Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Fowl Most Fresh

On the Eve of Turkey Day many cash-stuffed folk will turn their thoughts, and forks, to their favorite festive bird - usually one that is fully dressed, shrink-wrapped, and frozen to Kelvin scale depths. For the more upscale, there are heirloom birds, such as those reported in this week's LA Weekly by Jonathan Gold.

But, for the more adventuresome, the LA Times gave morning readers a nice shock with a report on a thriving slaughterhouse serving a mostly immigrant clientele, who prefer to pick and choose from the winged offerings. Five minutes from pen to plastic bag - try that at a Honey Baked Ham store tonight! And for those of you getting squeamish, remember I ate bugs during my fieldwork. Get over it. Besides, the old Angelino families remember when Sunday dinner required killing a chicken from the coop - my father did that most of his childhood life in Pomona. Now a days you only get to count the chickens riding the Gold Line to Union Station.

Before you take a bite of the chemically-enriched Butterball tomorrow, take a peek at the article. Too bad it wasn't included in the Times Food section, something about advertising revenue....

But if you won't read it for the ethnographic background, read it for the honed rhetoric like this:

Today, Samy Morsy is so deft with his 12-inch chef knife that it seems that he could turn a turkey into a hood ornament if he were asked to.

Soon coming to a fashionable vehicle near you.

Friday, November 18, 2005

The Need and the Loathing

It's late on a Friday aftenoon, the college has gone to bed before the sun is down, and I'm not going to let Warren, David, Joel, Kira, and the others have all the fun with a little Google-magic (all the better to procrastinate and put off finishing another scene).

Here are some results for "Formosus needs" in Google:

The disinterred corpose of Pope Formosus (891-894) was brought before the...

Phosphorous needs of some Australian Plants. Swainsona, canescens, colutoides, formosus, tephrotricha...

Joseph, Ras, Neal, and Formosus. Chris, Trish, and Andie... (Wait a minute! That's from Warren's site - and he suggested this excercise. Hmmm...)

Red Cone Flower (lsopogon formosus): see it and grow it...

Scientific name: Oporornis formosus...

When switched off, the Scleropages Formsous are not moving at all of course...

The main plot deals with the trick of Formosus to obtain 3000 crowns from his miserly father Amadeus...

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Dances with Screenwriters

Spent last weekend nursing a lingering cough, and attending the 4th Annual Screenwriting Expo, sponsored by Creative Screenwriting magazine. It was my first time attending and it was rather surprising to be amidst almost 4,000 writers, but then I was surprised to be among 5,000 anthropologists the first time I attended the AAA gathering. Lots of sights, lots of people, and even more stories, which usually constitute the most informative aspect of conventions, and the most entertaining.

Like other writing get-togethers, the Expo was a great venue for the usually solitary to get support, learn that there are actually other people out there who are just as geeky as you think you are, and commiserate with fellow writers over rejection - preferably with an 80 proof libation in hand.

I attended some classes, a panel or two, and many of the Guest of Honor sessions, but more about that later. As I was walking around the trade show, scanning through the xeroxed detritus strewn over abandoned tables, I had this lingering thought....

Am I the only one who thinks that the market for writing products and services is strangely similiar to the market for sex products and services? There are hundreds of companies offering magazines, videos, and "coverage or feedback" (usually in the back of cheap magazines) offering “secrets” (for a price) that purport to make you a "better practitioner," allowing you to "write longer, better, with more passion, all leading to a strong finish." The place was rife with psychoanalytic subtext. But then, after too many years of graduate school I can never look at any social gathering without some weird theoretical interpretation.

If you want to glance at some photos, take a peek at the collection from Warren, Joel, and Shawna.

Instead of the rundown of classes and panels, here are some of the more colorful quotes I heart at Expo 4:

William Goldman: “What I want you to come away from this Expo is this – All critics are failures and whores.”

David Koepp: “Everyone in this business has to be told what to do, directors, actors, so on, except for the writer. We can go home tonight, open a new file on our computer and start to work on a new project – no one has to tell us to do it. And that’s why they hate us.”

Marc & Elaine Zicree: “If you hear the following: ‘Thanks for coming in’, ‘Interesting…’, or ‘Call my agent’, you’re toast.” On the other hand, “If they say, ‘Who’s your agent?’ they want your script.”

Richard Walter: (quoting someone else) “It is actions that define character, and not the other way around.”

Richard Walter: (again) “There are only two things in scripts: The stuff that’s seen – the wide margins; and the stuff that’s said – the narrow margins.”

David Freeman: “I wasn’t born with an Earth Mother gene…”

But the best was probably at the blogger rendezvous Sunday night: “Yes, I was a Pumpkin Princess” from Shawna.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Carrots Without the Sticks

Buried in the back pages of today's LA Times is a gem of an article highlighting the questionable empirical evidence for economic enterprise zones, which have lately been touted by W. as a response to the aftermath of Katrina.

Call me an old-line positivist, but for something to have effectively changed, beyond normal variation, the data must support the evidence. Take a read:

Over the last 10 years, the federal government has chartered 40 empowerment zones and 40 renewal communities, both of which offer tax breaks to qualifying businesses. One is in Los Angeles. Another covers a portion of New Orleans.

In addition to the federal areas, many states and cities have their own enterprise zone programs.

Over the years, economists have attempted to measure the effectiveness of the zones. Some studies have found statistical evidence of higher rates of economic growth and job creation. Others have not. Several analysts who reviewed past research have told Congress the overall results are inconclusive.

When asked for empirical evidence that enterprise zones work, the White House and the Treasury Department cited a 2001 study by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees the federal programs.

HUD looked at the first six urban zones established during the Clinton administration. They were in Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, New York and Philadelphia.

Of the six, four experienced greater job growth than comparable areas where the special benefits were not available, the HUD study said, and owners reported that the climate for doing business had improved.

But two zones fared worse than comparable areas, and 65% of businesses in the six areas reported no benefit from being in empowerment zones. In addition, few firms took advantage of the tax credits, and more than half of those that used them said they were of little or no importance in hiring or investing decisions.

HUD said it was unable to reach conclusions about the effectiveness of the zones.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Bad Food is Universal

Anthropologists disagree vehemently about the extent of human cultural universals, but for the cynics in the crowd two items are head and shoulders above the rest: utter stupidity and really bad food.

Another Column One example of Pulitzer-level reportage today from the LA Times strikes yet another blow to globalization of food trends. Target, this time - Mexico - and the food, Japanese instant noodles:

That's a brand of instant ramen noodles that to him means lunch. Leon's grandmother stocks them in her tiny grocery store in this hamlet 40 miles southwest of the capital. The preschooler prefers his shrimp-flavor ramen with a dollop of liquid heat.

"With salsa!" he said exuberantly at the mention of his favorite noodle soup.

Through the centuries, Moorish spices, French pastries and Spanish citrus have left lasting impressions on Mexico's cuisine. Now Japanese fast-food noodles, first imported here in the 1980s, are filling pantries across the country.

Time-pressed school kids, construction workers and office drones have helped turn Mexicans into Latin America's largest per-capita consumers of instant ramen. Diners here slurped down 1 billion servings last year, up threefold since 1999, according to a Japanese noodle association.

My worst food experiences in Mexico were tacos made with roasted grasshoppers and dried, salted tripe wrapped in a tortilla, but hey - those were at least authentic.

I hope the Times continues to give front-page coverage to food articles banned from the haute cuisine afficionados in the Food Sections on Wednesdays. A week ago, the World section also reported on the popularity of Spam gift baskets in Korea (Oct. 15 - go check it out if you can get past the registration barricade).

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Morning Reading Fun

Angelinos love their cars, and more literate Angelinos (the few, the proud) are turning to Dan Neil's weekly auto review in the LA times. A past Pulitzer-prize winner, Neil combines the best of over-the-top sports rhetoric with a few witty Chandlerisms in most of his columns.

Today's piece on the new Mazda Miata MX-5 was particularly enoyable. For those of you who don't regularly get a chance to read amusing columns with the morning coffee, here are some choice excerpts:

MAZDA Miata, how do I love thee? Let me count the days.

Um, two
From its fiercely flatulent dual-exhaust note and buzzy metabolism to its stunt-kite agility, the MX-5 is all about sensory involvement.

Which is great, absolutely brilliant, two days a week, when the MX-5 can find the empty onramps and lightly patrolled canyon roads to practice its unique brand of necromancy. Weekdays, though, this car is a rolling root canal.
It doesn't help that the car's final-drive ratio is 4.10:1 and that peak torque (140 pound-feet) resides at 5,000 rpm. Put it all together and you have a car that is screaming bloody jihad at 25 mph if you don't shift into second gear.

The MX-5 is the sort of car for which two-car garages were made.

The central console, shaped like one end of a snowboard, holds the fuss-free climate and audio panels. Most notable is the band of shiny black plastic — "piano black" only if your piano is made by Mattel — which, unless I'm mistaken, is the same material that appears in the Ford Fusion (Mazda is a corporate holding of the Ford Motor Co.).

But the car lives for cornering forces. Once it finds its posture, the MX-5 clings to a white line like Kate Moss.
It's not easy to sap the joy out of a car like this — this artful dodger, this blithe spirit — but somehow, Los Angeles manages.

Stuff like this makes waking up fun.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

A Thought for the Day

Those of you who have taken a peek at the long list of links on my sidebar know that I enjoy reading literature, and I've written some myself, even though my training and background leans towards the formal side of social science research.

From time to time, I meet other bibliophiles and aspiring writers, many of whom think that the writing process mandates attendance at writing seminars, or at least an MFA.

The question I always think of is, "How did the great writers in the past write so well without the self-help groups, without endless books on the topic, without a graduate degree?"

See, when I was seeking funding for my dissertation research, I eschewed the "how to get your research grant" books (i.e., Sage publications), and focused instead on reading lots of research grants in my field, and others, and asking faculty members who had written successful grants for their recommendations. After I took all this information in, I wrote - I wrote a lot - multiple drafts of each grant.

Consequently, I was a Fulbright Fellow, and was awarded funding from the National Science Foundation, the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, and others.

So, I'm always a bit baffled by those who flock to the "after-market" for creative writers. No doubt, part of it is a social support system for what is admitedly a lonely and solitary craft, but it is also a very good way to: 1) part you from your valuable time and money; and 2) delay the inevitable, which is - writing! The British novelist Martin Amis once advised the worried-writer crowd with, "you simply must put the doubt and fear aside, and write."

I was thinking about this the other day while rereading a great book, "The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters" by Karl Iglesias (Avon, MA: Adams Media Corp.). A few choice passages in the section, "Point #15: Educating Yourself" echoed my thoughts.

Ron Bass

I came up to (a Stanford professor) after class one day and said, "I really want to write fiction What writing courses should I take?" He said, "Never, ever, ever take a writing course, never read a book about writing, never let anybody tell you how to write. Take literature courses, read, steal, turn everything to your interpretation. As soon as you take a writing course, it's the beginning of the end, because you establish someone else as the authority for how you can write, and it can't be. Writing is an art, it comes individually out of you. Only you can express your art your way, it's an expression of who you are. I can't tell you how to write, Fitzgerald couldn't tell you, Faulkner couldn't tell you."

Scott Rosenberg

It's very difficult to teach someone how to write characters and dialogue. I believe that with the best screenwriters, it's a God-given talent. What you can learn, however, is structure. And you don't even have to go to film school to learn. You can pretty much get that out of a couple books.

Robin Swicord

At the same time, I'm not sure anyone can teach you how to write. All writing is self-taught.

Lessons? Stop reading this blog and go back to writing - I am.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The ABCs of Chinese Food

Los Angeles County uses a letter-grade system to alert the public to "healthy" and "unhealthy" food. Some patrons were surprised to see poor marks for their favorite eateries when this system began a few years back (i.e., my beloved taco trucks - but that's another post), and the more squeamish foodies still check out the grade before trying a new place.

So today I was amused to read a Column One article in the LA Times on Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley which highlighted some of the cultural conflicts between Western-scientific frames of health and cuisine, with centuries-old traditions:

The county does not categorize restaurants by their cuisine. But, anecdotally, officials have long believed that Chinese restaurants elude A grades at a rate greater than any other type of restaurant. Consider this: 80% of the county's eateries have an A. So why is it so hard to find an authentic Chinese restaurant with anything other than a B or C?

Chinese restaurateurs argue that their kitchens simply use too many ingredients and too many cooking techniques to comply with the all the rules of health inspectors like Chiu.

They say inspectors are overly strict and that a perfect score is tantamount to destroying the flavor of their food. If a roast duck were kept at the temperature the county wants it at all times, for example, chefs say you'd be left with duck jerky, not the succulent flesh and crispy skin diners expect.

And if diners were getting sick, restaurant owners say, they wouldn't be coming to eat in such large numbers.

"We've been cooking like this for 5,000 years," said Harvey Ng, owner of Mission 261 in San Gabriel. "Why do we have a problem now?"

As for me? An old anthropological adage goes, "If it hasn't killed off an entire culture, it's good enough to eat."


No More Delaying....

Finally, finally, some good news for the week - and for the country:

WASHINGTON, Sept. 28 - Representative Tom DeLay of Texas, the powerful House Republican majority leader, was accused by a Texas grand jury today of criminal conspiracy in a campaign fund-raising scheme.

Mr. DeLay was indicted on one count charging that he violated state election laws in September 2002. Two political associates, John D. Colyandro and James W. Ellis, were indicted with him.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Something Out of Place

Halfway through a workweek, halfway through a mandated survey project, and I've only been able to collect enough material for one good rant (not on the survey - too much material for that - but I'd like to keep my job).

Monday night I saw a special screening of Capote starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and penned by actor-turned-first-time-screenwrighter Dan Futterman. The buzz about this movie from Telluride and Toronto was positive, and Hoffman's portrayal of TC is impressive. There is already a murmur going around some boards that Hoffman might get an Oscar nomination for this part. I liked it, so if you enjoy this blog, make the effort to catch it when it comes to your town.

My gripe, however, isn't with the cast - it's with the crew. One memorable scene has a headshot of Capote talking on the phone to New York from Kansas circa 1960. Nothing else is going on, except for a few cuts to the office in New York at the other end, so anything out of the ordinary stands out. I'll say - the phone he was talking on had an RJ11 phone jack sticking out of the end! All the other phone scenes remained true to the old hard-wired connections, but props failed on that one. A brief review of phone history in the US shows that RJ11 phone jacks only became widely introduced after 1977 to facilitate connections with *new* home consumer products like answering machines and faxes.

Leave it to an anthropologist to point out the obvious. (The AA's basic guide to ethnography: shut up, sit down, and observe before opening your mouth.)

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Busy, Busy, Busy

Your intrepid AA apologizes for the many of you who have visited this site only to see last month's measly offerings. With the busy testing season over at Happy Valley College (sic), I'm now well into the early-term survey season, complete with a consequential validity study of a language test which, probably, will need to be re-evaluated next term with additional validation research (i.e., criterion validation, cut score validation, reliability studies, and disproportionate impact surveys - if these terms inspire fear, you should be afraid - very, very afraid).

As you might imagine, with this going on, and other stuff away from the office, my posting has been on hiatus.

Nonetheless, come this weekend I'll be venturing out to two events I'm looking forward to. This Saturday evening at the Mountain Bar in Chinatown, Jim Ruland will be hosting another evening of literary readings with the next gathering of Vermin on the Mount, and Monday I'll be off to a special screening of Capote with Philip Seymour Hoffman, which recently created some buzz at the Toronto Film Festival.

And for the good stuff? The best line of this past week:

Student: How do I add a class? (Third time asking the same question.)

Supervisor: Go to the classroom and request an add slip. (Hitting his head on the counter while simultaneously answering.)

Student: Before class?

Supervisor: That's generally a good idea.

Student: But what do I say?

Supervisor: Try, "Hello."

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Devil in the Cinematic Details

While pundits and business reporters debate the latent causes for declining box office receipts, my own particular gripe with current releases has been over continuity and plain-old details. Nothing shouts "low-budget" or amateur as much as the jumbo jet flying over a shootout in the Old West. It just doesn't belong there, and professional movie makers should know better.

So I was a bit surprised to have that same "gotcha" moment last weekend when I went to see the latest David Roos film Happy Endings, which recieved high marks during the recent LA Film Festival. Two key scenes take place in Phoenix, yet for those who have visited the lower half of the Grand Canyon State, the terrain is unrecognizeable. Phoenix is flat - but in the movie verdant suburban hillsides abound with homes that look more like 1970's era construction in the San Fernando Valley than Southwest bungalows. A further hint that the crew wasn't on top of things was in the choice of license plates. If you see the movie (which I recommend), take a look at the cars in "Phoenix" - they all have California license plates!

I had a similar experience with Funny Ha-Ha, which was being screened in the Los Angeles area a couple months ago. One scene really got to me - a college professor in Boston hires the lead character as a research assistant. On the back of his office door was his academic cap and gown! (I've never seen that in all my years of academia, apart from graduation day - even then, most full professors just rent the stuff for the day.) And, to rub salt in the reality wound, on his desk was a rotary telephone! Since phones are university property, virtually all campuses of higher education chucked those out shortly after R11 phone jacks became standard. What was the director thinking?!

So, for the true cinemaphiles out there, it's not just plot, character development, and dialog that make you itch in your seat.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

In Need of Intelligent (Re)Design

"I think it's an interesting part of knowledge [to have] a theory of evolution and a theory of creationism. People should be exposed to different points of view," Bush said during one 1999 appearance, according to a news account at the time. "I personally believe God created the Earth," he said.

Out of the POTUS mouth comes another bit of Presidential wisdom. The LA Times ran articles today and yesterday on W's assertion that the latest incarnation of creation science - intelligent design - should be taught alongside universally-accepted norms of biological science.

Frankly, most scientists are a bit apoplectic at confronting psuedoscientific conjectures wrapped in the shroud of "divinely-directed covering statements," as in the case of intelligent design. For a more in-depth look, a wonderful piece was published not long ago in the New Yorker by H. Allen Orr. Please take a look.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Tales from Corporate Ethnography

If you haven't already seen it, please cruise over to Grant McCracken's blog on consumption and ethnographic research. A few days ago he posted some first-person experiences in the corporate ethnography trenches for The Coca-Cola Company and McDonald's. It's hilarious, and a must-read for the applied ethnography crowd (hint: it involves a researcher interviewing people at the drive-through window).

Commercial ethnography is sometimes the method of last resort. All other methods, quantitative and qualitative, have been tried and all have failed.

That's why, a couple of years ago, I got a call from The Coca-Cola Company (TCCC). A great torrent of Coke flows through McDonald's every day. So TCCC was particularly concerned by a new finding: that consumers order a smaller size of Coke when passing through the drive-through than when ordering indoors at the counter. Multiply this difference (even if it’s just 3 ounces) by millions of drinks per day over thousands of outlets, and you get the idea.

Click here to read the full article.

A Question of Skin Color

An old committee member of mine once told me, "If you want to read good anthropological topics, just open the newspaper." Today the LA Times is running a Column One article on skin whitening products marketed to the local Asian American community in So Cal.

Whitening products have been a mainstay in Asia for decades, but cosmetics industry officials said they have emerged as a hot seller in the United States only in the last four years. Whitening products now rack up $10 million in sales a year, according to the market research firm Euromonitor.

But their popularity has sparked a debate in the Asian American community about the politics of whitening. Qui and others say the quest for white skin is an Asian tradition. But others — younger, American-born Asians — question whether the obsession with an ivory complexion has more to do with blending into white American culture, or even a subtle prejudice against those with darker skin.

The market research firm says cosmetics companies have taken note of the sensitivity, saying their Asian skin products in America are intended not for "whitening" but for "brightening."

"It's not a politically correct term because it seems to imply that looking Caucasian via a white complexion is the desired beauty goal," said Virginia Lee, a Euromonitor analyst.

But it's not just a generational difference in attitude. Skin color and racial classifications have been at the core of anthropological research for well over a century, teasing out cultural constructions of behavior and attitudes that rely on phenotypic markers to "explain" their underlying causes. Take the following exchange between a husban and wife as one such example:

It's OK for American women to be darker, said her husband Lei Sun, a 36-year-old sushi chef. "It's part of the sports thing."

But Lei Sun prefers lighter-skinned Asian women, saying that they embody the traditional ideal known as si si wen wen. He looked to his wife to explain the concept.

"That means when a lady stands there with white skin and is very polite, and when she laughs, she doesn't make a big noise," Qiu said.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Critical Mass

It's Testing Time. Posted by Picasa

The Happy Staff at Assessment Central is quickly approaching critical mass. Today, and several days last week, we hit our theoretical maximum for accomodating test takers (close to 400 testing units/day), so The Angry Anthropologists is quickly becoming the Burned-Out Bureaucrat. Keep tuned in, however, and I'll post a few more of the comical responses and questions we continuously get during the peak July/August season.

Did make a few template changes, and added another section from folks I have enjoyed reading.

Lastly, remember that if you loose your sense of humor in lines of sweating, angst-ridden undergraduates waiting to be tested, advised, and counseled, you'll look like the following:

And before you get your classes.... Posted by Picasa

Thursday, July 21, 2005

L.A. Street Life

It's Alternative News Thursday, and the latest LA Weekly includes an interesting article on the downtown weekend shopping hub in the Fashion District. But, if you want an even more culturally dislocating marketing experience, try walking around greater Koreatown on an early Saturday evening when the Latino sidewalk hawkers lay out their wares for sale.

Talk about street life: The 20 blocks that are devoted to low-end but extremely high-volume retail sales are mobbed on weekends. This is where the immigrant underclass shops, arriving on foot and by bus, buying everything from designer seconds to overstock to bootleg DVDs and lovebirds, meantime eating sliced mangoes, watermelon and cucumbers with lime, salt and chile, while the tantalizing smell of sausages cooking with onions and peppers on sidewalk grills wafts over the crowd. The scene along the series of alleys and covered passageways and sidewalks — where shops spill out onto the street and vendors from all nations hawk their wares, some even climbing ladders in order to maximize visibility over the elbow-to-elbow hubbub — is vivid, tactile, like an outdoor souk or bazaar.

This isn’t the nice and neat American Way of Shopping with which Angelenos are all so familiar, but it sure is more interesting. There are no chain stores here. Ninety-five percent of retailers are mom-and-pop enterprises employing five or fewer people. Even St. Joseph’s Church has exploited its Fashion District location, having built out the circumference of its property with retail stores and paying its monthly dues into the local business improvement district. But while retail sales are estimated at an impressive $1 billion annually, it’s the $7 billion wholesale industry that booms.

“The Intersection,” as it’s called, at Ninth and Los Angeles, has more square footage devoted to the fashion industry than anywhere in the universe — with the huge California Market Center, the largest apparel wholesale mart in the U.S., on one corner, and the Cooper Building, the Streamline Modern Gerry Building, and the New Mart on the other corners. Southern California has lost 30,000 manufacturing jobs, mostly to China, but they’ve been replaced with higher-skilled, better-paying jobs in the wholesale business, and L.A. now has more apparel jobs than New York City....

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Consumption Wars: Starbucks - Here, and Across the Pond

A hectic day at the office, so forgive the evening posting. Thanks to Arts and Letters Daily, I noticed two articles which discuss varying attitudes towards corporate standardization of coffee products (id est, Starbucks), more or less.

On this side of the Big Pond is the latest work by Rebecca Solnit on the lost art of getting lost:

We live in an increasingly standardized environment, bouncing from one branch of Starbucks to another, and it's almost impossible to get truly lost thanks to technology. Solnit believes that our fear of not knowing where we are is partly due to our inability to read the language of nature. "There's an art to attending to the weather, to the route you take, to the landmarks along the way. . . . And there's another art of being at home in the unknown, so that being in its midst isn't cause for panic or suffering."

And some thousands of miles away, a London-based writer pubically admits to a consumption addiction:

This isn't a particularly easy thing for me to admit, but then dark confessions so rarely are. I have a certain predilection, shall we say, for Starbucks. Granted, I'm not overly proud of being a regular, sometimes daily, visitor to the coffee house's answer to McDonald's, but I must be a fairly loyal one. My pocket calculator tells me that, rather obscenely, I spend somewhere in the region of £440 a year in branches across London.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Assessment Train at Happy Times CC

While most Angelinos, especially those living inland, are complaining about the unbearable heat this week, the TAA and staff/friends are dealing with another onslaught of record-breaking proportions: registration and assessment testing of new students at Happy Times CC in the San Gabriel Valley.

An annual event for staff and students, this year seems to be particularly busy. If the numbers keep up, we'll have almost 14,000 standardized tests administered in our office through August. So, while I had hoped to keep up with the blogging, I may need to take several days off for both physical and mental retooling. You would too, given some of the questions and statements typically heard this time of the year, such as:

I'm here for my replacement test.
You mean your placement test?
Yeah, that's what I said - my replacement test.

Hello, Testing Services.
Yes, hello. I need to ask you a question about financial aid.
This isn't the Financial Aid Office, why don't you call them directly? We can't help you with any financial aid questions. They're in another building.
They're not picking up their phone - but you guys are.

What tests do you need to take today?
Umm, uhmm.... (silence)
Hello? [Hand wave by testing staff member.]
[Bewildered look by student at front desk.]
What tests to you need to take? Why are you in this office?
I don't know.....

Do you have any form of photo identification with you?
Nah, I've only got my driver's license.
That is a form of ID!
No it's not - it's a license.

Multiply this by a factor of thousands, and you'll feel just like everyone else in this office - at least until the semester begins.

American Junk 'N Stuff

From the popular-culture-meets-material-culture files, Tom Vanderbilt writes about the burgeoning trade in self-storage units in the U.S. in today's edition of Slate.

What this translates into, apart from one hell of a lot of stationary bikes kept behind padlocked metal doors, is an industry that now exceeds the revenues of Hollywood (and doesn't have to deal with Tom Cruise). One in 11 American households, according to a recent survey, owns self-storage space—an increase of some 75 percent from 1995. Most operators of self-storage facilities report 90 percent occupancy, with average stints among its renters of 15 months. Last year alone saw a 24 percent spike in the number of self-storage units on the market.

How did self storage, or "mini storage," as it's sometimes called, become such an enormous enterprise? And what on earth are people keeping in there?

In a word? Junk! I've dealt with the accumulation of multiple lifetimes when my father remarried several years ago. Dad and my stepmom had sizeable collections of furniture, art, and things that annoyingly clutter any stable shelf in a household. Merging two households into one would seem to most folk a problem requiring cleaning, selling, and organizing what's left. They opted for the new American course of "putting in storage," including two storage units and a garage that can no longer accomodate a car. And every time I'm summoned to help the elders resort and relabel (which they do often, but never get rid of it), I feel a bit like a reluctant archaeologist (not my field of expertise, nor my liking).

Enough of my rants. It's been a bad week.

Monday, July 11, 2005

American Gothic Returns to the Corn Fields

The little house behind the big picture. Posted by Picasa

Big news from the wilds of Iowa. The famous American Gothic painting by Grant Wood will travel to Cedar Rapids from the Art Institute of Chicago this fall, as reported in the Chicago Tribune last weekend.

Their faces won't betray it, but the farm couple in "American Gothic" are getting a rare chance to visit their hometown this fall, a leave granted in light of their 75 years together.

Almost since its completion, the painting has been owned by the Art Institute of Chicago, which paid artist Grant Wood $300 for it in late 1930, after it won third place in a juried show there. The work was an immediate sensation and remains a signature holding of the museum. And its dour duo, the man with his hay fork, the woman in her prim apron, are among pop culture's more recognized and mercilessly parodied images.

The institute rarely lends the piece, because it is fragile and its absence would disappoint so many visitors.

"It's one of our `destination' pictures," said Judith Barter, curator of American art.

But in early September, its destination will be Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Wood's boyhood home will get to see "American Gothic" from Sept. 10 to Dec. 4, when the painting will star in a major exhibition of his works in the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art.

You'll find the American Gothic House down near the Missouri border in Eldon, Iowa - and I've been there (on a summer trip in which copious amounts of fireworks were purchased in the Show Me The Money state). A picture and brief description can be found here. It's surprisingly off the beaten path, with about a half dozen signs in Eldon sending you on detour-laden trip to a dusty road, and a sharp corner with a rusting metal barn, across from which is the house - much smaller than the painting makes it look - and a historical marker. So, the TAA gets double braggings rights, having seen the painting in person, and the house.

Consequences of Wealth in China

A good article from the front page of today's LA Times discusses the unintended consequences of China's rapidly-expanding economy: psychological pressure on young professionals to succeed and and consume more goods.

Experts say the very forces that provide unprecedented opportunity for young people in the new China are also delivering unprecedented stress, particularly though not exclusively in urban areas. Common among young Chinese is a feeling that they're living in a once-in-a-few-centuries era when dynasties topple and individual fortunes are made — and that they're missing out.

"The whole society is impatient, especially the young people," said Zhou Xiaozheng, a professor of sociology at People's University in Beijing. "President Hu Jintao said recently we Chinese must be modest and cautious and avoid arrogance. Of course, that means we're none of these things."

Though pressure to do well is evident almost everywhere in the world, experts say it's greater in China in part because people here think the nation has arrived late to the global economic party and needs to make up for lost time. Catching up economically with rich neighbors such as Japan and South Korea is seen as a way of "regaining" China's rightful place on the international stage.

Insecurity among young professionals, often manifest in frenzied job-hopping, is fueled by media coverage of the super-rich, such as online-game mogul Chen Tianqiao, worth an estimated $1.05 billion at age 31. Or Huang Guangyu, founder of electronic retailer GoMe, estimated to be worth $1.3 billion at 35. Or thirtysomething Ding Lei of Internet portal NetEase, at $668 million.

By most measures, Wang Sujun is doing well. The 32-year-old has a master's degree from Peking University, China's Harvard, and a prestigious job with Beijing Mobile, a major telecommunications company. He says he's happily married and in March welcomed the arrival of a healthy daughter, Zizuo. In a country where the average annual salary is less than $1,000, he's making more than 11 times that much.

But Wang doesn't feel successful.

"Life is so stressful, I feel enormous pressure on my shoulders all the time," he said, his words tumbling out in a series of rapid bursts. "If I could only do better somehow, I might become rich and happy."

When he meets with his three best friends, they talk about what they need to be more successful. Wang wants more money, and he worries that his peers have better jobs, nicer apartments, fancier cars.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Friday Afternoon Burnout

Another workweek ends on a slightly dour note - the test-takers at the Little College were thoroughly enervating this week, and a time series analysis of their placement scores would probably show a linear (negative) relationship between time of the month and their respective scores, based on previous experience.

But on a more happy note, LA Alternative Press has published its Best Of Alternative LA List for perusal and debate. Two of the better alternatives are close to my heart:

The Best Alternative to TalkingSit Down and Shut Up
Los Angeles has long been plagued by a relentless virus called verbal diarrhea. The symptoms are as follows: aimless babble, continuous celebrity chatter, smooth speech and pet-induced gibberish. The virulent infection has spread so fast, few Angelenos realize they are constantly showered with hogwash and spewing baloney. There is one temporary treatment available for this syntactic sickness, but it requires the sick to check into “silence clinics.” They spend a day, week, month or longer on a silent retreat, where they eat, meditate, do yoga and other spiritual practices of choice without uttering a word. Upon discharge, people are known to have sharpened senses and clearer minds. It’s up to you to bring an end to this epidemic by treating yourself to a silent retreat. Otherwise, verbal diarrhea will spread throughout the rest of California, the United States and after that nothing will stop it. (Jasmin Persch)

And this one hit a bit too close to home (remember the Vermin on the Mount reading in Chinatown next weekend!):

Best Alternative to Westside Bars for 30+-Year-Old Heavy Drinkers
The “Real” Chinatown If you’re lucky enough to get past the age of 30, and you drink, you suddenly begin searching for more convenient, safer places to do so. If you live on the Eastside, sometimes that trek out to Hollywood or Santa Monica can get dicey, especially if you put a load on. Chinatown then (the real Chinatown, not the one bought and paid for out in the San Gabriel Valley), is a great location because of six major factors:

1) Three bars within feet-and stumbling-distance of each other.
2) Close, and usually free parking in lots.
3) No cops.
4) Quick freeway access: the Pasadena/Harbor/Golden State are a block away.
5) No trouble from any “elements.”
6 ) All bartenders, doormen, and owners are mellow with zero-attitude.

In that main plaza area, between Broadway and Hill, you have Grand Star Jazz Club, Mountain Bar, and Hop Louie. Park in back off of College St.—the only trouble you’ll have is the same homeless dude who’s been in that lot forever asking you for a cigarette. Yeah, sometimes you think about giving him a good smack, but he’s harmless. (Jim Marquez)

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Bombing Updates

For those who wish to keep up on the details about the London bombings, the Guardian has a real-time blog from the UK.

London Bombings Fallout on the Market

Like most of you, I'm still trying to keep up on the aftermath of today's London bombings while juggling a heavy load at the office, but I couldn't help noticing that on Slate Daniel Gross comments on what financial markets might make of this trauma (given that about >90% of economics is psychology - especially on the trading floor).

Talking about a market session in the middle of it is like writing the story about a baseball game in the fourth inning. And the scale of the 7/7 attacks is much smaller and in many ways fundamentally different than the 9/11 attacks; trading never stopped on the London exchanges and New York trading opened on schedule. Still, it's worth noting that the early market reaction to the London bombings shows some striking similarities to the reaction to Sept. 11.

Markets have a lot of muscle memory. And when traders and investors react to crises that crop up, they instinctively and perhaps subconsciously fall back on knowledge and experience. Just as generals always fight the last war, traders grappling with a coordinated terrorist attack on a global financial center to a degree are trading the last event. Today, in the markets in London and New York, we're seeing the lessons of the post-9/11 investment fallout being applied in real time.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Win Friends on a Jury

The Times auto section contains the hilarious details of traffic collision case settled out of court in 2003 for a reported $6 million involving a young Paris Hilton-wannabe and an off-duty police officer in Palmdale. Guess who was talking on the cell phone? Obstensibly, the article was about the doubling of cell phone use by drivers in the US since 2000, and limits on auto liability insurance stemming from distracted motorists. But, the details are too good to pass up:

Although the teenager denied using a cellphone at the time of the accident, her phone records showed that she was on a call at the approximate time of the crash."

She said she hung up before the accident," said Hugh J. Grant, the attorney for the young defendant. "The jury didn't believe her."

Indeed, the jury delivered a stunning award: $7.3 million for the officer.

Who was going to pay for this and why did the jury give so much? Many cases involving death or permanent disability result in less compensation to victims. Even many drunk driving cases result in lower awards. But this was no ordinary case.

"It was an angry jury," recalled R. Rex Parris, the Lancaster attorney who represented the police officer.

"It was a very unusual case with some very unusual injury allegations," Grant said.

What inflamed the jury? Was it the cellphone? The fact that the injured defendant was a police officer? The behavior of the defendant?

The teenager "showed up with a $1,000 Louis Vuitton purse and $1,000 spike heels," Parris said. "I just wanted the jury to see the purse again. She didn't want to show it. I asked her if she had the cellphone with her. When she pulled it out, the power was on. She had come to court with a cellphone turned on. The jury was kind of incensed by the whole thing."

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Upcoming LA-Lit Events

I've been out of action for couple months (more on that sometime in the future), but to return to true angry form, I'll be dropping in at a couple LA Lit events in the coming weeks.

First, this Saturday Skylight Books will host a panel of countervailing feminist narratives:

Time: Saturday, July 9, 2005 5:00 PM


Beyond Chick-Lit: Busting the stereotypes and publishing limitations of women who write.This remarkable panel of women novelists will discuss the ways in which their literature is challenged by the act of publishing -- why book marketers feel they have to put women writers into categories like Chick-Lit (for which there is no male equivalent), race, sexual orientation, etc because they believe that unless they do, they cannot sell literature by women. They will also discuss how this affects their writing lives and what can be done to change stereotypes about women writers.

And remember, if you hang around Los Feliz Village afterwards you can catch lounge singing icons Marty and Elayne at the Dresden just one block away.

Second, the estimable Mr. Ruland has announced the next Vermin on the Mount reading at the Mountain Bar in Chinatown on Saturday, July 16. Presenters will be Jacob Forman, Lizz Huerta, Wendy Molyneux and Daniel Olivas. Be there.

Liars, Cheats, Spies, and Birders

If you don't have access to the Los Angeles Times, check out today's front page Column One article on birders falling prey to post-9-11 paranoia. It's quite a shock over morning coffee:

Over the last four decades, bird-watchers have flocked to the four manufactured islands of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, where at least 350 different species have been spotted. "It's probably the single most popular birding site in the mid-Atlantic," said Brinkley, who edits the journal North American Birds.

But nowadays it isn't as easy or simple for birders like Brinkley to do what they love. At popular birding sites across the country, they are facing stricter regulations — in some cases being required to hire a police escort — as authorities beef up national security.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Americans have been subject to increased government restrictions and scrutiny at airports and elsewhere. That bird-watchers have become a target is somewhat surprising, since all they do is "walk quietly through the woods," as Brinkley put it.

But those woods are often around military bases, wastewater management plants and dams — places where government authorities fear that terrorists, disguised as birders, could lurk or strike.

And the equipment they carry — binoculars, telescopes and cameras — can make birders look suspicious at first glance. That has been the case at Wisconsin's Jones Island, a peninsula in Milwaukee Harbor about 100 yards from a Coast Guard station and a Navy Reserve station.

Since they have "sophisticated gear and [are] looking at things not normally photographed by the common citizen in this area, they may be stopped and asked a few questions," said Lt. Jamie Rickerson, chief of port operations at the Coast Guard station's Marine Safety office.

Now, I personally know some birders, and they are about as likely a group of terrorists as one might find at a Popular Mechanics reading group. They are also, I might add, much smarter than the minor-league Platos who came up with this policy.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Fuzzy Math and the WSJ

If you are in the mood for a data-reality-check, read Jonathan Chait's commentary in today's LA Times on the slick relativism found in the pages of the Wall Street Journal.

A Wall Street Journal editorial this week cites a recent IRS study detailing which income groups pay what level of taxes. The editors note with satisfaction that the highest-earning 0.1% of the population paid 5.06% of the federal tax burden in 1979, and was paying 9.52% as of a couple of years ago.

To the Journal editors, this proves that "the overall tax burden grew more progressive from 1979 to 1999." The editorial goes on to note that any move to raise taxes on the rich would be deeply unfair because those poor folks "already bear an outsized share of the American tax burden."

It is certainly true that the richest 0.1% are paying a higher share of the national tax burden. Is that because they're getting socked by the tax code? No, it's because the very rich are earning a far bigger proportion of the national income. In 1979, the highest-earning 0.1% took home about 3% of the national income, and paid about 5% of the taxes. In 1999, they earned about 10% of the national income and paid about 11% of the taxes.

In fact, the tax rate borne by the very rich has plummeted. In 1979, the top 0.1% paid, on average, 32% of their income in taxes. Today, they pay less than 23%. So what's happening is that the top 0.1% are paying a higher share of the tax burden because their share of the national income is rising faster than their tax rates are falling. The Journal editorial board sees this state of affairs as class warfare against the rich.

And as long as you're visiting, check out Bill Maher's piece on GOP rage. Realizing you have a problem is the first step to recovery.

Burger Town

Everyone knows about certain cities and their favorite fast foods: Philly and hoagies, Chicago and hot dogs, etc. But long-term readers of TAA will remember that most of the burger chains in the U.S. began in SoCal (White Castle sliders don't quite classify as burgers in my book). Local blog LAist returns to the fatty favorite of Los Angeles and asks for frenzied feedback.

But a burger is a state of mind, a craving, a bite of Americana right up there with apple pie. And burgers can get dressed up for all sorts of occasions: hoe-down style with BBQ sauce and some onion straws, dressed to impress with designer cheese and pricey wedges of smoky bacon, or down and dirty slathered in chili. It's easy to become a burger elitist or connoisseur; we become devotees to one neighborhood diner, joint or stand, or, we treat the burger like a gourmet meal, and sample the beef-and-buns at high-end restaurants. And while we know it's pretty tough to beat an old fashioned home-grilled backyard BBQ burger, there are some choices in LA. We'll tell you what we like, and then it's your turn.

Top pick? Obviously, In-N-Out. Who wouldn't like a place with a completely hidden menu savored by locals?

Live Vermin

What do you call a group of vermin reading literature? Jim Ruland, L.A.'s legendary host for the reading series Vermin on the Mount, is now up-and-running online. If memory serves me, Jim said the next readings should take place in July.

Our fangs are fullsome, yes, but not as venomous as they once were. Although we aren't above the occassional lazy swipe at an easy target, we don't intend to subject you to vituperative outbursts about stuff we don't like, or foam-flecked fulminations about things we love. You will, however, find Vermin-related updates, amusements, and other earnest distractions.

Monday, April 25, 2005

LA Times Festival of Books 2005

Some weeks, the blogging commentary just comes forth without effort, and other weeks are marked by barren landscapes of thought and activity. The past two weeks have been filled with much activity, and little to show for it on this site. Nonetheless, my period of (in)activity was topped this past weekend by the 10th Annual LA Times Festival of Books, now one of the largest bibliophile festivals on the west coast, and associated happenings.

A few comments and observations are in order:

I've organized and chaired more than a few panels at professional meetings in the U.S. and abroad, so I have some experience about what makes for a good moderator, and a poor one. Next year, if you are selected to chair a panel, please keep in mind the following:

A) Time is important - make sure a panelist doesn't hog the microphone, it's a panel, not a presentation.

B) A Q&A Session is one structured around brief questions from the audience, and succinct answers from panelists. It is not, and should not, be a "Speech and Answer" session, giving airhead windbags a moment of theatrical elevation at the expense of everyone else in the room.

C) Control the discussion by taking the middle road: Most of those in the audience are not industry "insiders," so they won't get obscure jokes or references, nor are they complete dimwits - this is a book festival, not a NASCAR race. Have panelists briefly explain concepts or historic events that might not be familiar to everyone in the audience, and keep the discussion away from esoterica.

Last comment: Getting tickets for this is a pain! While free at participating TicketMaster locations in SoCal, repeat festival goers know that in order to get into the larger events (i.e., cosmological writers and/or celebrities) you have to camp out in line far in advance of the noon release. This year I arrived at the Pasadena spot at 11:45 am and finally picked up my tix at 2:15 pm! The experience would not have been as traumatic if senior citizen "Ruth" and her friends standing immediately behind me had not complained incessantly about the most mundane minutia for the entire 2 1/2 hours. Finding parking in Westwood on a Saturday and Sunday was a breeze compared to that experience.

Now for the observations. First, it was thankfully cooler this year, and we were spared from a chance of Saturday afternoon rain on the UCLA campus. Saturday morning I went to the "Writers in Exile" panel, primarily to see Chris Abani, who has written a wonderful first novel Graceland, but the feel in the room and at the signing afterward was that many came to see Ved Mehta, a well-known writer and former staff writer at The New Yorker (and another victim of Tina Brown's tenure). The afternoon was capped with another great fiction panel, "First Fiction: Finding a Voice" featuring Lisa Glatt and Sarah Shun-lien Bynum (another Iowa grad). Lisa regaled us with a hilarious account of going out to dinner with a fellow student at Sarah Lawrence who was "obviously insance" but lacking any other friends Lisa continued to have dinner with her unbalanced fellow MFA student in the name of companionship, if not sanity. And when the moderator Mark Rozzo (first fiction editor at the LATRB) reminded everyone to turn off their cell phones, Lisa was the first to jump off her chair and do so (usually, this request is directed at member of the audience, not the panel).

Saturday night Jim Ruland hosted yet another memorable gathering of irreverent writers and poets at the Mountain Bar in Chinatown for Vermin on the Mount, an occasional reading series, this time co-sponsored by Swink Magazine. I think it was the best by far, with a respectable crowd. Julianne Flynn read from her work-in-progress novel Buzzkill, and let us see the face behind the legs on her lit blog. She has posted several pictures of the evening for those of you who might want to see "proof" that there is a thriving literature community in Los Angeles. And Mark Sarvas, who detailed happenings at the Festival of Books on a real-time basis at The Elegant Variation read from his novel under construction.

Sunday I popped in at a couple panels on Hollywood (last year I focused on Crime and Mystery writers, this year, the other sordid aspect of LA) and finished with "A Sense of Place: The Liturature of Cities" featuring Marc Cooper, who has just completed a work on Las Vegas. But, in a final gesture of bureaucratic irony, the moderator's gavel was given to Thomas Curwen, the LAT editor of the Outdoor Section, on a panel of writer and researchers who focus on cities and urban areas. Go figure.

Still, highly enjoyable and rewarding. Make the effort to go next year - just don't get stuck next to Ruth in line.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Paleolithic Porno

From Arts and Letters Daily we came across this article on pornographic sculptures found recently in some German archaeological sites. The bottom line? Archaeologists - go get a life.

New pornographic figurines from the Stone Age have been discovered in Germany. But researchers can't agree on what the 7,000-year-old sculptures mean. Were our ancestors uninhibited sex fiends, or was reproduction strictly controlled to improve mobility? An increasing number of finds seem to indicate the Stone Age was an orgy of sexual imagination.

Revisiting the Tax Gap on Tax Day

For you international readers, today is the deadline in the U.S. for filing individual income taxes with the federal government (and most state governments). Unlike many countries, the U.S. tax system is mired in a bog of multiple tax forms, write-offs, and regulations, requiring even individuals with little tax calculation to spend hours completing forms in accordance with annual changes in the tax code (for a not-so-fun trip through bureaucracy Americana, visit the Internal Revenue Service and download some forms). But, on top of this, we also have a pronounced shortfall in expected tax revenues - especially business taxes - at the same time that commerce spokespersons becry the lack of a "favorable" business climate in one of the world's most open market economies. This week's snapshot from the Economic Policy Institute contains the sordid details.

The latest research from the Internal Revenue Service puts the amount of taxes owed but not paid "voluntarily and timely"--also known as the "tax gap"--at $353 billion, or about 15% of total taxes owed. The U.S. tax system depends in great part on voluntary compliance. The extent of such compliance in the United States compares well with other countries, but this asset is in danger of being squandered by inadequate tax enforcement. Failure to enforce the law encourages greater evasion, and increased evasion puts a greater burden on enforcement, contributing to a vicious circle that increases the tax gap.

How to Write Real Good

Today's Chronicle has an amusing article on the shortcomings of grammar-checking in Microsoft products. Those enamored with technological crutches and mental crib-sheets should take a look, and then go back to their dictionaries. On the other hand, the grammar police are slowly losing the battle - just listen for the lack of adverbs next time you tune into the radio or watch the boob tube.

If you've ever used Microsoft Word, chances are you've seen that jagged green line appear beneath something you've written -- scolding you for drafting a fragmented sentence, maybe, or for slipping into the passive voice. That's Microsoft's grammar-checking technology at work.

But how much good does the grammar checker actually do? Precious little, according to Sandeep Krishnamurthy, an associate professor of marketing and e-commerce at the University of Washington. After experimenting with the tool, Mr. Krishnamurthy concluded that it cannot identify many basic grammatical faux pas -- like errors in capitalization, punctuation, and verb tense.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Another Literary Passing

I'm still reeling from the passing of Saul Bellow (Mark Sarvas has a good roundup of coverage at The Elegant Variation), and then read this hour that Frank Conroy, former head of the UI Writer's Workshop, has died in Iowa City. From my old newspaper:

Head of Writers' Workshop dies

Frank Conroy, head of the acclaimed University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop since 1987, died at his home today. He was 69.

In August 2004, Conroy, of Iowa City, announced he would end his 18-year tenure one year later, citing health problems and a desire to pursue other goals, such as teaching and writing. He had been battling colon cancer and last summer said he was symptom free.

Conroy is the author of “Stop-Time,” a 1967 memoir nominated for the National Book Award, “Body & Soul,” “Dogs Bark, but the Caravan Rolls On,” and his latest, "Time and Tide." His essays and shorts stories have appeared in several magazines, such as The New Yorker, Esquire and GQ.

In a press release from the University of Iowa, author Chris Offutt, a visiting faculty member who was Conroy's student in the workshop, said "Frank had a great influence on every student fortunate enough to study with him, but his biggest impact was on American literature. He not only took his job seriously, but he provided unflagging support for young writers. Many of his former students have gone on to distinguished careers."

Conroy was also an accomplished jazz pianist won a Grammy Award in 1986 and was named Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Government.

UI’s Writers’ Workshop was founded in 1936 and is the first of its kind in the nation. It has produced writers such as Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Cunningham, Jane Smiley and John Irving. Marilynne Robinson, a workshop faculty member, won a Pulitzer Tuesday.

More Fossil Record Follies

Today's NYT reports on a recent Homo erectus find which might show evidence of social behavior, specifically, the care of indigent elderly. Other finds show more conclusive evidence in later hominid remains - this is much earlier than previously thought. The phys anthro crowd has always been guilty of reading too much into the fossil record (partly due to the dearth of evidence in their specialty, and partly due to the gung-ho personality of many rock hounds), but this article raised the following observation: Since hominids, by their physical nature, seem to have needed social protection and survival skills (i.e., reduced canines, lack of insulating body hair, reduced physical strength in comparison to other primates, early evidence of tool use and fire which require instruction from generation to generation, etc), why should we be surprised if an early H. erectus seemed to have lived for at least two years on old age sans dentition? At least read the article - then you decide.

The well-preserved skull belonged to a male Homo erectus about 40 years old. All his teeth, except the left canine, were missing. The empty tooth sockets had been filled in by a regrowth of bone, the scientists said, indicating that the man had been toothless for at least two years before he died at what was then an old age. (The discoverers call him the "old man.")

In a report in today's issue of the journal Nature, the discovery team said the 1.77-million-year-old skull "raises questions about alternative subsistence strategies in early Homo."

Specifically, how could the man have survived that long, unable to chew the food of a mainly meat-eating society?

In interviews and the current issue of National Geographic, the paleoanthropologists said caring companions might have helped the toothless man in finding soft plant food and hammering raw meat with stone tools so he could "gum" his dinner. If so, they said, this was evidence of a kind of compassion that had been absent in the ancestral fossil record before the Neanderthals 60,000 years ago.

Monday, April 04, 2005


My apologies to the global readers of The Angry Anthropologist. Last week I was busy with some deadlines (with more to come), hence, posts were few and curt. I'll try better this week to keep up-to-date with news topics worthy of an anthropological perspective and commentary. And, as always, thanks for visiting.

-Formosus in Pasadena, CA.

Nursing Discovers Culture

Today's LA Times reports on a dissertation research project focusing on modesty among Jewish women, and its impact on seeking medical care:

Caryn Andrews had been in search of a dissertation topic when a member of her synagogue happened to pose a question: "Do you think religious Jews would be less likely to go for a mammogram?"

Intrigued, Andrews, a doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland School of Nursing, pondered the question with her rabbi, Susan Grossman, at Beth Shalom in Columbia, Md. "She suggested that I couldn't look at religion; I had to look at modesty," Andrews says.

It was a crucial distinction in a faith in which healing oneself and others is a requirement, but one that can often be difficult because of some forms of modesty practiced in the Jewish community.

A dissertation topic was born.

The concept of modesty and its role in Jewish culture led Andrews, an oncology nurse practitioner at Northwest Hospital Center in Randallstown, Md., to research whether modesty among Jewish women might discourage them from receiving breast cancer screenings.

Andrews hopes that her findings and further studies will have an effect on the administration of healthcare in any community where rules of modesty may pose obstacles to mammography, other forms of preventive healthcare and treatment.

My reactions over morning coffee were twofold. One, congratulations on perceiving the role of culture in shaping medical decisions - it's been done for decades by others, especially in the field of medical anthropology (Caveat: Yours truly has been a blind reviewer for Medical Anthropology Quarterly). Two, reading along I had hoped that the study would involve more than a relatively small sample of interviews and creation of a psychometric scale (a methodological crutch in many medical-behavioral studies), but then, I was wrong:

In interviews with 40 women, Andrews also gleaned the many dimensions of the role played by modesty in their lives, from the clothing they wore to the books they read.

The result, Andrews says, was the development of a "modesty scale that provides evidence that modesty can be measured."

How to Trek Without Really Trying

Want to experience the natural wonders of the Central American rain forest with an eye to ecological correctness? Don't want to give up all the amenities of civilization? You can do so at Francis Ford Coppola's eco-lodge in Belize, covered extensively in Sunday's NYT:

Because this moment was created by Mr. Coppola - director, producer, writer, winemaker and hotelier - it feels slightly unreal, but in the nicest possible way. In my experience, this sort of outing has been synonymous with slogging, sleeping on the ground and feeling like a contestant in a reality show. In order to see the Himalayas, for example, I once trekked for eight days in August with two guides and four ponies - chugging water that reeked of iodine and breakfasting on raw apples. And when I went to Camiguin, a volcanic island in the Philippines, the only time I wasn't slicked in grease and sweat was when I was paddling in a reef with sea snakes.

But here at Blancaneaux and at Mr. Coppola's other Central American properties - Turtle Inn, in the village of Placencia on the coast of Belize, and La Lancha, on Lake Petén Itzá in Guatemala - travelers who might have been backpackers in another era can enter an authentic but sensually gratifying version of the third world stage-managed by a master. The feeling at Blancaneaux Lodge and at La Lancha, which I also visited, is that of being at a private club for experienced travelers hip to the notion of exploring, preserving and celebrating the indigenous culture without sacrificing laundry service and a wine list.

With handmade textiles, furniture and folk art collected by Mr. Coppola and his wife, Eleanor, across Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, guest quarters are free of telephones and, of course, TV's or DVD players (though Internet access is available at the front desks). International cellphones don't work, and you'll have to stand in line to use the house telephone - not that anyone seems to mind. You're free to tune in to the scratching sounds of thatch-colored lizards or the ticking of woodpeckers or to the screams of howler monkeys staking out their territory in the dead of night.

But it's the charm factor that puts Mr. Coppola's resorts over the top. When I wake at sunrise, craving sustenance, I press the switch on an intercom by my bed; it's concealed by a conch shell that promptly lights up. Room service arrives 10 minutes later. (Later, Mr. Coppola tells me via e-mail that the device, which he calls the shellphone, "was an idea I had for years. I love its eccentricity.")

Part of the allure of visiting remote vacation destinations is the journey and sacrifice (albeit small) of the traveler: it is the "re-creation" of something that existed before, seen as unsullied, pure, untouched. Room service doesn't seem to me to be part of that wonder. It reminds me too much of a tale recounted by American mountaineers in the Himalayas. Apparently, you could tell the British climbers from the Americans before they emerged from their tents after a good night's sleep: the British instructed their Sherpa guides to bring them hot tea while still snuggled in their sleeping bags.

Off the Media Radar

From the "off the English-language media radar" files, we learn that two of the largest Chinese-language dailies in the U.S. find something positive in the acrimonious debate over the late Terri Schiavo. Courtesy of the Pacific News Service:

Many mainstream media have described the controversy over the Terri Schiavo case as "grotesque," "awful" and "divisive." However, two of the largest Chinese American dailies in the United States -- Sing Tao Daily and the World Journal -- find a positive note in the controversy, mostly the singularly American response to an undoubtedly difficult issue.

World Journal editor-in-chief Yu Ru Chen writes that the resolution of the case and the public's response show that "the democratic process is deeply rooted in people's hearts." The World Journal recalls how the controversy wound its way through contending branches of government, noting that the Bush administration "used its majority advantage in Congress" to "single-handedly enact a law to move Schiavo's jurisdiction to a federal court" after a Florida court refused to order the replacement of her feeding tube.

Despite the outcry over states' rights that the move set off, "using this legislative method to give the right to the courts to decide" showed that the executive "still respects" the judiciary branch. "This is America's proudest political capital," says the World Journal.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

The End of Dutch Relativism?

Just how far can cultural relativism go? The Dutch have been famous for their tolerance and acceptance of diparate populations in the Netherlands, but after a series of infamous killings, fissures have emerged in Dutch popular opinion. The Pacific News Service has an article on one recent development that those interested in contemporary "culture wars" should put in the files.

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands--After a 19-year-old man of Moroccan descent was run down and killed in January by a Dutch woman driver trying to recover her stolen purse, mourners blamed Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk for the death.

Gathered at a makeshift memorial here earlier this winter, the mourners said Verdonk's tough immigration reforms have increased Dutch xenophobia against Muslims, spurring the woman's violent reaction against the alleged thief.

Yet some voices here say that it is, ironically, the famous Dutch tolerance -- euthanasia, gay marriage and soft-drug use are allowed here -- that may have laid the foundation for current ethnic tensions.

"The problem is we have been tolerant of the intolerant, and now we are paying the bill," says Bart Jan Spruyt, director of the conservative Edmund Burke Foundation in The Hague.

In a nation of 16 million, 1 million residents are Muslim. But according to Spruyt, cultural relativism has reigned so long that there has been little, if any, push to integrate immigrants from Morocco and Turkey into Dutch society.

Monday, March 28, 2005


No, this is not serious news, nor anthropological, in any normal sense of the term. But it is very, very funny on a Monday morning.

HOBART, Ind. (AP) -- While there's nothing special about U.S. Postal Service workers being terrorized by dogs, the size of one here is raising eyebrows.

Mail carriers said they were recently unable to deliver mail to homes along a section of Guyer Street in this northwestern Indiana city because of a 4.5-pound Chihuahua named Bobo.

"The little Chihuahua was 10-foot tall when he was on the street," said Florence Page of the Hobart Humane Society, which picked up the dog twice for running loose. "It's kind of comical, you know, but after a while it's not any more."

Hobart police officer Ron Schalk said he had no option but to cite Seber for allowing the dog to run loose.

"The biggest thing I was concerned with is there were a lot of residents that week who couldn't get their mail," he said. "The little Chihuahua was running around being aggressive and trying to bite people's ankles."

Monday, March 21, 2005

POTUS Reading Lists

Richard Norton Smith, conservative biographer and historian, writes about the reading interests of presidents past and present in the upcoming Weekly Standard. Now his spin is that what presidents read before occupying the White House doesn't translate into a "better" chief executive, his example being James Madison's mismanaged war record. But, when placed against the old portraits on the walls, GBII seems woefully sophomoric:

Like John Quincy Adams, Bush reads the Bible every morning on rising (alternating scripture with the inspirational writings of Oswald Chambers, the Scottish-born chaplain who died in 1917 at the age of 42). Bush, like Adams, emulates his mother more than his presidential father. There the similarities end. The second Adams wrote English with one hand while translating Greek with the other, and complained that his official duties deprived him of the companionship of old friends Cicero and Tacitus. As a former professor of oratory at Harvard, Adams was openly contemptuous of the unlettered Andrew Jackson. He was appalled to learn in 1833 that his beloved alma mater intended to bestow an honorary degree on the Tennessee frontiersman who personified the triumph of western democracy, "a barbarian who could not write a sentence of grammar and could hardly spell his own name."

The Woes of a Best-Selling Author

The NYT reports that Dan Brown, author of best-selling phenomenon, "The Da Vinci Code," has gone into post-celebrity hiding, shocked at the fame - and money - his book has garnered. I can't say I have much sympathy with Mr. Brown, most authors struggle to make a living at the profession, often relegated to the midlist if they pass the rejection pile (for a noteworthy comparison, read this first-person account). So you write a book, go on the PR circus, and get beter than excellent results: Why are you fighting against the results of your efforts? (Or, in a more colloquial vein, "what where you thinking?")

He has given almost no interviews over the last year, immersing himself instead in researching and writing the follow-up to "The Da Vinci Code," which will again feature Robert Langdon, the familiar Harvard religious scholar, and will be set in Washington and focus on the secretive world of the Freemasons.

"I have no idea how real celebrities handle their fame," Mr. Brown, 40, said last week in a rare written response to questions submitted to him by e-mail message. "I'm just a guy who wrote a book, and it still can turn into a circus at times when I go out in public."

His retreat from the public eye comes as expectations for his next novel grow bigger every day, as do sales of "The Da Vinci Code," a thriller that long ago morphed from a best seller into a cultural phenomenon.

Since its release on March 18, 2003, "The Da Vinci Code," Mr. Brown's fourth novel, has sold roughly 25 million copies in 44 languages around the world, including nearly 10 million hardcover copies in the North America. That is 10 times the average sales of industry titans like John Grisham and Nora Roberts, making the book one of the fastest-selling adult novels of all time. While most books move into paperback within a year of their original publication in hardcover, Mr. Brown's publisher, Doubleday, still has not scheduled a paperback release of "The Da Vinci Code."

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The Fancy Loos of LA

(For our British readers, who appreciate this sort of thing.) More weird news from LA today that seems germane to our fair region. A gas station owner in West Covina has found fame beyond affordable gas and packaged convenience foods. For the past 13 years his station has become reknown for its opulent lavatory, which is unheard of in the states (or elsewhere, for that matter).

Moghadan, 55, of San Dimas, decided to go beyond the basics. He asked his brother, architectural designer Nassar Moghadan of Hemet, to concoct something that motorists wouldn't forget.

Their creation is definitely a step above your average gas station restroom — some might say a little over the top. The walls are drenched in rich earth tones and blue stone tiles, giving the room a vaguely Tuscan — or maybe Vegas — feel. Although a few other gas stations have tried to class up their lavatories, Harryman and others said such creations were still highly unusual.

Over the last dozen years, Moghadan said, he has averaged 20 compliments a day about his facilities. "I have customers from Palm Springs and Las Vegas who make a point of stopping here. Some even bring in relatives to show them the bathroom," he said.

More Microsoft Gimmicks

Privacy? Microsoft? These two terms mix like water and oil. From

After having introduced a series of also-ran technologies in the search engine market, Microsoft this morning said it planned to release a technology that neither Google nor Yahoo can yet offer: the ability for advertisers to filter the people exposed to their search ads by demographic information. Marketers will be able to target one ad to men, another to women, and use additional information such as age and location. Microsoft has been tracking this information for years through its various sites, including MSN, Hotmail and others, keeping a vast database on tens of millions of individuals, each assigned a user ID Microsofties refer to as a GUID, or global user ID. Past internal Microsoft plans to use the GUID have been shelved due to fears privacy advocates would set about characterizing the technology as a dangerous and invasive use of personal information.

Microsoft said it plans to offer advertisers break-outs of which types of audience members clicked on ads, versus merely saw them, allowing marketers to further refine creative and media choices. In the future, the company may be able to offer media on its non-search sites linked through the GUID to past search behavior, providing a form of simplistic behavioral targeting.
The initial demographic selection technology will roll out with Microsoft's much-heralded adCenter paid search advertising auction system to be initially tested in the next six months in just the tiny markets of France and Singapore. Microsoft's deal with Yahoo for its general search site is set to end a year after that time.


The latest London Review of Books is now online, and contains a review of Robert Sullivan's Rats: A Year with New York’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants. The good news is that the LRB elected to review a book about an important public health problem in any large, urban city - and vermin can make even the most resolute readers slightly queasy. The bad news is that it was reviewed by Sean Wilsey, an editor at McSweeney's, so that the Anglophile readership of the LRB is subjected to the auto-confessional literary machination of the New American Baroque, like this:

Most of the live rats I’ve seen have been in the subway. Train workers call them ‘track rabbits’. Sullivan describes a subway station near Madison Square Garden:

People come down from the streets and throw the food that they have not eaten onto the tracks, along with newspapers and soda bottles . . . The rats eat freely from the waste and sit at the side of the little streams of creamy brown sewery water that flows between the rails. They sip the water the way rats do, either with their front paws or by scooping it up with their incisors.

Recently, a track worker called Manuel, who moonlights as a handyman, helped Daphne and me paint what would soon become our child’s room. Manuel painted in silence, until I asked if he ever encountered rats in the tunnels. ‘I see them all the time! They’re big, and they’re brave. They scare me. The other night I was spreading concrete when I looked up and there was one about a foot long, staring at me. When I waved my shovel at him he stood up on his hind legs and snarled.’

‘What did you do?’

‘I decided to go on a break.’

Women in Islam

Salon has a great interview with journalist Asra Nomani about her pilgramage to Mecca as documented in her recent book and her thoughts about women in Islam:

In her new book "Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam," Asra Nomani, formerly a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and an international correspondent for Salon, embarks on a demanding spiritual and physical quest to make peace with her Islamic identity and her place as a woman within the faith. Joined by three generations of her family -- including her newborn son, Shibli -- she journeys to Mecca to complete the hajj, the great pilgrimage required of all Muslims once in their lives.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Humanity Trifecta

Seems the posts today fall into three nice categories: The good; the bad, and now the ugly:

Bernard J. Ebbers, the former chief executive of WorldCom, was found guilty today on all nine counts of orchestrating a record $11 billion fraud that bankrupted his company.

Mr. Ebbers, 63, was convicted of securities fraud, conspiracy and seven counts of filing false reports with regulators. He now faces up to life in prison, with the convictions collectively carrying a maximum penalty of 85 years in jail. Sentencing was set for June 13. He remains free on bail.

Weapons of the Weak, Annoyed, and Angry

Glad to see anthropologist James Scott quoted in today's NYT article on the small, annoying things in life. But don't think that foot-dragging "weapons of the weak" was popularly accepted among all researchers when it came out in the 1970s. Small daily skirmishes with new power structures make bring some "relief" to the afflicted, but many researchers agree that such resistance without a coordinated political outlet will not structurally change the existing status quo.

Life can involve big hardships, like being fired or smashing up your car. There is only so much you can do about them. But far more prevalent - and perhaps in the long run just as insidious - are life's many little annoyances.

These, you can do something about.

To examine the little weapons people use for everyday survival is to be given a free guidebook on getting by, created by the millions who feel that they must. It is a case study in human inventiveness, with occasional juvenile and petty passages, and the originators of these tips are happy to share them.

"They're an integral part of how people cope," said Prof. James C. Scott, who teaches anthropology and political science at Yale University, and the author of "Weapons of the Weak," about the feigned ignorance, foot-dragging and other techniques Malaysian peasants used to avoid cooperating with the arrival of new technology in the 1970's. "All societies have them, but they're successful only to the extent that they avoid open confrontation."