players can be a bit weird in the head when it comes to their bats. I understand the tendency to view the environment in static terms, but is there any reason to believe, even if North American ash forests are decimated, that these overpaid humans can't adapt to slight changes? As the Times story relates, many younger players now favor maple bats, if for no other reason that Barry Bonds uses them. Must we all bow to such superstition?

Jul 24, 2007

Loco Localvores [LINK]

My recent letter to the Globe:

I was amazed to learn about the extensive discourse among "localvores" into the carbon footprint of the food delivered to our markets. (The localvore's dilemma, Ideas, 7/22) Faced with hundreds of Vermont's "most ethical eaters" who consume only locally grown food, my response is: you'll have to pry that banana from my cold, dead hands.
The text elicited some other thoughts as well:
At various points in the coming months, a few hundred of Vermont's most ethical eaters will take the "Localvore Challenge." The actual dates of the challenge vary from town to town, but the idea is that, for a single meal, or a day, or an entire week, participants will eat only food that was grown or raised within 100 miles of where they live.

Vermont's localvores (also known as "locavores" or "locatarians") and their counterparts around the country are part of a burgeoning movement....

Boy, I sure hope I don't see any of these horrendous words in my dictionary any time soon.
In recent years, as large companies with globe-straddling supply networks have come to dominate organic agriculture, "local" has emerged as the new watchword of conscientious consumption....
Here's the dilemna: "organic" food has become dominated by large conglomerates, so "local" food is offered as a more refined "watchword of conscientious consumption." Good grief. It should be clear that this more refined complaint is largely a byproduct of organic food's popularity.
The case for local food is several-fold: It tastes better, its proponents argue, and preserves species biodiversity. It shores up small-scale economies and communities in the face of globalization and cultural homogenization. It even, some of its advocates claim, protects against terrorism: a decentralized food system could limit the impact of a virus or other bio-agent introduced into the food supply.
Eating local food protects against terrorism? Truly this has become a big-tent rhetorical device.

The basic gist of the article is that it often takes less energy to ship food over long distances than to grow it locally, so the idea of "food miles" is misleading:

But if "food miles" are such a crude measure, what's an environmentally concerned grocery shopper to look to? Some food activists are targeting the ends of the food production process -- farmers both in the US and Europe are looking at ways to heat greenhouses with renewable energy, or to avoid heating them at all even during winter, and both the British government and Ben & Jerry's recently announced efforts to modify cow feed to reduce methane production. Others are working to wring inefficiencies out of the local food-distribution system by getting farmers to consolidate their produce into larger trucks making fewer trips.
Activists are working to "wring inefficiencies" out of local food distribution networks. Another way to do that is to be a large conglomerate and put these small, inefficient firms out of business.
Ultimately, [Rich Pirog] envisions a series of labels: In addition to nutrition information, a box of cereal or a bunch of green beans would bear stickers relaying their carbon emissions along with their fair-trade credentials. The risk in such a scheme, however, is that consumers, given too much information, absorb none of it.
Rather than come up with an elaborate system of Swedish-style labels listing food products' environmental impact, I have a less expensive alternative. Create a single label, and affix it to "Vermont's most ethical eater." It takes a lot more energy to identify various food items' carbon footprint than it does to detect conspicuous displays of virtue.
For their part, some localvores are suspicious of such labeling proposals. "To me the whole idea of calculating out the carbon impact way overcomplicates something that should be pretty simple," says Robin McDermott, co-founder of the Mad River Valley Locavores. Even if it turned out that an imported bunch of tomatoes were somehow more environmentally friendly than a local one, she says, she'd still go with local. "There's the taste," she says, "and you're supporting local farmers."
But why? Why is local inherently better? After all, we just learned that on balance, local food networks involve a lot more truck driving and heated greenhouses. In any other context, such overarching localism in the face of all reason would be considered hopelessly parochial.
Michael Pollan hastens to point out that eating locally is only part of a larger food ethic. The problem isn't merely, he argues, that we ship our lettuce across the country; the problem is that people living in New England, a place naturally unfriendly to large-scale lettuce production, feel entitled to eat lettuce in February. Before World War II, he points out, Americans ate locally and in season because they had no choice.
And we LIKED it! Pollan actually sees it as a problem that New Englanders feel entitled to eat lettuce in February. Otherwise, think about the consequences to human health: more reliance on food with saturated fat during winter months, for one.

Is it also a problem that local-food activists "feel entitled" to good-tasting food? After all, it's the foundation for a good deal of their argument. Why is it appropriate to use that argument, but inappropriate for me to enjoy fresh bananas?

"It's a new idea," he says, "this expectation that we can have a salad all year round."
Isn't the ability to adapt to new ideas the sign of a healthy intellect? This one is not exactly hot off the presses, either.

May 30, 2007

$33 Million Will Brighten Any Day [LINK]

A secretary sued the New York law firm that employed her for $33 million, claiming that her seasonal affective disorder (winter blues) is a disability that requires accommodation in the form of a desk with a window view.

(via Overlawyered)

May 25, 2007

"a dreamlike beauty overwhelming the sordidness of the subject matter" [LINK]

From a review of the movie Zoo, syndicated by the Agence France-Presse, May 22, 2007. The film, which showed at the Cannes film festival, is a quasi-documentary about a ring of Washington state men who, until they were rounded up in July 2005, practiced bestiality. At that time a 45-year-old Boeing worker named Kenneth Pinyan was fatally wounded after being anally penetrated by a stallion.

"They've crafted a subdued, mysterious and intensely beautiful film that presents bestiality not for the purpose of titillation -- but as a way of investigating the subjective nature of morality," the movie trade magazine Variety wrote.

The men heard in the film are remarkably honest about their motivations. One of them argues "mammal to mammal" love should not be seen as wrong.

Another firmly rejects the tag "bad person" his employer lays upon him before he is sacked. They all say the horses were willing participants.

Indeed, the only judgement seemingly expressed in the documentary is not on the matter in the stable at all. It is in fleeting radio references to US President George W Bush's "war on terror" and the presumed complicity-for-profit of big companies such as Boeing.

Even the cast ended up feeling compassion for the men depicted in Zoo.

John Paulsen, who played Pinyan, said he believed the engineer had been on a self-destructive streak linked to his defence work, a divorce and injuries from a motorcycle accident.

(via Anchoress)

May 21, 2007

"I thought I heard one of them snore." [LINK]

In should be taught in writing workshops as an example of a snappy lead-in, Village Voice dance critic Deborah Jowitt opens one of her reviews:

Would it interest you to know that Google posts 638,000 entries relating to "clusterfuck?" The title and content of Levi Gonzalez's eponymous new work could be pinned to quite a few of them, which fact is, in itself, a sort of clusterfuck. Leaving out the word's reference to a sexual daisy chain, it encompasses all kinds of mess, complexity, confusion, anarchy, and possibly deadly screwups (think Iraq).

May 14, 2007

"Coakley to fight for gay marriage" [LINK]

Today's letter to The Globe:

I was puzzled by a recent report on Attorney General Martha Coakley's comments before the Massachusetts Lesbian & Gay Bar Association. Coakley vowed that if the proposed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage were to be approved by voters in 2008 after passing a second legislative vote, she would direct her office to vigorously challenge it "on constitutional grounds."

It seems appropriate for the Attorney General to offer her legal opinion to the legislature or the voters at large that the amendment is incompatible with the spirit of the existing Constitution. But it makes little sense to challenge an approved constitutional amendment in subsequent litigation on constitutional grounds, since the whole point of the amendment process is to change the existing state of constitutional jurisprudence. If the amendment passes, isn't it Coakley's duty to uphold the Constitution, rather than select those portions with which she agrees?

From reading the Globe's report, I don't understand the legal principle under which the Attorney General operates.

5/20 Update: It made it, though stripped of qualifiers that expressed my ignorance on the legal issues involved. I'm further puzzled why you would initial-cap the word "Legislature," but not "constitution."

Playground Wood Chips Violate Disability Law [LINK]

A federal judge ruled that Contra Costa County school district's use of playground wood chips violates the rights of wheelchair-bound students by making it difficult to access play structures. Instead, schools are obliged to use rubber mats, which are eight times more expensive and which playground designers say are not as safe.

(via Overlawyered)

Starbucks Exploits Migrant Workers! (again) [LINK]

As noted in an earlier post, Starbucks offers a program allowing 18 lucky customers each year to travel to Central America to engage in unpaid back-breaking labor "on steep slopes," all in the interest of environmental sustainability. This year's printed brochure goes a step further: "winners" will work at CoopeTarrazú, a coffee plantation that in turn is a major supplier to Starbuck's.

Isn't that a bit like McDonald's offering customers a chance to travel to Idaho to harvest potatoes used to make their french fries? Shouldn't these people at least get a year of free coffee or something other than the promise of a "meaningful" or "relevant" experience? If the coffee producer were found to have benefited from underpaid labor on the part of migrant Indians coming in from the jungles of Nicaragua or Panama, wouldn't that put their product's status as "fairly traded" in serious question? (In fact, the region's coffee is among the world's most expensive, due in large part to the Costa Rican government's intervention on behalf of producers.)

May 13, 2007

Bake Sale Proposal [LINK]

A letter to the Boston Globe, a perfect expression of glibness, sarcasm, and overall lack of seriousness:

Now that President Bush has vetoed one supplemental appropriation bill and threatens to veto others, the question arises of how he might get this money. We on the left have been suggesting the solution for years: bake sales. This is how the rest of us support art programs in our schools and obtain money for classroom supplies and field trips. Maybe some of his big Republican donors would be willing to bid a few hundred thousand dollars for an extra-large brownie. While fighting a war is not the same as buying crayons , the petulant tantrums that Bush throws whenever Congress tries to set limits certainly fit better in my son's day-care center than in the White House.

Zimbabwe to Lead on Economic Progress, Says U.N. [LINK]

The chairmanship of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development is set to be taken over by none other than Zimbabwe. The pariah nation's inflation rate of 2,200 percent is currently the world's highest; unemployment runs between 80 and 90 percent; food is in severely short supply; electricity runs only about 4 hours a day; and human rights abuses are rampant. The authoritarian regime of Belarus is also expected to win a seat on the commission.

(via Powerline)

Penguin May Suffer Discrimination [LINK]

From a BBC News item about a lone penguin found in Peru, thousands of miles away from its normal habitat in the southern straits of Chile:

Scientists say they fear that the solitary Magellanic penguin may not be accepted by some of the area's 4,000 Humboldt penguins.

Biologist David Orosco told AFP news agency that the native birds may even try to reject the penguin.

"Conditions in the park are not the ones it is used to. They usually seek out their own species, and it could suffer discrimination," Mr Orosco said.

(via Tim Blair)

May 7, 2007

French Election in a Nutshell [LINK]

There's a certain poetic quality to this paragraph from the New York Times. It opens like a flower, then turns in on itself:

Hours after the election results were announced, the police fired tear gas at crowds throwing bottles at Place de la Bastille in Paris. There were minor outbreaks of violence in some suburbs, with some youths burning cars, the police said. But the clashes were not significantly different from most weekends, the police said.

Apr 28, 2007

All those people dying from poisoned water supplies might have some thoughts on the matter. [LINK]

Here's how a recent Boston Globe editorial started:

Since global warming is the most serious environmental threat facing the planet...
Can anything sensible follow?

Your first mistake: "Seeking to understand Seung-Hui Cho" [LINK]

A letter to the Boston Globe that appeared on April 25:

What role did race have in Seung-Hui Cho's social exile? Like Cho, I am an immigrant from East Asia. We both came to the United States at age 8. We seem to share the quiet temperament stereotypical of new immigrants. We probably even look somewhat alike to many. But an important difference is that I am not angry, even though I too was teased and treated unfairly. Minorities in this country face social stressors not encountered by the majority, and I wonder how many nurse resentment that is waiting to explode with the right genetic predisposition.

I recall that in school students segregated into their own social cliques by race. Despite celebrations of diversity, there were still the white, black, and yellow locker areas. More recently, I stepped into a bar and realized that Caucasians congregated upstairs while Asian patrons chose the basement. An Asian friend admitted that she "just felt more comfortable downstairs."

Today, youths live in multiple Americas. It is time to reexamine how we embrace our differences in our communities and concentrate instead on integration. Racial backlash should not be a concern if we are all Americans.

I don't think I ever liked this sort of thing, and now I'm sure. No, it is not time to reexamine a damned thing about racial integration. Seung-Hui Cho did not go on a killing spree because he was in any way deprived of a chance to eat and hang out next to whites. Is it possible to have a screw loose without it being somebody else's fault? Seung-Hui Cho was offered every chance to climb out of his hole. People said hello and were nice to him, and he didn't respond. More than accommodating, Virginia Tech kept him around a lot longer than was wise.

You could almost hear the tapes rewinding after the story broke. First it was the gun nuts on both sides, now it's race. This is tiresome. Stop trying to understand what made this guy tick. You will never get close. Stop trying to relate to him. The time for that is long past.

But when do I get my own revenge? [LINK]

The Village Voice's R.C. Baker describes a showing by Orly Genger in Larissa Goldston's gallery through May 5:

A stew of chemical odors hits you as you enter this darkened gallery. Walking over uneven surfaces, you are surrounded by conical mounds of gnarled nylon rope that has been sprayed and rolled with black paint, a mélange of materials that accounts for the industrial smell. Genger crochets her thick coils into floor-covering mats and topographical heaps that convey a sense of lava flows, or maybe a tire dump. Yet there is something engaging about climbing over this writhing mass, as if it is dumbly alive; with the word "Boo" scrawled on one wall, it's hard not to think of those sci-fi golems that rise up from ecological disasters to avenge nature.

Apr 18, 2007

I Can't Imagine Why! [LINK]

From a letter reacting to the massacre at Virginia Tech:

The National Rifle Association is a cancer that needs to be neutralized. At this very moment the NRA is probably gearing up its propaganda machine to deflect blame.

Apr 16, 2007

Trashed Priorities [LINK]

In Great Britain, the fines for leaving out trash on the wrong day, failing to close trash can lids, or misplacing trash items in recycling containers now exceeds the fine imposed on shoplifters.

(Via Tim Blair)

iPods for All [LINK]

Faced with a $1 billion state budget deficit and a crippled auto economy, Michigan lawmakers proposed a spending plan that included funds to buy every schoolchild an MP3 player.

(Via Captain's Quarters)

Apr 15, 2007

Call for Ambivalence [LINK]

I only recently learned of my former employer Tim O'Reilly's involvement in the idea of a Blogger's Code of Conduct, one that he helped formulate after Java expert Kathy Sierra (no relation) was targeted with on-line death threats. I went over to his original post and encountered the following extended editorial preface detailing the state of the controversy:

[Note: Chris Locke argues in email that the meankids site was set up in fun, and while the first posts on the site were apparently about continuing the conversation that had been shut down on Tara's blog, he insists that those comments were not mean-spirited. (Tara confirms that the second post on that blog was a photoshopped image showing her as Dr. Phil, which is hardly inflammatory.) Chris claims that "There was no cesspool of misogynistic attack rhetoric going on there until the stuff Kathy surfaced began to appear." At which point the site was shut down. As a result, he feels that the characterization of the meankids and unclebobisms sites as "set up for the purpose of celebrating cyberbullying" is "false and irresponsible." I have never seen the sites, and they have now been taken down, so I can neither confirm nor deny Chris' statement about the initial tone of the blogs. However, if what he says is true, then the term "cyber-bullying" may be a bit strong, at least when describing the aims of the sites. I understand Chris' concern to make clear that he and the other founders had no intention of creating sites that would encourage the kind of comments posts that ended up there. That being said, as Bert Bates notes in the comments below, the offending items were posts by members of these group blogs, not comments from unknown participants.]

Understanding that I'm on the outside looking in, my immediate reactions to this paragraph were:
  1. Tim is an excellent writer and all-around communicator, but I can't bear to read one more word of this stuff.
  2. The prose provides a glimpse into what makes this medium so different.
  3. It gives me some reason to be pessimistic about the fate of any conduct code.

Before I even get to the part about the Code, there's a faceful of minutiae involving three or possibly four individuals, three different websites, the supposed intent behind setting up one of those sites, a chronology of who said or did what when, a distinction between comments and posts, between email and web, plus some mention of lesser abuse directed at Tara, whoever she is. (If I were still editing copy at O'Reilly, efforts to clarify all this could easily push out a book's deadline!)

That the paragraph is extraneous to the substance of the post is not important. That Tim felt it necessary to include it is telling, since it represents an effort to defragment the reading experience. For all their benefits, blogs are inherently fragmentary, an effect that's magnified for emerging controversies. To understand the background to Ms. Sierra's allegations, you'd have to visit several different pages and build up a mental image of the chronology, the characters involved, and a distinction between what appears to be primary material and what's extraneous commentary. In the old days it was usually a matter of reading a particular piece in a newspaper or magazine, which offered a common shared experience.

Now, when people talk about this issue, some are relying on what they read in A, B, and C, while others have sampled B, D, and Q. I noticed this tendency during 2004's Rathergate scandal, certainly one of the blogosphere's finest hours. The traditional "mainstream media" was of course terribly slow to digest the details of the dispute. But even among those who relied on bloggers, it was apparently easy to read a great deal of opinion on the subject without ever running across a substantial discussion of typographical terms such as "superscript" and "pair kerning" on which the scandal largely hinged. I think the problem goes beyond partisan-inspired sample bias, and goes to the very nature of the medium.

Clearly, blogs are not like standalone essays, and nothing I'm saying here is brand new. Blogs have enviable qualities -- the ability to rapidly produce, cross-check and refine information -- but these are also their drawbacks. Note how tentative this is: "I have never seen the sites, and they have now been taken down, so I can neither confirm nor deny..." You see much the same effect on the follow-up Tim posted in response to controversy about his proposed Code. There Tim backpedals on the idea of a "badge" for bloggers to display that they adhere to the Code, and regrets the initial "negative" design they came up with in the face of impending coverage from the New York Times. While it's often a laudable quality to be able to reverse a prior stance or admit error, the cumulative effect on the reader is a sense of flux. Blogs invite response, and such response is far more likely to have an effect than anywhere else. Go after Tim with both guns blazing, and he is likely to reverse himself. Partly that's due to his special role as a consensus-builder, but still, try that with some newspaper's columnist and see where it'll get you!

Some of the commentary I ran across referred to the "drive-by" nature of anonymous blog comments, but I can't help think that blogs are "drive-by" by their very nature. It's easy to flit from one post to the next, only dwelling on something that appears especially contentious. I occasionally read Ann Althouse, whose blog tends to focus on legal matters (she's a law professor), what's in the New York Times, and reality television. Recently she caused some fuss by drawing attention to a picture of Bill Clinton posing with a bunch of bloggers, one of whom appeared in such a way as to draw attention to her breasts. This catty observation has generated an immense deal of commentary! That it would crowd out other discourse reflects how blogs tend to thrive more on controversy than reliability. Popular blogs tend to be edgier, and edgy comments are more likely to generate a response. I noticed that the title I chose for my previous post was a pun based on one of the words that Don Imus just got fired for using, a sexist term of abuse I ordinarily wouldn't utter. So why did I use it? Because it was snappy and attention-grabbing, that's why! That I can do so without a second thought seems to be one of the medium's disinhibitors. (Similarly, the very title of this blog is something of a provocative pun.)

Getting back to Kathy Sierra, I find it fascinating that after sampling so much commentary about the death threats directed against her, I still have no idea what it was they were originally discussing that spiraled so out wildly of control. It seems that in blogs the subject matter is less likely to be related to this free-floating contentiousness and constant sniping.

The whole libertarian vs. communitarian argument about whether bloggers should adopt a formal Code of Conduct actually doesn't interest me all that much. Sure, if you think it's a good idea, go ahead and knock yourself out. For some bloggers it may well be a good idea as a matter of simple P.R. Will it make any difference in the overall quality of blogs and their comments, or of how they are perceived by the public at large? I doubt it.

Ho, Ho, Ho! [LINK]

My latest letter to the Globe:

While I appreciate Mike Brown's perspective on Don Imus's firing, on one point he's a bit misleading. He says that Imus "knows what those awful words mean -- he heard them when he grew up." No, Imus did not grow up routinely hearing the word "ho." In those days, the word "whore" on which it's based would have been reserved for more extreme situations, and was especially potent when hurled by a woman. (It certainly wouldn't have appeared above the fold of a respectable newspaper such the Boston Globe, as it did last week.)

That the word now permeates our language is thanks to rap music, where it's used so routinely as to drain it of its actual meaning. If you are a potential sexual partner, it seems, you are simply a "ho." It's unlikely Imus grew up immersed in such wretched language. His apparent sin is appropriating the current slang from outside his assigned context as an older white man. That scandals don't erupt each day such foulness tops the music charts reflects a racial taboo that doesn't make our response to Imus seem particularly sane.

Apr 11, 2007

Western Medicine Offers a Handy Scapegoat [LINK]

Here's my latest letter to the Globe. Harris's own letter was in response to this earlier op-ed.

Having recently watched my brother-in-law die of cancer, I too found Dr. Darshak Sanghavi's op-ed on Elizabeth Edwards' struggle with the disease bracing and unwelcome. But what stuck in my craw was criticism by Barry Harris, who said that Dr. Sanghavi's fatalism exemplifies how "Western medicine disempowers cancer patients."

No, what disempowers cancer patients is cancer itself. In particular, patients who are put into the position of entertaining the idea of "miracle healing" Mr. Harris offers as an alternative are no longer in meaningful control of their lives.

This summer thousands of bicyclists like myself will participate in the Pan Mass Challenge to support to the utmost Western medicine's response to this dreadful set of diseases, and I invite others to do so in any way they can.

More Support for Equal Marriage [LINK]

My latest spurious and philosophically inept proposal for Deval Patrick's site:

As a religious believer, I worry that even if gay marriage remains the law of the land, the bigots in our midst will undermine it and relegate it to second-class status. Since marriage is an inherent social good, it is in society's best interest to encourage committed couples to tie the knot rather than living in sin. But the rate of marriage among gays and lesbians is troublingly low -- a small percentage compared to eligible heterosexuals -- raising the concern such marriages would become marginalized and remain on the periphery of society's conscience. Surely this may be due to a latent fear of getting married only to have one's civil rights later cruelly revoked. Or it may be that for heterosexuals, marriage is more closely associated with childbearing and women's "biological clock." Maybe if they didn't have all these children, they wouldn't be so quick to get married! Or, maybe for gays the sex really is that good.

But the fact remains that for the Commonwealth's GLBTQQ residents, marriage remains an uneven playing field despite its newfound legal status, and they remain disenfranchised. To remedy this situation and allow all our citizens the full benefits of true lasting equality, the Commonwealth should take special measures to encourage gay marriage, preferably with tax credits. The approximately $2,000 straight married couples get as a windfall from the federal government for having children is certainly a start, but it doesn't take into account the special hurdles gays especially often have to jump over to have children. It can cost a lot of money to adopt a healthy baby! (As opposed to one of those troubled older kids you get from DSS.) Since society has a duty to uphold equality and to compensate for its long legacy of discrimination, it should do more to encourage gay marriage.

Apr 10, 2007

Ah, Nostalgia! [LINK]

A notice on a New York galley showing by R.C. Baker of the VIllage Voice:

In 1972, Allan Sekula decided to interrupt the "capitalist circulation of luxury goods through robbery and waste," so he shoplifted pricey cuts of meat and tossed them under the wheels of big rigs thundering down the highway. The black-and-white photos documenting Meat Mass -- long-haired artist skulking out of a Safeway; a gelatinous smudge on the freeway pavement -- capture the spirit of this large group show, culled from the Generali Foundation's seminal collection of conceptual art. In 1969, Valie Export pulled her crawling male collaborator on a leash through a crowded Vienna shopping district; photos of this street-theater gender-bender show passersby both appalled and amused. A 1993 series of videos based on commercials made for the Humanic shoe-store chain between 1969 and 1983 looks like early MTV by way of the Playboy Club: garish clothes, robotic figures, close-ups of pouty lips, and a dreamlike clip of a helmeted man in a food-encrusted suit being engulfed by pigeons. These documentary works, plus sculptures and drawings, use powerful visual hooks to lure us down the psyche's strange alleyways. Don't get run over.

Apr 4, 2007

Compromise on Death Penalty [LINK]

One more for Gov. Patrick:

Since there seems to be a fairly consistent 50/50 split for and against capital punishment, and since there is little definitive research on its deterrent effect (especially concerning sudden "crimes of passion"), I propose a compromise. Make murders committed on even days punishable by death, and those committed on odd days punishable by life imprisonment, or whatever the current sentence is.

Let's Label Genetically Engineered Food Already! [LINK]

As promised, another proposal for Deval Patrick's website, a "positive" restatement of an earlier comment I made on a similar proposal:

Due to the unknown dangers posed by genetically engineered foods, and in response to overwhelming support of Americans polled on the issue, I would like to see genetically engineered products labeled prominently, preferably with a big black skull and crossbones. Let agribusiness prove their products are safe! Such labels should be required if, relying on peer-reviewed science, genetically engineered foods are determined to pose any more of a risk than that of consuming organic produce, from broiling or frying any food, or from eating nectarines or pluots. Let's tame this unsustainable biotech-based economy!

UPDATE: I didn't get anywhere near the response I expected. Instead, I was invited to join a "coalition" by the folks whose proposal I thought I was clearly mocking. At least two people had the opportunity to look over my piece before sending me the invitation password. Either these people really are dumb as a bag of hammers, or I'm not doing my job as a satirist. In case it's in any way unclear, though, let's go through it point by point:
  1. To demand safety labels based on "unknown dangers" is a non sequitur.
  2. To demand safety labels based on popular misconceptions is a non sequitur.
  3. "Big black skull and crossbones" should have been a giveaway.
  4. Maybe this counts more as an inside joke, but among those who do risk analysis it's axiomatic that you cannot prove anything is "safe"; there are just different levels of risk.
  5. Everything about the comparable risks of consuming organic food, burned food, or already "engineered" food should have been a giveaway.
  6. Explicitly advocating to suppress economic growth in Massachusetts should have been a giveaway.

No More Empty Declarations [LINK]

My latest proposal submitted to Gov. Patrick's website:

In the interest of positive change and efficient government, I would like to propose an immediate moratorium on any kind of commemoration or declaration that doesn't result in an actual policy change other than sending someone a plaque or serving as a photo opportunity. These declarations are so often a frivolous waste of precious legislative time. To take a recent example, the Cambridge City Council declared May 1 as "Global Love Day" at the behest of a non-profit organization seeking to spread "Love and Peace on our Planet."

I'm sure Gov. Patrick would respond positively to banning such nonsense at the state level. That must have been what he had in mind when he recently refused to commemorate Ronald Reagan's birthday. (After all, what other reason could he have to snub the man who whipped inflation, grew the economy by a third, got large numbers of women into the work force, and defeated the Godless communists?) If the practice is to continue, I have an alternate proposal. I would like the Commonwealth to officially recognize Miss Massachussetts 2007, Despina Delios, as a Greek Goddess. Thank you.

British Teachers Avoid Presenting Holocaust [LINK]

A study by the British Department of Education and Skills determined that schools are dropping the Holocaust from history lessons to avoid offending Muslim students or contradicting what they learned in local mosques.

Mar 30, 2007

Keeping It Positive [LINK]

I recently learned that Governor Deval Patrick, fresh from several minor public relations "mis-steps" that has distracted citizens away from his worthy agenda, has now unveiled a website that he set up with campaign funds. Already it is being criticized by cynics who say it is a sop to his netroots base. The site is designed so that it's easy for you, the citizen, to propose innovative new policy ideas, as if you're at a local Town Hall meeting. You set up a new idea and try to attract "votes." Unfortunately, since the only way to comment on these ideas is to vote in favor of them (unlike actual democracy), that has led to a lot of spurious "votes" used to heap abuse on them. And I'm ashamed to admit I found it hard to resist that temptation myself.

For example, there was one proposal to label genetically modified food, and out of sheer habit (I guess from frequenting blogs) I found myself voting for it just to have to opportunity to characterize it as "daft" and wonder whether we should label nectarines, too. Another discussion about mass transit led to ever-widening demands for rail service into Boston, including one man who lived in Barnstable on Cape Cod, a whopping 70 mile commute from Boston. Voting "for" the measure, I asked him to please have some mercy and maybe move closer to town, otherwise would he at least be willing to settle for Fung Wah? (For non-locals, Fung Wah -- literally, "great wind" -- is a discount bus line run by Chinese Americans that shuttles between New York and Boston for about $15. The bus drivers have acquired a bit of a reputation for reckless driving, and the buses themselves have been known to roll over, catch fire, and have trouble fitting through toll booths.)

After I made these comments, I felt a bit guilty. After all, this is a positive forum, and there's no need to poison the well. As for the many inappropriate postings claiming the Bush Administration demolished the World Trade Center in order to make war in the Middle East, just ignore them and don't make it worse by making it seem they earned their votes. The best approach is to create a new, positive issue, and not just complain all the time. I thought for a while, and here's my first substantial policy proposal. Please tell me what you think:

While everybody agrees that curbside recycling is a good policy, there's something else we can do to reduce our waste stream and, literally, lessen our footprint upon the earth. I would like to see more citizens of the Commonwealth separating out their compost. Doing so has dramatically reduced the amount of curbside trash I produce, has provided a generous source of gardening fertilizer, and has even led to fewer incursions into my trash can from raccoons.

By "compost," I mean any kind of plant matter: anything from the outdoor leaves and grass clippings we already collect to non-meat/non-dairy kitchen scraps, which, shamefully, many people currently send down their garbage disposals, letting it mix with raw sewage! All that is necessary is a small, airtight bucket kept in your kitchen. These could be emptied at curbside along with other recycled matter, or people can keep their own composter(s). While compost "heaps" are relatively difficult to aerate and may attract scavenging animals and other vermin, a preferable approach is to modify a capped metal barrel (55 gallon drums work well), punching a few airholes and cutting a small door for input, then mounting it on casters so that it can be turned and watered periodically. For urban dwellers, these composters could easily be kept in basements of apartment complexes and condominiums. The resulting fertilizer could be provided for free to our region's struggling family farms.

While this may seem like an audacious proposal that imposes unfamiliar burdens, note that people have already positively embraced bottle surcharges, and recycling has become very popular, especially among school-age children. Keeping meat scraps separate from fruit-, vegetable-, and nut matter is certainly no more difficult than (let's face it) looking for a little number on a piece of plastic to see if it can be recycled. There is even reason to believe the practice may lead to positive health benefits among those not already on sewer lines due to the effects of suburban sprawl. If they see their trash bills go down or don't need to travel to the dump so often, they may be encouraged to eat more vegetables, further benefitting local farmers. They may likewise be encouraged to eat more stir-frys (whose leftovers are easy to separate) and fewer casseroles that are held together with large amounts of artery-clogging cheese.

Please join me in supporting a compost-friendly Commonwealth.

P.S.: egg shells are okay.

We'll see how well that does, and if it attracts much comment perhaps I'll post another idea, originally proposed by Ernest van Der Haag as part of a debate, but which I can't help but think would work: death penalty for murders committed on even days, and life imprisonment for those committed on odd days. His idea was to quantify whether there was a deterrent effect once and for all, but I figure it would also serve as a useful compromise, considering the roughly 50/50 split for and against that controversial issue.

And I'll be sure to post my own issue demanding that genetically modified food be labeled, but only if it can be proven less safe than organic food, which of course has bugs in it.

Anyway, browsing Governor Patrick's website has given me a lot of interesting ideas, and I'm eager to share them! They're certainly no crazier than those of the 9/11 Truth crowd.

Mar 27, 2007

Save the Date! [LINK]

A proclamation approved by the affirmative vote of all nine members of the City Council of Cambridge, Massachusetts, March 5, 2007:

The Love Foundation, Inc., a non-profit organization, has announced Global Love Day to facilitate in establishing Love and Peace on our Planet; and
We are One Humanity on this Planet; and
All life is interconnnected and interdependent; and
All share in the Universal bond of love; and
Love begins with acceptance and forgiveness; and
With tolerance and compassion we embrace diversity; and
Together we make a difference through love; now therefore be it
That the City Council go on record declaring May 1, 2007 as Global Love Day, a day of forgiveness and unconditional love. Global Love Day will act as a model for all of us to follow, each and everyday; and be it further
That we invite all citizens to observe this day which honors Global Love, World Peace, and Universal Joy; and be it further
That the City Clerk be and hereby is requested to forward a suitably engrossed copy of this resolution to The Love Foundation, Inc. on behalf of the entire City Council.

Mar 24, 2007

Warming Event Not Snowed Out After All [LINK]

It turns out the global warming teach-in and "fair" being held at the local high school was today, not last weekend as I previously thought. I couldn't tell because for days on end the sign outside the library advertising the event was covered with a big wall of icy snow from when the plows came through, and I couldn't make out the date. While I couldn't attend, it's a good thing they held it today, because some more snow is coming in tonight, but only about four inches this time.

Of course this weather is evidence of absolutely nothing about long-term climate trends. What it does prove is that the people planning such events in New England at any point before, say, April or so might be more profitably employed fetching shopping carts from supermarket parking lots.

Mar 20, 2007

Cathy's World Is About To Get Larger [LINK]

A few days ago I sent an email to Cathy Seipp asking if she would mention my PMC ride in her blog. I didn't hear back from her, so I figured fair enough. She's been battling lung cancer herself, and I certainly understand how passing the hat for a bike-a-thon might be seen as trite or inappropriate. (Frankly, I'm not sure if Bryce was ever on board with the idea, either.)

Now I'm shocked to learn from her daughter's posting that Cathy went into intensive care with collapsed lungs, after which they learned from doctors that her end is imminent. It seems so freakish to hear that, so soon after reading her previous posting making idle fun of celebrities. Bizarre how that post's comments turned from the usual trivial nonsense we all yap about to a sorrowful vigil for a wonderful woman fighting for her last moments.

Now I'm dreading refreshing my news reader, knowing the other shoe is about to drop. My thoughts and prayers are with her and her family.

UPDATE: Cathy died on Wednesday. She was 49. What a sad time. I was familiar with her NRO pieces, which though they often skewered some nitwit or other, always displayed a light, conversational style, as if you're chatting with her over coffee. Reading over so many tributes, I've also grown impressed with the amazing group of friends she had assembled, and it's hard not to feel like you start to know them after a while. Aside from Cathy's extraordinary writing, that will be another legacy. While so many friends relate that Cathy was the one who introduced them to everybody else, I get the sense they will continue to gather and laugh in her absence. Cathy's daughter, Maia, just recently started college. What an awful time to lose your mother, when you're just starting to feel comfortable as an adult. Still, I take solace that Maia will be able to rely on these people.

Mar 15, 2007

Pan Mass Challenge '07 [LINK]

A year and a half ago, I rode in my first Pan-Mass Challenge, a two-day bicycle ride across much of Massachusetts that benefits research at Boston's world-renowned Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. I originally envisioned that the ride might offer some encouragement for my brother-in-law, Bryce McHale, in the midst of his treatment for colon cancer. Instead it marked a premature memorial, since he died from surgical complications a few days shy of his 41st birthday. This year I will participate in this remarkable, inspiring event for a third time, riding a 192-mile course along with some 5,000 other bikers the first weekend of August. I ask for your help in sponsoring my ride.

The PMC is the nation's oldest fundraising bike-a-thon, and its most successful charitable athletic event. Last year it raised $26 million for Dana Farber's Jimmy Fund, with an outstanding 99 percent of all funds raised going directly to developing new treatments. For its part, Dana Farber receives near-perfect scores from the National Institutes of Health in the quality and efficiency of its research. They are at the very top of their field.

This year I'll be riding as part of the Caring for Carcinoid team. Carcinoid is a relatively rare form of cancer that, while not what killed Bryce, has features making it an interesting subject for the sort of basic genetic research applicable to all cancers.

My fundraising goal this year is $6,500. My personal goal is to get to the finish line each day well before noon, and in general to whistle past riders with far more expensive bikes. While it may seem like August is an awfully long way off, I've learned you do a lot better when you start off early and keep a steady pace.

To make a tax-deductible contribution by credit card, please follow this printer-friendly link and press the "e-Gift" button in the red sidebar:

If you prefer to contribute by check, please send me an email (the name of this blog, "at" gmail-dot-com) and I'll contact you with details.

Thank you for your consideration, and I hope you contribute whatever you can.

UPDATE 4/12: I punched the Pan Mass Challenge's entire two-day route into Google's new personalized maps. Here's the first day's ride and here's the second. The 50-mile ride I'm planning out to the starting line the day before is here. If you prefer Google Earth, you can import the corresponding KML files from here, here, and here.

Since Google's new interface lacks a map-sharing capability, I managed to port them over here to Platial, which provides a nice social tagging interface, not to mention a very helpful community-relations rep in the person of Tracy the Magnificent... uh, Amazing... uh, Astonishing... (whatever). Take a look at the map in the sidebar for an overview of the first day's ride; I recommend BIG MAP view. You can comment on any of the points in the route, add your own points, and even "steal" the map. Really, that means "share" it on other sites, since mine's not going anywhere!

Mar 14, 2007

"One of the things we see with global warming is unpredictability." [LINK]

The opening sentence from an AP dispatch:

A North Pole expedition meant to bring attention to global warming was called off after one of the explorers got frostbite.
Yes, they froze their asses off. To stay would have meant losing fingers and toes. One hundred freaking degrees below zero. But here's the fun closing quote from Ann Atwood, one of the expedition's organizers:
Atwood said there was some irony that a trip to call attention to global warming was scuttled in part by extreme cold temperatures. "They were experiencing temperatures that weren't expected with global warming," Atwood said. "But one of the things we see with global warming is unpredictability."
Actually, as exemplified by this statement, one of the things we're seeing with global warming is its unfalsifiability. Had the expedition encountered unusually warm temperatures, it surely would have served to exemplify a clear warming trend. Since they did not, global warming still serves as a handy explanation for unexpectedly frigid temperatures. I mean, really. These people didn't expect it to be outrageously cold up at the north pole, and they blame this oversight on global warming?

[Via Belmont Club]

Mar 13, 2007

Why I Fear for This World [LINK]

While filling up my gas tank this morning, I noticed a big yellow sticker on the pump listing the alcohol content for various grades. Next to that was another sticker that read: "For Automotive Fuel Use Only."

We Are the People Who Stand in Water [LINK]

The March 12 issue of Sports Illustrated features a cover story titled "Sports and Global Warming: As the Planet Changes, So Do the Games We Play. Time to Pay Attention." The cover features a retouched photograph of the Florida Marlins' Dontrelle Willis standing nonchalantly in the middle of a baseball stadium full of water that goes up past his knees.

[Via Tim Blair]

Who will pay for the girl's therapy once it is needed? [LINK]

The opening sentence of a Boston Globe story:

A Boston woman has filed a lawsuit alleging that a doctor at Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts bungled her abortion in April 2004 and that she had no idea she was still pregnant until about six weeks before her daughter was born in December.
The mother wants several doctors to pay damages, including the cost of rearing the child. According to the story, neither the mother nor her two-year-old daughter suffer any physical problems.

Mar 11, 2007

Being Called a "Faggot" Is Worse Than a Death Threat [LINK]

My latest letter to the Boston Globe. Latimer's own letter was in response to a column by Jeff Jacoby.

While there was nothing at all funny about recent appalling attempts at humor by Ann Coulter and Bill Maher, at least I got a laugh out of Rich Latimer's letter defending the disproportionate attention given to Coulter's remarks. From his analysis I take it that prominent political figures are supposed to be far more alarmed at being crudely labeled as homosexual than at open talk of assassinating them, which is to be dismissed as a matter of political opinion. Thank you, Mr. Latimer, for clarifying the principled liberal response to this matter!

Mar 5, 2007

What it means to hit your head against the wall [LINK]

The Village Voice's Deborah Jowitt reminds us:

Watching William Forsythe's Three Atmospheric Studies ... situates me as close to a battlefield as I ever want to be. Except for a woman (Jone San Martin) who speaks the single sentence, "This is composition one, in which my son was arrested," the first section of this tremendously disturbing piece could depict any war anywhere....

The only sounds are of bodies thudding against the floor and the grunts and whimpers of the performers as they rush around -- entangling, grasping, falling, rising -- and their escalating breathing. At first, their stop-and-start groupings are almost sculptural, and, as if in a film being wound both forward and back, the act of pressing an enemy to the floor can also look like helping a comrade to rise. The same acts recur, gaining in speed. Many times, the man (Ander Zabala) who represents the son is pinioned between two others. Is this really an arrest or just an arrested moment?

Forsythe's company is based in both Dresden and Frankfurt. His dancers come from eight different countries. As an American working in Europe, he must experience strongly the shame that many here feel for the catastrophic war begun by the U.S. ...

Mar 3, 2007

Women and Minorities Hit Hardest [LINK]

Hard to think someone actually took the time to write this letter to the Globe:

I write to comment on proposed postal rate increases and the "forever" stamp that would remain valid regardless of the increases. Justification for the rate increases and the "forever" stamp, such as increased fuel costs, do not disguise that these changes would benefit the wealthy and businesses at the expense of average and low-income postal customers.

It seems that postal fuel cost increases are largely due to bulk mail, which weighs more and costs more to transport per unit than first-class mail. Yet it costs less to send bulk mail.

People at or below average income are far less likely to stockpile "forever" stamps than are businesses and wealthier individuals. Those least able to afford postal rate increases will then eventually subsidize the cost of honoring outstanding "forever" stamps when rates go up again....

Mar 1, 2007

Outsider Art #247 [LINK]

From Mara Altman's Village Voice profile of Mark Kirschenbaum, who produces erotic origami when not working his day job as an IT consultant:

His designs are complex: Each figure requires more than 100 steps, and each is made with only one sheet of paper. The blowjob piece, which he calls "Lips Together, Teeth Apart," is multicolored -- the lips red, the penis beige -- and is constructed using paper with a different hue on each side. The model with a couple in the 69 position, called "Each One, Eat One," is made from one large gray sheet of paper. He envisions each model for more than a month before working the design out on paper. From the design to the actual paper figurine, at least another month is necessary....

While he's had trouble getting the world to view his pornigami as serious art, commercially, Kirschenbaum has had more luck. In 2001, Playboy commissioned him to make a vagina out of a dollar bill, and just this January, Maxim commissioned copulating bunnies, each made out of a hundred-dollar bill. Like a makeup artist, he was on standby as they shot the scene. He had just a single touch-up; one of the bunny's ears had come slightly undone.

Feb 26, 2007

Global Warming Causes Anxiety Among Children [LINK]

A British survey revealed that half the children it polled experienced anxiety over the effects of global warming, often losing sleep at the thought that entire countries would become submerged. From a report posted at GMTV:

Pete Williams, of Somerfield, said: "Concerns over our environment dominate the media at present and kids are exposed to the hard facts [sic] as much as anybody.

"While many adults may look the other way, this study should show that global warming is not only hurting the children of the future, it's affecting the welfare of kids now.

"By raising awareness amongst today's young, hopefully we are improving our chances of reaching a solution."

No, what is "affecting the welfare of kids now" is the widespread media coverage of the issue, not global warming itself. Do not complain about children's heightened anxiety when, by "raising awareness," that is your very goal.

All Too Convenient [LINK]

At the 79th Annual Oscar ceremonies, Vice President Al Gore's global warming polemic An Inconvenient Truth was awarded an Oscar for Best Documentary. While Gore and the filmmakers strode to the stage to accept the award, a voice-over stated that the film crew had been in New Orleans the day before Hurricane Katrina made landfall, and that seeing the storm's destruction helped convince them to go ahead with the project.

Question: If they mean to suggest that Katrina was evidence of global warming, does the following year's near absence of hurricane activity suggest the opposite? Or if they are unsure there is any connection between the two and make such decisions about which project to pursue based on evocative spectacles, are they really thinking all that clearly?

Feb 21, 2007

In Critique of Pure Whatever The Hell You're Talking About [LINK]

Via John Kekes in City Journal, a sentence from Slavoj Zizek's introduction to Virtue and Terror, the totalitarian classic by Maximilien Robespierre, in a new edition published by Verso Press:

The claim that the people does exist is the basic axiom of "totalitarianism," and the mistake of "totalitarianism" is strictly homologous to the Kantian misuse ("paralogism") of political reason: "the People exists" through a determinate political agent which acts as if it directly embodies (not only re-presents) the People, its true Will (the totalitarian Party and its Leader), i.e. in the terms of transcendental critique, as a direct phenomenal embodiment of the noumenal People.

The Odd Benefits of Group Affiliation [LINK]

My second letter to the Globe for today:

Dr. Timothy Lapham suggests that restricting insurance coverage for weight-loss surgery may violate federal law because it discriminates against fat people. I understand the law forbids discrimination based on matters of entrenched identity, such as race, gender, creed, and sexual orientation. Does being fat really fall under that category? Wouldn't it be odd to argue that being fat is such an important part of your identity if, by seeking out weight-loss surgery, you're actively trying to dispense with that group affiliation?

While Dr. Lapham complains about insurers who attempt "to practice medicine without a license," here he is offering legal analysis without a license.

Feb 20, 2007

Extended analogies are like extended sinning, which is itself an analogy of sorts. [LINK]

At any rate, here's my latest letter to the Globe:

Agreeing with a previous letter that it was inappropriate for Ellen Goodman to compare skepticism over global warming with Holocaust denial, Mark MacMillan substitutes another analogy: that of a patient unwilling to believe a doctor's diagnosis of a life-threatening disease because the symptoms haven't yet become obvious. I found this medical analogy far more compelling, but perhaps not for the intended reason.

Imagine learning that you have a slightly elevated level of something that at much higher levels might be fatal. You consult a doctor, who says it's a clear sign of dreaded Malady X, that there's no reasonable chance it could be anything else, and that one of your organs must be removed at once. You'd still be able to survive without the organ, but only with considerably depleted energy. Imagine furthermore that Malady X has never been directly observed, so instead of relying on narrow tests like biopsies and angiograms, conjectures must be based on computer models of the latest understanding of how all bodily processes work together. The doctor further offers no good reason to think that you might actually suffer from the malady anytime soon, or even that removing the organ would prevent its onset.

Now imagine getting a second opinion from another doctor who says that the instruments used to measure the substance are often inaccurate, that levels vary naturally from one person to the next, and that at any rate they are within normal range. She says that even if it were a problem, it could be due to any number of factors. Even so, the symptoms of Malady X are not as bad as once thought. Since it's a definite concern, though, she recommends a period of close observation and further tests.

While such analogies are always clumsy, I hope this helps explain how a reasonable person might be skeptical over various claims of impending catastrophe without being in thrall to quacks and shills. I'm truly sorry to learn that people close to Mr. MacMillan died because they didn't aggressively act upon their diagnoses. But then again, not every bout of heartburn is a heart attack.

The incoherence of spam [LINK]

This one started out remarkably well before descending inevitably into burfcsef vasdvdads sfvgv....


I got your email contact from your profile during my search on business opportunity in your great country and i believe you may like to know my kind, hence my sending this mail to you.

Feb 16, 2007

"The Activist's Creed" [LINK]

Thus Aaron labels a passage by Rousseau:

True, those who have abandoned the life of a free man do nothing but boast incessantly of the peace and repose they enjoy in their chains. But when I see the other sacrifice pleasures, repose, wealth, power and life itself for the preservation of this sole good, which is so disdained by those who have lost it, when I see multitudes of entirely naked savages scorn European voluptuousness and endure hunger, fire, the sword and death to preserve only their independence, I feel it does not behoove slaves to reason about freedom.
If this truly is the activist's creed, I want none of it. Rousseau arrogantly conflates slavery with adherence to custom, the latter of which probably has more to do with naked savages' rejection of European civilization than any particular reaction to its "voluptuousness." These idealized people are certainly no less "slaves," and their societies no less decadent than their European counterparts, so where does that leave us? At best, to reject any basis for upholding the sort of personal liberties Europeans championed is to be an in-activist who evidences little more than cultural estrangement.

Feb 14, 2007

No Day for Reagan? [LINK]

My inclination is to like our likable new governor and wait for evidence to the contrary. If Governor Patrick's refusal to set off a day commemorating Ronald Reagan were part of some broader effort to drive matters of insubstantial symbolism out of the legislative chambers, I'd be all for it. But it appears to be directed at Reagan in particular, which makes it rather petty. Surely there is reason to commemorate a man whose muscular foreign policy helped bring that evil empire the Soviet Union to the point of collapse, and who grew the previously stagflated American economy by roughly a third.

Feb 10, 2007

White lies [LINK]

So when I tell my daughter the tofu in her peanut noodles is really chicken, I'm doing something bad?

Jan 28, 2007

Senator Doofus [LINK]

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Senator John Kerry (D-MA) strongly criticized the Bush Administration's foreign policy, saying it made America into an "international pariah":

Kerry was asked about whether the U.S. government had failed to adequately engage Iran's government before the election of hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005.

Kerry said the Bush administration has failed in addressing a number of foreign policy issues.

"When we walk away from global warming, Kyoto, when we are irresponsibly slow in moving toward AIDS in Africa, when we don't advance and live up to our own rhetoric and standards, we set a terrible message of duplicity and hypocrisy," Kerry said.

"So we have a crisis of confidence in the Middle East -- in the world, really. I've never seen our country as isolated, as much as a sort of international pariah for a number of reasons as it is today."

Kerry said the government needs to use diplomacy to improve national security.

"We need to do a better job of protecting our interests, because after all, that's what diplomacy is about," he said. "But you have to do it in a context of the reality, not your lens but the reality of those other cultures and histories."

Kerry criticized what he called the "unfortunate habit" of Americans to see the world "exclusively through an American lens."

There are a few problems here. As a matter of honor it has long been considered poor form to offer such criticisms from foreign soil. While this may seem like irrational symbolism, violating this guideline can cause real problems. To illustrate, note that Kerry made these remarks while sharing a podium with Mohammad Khatami, former president of Iran, a state that has become a genuine "international pariah" for its sponsorship of Islamic terrorism and development of nuclear weapons in the face of United Nations opposition. For the most recent presidential challenger to utter these words, and for him to be photographed signing an autograph for Mr. Khatami, is nothing short of a propaganda windfall for Iran. And for Senator Kerry, apparently oblivious of this fact and unable to even tell a joke without infuriating millions of Americans, to lecture us on the fine diplomatic arts, seems especially rich.

Kerry could actually learn a thing or two from Khatami about not bad-mouthing your nation when traveling overseas. When speaking at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government six months prior, for example, Khatami justified Iran's use of capital punishment for homosexuals. (Not a big applause line in Cambridge, word has it.)

Since Kerry isn't running for office any more and doesn't have to say such provocative things to motivate his Democratic base, another point is confounding: the notion that America's level of support for the Kyoto Protocols or treating AIDS in Africa affects Middle East attitudes in any measurable way. No, they don't care about these things at all, and to assume otherwise represents an "unfortunate habit" of some Americans to view the world "exclusively through an American lens."

And as has already been pointed out, Kerry is not even accurate in his criticisms: Kyoto was dead long before Bush was elected (Kerry himself voted to kill it), and Bush more than tripled African aid from Clinton Administration levels.

(Via Althouse)

Jan 25, 2007

..."like outraged goblins railing at humanity's profligate filth" [LINK]

R.C. Baker of the Village Voice reviews Charles Long's showing at New York's Tanya Bonakdar Gallery:

These umber-tinted photos of blue heron and white egret droppings scattered across the concrete conduits of the Los Angeles River are serendipitous wonders. While they occasionally catch the majestic birds in flight, it is the ghostly skeins of excrement (sometimes juxtaposed against the artist's own attenuated shadow) that deliver a revelatory shock: Shit can be gorgeous! But wait -- there's more: Long has cobbled together colossal plaster and papier-maché sculptures based on the splatter patterns. The tentacles of these dirty-white, three-dimensional apparitions are embedded with broken glass, shredded plastic, and other industrial crap; sometimes these haunting creatures (as anorexic as Giacometti's existential wraiths) are topped with bulbous nodules and loom up like outraged goblins railing at humanity's profligate filth. Overshadowing any content however, is Long's knack for anthropomorphizing nature while retaining the primordial beauty of even her basest elements.
I don't quite get why they'd rail at humanity's filth when they're the ones leaving poop all over the place, but perhaps I lack imagination.

Is monogamy a sign of progress? [LINK]

Don't ask what I'm doing responding to a month-old post on gay marriage, but Cathy Young's concluding paragraph irked me:

A part of me, actually, thinks that maybe [the collapse of the traditional ideal of marriage] would be just fine, given how many mutations the family has survived over the course of civilization. A "traditional marriage" the way it existed in many cultures -- one man with several wives and concubines -- was surely no more different from the modern two-parent family than a two-mother, one-father household, or a household composed of two companions and partners in child-rearing who do not have sex with each other and date other people. The other part of me thinks that giving up on the nuclear family as the cultural ideal would be a highly damaging social experiment with the potential to leave a lot of damaged children in its wake.

Granted, this is an on-the-one-hand/on-the-other, but the logic of the on-the-one-hand doesn't hold up. It may be "just fine" if the current ideal of heterosexual two-parent marriage were to collapse, because the current set of alternatives don't contradict it any more than older conceptions of marriage based on polygamy. I agree that's the case, but it begs the question: isn't the current ideal manifestly better than the polygamous practices it replaced? I believe the answer is yes, for reasons I won't belabor here. And neither will I dwell on why the latest set of alternatives may be marginally inferior to the ideal, though not as bad as outright polygamy. The point is that while it's useful to give the question some measure of historical context, it means very little without considering whether that history has resulted in any progress. Otherwise you're left with relativism. A provocative counter-example: 150 years ago the slave trade was considered perfectly acceptable. You can propose any number of undesirable institutions that don't stray farther from the current ideal that slavery is bad.

I'll be sorry to be reading less of Cathy in the Globe following the latest set of layoffs, but I hope it represents an opportunity for her. In particular, I hope it'll result in longer essays, since op-eds can't examine most issues in any depth.

Jan 18, 2007

The gay-sheep controversy [LINK]

In conjunction with PETA, openly gay tennis legend Martina Navratilova has issued a press release denouncing research on sheep that might, by manipulating hormone levels during prenatal development, change their future sexual orientation. (The rate of homosexuality among sheep runs usually high at eight percent, so the question is of special interest to animal breeders.)

Such research is premised on sexual identity having a strong biological basis, which would confirm what most gays and lesbians have long stressed about having no choice in their preference, and which may undermine the case for discriminatory practices such as bans on gay marriage. But such research also raises the troubling possibility that parents may one day be able to select out gay orientation in their children. As a general principle (not always medically practical), we prefer that the individual affected by the treatment should be the one who makes the decision whether to undergo it.

But that raises the question: what if this research led to treatments that allow individuals to change their own sexual orientation? (This is hypothetical to be sure, since the only treatment so far claiming to be able to do this -- "reparative therapy" -- has little to its credit and may do actual harm.) If there were a magic pill that could make you go from gay to straight, how many gays would choose it? Would there be any viable basis for preventing people from exercising that choice? We live in an interesting world, for example, in which you can act on the conviction that you were not born into the correct sex, and have that surgically corrected. Why not choose your sexual orientation as well?

1/25 update: I was delighted to see the gay-sheep story hit the New York Times, so I guess it's a respectable issue now. There was also an interesting Seattle Times piece on it from a couple of years ago, appropriately written by a science reporter. Apparently there was an earlier experiment to see if they could breed a set of disproportionately gay sheep. Needless to say, it would be amusing if the outrage only applies when breeding sheep who are less likely to be gay.

Jan 17, 2007

Can't you just throw it out? [LINK]

Instructions on the proper disposal of "Woodsy Owl" costumes, maintained by the National Symbols Program, an agency of the U.S. Forest Service:

  1. Incinerate the complete costume with the oversight of an official USDA Forest Service law enforcement officer.

    If you do not have access to an official USDA Forest Service law enforcement representative, arrangements will be made for dealing with your costume by contacting the USDA-FS Washington Office at:

    Woodsy Owl
    C/o National Symbols Program
    P.O. Box 96090
    Washington, D. C. 20090-6090

  2. The entire Woodsy Owl costume including each of the separate pieces is to be destroyed beyond recognition.

Jan 15, 2007

O Joy! (Part 2) [LINK]

R.C. Baker of the Village Voice reviews the "Post-Inaugural Exhibition" showing at New York's Daneyal Mahmood Gallery through February 3:

Pools of blood, decapitations, preserved carcasses -- curated with mordant wit, this group exhibit is perfect for curing those post-holiday blues. A photograph of a nude man wearing a bull's head, taken in a slaughterhouse, recalls Picasso's randy minotaurs while visually hooking up with a nearby mutant animal sculpted from shredded tires. Closets heaped with amputated elephants' feet and drawers of stuffed birds...

Jan 10, 2007

"The absurd can ... be terrifyingly real." [LINK]

Deborah Jowitt of the Village Voice reviews a "retrospectacle" featuring several pieces by dancer and choreographer Karl Anderson. What's often amusing about such texts is how little they have to do with "dance" as such:

With his head mostly protruding from the top of a shoulder-width, cuboid cage that's barred both vertically and horizontally, Anderson dances fitfully around, spouting data. He begins by telling us that there are 8.4 billion people alive today, but as his delivery speeds up, his facts become progressively weirder (27 percent of taxi drivers are cross dressers?) and politically charged in terms of racial discrimination and police behavior. The absurd can also be terrifyingly real. Anderson is politically engaged, but he fences with the evil forces rampant in society obliquely....
Anderson overestimates the earth's population by about 2 billion, which makes me doubt how "politically engaged" he really is, but no matter. Perhaps "strident" would be a better word.
The opening combines excerpts from Public Showing and Malemade. While actor-singer-songwriter Ron Mesa gives us a wacky, tough talk about security precautions, Theresa Duhon, atop a ladder, pours tiny plexiglass spheres into a tank beside her. From there, the balls run through tubing into a clear, plastic cube that costume designer Naoko Nagata is wearing on her head. When Nagata, breathing tube intact, is buried over her eyebrows, Duhon climbs down and releases the spheres through another tube into another tank. Make of it what you will, but just recalling the spectacle gives me -- claustrophobic and environmentally aware -- chills.

I think Anderson likes us not to be entirely certain where he stands. The lovers in the 2001 duet You and your Crack Baby need to get your shit together because we have a show veer from hostility to being very pleased with themselves and fake-charmed with each other. "We're so lovely!," Alethea Pace seems to say, swimming in air from her perch on Edgar Rodriguez's shoulder, while Alberto Denis's score ripples a pretty echo. But what about her turning Rodriguez into a settee? Or him scrubbing at her belly when she lies athwart his thighs? I think they had a baby at the end, and he ran off with it, and she went back to pulsing on the floor by herself (a bit too much of a mystery). Intercourse (2004), choreographed and performed by Anderson and Kate Weare, is a far deeper duet....

If you're doing it right, that is.

And what would such a performance be without some gratuitous nudity that elicits the "male gaze"? One piece, Words, features a solo by a woman, Linda Martini, that was originally danced by Anderson himself. The equally gratuitous comment on her weight is puzzling, but I take it to mean that the performance is less likely to inspire prurience.

This beautiful woman, now many pounds heavier than she was as a graduate from SUNY-Purchase's dance department, appears nude except for four pasted-on dollar bills. When Anderson assumed the occasional pin-up-girl pose, he may have been testing maleness. Martini doing the same moves counters a stripper image with a kind of girlish innocence....

Having Martini perform this solo does create some confusion as to Evan Gray's soundtrack, in which a voice that sounds like that of a young boy emotionally discusses his fears about heterosexual sex with a dark, electronically-slowed-down voice that might be his own rational self.... The issue of the "male gaze" surely resonates differently when a man performs the solo. But, no matter who dances Words, nakedness scarred by dollar bills seems to symbolize purity corrupted. At the end, Martini kneels in candlelight to read from a piece of paper, "love, equality, justice, virtue, harmony...." before she walks into a warm spotlight, strips off the last bill, and strides away.

...which may be taken as a happy ending.

UPDATE: Welcome, Dr. Sanity readers!

Jan 6, 2007

Move on, folks, nothing here to see [LINK]

The unintentionally humorous opening to Jerry Saltz's year-end wrap-up of the 2006 art scene for the Village Voice:

Before New York museums and galleries get back into gear, let's look in the rearview mirror at the art season of 2006. A lot of people were saying the art world was going to hell. Perhaps, but people have been saying this for the better part of a century, and nonstop since 1982....

Jan 4, 2007

"University mascots offend" [LINK]

This is one of those letters you read, and you're not sure if it's supposed to be a joke:

RE THE ARTICLE " Criticism of team's name heats up Dartmouth game" (City & Region, Dec. 29): Where is the outrage from the Irish American community regarding Notre Dame's mascot of the Fighting Irish?

The pugnacious caricature of a leprechaun is a misrepresentation of a nation that has remained neutral during all major world conflicts. The Republic of Ireland's reputation for sponsoring peacekeeping missions is diminished by Notre Dame's hostile imagery.

The Irish community should join Native Americans offended by the University of North Dakota's Fighting Sioux in opposing any and all such symbols.

Jan 2, 2007

"Is the adaptive re-use of human beings and their emotions possible?" [LINK]

From a review, by Leslie Camhi in the Village Voice, of Inconsolable Memories, a film installation by Canadian artist Stan Douglas that is showing at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Douglas's work builds upon Cuban director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's 1968 film Memories of Underdevelopment, which focuses on a character named Sergio, who who watches his wife and best friend leave Cuba while he stays behind to brood. Douglas's film follows Sergio's fate up until the Mariel boat life of 1980.

This installation is accompanied by a series of beautiful, large-scale color photographs Douglas has taken on recent trips to Cuba. Many focus on the "adaptive reuse" of buildings whose original purposes have been sacrificed to more pressing needs. Bank lobbies have become parking lots; movie theaters are carpentry workshops; one corner of a private home sells sandwiches and drinks; an elegant villa now houses a refrigerator-repairshop. Numerous contemporary photographers have found inspiration in Havana's picturesque ruins, where a variety of temporalities intersect: the remnants of a former colonial playground, the utopian hopes of mid-century, and the present-day austerities that threaten to reduce it all to rubble. Devoid of nostalgia, Douglas's deeply sober pictures reward the patient examination that teases out these multiple perspectives.
No doubt about it: contemporary Cuban life provides us with an arresting series of images. While economically moribund, it's like a gold-rush town for artists seeking to depict alternate contexts.

Camhi continues with an interesting observation about why human psychology itself may render utopian schemes impossible:

In relation to his film, they also pose the question: Is the adaptive re-use of human beings and their emotions possible? Freud -- and Proust, who would appear to be Douglas's muse -- would say that's what we do whenever we fall in love: We harness that old feeling and bring our memories of past affections to bear upon the person standing before us.... The revolution promised an eternal present, but people like Sergio had trouble adjusting -- they were glad to see the old order go, but unwilling (or unable) to marry the moment.
Camhi adds that the film's "status as a kind of cinematic remake" as well as its "characters trapped in time" reinforce the difficulty of living in the present.

Of course, there is nothing about an obviously decrepit socialist Cuba that doesn't also deserve a swipe at capitalism:

When was it exactly that living with perfect attention to the present moment became impossible? I'd like to blame it on certain late-capitalist phenomena: cell phones, iPods, pagers, and BlackBerries. But reel-to-reel tape recorders work just as well in Douglas's film as devices of alienation. And really, you'd need to go much further back -- to a time before the first photographs were taken, or even before the first words (those signifiers of absence) were spoken.
So just how do even these more archaic technologies prevent us from living in the present? Can't say for sure. If anything, these various "late-capitalist" artifacts appear to do the opposite, crowding out attention to long-term history by swamping your senses.

But the howler is the concluding paragraph:

Speaking of quasi-utopian pasts, it would seem truly churlish not to mention my esteemed colleague Fred W. McDarrah's wonderfully absorbing show, "Artists and Writers of the 60's and 70's," at Steven Kasher Gallery (521 West 23rd Street) through January 6. McDarrah was the primary photographer at this paper during its first 30 years. Over 100 vintage prints from his archives show assorted scene makers -- from a boyish Bob Dylan to a wizened old Marcel Duchamp -- getting down, getting arrested, getting naked, and making art. Where is the downtown of yesteryear? Will it come again?
Yep, we harness that old feeling and bring our memories of past affections to bear upon the person standing before us.