Friday, April 27, 2007

The Hardest I've Ever Had To Work To Spend $250

Thank God -- Cnet reports that Nintendo is ramping up production of the Wii. I can never remember having gone into a store with the full intent to purchase an item of merchandise and being turned away as often as I have been trying to find a Wii console. Mind you, I have not been looking as hard as perhaps I could have, but then again, it is a nationally-known consumer good that was released months ago, so, you know -- my presumption is that I shouldn't have to work quite so hard. Perhaps sometime next month, my admittedly half-hearted manhunt for this little gadget can end, and I will see whether it was actually worth the trouble and the wait.

Nostalgia for 1998

It had to happen.

And I thought nostalgia for the eighties was misplaced.

But then again, my students this semester, college freshmen, were all born in 1988. So what else could they have nostalgia for?

I Will Break Your Heart

Chernobyl, a photo essay.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Perfect Stephen Colbert Joke

On Ségolène Royal: "I'm no commie, but I'd sure like to control her means of production."

Simultaneously erudite and juvenile, and both self-parody and a parody of the media itself.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Oranges Will Grow In Philadelphia

In December 1900, the Ladies' Home Journal featured an article by John Elfreth Watkins, Jr., titled “What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years.” (This is an online transcription, but I wonder about its fidelity: prediction numbers 13 and 26 are identical.)

The predictions are truly wonderful: some of them have come true, some are quite fanciful, and others are just slightly off the mark. Highlights:

Prediction #2: The American will be taller by from one to two inches. His increase of stature will result from better health, due to vast reforms in medicine, sanitation, food and athletics. He will live fifty years instead of thirty-five as at present – for he will reside in the suburbs. The city house will practically be no more. Building in blocks will be illegal. The trip from suburban home to office will require a few minutes only. A penny will pay the fare.

Prediction #18: Telephones Around the World. Wireless telephone and telegraph circuits will span the world. A husband in the middle of the Atlantic will be able to converse with his wife sitting in her boudoir in Chicago. We will be able to telephone to China quite as readily as we now talk from New York to Brooklyn. By an automatic signal they will connect with any circuit in their locality without the intervention of a “hello girl”.

Prediction #22: Store Purchases by Tube. Pneumatic tubes, instead of store wagons, will deliver packages and bundles. These tubes will collect, deliver and transport mail over certain distances, perhaps for hundreds of miles. They will at first connect with the private houses of the wealthy; then with all homes. Great business establishments will extend them to stations, similar to our branch post-offices of today, whence fast automobile vehicles will distribute purchases from house to house.

Prediction #23: Ready-cooked meals will be bought from establishments similar to our bakeries of today. They will purchase materials in tremendous wholesale quantities and sell the cooked foods at a price much lower than the cost of individual cooking. Food will be served hot or cold to private houses in pneumatic tubes or automobile wagons. The meal being over, the dishes used will be packed and returned to the cooking establishments where they will be washed. Such wholesale cookery will be done in electric laboratories rather than in kitchens. These laboratories will be equipped with electric stoves, and all sorts of electric devices, such as coffee-grinders, egg-beaters, stirrers, shakers, parers, meat-choppers, meat-saws, potato-mashers, lemon-squeezers, dish-washers, dish-dryers and the like. All such utensils will be washed in chemicals fatal to disease microbes. Having one’s own cook and purchasing one’s own food will be an extravagance.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Going Long, History-Wise

A blog I've been enjoying recently is Scott Horton's "No Comment," hosted by Harper's. It's the usual news + politics + culture stuff, but Horton has a couple of serious virtues that set .

First, he posts a lot. Today, there's two posts on Alberto Gonzales around 5PM, and another on Virginia Tech, at 5:40. For a little while, I didn't think Harper's any other bloggers. My Net Newswire just kept filling up with posts by Scott Horton.

Second, and more decisively, he doesn't just post a lot of links or one-line comments, like some other bloggers who post a lot tend to do. Horton is good at thoughtful, long-form blogging -- multiple paragraphs that stake a position, defend it, and use that position to make a point.

Third, Horton has a decidedly Schrift-y propensity for using the day's events to go long and deep into intellectual and cultural history. My man is well and broadly read. I first got the inkling when I read the beginning of this fine post on "Torture, Secrecy, and the Bush Administration" (which may come from a speech given at NYU):

I want to give a bit of pre-constitutional history, and share with you the story of John Lilburne, an Englishman born in the early 1600s because his story—the story of an agitator who directly challenged the English legal system—has a great deal to tell us about the issues we're facing today. Lilburne's story explains why these matters—torture and secrecy—were not issues to the Founding Fathers, and it helps us understand the true nature of a government which, like the current administration, thrives in that matrix of torture and secrecy.

Unless you are an English Civil War buff, or took a graduate seminar on the importance of the Levellers for later early modern political theory, chances are that John Lilburne's name isn't first on your tongue. But Horton doesn't just show off with his Lilburne reference -- he makes it work:
He [Lilburne] wrote a compelling account of his treatment—he had been imprisoned for refusing to answer questions and then flogged, pilloried and gagged--but he also described the use of coercive interrogation techniques to extract a confession, the denial of rights of confrontation, the fact that his judges were all political figures placed there to do their king's bidding—the Star Chamber, you see, was to Lilburne's age what the Military Commission is to ours.

His account was an instant bestseller and provided much of the impetus for the abolition of the Star Chamber by the Long Parliament in 1641. As Uncle Tom's Cabin was to abolition, Liburne's book was to habeas corpus and the Star Chamber. Lilburne served with distinction as an officer during the Civil War, and afterwards his advocacy of Republican virtues caused Oliver Cromwell a bit of discomfort, and at length Cromwell decided to silence Lilburne by charging him with treason. The trial convened in October 1649, which is to say just months after the second Civil War had been successfully concluded for the Parliamentary forces.

OK. So maybe Horton is a hotshot constitutional/human rights lawyer, and he knows some of the history behind the constitutional protections of civil/human rights. But then he goes all continental on you, with this quote, which he leaves untouched as a full post:

After the uprising on June 17th,
The Secretary of the Writers Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Upon which was to be read that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could only reclaim it
Through redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
Still for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

—Bertolt Brecht, “The Solution,” Buckow Elegies No. 9 (S.H. transl).

Bert Brecht, yo! German Marxist poet/playwrights! And it's from the Buckow Elegies -- it isn't a quote from Mother Courage or "Mac the Knife." That's some classy stuff.

And it puts your other allegedly-deep-wisdom media heads to shame. Has anyone ever worked so hard to link a small set of shallow preoccupations to a news event as David Brooks does in this op-ed on the shootings at Virginia Tech?

[A]s we learn the facts of [Cho Seung-Hui's] life, we’ll be able to fit them into ever more sophisticated models of human behavior. For over the past few decades, neuroscientists, evolutionary psychologists and social scientists have made huge strides in understanding why people — even murderers — do the things they do.

It’s important knowledge, but it’s had the effect of reducing the scope of the human self. “Man is the measure of all things,” the Greek philosopher Protagoras declared millenniums ago. But in the realm of the new science, the individual is like a cork bobbing on the currents of giant forces: evolution, brain chemistry, stress and upbringing. Human consciousness is merely an epiphenomena of the deep and controlling mental processes that lie within.

What's more astonishing is that Brooks still manages to say so little. Protagoras? I know Brooks loved his freshman year at Chicago, but sometimes it seems like he never read a single book after he turned 19. (The last line is an near-verbatim quote of Nietzsche.)

Compare today's post (on the same topic, no less) by Horton:

In the fourth century before the common era, a young man named Herostratus set fire to the Temple of Artemis in the Aegean coastal city of Ephesus (now Efes, Turkey). The massive marble temple had been viewed as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. What motivated Herostratus to this horrible deed?

It is on. Scott Horton is a stone gangster. For knowledge.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Three Theses on Don Imus

1) First, it's important to clarify the exact nature of Imus's racist/misogynist language. It wasn't just that Imus called a group of black women "nappy-headed hoes." This term was used to distinguish the Rutgers women's basketball team from the Tennessee basketball team. The implication is that the Tennessee women have straight hair, light skin, and are feminine and attractive, while the Rutgers women have curly hair, dark skin, tattoos, and are unattractive. This is why the Rutgers team was compared to the Toronto Raptors, and what the reference to School Daze's "jigaboos and wannabees" was about (although Frank Rich, who should know better, seems to think that "jigaboos" is a generic racial epithet).

2) I wonder if Imus's remark wouldn't have met more indifference if athletes hadn't been the target. Some people have pointed out that they were not politicians, celebrities, or other public figures, and should be exempt from ridicule; others (including Snoop Dogg) took the opportunity to point out the difference between student-athletes and "hoes." But I also think that the insult registered as especially heinous with the broader public because we love our athletes like we love our soldiers. It doesn't hurt that after bloggers, sports journalists (especially black sports journalists) were the first media personalities to take up the cause. And sports journalists have a huge platform, which not so coincidentally happens to overlap with that of the shock-jock radio DJs.

3) How wonderful was Gwen Ifil on Meet the Press? Check out the podcast if you get a chance.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

A Shot At The Rest of Them

This is the best blog/late-night bar question I think I've ever seen: what band would you most enjoy having sex with? The assumption is, yes -- you would be required to have sex with the entire band. Assumption #2 is that one-man or one-woman bands don't count.

David Schmader at Slog points out the kinds of calculations you have to make: "for every Robert Plant there’s a John Bonham, for every Carrie Brownstein, a Janet Weiss." Excessively mean to both drummers, who have their charms, but, in general -- a worthwhile point.

My own initial answer is Destiny's Child -- or En Vogue, circa 1991. In general, one R&B girl group after another seems like a good choice. If you add assumption #3, that a "band" properly speaking must include someone who plays an instrument, then I would have to rethink my position.

You Don't Want No Drama

Via The Stranger.

Civic Engineering

Felix Rohaytn, an experienced and well-connected financier (he helped NYC restructure its debt in the 1970s, saving the city from bankruptcy) and former U.S. ambassador to France, has a great idea:

''Since the beginning of the republic,'' he said, ''transportation, infrastructure and education have played a central role in advancing the American economy, whether it was the canals in upstate New York, or the railroads that linked our heartland to our industrial centers; whether it was the opening of education to average Americans by land grant colleges and the G.I. bill, making education basic to American life; or whether it was the interstate highway system that ultimately connected all regions of the nation.

''This did not happen by chance, but was the result of major investments financed by the federal and state governments over the last century and a half. We need to make similar investments now.''
Bob Herbert kicks off his NYT op-ed on the subject with this alternately stirring and somber note:

Fifty-nine years ago this week -- on April 3, 1948 -- President Truman signed the legislation establishing the Marshall Plan, which contributed so much to the rebuilding of postwar Europe. Now, more than half a century later, the U.S. can't even rebuild New Orleans.

It doesn't seem able to build much of anything, really. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the U.S. infrastructure is in sad shape, and it would take more than a trillion and a half dollars over a five-year period to bring it back to a reasonably adequate condition.

Decaying infrastructure is one of the many reasons cities like Philadelphia face a comparable financial crisis to 1970s New York. In the area of transportation alone, Philadelphia's streets, subways, trolley lines, docks, sidewalks, airports, and highways are all falling apart. The Delaware river needs to be dredged to let larger ships come to the Philadelphia port. All of these things costs hundreds of millions of dollars -- beyond the resources of even a government as large as Philadelphia's, which still has problems policing its streets and supporting basic services.

But other cities and states are getting the money. It's just cities and states who matter, not sadder places like Philadelphia or New Orleans. NYC is getting hundreds of millions of dollars from the FTA to finish the Second Avenue Subway. Philadelphia is getting some money to rebuild I-95 -- not coincidentally, the highway that currently runs between New York and Washington. Not only would a plan like this give cities a budgetary boost, it would actually add to their real assets, which are rapidly diminishing. If there's anything we should be spending the federal government's resources on, it's this.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

By Now You Are There

In a fine gathering of old talented friends of mine, Revelator Press has just released a small e-chapbook of poetry titled Letters to My Sister, by Angela Vasquez-Giroux.

You shouldn't read it because of its timeliness. You shouldn't read it because it is very often beautiful and wise. You shouldn't read it for its excellent balance of narrative and contemplative verse. And you shouldn't read it because Angela is a Catholic who loves baseball, Tombstone, and Frank O'Hara, even though I liked all those things about her when I met her.

No, you should read it because despite her quarter-century-long love of words like extraordinary, Angela's real gift is for the short familiar words of childhood, to which we always return -- pronouns, prepositions, articles, and simple single-syllable adjectives and nouns. (These examples are plunked from different poems from Letters To My Sister.)

by now you are there.

new white boots for war.

Glued whole when you cried,
its hooves, head
laid out in your palm.

Also -- and this is real inside talk now -- Angela is really good at with her Ps, Bs, and Ds, in a loose consonant rhyme. She uses internal alliteration, slant alliteration, and plain old first-consonant alliteration very well. She's got the goods in the way of craft, is what I'm saying. And it warms this once-poet's heart to see it.

Unknown Hero

Japan's NTV television station recently aired a special on History's 100 Greatest Heroes. The list is worldwide, but since it was based on viewer polling, the top leans heavily towards Japanese military heroes.

I've always had a decent sense of the broad outlines of Japanese history, but less knowledge of the particular men (and it's almost all men) who played a part in the major events that shaped Japanese history. It's fascinating to read accounts of the lives of different figures in, say, the Meiji Restoration. But the most astonishing story to me, no less because I was surprised that I hadn't heard it before, is Chiune Sugihara's, Japanese consulate to Lithuania in the years just before and during World War II:

After the Soviet Union takeover of Lithuania in 1940, many Jewish refugees from Poland (Polish Jews) as well as Lithuanian Jews tried to acquire exit visas. Without the visas, it was dangerous to travel and impossible to find countries willing to issue them. Hundreds of refugees came to the Japanese consulate in Kaunas, trying to get a visa to Japan... At the time, the Japanese government followed an officially neutral policy towards the Jews, but demanded that visas be issued only to those who had gone through appropriate immigration procedures and had enough funds. Most of the refugees did not fulfill these criteria. Sugihara dutifully contacted the Japanese Foreign Ministry three times for instructions. Each time, the Ministry responded that anybody granted a visa should have a visa to a third destination to exit Japan, with no exceptions.

From July 31-August 28 1940 Sugihara began to grant visas on his own initiative, after consulting with his wife. Many times he ignored the requirements and arranged the Jews with a 10-day visa to transit through Japan, in direct violation of his orders. Given his post and the culture of the Japanese Foreign Service, this was an extraordinary action without precedent. He spoke to Soviet officials who agreed to let the Jews travel through the country via the Trans-Siberian railway at five times the standard ticket price.

Sugihara continued to hand-write visas (reportedly spending 18–20 hours a day on them, producing a normal month's worth of visas each day) until September 4, when he had to leave his post before the consulate was closed. By that time he had granted thousands of visas to Jews, many of them heads of household who could take their families with them. According to witnesses, he was still writing visas while in transit in hotel and after boarding the train, throwing visas into the crowd of desperate refugees out the train's window even as the train pulled out.


Thursday, April 05, 2007

Citizens of the World

Le Monde Diplomatique, the trimmed-down, English-language version of the French newspaper that gives you very little French news, has a great article about the changes the economic boom and subsequent rounds of immigration have wrought in Ireland.

My favorite part is when the reporter asks a group of young Africans in the Dublin suburbs (more children of immigrants than immigrants by the sound of it) about dating other young native Irish boys and girls:

They answer in Dublin idiom, in broad Irish accents with African lilts, and roar laughing with recognition at each other’s observations.

Abraham: “I find Irish girls really attractive, they’re drop dead gorgeous, I have to give them that. But for our case, trying to be in a relationship with Irish girls, it’s kind of impossible. I’m not saying they’re too demanding, but we have curfews imposed in [our] hostels. We have limited funds – the benefits we get, $20 a week, you can’t even bring a girl out to the movies, ’cause you’d be broke by the end of the night. The only cheap thing around here is to get a cuppa.”

Zainab: “It’s hard for me to go out with an Irish guy. You know what they talk about? You’re, like, going out with him, and the first thing, he’s like, ‘I’m horny’. What the hell is that? That’s a complete put off, you don’t want to talk to them any more, you just go, ‘what do you see me as, like a sex toy or something?’ It’s just so ridiculous, no respect or nothing. They go to clubs, and [they’ve] just met somebody, and [they] just start kissing. What the hell is that? I would really like to meet a very good Irish guy, but the culture is too different, they way they have relationships is just too different to the way we see relationships. No matter how educated they are. I don’t know why they are all the same like that.”

Gorgeous Irish girls, horny Irish boys, polite and demure young Africans still trying to understand the strangest of Europeans. Sounds like the craic is 90 to me.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Wow. I mean, wow.

The new Miss Philadelphia, when asked about Philadelphia's 100+ murders on the year:

It was a development the 23-year-old resident of Richboro did not attempt to sugarcoat or dodge. Rogers said she considered Philadelphia's murder milestone "an exciting challenge" that is "pertinent" to her platform: preventing and eliminating depression among young people.

The city's homicide rate "gives me the inspiration to work harder and make a difference," said Rogers, a pharmaceutical marketing consultant for TargetRx in Horsham.

Gosh, I know they tell pageant contestants to stay positive, but "exciting"? What about hundreds of murders is exciting? And I'm all about combatting childhood depression, but come on. Depression leads to anger, pickpocketing, maybe. Teen crimes. Mostly it leads to a lot of sleeping and not wanting to go outside. The people who commit these crimes are not sullen loners, Raskolnikovs who want to feel something, anything. They're mostly drug dealers. I guess, in their own way, so is Rogers' empoyer. Puts another meaning to the phrase "Big Pharma."

"There are many children out there that just don't express their feelings," said Rogers, a graduate of Princeton University, where she majored in molecular biology. Leaving dire feelings unaddressed, she said, "leads to crime."

Princeton, folks. So we can assume that Ms. Rogers knows better, but the combination of pageantry and marketing are constraining her critical faculties.

In her role as Miss Philadelphia, Rogers said she would meet soon with Mayor Street, and she intends to "tell him I'm committed to serving the city and making the biggest positive impact I can." She will also have the opportunity to speak to community groups and schools.

This part really did it for me. The mayor won't meet with the District Attorney to talk about the murder rate, because the two of them are political enemies. But he's going to meet with Miss Philadelphia?

The title of the article is "Substance Behind the Smile."

By the way, for the year, Philadelphia is ahead of New York in absolute number of murders, not just per capita, even though NYC has about six times the population. And nobody seems to know exactly why.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Hot Damn

All of the Mac sites have been running crazy April Fools Day stories today. But this one, from Macworld, is either the real deal or a damned good hoax.

Apple and EMI plan joint announcement Monday
Apple boss Steve Jobs will join EMI chief Eric Nicoli to announce 'digital offering'

Jonny Evans

Apple CEO Steve Jobs will appear at a joint EMI and Apple press conference on Monday 2 April at 1pm...

The invitation reads: "Please join EMI Group CEO Eric Nicoli at EMI’s headquarters on Monday 2 April at 1pm London/8am New York time to hear about an exciting new digital offering, with special guest, Apple CEO Steve Jobs."

A special live performance by an unannounced artist will also feature at the event, the invitation confirms.

And then, either the letdown, or the admission by negation:

This event takes place after months of rumours claiming that music from The Beatles will be made available through iTunes, but Macworld sources have warned that tomorrow's announcement is not related to that particular piece of speculation.

Well, whatever.

Flint, MI, As Far As The Eye Can See

The New York Times tells what by now is a well-known story: tens of thousands of Michigan auto workers have taken buyouts, leaving the industry and in many cases the state.

In comparison to past rounds of layoffs, which tended to focus on line workers in individual cities and plants, this downsizing of the auto industry wears the kinder, gentler face of buyouts. And when you compare auto workers with displaced workers in other industries, Big 3 employees have it pretty good. The buyouts in some cases are six figures, and the state is finally reacting to the industry downturn like the crisis that it is, offering retraining and college scholarships to try to cushion the blow.

But Michigan is one knockdown away from being down for the count, and everyone knows it. The real estate market is glutted with sellers, foreclosures, and people looking to get what they can before the bottom drops out. And the Big Three's disaster ripples across Michigan's economy, for both blue- and white-collar workers. The cars are harder to sell; the chemical and heat treatment shops that offered good work to blue-collar guys not lucky enough to get UAW jobs close, one-by-one.

This weekend I had the good fortune to be stuck in truly disastrous Michigan traffic, heading north on I-275 in rush hour in an airport rental car. ("Do you have anything small and fun?" I asked. "All we have is a Ford Taurus, or another Ford Taurus," the cashier deadpanned. Detroit will always be able to sell rental cars, even if I would pay $100/day to drive a BMW, or even a Volkswagen.)

I sat there, listening to NPR drifting between the Lansing and Detroit frequencies, and wondered: Where do all of these cars come from? Where are they going? I hopped off the highway at 6 Mile Rd and drove through Livonia, the most firmly middle-class city I've ever seen, and looked at one "For Sale" sign after another. I slid a couple of blocks north to 8 Mile Rd, driving past Detroit's legendary strip of strip clubs, liquor stores, and fast food joints, always a growth industry in a city of poor people. But even they seemed to be losing some of their grimy sheen.

Construction pushed me up to 9 Mile Rd, and Ferndale, through row after row of discarded light manufacturing, places with names like "Michigan Button Manufacturing" and places that sold sheet metal and cookware, buildings that were impossible to interpret whether they were still open or long since closed. I drove past my best friend's old neighborhood, of metal bungalows and shabby parks.

But then, when I crashed into 9 Mile Rd just half a block away, a revelation -- here were coffee shops, organic supermarkets, chain bar and grills, and high-end furniture outlets, shoulder to shoulder with the old guitar stores, unrenovated family restaurants, and places to grab cigarettes. (Even the dollar store was a clean and oversized "Dollar Palace.") Ferndale had always been one of the weirdest places in the Detroit suburbs -- but this was even weirder than I'd remembered. Where did these yuppies come from? What jobs did they have? At what brunch cafes on Woodward Ave were they welcome?

Compared to the traffic I encountered on I-275, with van after truck after assholes in Mustangs headed out to the great unknown, the Livingston County exurbs, the suburbs of Oakland and Macomb county seemed strangely empty. I drove from one side of town to another without encountering any traffic to speak of; even for a weekend, the place seemed emptier, sadder, more uniform than I'd remembered.

At my brother's wedding, I talked to my cousin, who was working to build a new GM plant in Mexico. I talked a little bit to my Dad, who is trying to plan a new county building, police station, and courthouse not far from Wayne State's campus. My parents are renovating their house -- whether to sell it, live in it, or just because they finally have enough time and money to recuperate from nearly 30 years of offspring-inflicted damage. My old college roommate and his wife, both high school friends of mine, want to sell their house and move out to St. Clair County, farther and farther away. It seems that all the growth in Michigan is in small towns, as people with skills but no prospects in the city and suburbs find schools and small businesses and ordinary jobs to sustain them, while the high school kids move away.

It's as though a star has collapsed, and all the planets have lost their orbits, just bodies with some mass, losing density, drifting out into space. And in every hole of the universe where the integrating structure has broken down, void and entropy are there, to take its place. When I lived there, fusion was already in decline, and the body grew and grew, doomed but defiant. It was still a mighty red sun.