Monday, January 31, 2005

The Mirror of History

Kevin Drum at the Washington Monthly posts this ominous article from years past. While the analogy to current events is not one-to-one, it is eerie:

September 3, 1967

U.S. Encouraged by Vietnam Vote

Officials Cite 83% Turnout Despite Vietcong Terror

by Peter Grose, Special to the New York Times

WASHINGTON, Sept. 3-- United States officials were surprised and heartened today at the size of turnout in South Vietnam's presidential election despite a Vietcong terrorist campaign to disrupt the voting.

According to reports from Saigon, 83 per cent of the 5.85 million registered voters cast their ballots yesterday. Many of them risked reprisals threatened by the Vietcong.

....A successful election has long been seen as the keystone in President Johnson's policy of encouraging the growth of constitutional processes in South Vietnam. The election was the culmination of a constitutional development that began in January, 1966, to which President Johnson gave his personal commitment when he met Premier Ky and General Thieu, the chief of state, in Honolulu in February.

The purpose of the voting was to give legitimacy to the Saigon Government, which has been founded only on coups and power plays since November, 1963, when President Ngo Dinh Deim was overthrown by a military junta.

How To Lose Your Country

With the votes still being tallied in Iraq, the AP reports on a large study of high school students and administrators that shows us how apathetic and ignorant they are. This is so important, I'm quoting it in its entirety:

Jan. 31, 2005 WASHINGTON (AP) -- The way many high school students see it, government censorship of newspapers may not be a bad thing, and flag burning is hardly protected free speech.

It turns out the First Amendment is a second-rate issue to many of those nearing their own adult independence, according to a study of high school attitudes released Monday.

The original amendment to the Constitution is the cornerstone of the way of life in the United States, promising citizens the freedoms of religion, speech, press and assembly.

Yet, when told of the exact text of the First Amendment, more than one in three high school students said it goes "too far" in the rights it guarantees. Only half of the students said newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of stories.

"These results are not only disturbing; they are dangerous," said Hodding Carter III, president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which sponsored the $1 million study. "Ignorance about the basics of this free society is a danger to our nation's future."

The students are even more restrictive in their views than their elders, the study says.
When asked whether people should be allowed to express unpopular views, 97 percent of teachers and 99 percent of school principals said yes. Only 83 percent of students did.

The results reflected indifference, with almost three in four students saying they took the First Amendment for granted or didn't know how they felt about it. It was also clear that many students do not understand what is protected by the bedrock of the Bill of Rights.

Three in four students said flag burning is illegal. It's not. About half the students said the government can restrict any indecent material on the Internet. It can't.

"Schools don't do enough to teach the First Amendment. Students often don't know the rights it protects," Linda Puntney, executive director of the Journalism Education Association, said in the report. "This all comes at a time when there is decreasing passion for much of anything. And, you have to be passionate about the First Amendment."

The partners in the project, including organizations of newspaper editors and radio and television news directors, share a clear advocacy for First Amendment issues.

Federal and state officials, meanwhile, have bemoaned a lack of knowledge of U.S. civics and history among young people. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., has even pushed through a mandate that schools must teach about the Constitution on Sept. 17, the date it was signed in 1787.

The survey, conducted by researchers at the University of Connecticut, is billed as the largest of its kind. More than 100,000 students, nearly 8,000 teachers and more than 500 administrators at 544 public and private high schools took part in early 2004.

The study suggests that students embrace First Amendment freedoms if they are taught about them and given a chance to practice them, but schools don't make the matter a priority.

Students who take part in school media activities, such as a student newspapers or TV production, are much more likely to support expression of unpopular views, for example.

About nine in 10 principals said it is important for all students to learn some journalism skills, but most administrators say a lack of money limits their media offerings.

More than one in five schools offer no student media opportunities; of the high schools that do not offer student newspapers, 40 percent have eliminated them in the last five years.

"The last 15 years have not been a golden era for student media," said Warren Watson, director of the J-Ideas project at Ball State University in Indiana. "Programs are under siege or dying from neglect. Many students do not get the opportunity to practice our basic freedoms."

And educated people still wonder why Bush won the election.

Creativity and the Computer

Yesterday's NYT has an article by Steven Johnson on using text coding and query software for creative writers. Some, like Stefanie at So Many Books, wonder if relying on the computer will eventually dull the creative process, as associations in the text are linked with the click of the mouse. Johnson, however, is more positive:

IF these tools do get adopted, will they affect the kinds of books and essays people write? I suspect they might, because they are not as helpful to narratives or linear arguments; they're associative tools ultimately. They don't do cause-and-effect as well as they do ''x reminds me of y.'' So they're ideally suited for books organized around ideas rather than single narrative threads: more ''Lives of a Cell'' and ''The Tipping Point'' than ''Seabiscuit.''

No doubt some will say that these tools remind them of the way they use Google already, and the comparison is apt. (One of the new applications that came out last year was Google Desktop -- using the search engine's tools to filter through your personal files.) But there's a fundamental difference between searching a universe of documents created by strangers and searching your own personal library. When you're freewheeling through ideas that you yourself have collated -- particularly when you'd long ago forgotten about them -- there's something about the experience that seems uncannily like freewheeling through the corridors of your own memory. It feels like thinking.

Reading this I thought about the role of fieldnotes in cultural anthropology. Anthropologists come back from the field with mountains of notes (one old-time professor I know has almost 10,000 single-spaced typed pages collected over the many years he has worked in one Mexican village), and so were early adopters of computerized coding software (for instance, I use ATLAS /Ti to code, query, and retrieve some of my notes, and heartily recommend it). But instead of relying on the software to assist us in the cognitive process of classifying and analyzing, coding software is most often used to test conjectures about your data. The types of fieldnotes, clippings, video, and diary entries collected during fieldwork are simply too great to all be imported into fieldnote software packages, whereas for directed studies, such as qualitative projects including interviews or survey data, these packages make sense. My hunch is that for creative writers, the well of inspiration and notes from which they draw upon is simply too diffuse and deep to scan into one of these programs and, like their cultural anthropology counterparts, the creative process is best left to the chaotic assemblage of jottings, outlines, and mental walks that help the writer to find his/her best voice.

Modernity's Little Helpers

Once upon a time addiction was a term reserved for good old-fashioned chemical abuse. Now, it seems that the modern condition has fostered a new batch of neuroses and addictions upon the unsuspecting. The Observer interviews five "new" addicts in their weekend coverage:

Dependence, devotion, compulsion, addiction, fixation, obsession and habit are words that psychologists could well spend the whole 21st century debating and refining their definitions of. Some believe that almost anything one does, outside the humdrum - and even including the humdrum - is done as a solace or in order to avoid neurotic disorder. Smoking or sucking a pencil brings both comfort and avoids discomfort.

But the modern world (and longer life) offers or alerts us to more and more potential pleasures and displeasures; more things to stay focused on but more to be distracted by; more to buy and more not to afford; more chances to express individuality and yet more immersion in the crowd; more chances of intimacy and more of distance; more to withdraw from and more to suffer withdrawal symptoms from; more to be sensitised by but more to be de-sensitised by... simply more opportunities and more opportunities missed.

In the 21st century maybe most of us are - or will become - 'addicts' and it's just a matter of degree. And in the five 'addicts' on the following pages we may recognise parts of ourselves, may envy or fear their focus or devotion, may find what we wish to avoid, or what we are missing.

And what are these 21st Century addictions? Sushi, Viagra, surgery, text messaging, and online dating. All soon to be added to the DSM IV, no doubt.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Unbelievable Models

Daniel Gross has an article in Slate on the GOP's opposition to Social Security couched in historic terms - their loss in the national debate over which economic model works best for America back in the Great Depression (caused after the GOP-lead Roaring Twenties). But Gross really focuses on the theoretical mite under the skin of the conservative set - when you won't believe the facts presented to you, believe the hyped-up models:

For 70 years, conservatives have been telling us that the American economy—whether it's in recession or whether it's booming—is laboring under the shackles of the burdensome taxation and misguided regulation placed upon it by FDR and his successors. Somehow, stocks would do better if the SEC were weaker and we'd all be wealthier if seniors weren't guaranteed a minimum income, funded through payroll taxes. But America's economic mastery since 1945 has served as an ongoing and constant refutation of their most dearly held beliefs. It still does today. As George Melloan concedes, "The New Deal basically expanded the reach of government, and things worked out OK." Actually, they worked out great. Some people still can't get over it.

Muertos Incomodos and the Gun

Alex Mar reports on the efforts of Subcomandante Morcos to creat a new revolutionary literature in today's Salon, and is brutally honest about the results. But if you're inclined, check out the La Jornada newspaper online (Spanish only, and one of my favorite Mexican newspapers), for more background and atmosphere:

Amusing as the image is, it touches on something: What does it mean for a revolutionary to turn to literature? Beyond his "poetic" communiqués, Marcos has anthologized short stories, publishing "Our Word Is Our Weapon" at the height of the movement, when the Zapatistas awaited their hearing with Congress in 2001. And "el Sup," of course, is not the first radical leader to do so: take Saddam Hussein's allegorical novels that pit glorious Iraq against the corrupt Western powers (not to mention his more recent poetry from a maximum-security cell). Can such scribblings amount to more than ego fodder? Or are they the ultimate symptom of a revolutionary in winter, nostalgic for the good old days, spinning a fantasy to make up for his lame-duck reality?

But let's, for a moment, give Marcos the benefit of the doubt and assume that he is a true believer in the suggestive powers of fiction, in the possibility that a crime novel may be the most effective means of insinuating propaganda into the popular imagination. Can fiction still pull off such a feat? Marcos is one of the great propagandists of our time, and, according to Hernández, La Jornada quickly garnered a 25 percent rise in its Sunday readership with the inception of "Muertos Incomodos." The New York Times and the Guardian reported on the literary project as international news.

But while packed with venomous references to neoliberalismo, globalization, and those who "disappeared" during the anti-leftist "dirty war" of the '70s, the wrench in the book is literary: It's dismal. Its chapter-by-chapter production leaves the story without clear structure and intent, and it's as uneven as the talents of its authors, with Taibo's installments miles ahead. Despite his painfully clear aspirations, Marcos -- who has at this point written chapters 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9 (out this coming Sunday) -- is no fiction writer. Rather than flesh out his hero, Marcos tends to prefer introducing new characters just for the hell of it, as with the brief appearance of a sassy transvestite mechanic. Generally speaking, his prose reads as if it has been written by a philosophy professor turned resistance leader, which is to say it begs for an editor. To put it kindly.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Curses! Foiled Again!

More fun reading from London:

A man tried to steal precious artefacts from the British Museum in broad daylight, it emerged today.

Armed only with a pair of pliers and wire, a man is suspected of attempting to prise open a display case in a Greek and Roman gallery.

But he was foiled by a sharp-eyed attendant just before closing time yesterday afternoon, the museum said.

The man ran off when he was approached by the attendant, but security guards later apprehended a suspect who was turned over to police.

Scotland Yard said a man in his late 40s had been arrested and was being held at Holborn Police Station on suspicion of attempted theft and going equipped to steal.

A British Museum spokeswoman said: "A man was spotted by an alert gallery attendant acting suspiciously so they approached him and noticed he seemed to have some wire and pliers in his hand and was seemingly trying to get into one of the cases.

"The gallery contains lots of different objects. There is some jewellery, Roman cameos, glass vessels and some larger sculptures.

"Obviously they are important objects on display in one of our key galleries." Two months ago, a thief snatched a collection of about 15 ancient Chinese jewels from the museum.

Two years ago, a small Greek marble head was stolen.

The museum in Russell Square, central London, attracts about 11,000 visitors a day.

Paid for Saying, Not Doing

From the chutzpah files at the Washington Post, we learn that the Bush administration want to reorganize the civil service:

The Bush administration unveiled a new personnel system for the Department of Homeland Security yesterday that will dramatically change the way workers are paid, promoted, deployed and disciplined -- and soon the White House will ask Congress to grant all federal agencies similar authority to rewrite civil service rules governing their employees.

The new system will replace the half-century-old General Schedule, with its familiar 15 pay grades and raises based on time in a job, and install a system that more directly bases pay on occupation and annual performance evaluations, officials said. The new system has taken two years to develop and will require at least four more to implement, they said.

Under the new plan, employees will be grouped into eight to 12 clusters based on occupation. Salary ranges will be based, in part, on geographic location and annual market surveys by a new compensation committee of what similar employees earn in the private sector and other government entities. Within each occupational cluster, workers will be assigned to one of four salary ranges, or "pay bands," based on their skill level and experience.

A raise or promotion -- moving up in a pay range or rising to the next one -- will depend on receiving a satisfactory performance rating from a supervisor, said officials with homeland security and the Office of Personnel Management.

I wonder what a government official would get for telling boldface lies to his superiors, ignoring important economic data, failing to read internal memos, rewarding subordinates who act as poorly he does while firing widely-regarded employees, and otherwise acting like a fool. Bush won't be getting a pay raise anytime soon.

Another Slice of Urban Life

Thanks to LA Observed who directs readers to an informative photoblog Walking in LA which archives interesting urban walks around the basin, including all the sights - picturesque and ugly. The most recent post has some shots of the LA River with rain runoff.

A Slice of America

What's life like in a small town? Today's Iowa City Press-Citizen provides some insight. Seems that a local grease joint was pictured in The West Wing, much to the delight of regulars:

Seconds after the image of an unmistakable yellow diner sign flashed before "The West Wing" viewers nationwide, it generated a burst of applause and whoops from a crowd gathered Wednesday inside the actual Hamburg Inn No. 2 restaurant.

"It was really neat to hear them say Hamburg Inn and Coffee Bean Caucus," owner Dave Panther said.

A crowd of about 50 people gathered at the Iowa City landmark for a viewing party to see how writers for "The West Wing" would portray their beloved 1950s-style diner. Writers chose to portray the Hamburg in an episode after actor Martin Sheen, who plays fictional president Jed Bartlet, visited the restaurant during the 2004 Iowa Caucuses, Panther said before passing out red, white and blue balloons.

The episode, named "King Corn," placed the show's fictional presidential candidates in the caucuses. The camera twice panned seven glass jars filled with beans to re-create the Coffee Bean Caucus that the Hamburg held in 2004. In real life, and on the show, participants use coffee beans to cast a mock vote for their favorite candidate.

The viewing party included drawings for coffee mugs, travel mugs, gift certificates, and T-shirts signed by "West Wing" actors, Sheen and director Rob Reiner.

Each time the actors walked by a red brick building, the sounds of clattering forks and balloon bursts seemed to stop as patrons craned their necks for a clear view of the 52-inch TV. Some patrons even screamed at the TV, "Go back and eat breakfast!" During commercials, others stood to take pictures of fellow patrons with their cell phones.

Yeah, I ate there too, usually with much regret hours later. I was never a big fan of the Hamburg Inn - it's the type of place that omits the limp parsley next to your omelet and is staffed by too many unwashed people with tattoos and piercings.

Listen and Learn

Thomas Friedman gives some valuable advise today to W for his upcoming visit to Europe: Listen to people, don't preach (as if that will really happen). But he also reminds readers that much of the anger directed at the administration isn't "anti-Americanism" per se, but rather "anti-what-have-you-done-to-America-under-the-guise-of-war" which is based on a longing for the values of America, not a loathing:

What would Mr. Bush hear? Some of it is classic Eurowhining, easily dismissible. But some of it is very heartfelt, even touching. I heard it while doing interviews at the Pony Club, a trendy bar/beauty parlor in East Berlin. And more and more I think it explains why many Europeans dislike Mr. Bush so intensely. It's this: Europeans love to make fun of naïve American optimism, but deep down, they envy it and they want America to be that open, foreigner-embracing, carefree, goofily enthusiastic place that cynical old Europe can never be. Many young Europeans blame Mr. Bush for making America, since 9/11, into a strange new land that exports fear more than hope, and has become dark and brooding - a place whose greeting to visitors has gone from "Give me your tired, your poor" to "Give me your fingerprints." They look at Mr. Bush as someone who stole something precious from them.

Tim Kreutzfeldt, the bar owner, said to me: "Bush took away our America. I mean we love America. We are very sad about America. We believe in America and American values, but not in Bush. And it makes us angry that he distorted our image of the country which is so important to us. It is not what America stands for - and this makes us angry and it should make every American angry, because America lost so much in its reputation worldwide." The Bush team, he added, is giving everyone in the world the impression that "somebody is coming to kill you."

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Lighting Up as History

In keeping with a number of public health posts recently, the Woodrow Wilson Center spotlight's one of their fellows, Carol Ann Benedict, who is compiling a social and cultural history of smoking in China:

Smoking tobacco has long been embedded in Chinese culture. "One of tobacco's enduring aspects is that it's always associated with sociability and hospitality," she said. "From the beginning, tobacco has always been a gift item." The Chinese typically give out cartons of cigarettes at banquets and as wedding gifts. "In China, if we were men and you walked into my office, I'd have given you a cigarette as an expression of sociability."

Too Much Time, Too Much Traffic

Seems like this attorney and an LA Times writer both have too much time on their hands with little to do:

By Ralph Vartabedian, Times Staff Writer

When you are stuck in traffic on Southern California freeways, you can fume, listen to music or talk on the cellphone if you think that is safe.

But attorney Tamar Toister has a different pastime for those dull moments when traffic creeps along and the minutes seem to stand still.

"I tend to note license plate numbers as something to do," Toister said.

Being an observant attorney, she began to study the numerical patterns of the plate numbers.

"I have noticed something lately that I do not understand," she added in a recent note to The Times. "The new car license plates jump from 5H to 5J. There is no 5I. Why?"

A study by the Texas Transportation Institute found that the average commuter in Southern California loses 93 hours each year in traffic jams, the worst in the nation. Toister's question, prompted by hours of idle time, is an indication of just how slow traffic has become.The answer? DMV spokesman Steven Haskins said the state skipped the letter "I" in the 5 series license plates.

"We do have a regulation that I, O and Q not be used in the first or third place of the sequence," he said. "I suspect that is because of the fact that they could be mistaken.

"Presumably, the I looks like a 1 and the O and Q look like a zero.

One wonders whether the inmates at Folsom State Prison, where the plates are still manufactured, have noticed the sequence gap.

The convicts turned out 19.6 million plates for vehicles registered in California last year. Each sequence, which begins with a number, can produce 13,225,000 plates.

So there are a lot of gaps in plate numbers. But the biggest gap of all is the growing number of cars with no license plates at all. Haskins said every car is supposed to have two plates, but lately I've been seeing more and more people driving cars without plates.

It's mainly a local police enforcement issue, and it seems to me another example of the decline of routine traffic enforcement as police resources diminish. More reliance is placed on such technology as red light cameras and more police time is mandated for non-traffic duties.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Serving Dishes in the Big Apple

Time to put some anger back on this page. The NYT reports that a new study shows just how dismal most restaurant industry positions are in the Big Apple (remember that the next time you complain about the high prices):

A new study of New York City's restaurant industry has found that at least 36 percent of its workers are illegal immigrants, that 59 percent of restaurant workers surveyed reported overtime violations, and that 73 percent said they had no health insurance.

The study is scheduled for release today by the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, an advocacy group for restaurant workers. Assistance with the study was provided by numerous community groups, economists and sociologists.

According to the study, most of the city's more than 165,000 restaurant workers earned less than $20,000 a year and 13 percent reported minimum wage violations. The study also found that 33 percent of the city's restaurant workers reported verbal abuse by their employers and that 19 percent said management illegally took a share of the tips.

"While there are a few 'good' restaurant jobs in the restaurant industry, the majority are 'bad jobs,' characterized by low wages, few benefits and limited opportunities for upward mobility of increased income," the report concluded.

Aren't these the same people who say how good restaurants are for immigrant workers? No wonder the French regulate their industry.

A Cultural Biography of Used Books

There’s been a bit of buzz today about Pitchaya Sudbanthad's article on a used bookstore in New York at The Morning News: the financial troubles, the marketing difficulties, the joy of recommending a good read to customers. I’ve been doing my own part supporting local bookstores recently (with the bills to show it), my hang-out being Pasadena favorite Vroman’s Bookstore, now 109 years young. On my recent road trip I also walked the aisles at Bookman’s Used Books in Flagstaff, and last week received a special, out-of-print book on arcane commodity chain theory shipped across the pond from The Book Academy in Wilmslow, England.

Sudbanthad's article hits on a key difference between used books and new books: wear and markings on the written page show a true palimsest of multiple readings, and evidence of former owner’s thought processes. This creates an intimacy with previous readers that can’t be marketed online, or experienced in a first-run bookstore:

The used bookstore is a unique business model in which inventory is, to a good extent, determined by the direct participation of its customers. The customers’ cultural awareness, preferences, age, education, careers, and direction of curiosity at certain times and places in their lives defines what stocks the shelves, and so the used bookstore becomes a reflection of its customers, if only at slight angles. This is not simply the nature of selling used merchandise. Most used goods, the kind you might find at a pawnshop, don’t have enough variation or cultural encoding to bear the residue of their previous owners. A camera model in a certain condition says something, but nothing we can decode. An old ring with inscribed initials is missing its Rosetta Stone. But an underlined segment of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets points to a reader’s epiphany, and what sort of person he or she was to be moved by such imagery: And you see in every face the mental emptiness / deepen / leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about.

Before the store opened, when Rachel and Samantha first sorted through their new inventory, many things fell out of the books. Postcards, bookmarks from stores all over the country, letters, receipts, and photos. Other informational media, like videotapes, records or CDs, have to be in more a pristine shape if they are to be consumed again, but books can carry evidence of their previous owners without serious damage to their stories. Marginalia track the prior reader’s thoughts, like the underlined “Important” in a copy of John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, and the “Bullshit” inked in another section of the book. In a copy of the Cormac McCarthy book Child of God, Rachel found a Post-It saying on one side, “Gabriela bracelet 6 inches,” and on the other side, “Email James Brown.”

What’s clear is that the books came with their own private history. Each had its own real-world plateaus and plot twists—by way of curiosity, admiration, and curricula, the books were acquired, and by way of deaths, heartbreaks, financial need or boredom, they ended up again on the shelves.

But this nothing new to cultural anthropologists, who have always studied the dynamic relationship between objects, ideologies, and behavior. In fact, in reading Sudbanthad, I harkened back to the famous volume, The Social Life of Things (Cambridge 1986), edited by Arjun Appadurai which focused on “commodities in cultural perspective.” One of the more memorable contributions by Igor Kopytoff, raised the question, “Do commodities have biographies?” (Answer – yes.) I would recommend it fans of all things antique. Here’s just a glimpse, from the preface to his article, “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as a Process”:

For the economist, commodities simply are. That is, certain things and rights to things are produced, exist, and can be seen to circulate through the economic system as they are being exchanged for other things, usually in exchange for money. This view, of course, frames the commonsensical definition of a commodity: an item with use value that also has exchange value.....

From a cultural perspective, the production of commodities is also a cultural and cognitive process: commodities must be not only produced materially as things, but also culturally marked as being a certain kind of thing. Out of the total range of things available in a society, only some of them are considered appropriate for marketing as commodities. Moreover, the same thing may be treated as a commodity at one time and not at another. And finally, the same thing may, at the same time, be seen as a commodity by one person and as something else by another. Such shifts and differences in whether and when a thing is a commodity reveal a moral economy that stands behind the objective economy of visible transactions.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Devil in the Details

As the country embarks on an extended debate about privitizing portions of social security (thereby taking the "security" out of the program), I wondered of WH financial advisors were thinking about Charles Noski as their corporate poster child. Please enjoy the following tidbit culled from public disclosure documents, and posted a few days ago on the always highly informative by Michelle Leder (see the sidebar):

Most of us would probably feel pretty lucky if, after a lifetime of working, we've been able to put aside a little nest egg to see us through our retirement. But when you're 51 and have already retired three times from three large companies and have either already collected or are poised to collect a hefty retirement package and generous stock options, that takes more than luck. That takes phenomenally good planning. Two days ago, Northrop Grumman (NOC) announced that its CFO, Charles Noski, who only joined the company at the end of 2003, would be leaving soon, after the company's 10-K was filed. Northrop's press release said that Noski was leaving to pursue "other personal and professional interests." The company didn't note the severance arrangements, but given that Noski's employment contract didn't expire until December 2008, he's likely to collect several million dollars. That's in addition to the retirement package that Noski, who had been a senior executive at AT&T (T) at the time that company's Broadband unit was sold to Comcast (CMCSA), collected though it's not entirely clear from the filings exactly how much he received. More than a few bucks, to be sure since his signing bonus alone was about $3.5 million, not including stock options. And then there's the retirement from Hughes Electronics, the former divison of GM (GM). Though it's hard to find specifics on that one too, it's a pretty safe bet that he wound up with more than a gold watch and a pat on the back.

Reading DWEMs

That's what we called them in graduate theory seminars, "Dead, White, European Males." And most folks would prefer to stay well away from from the thick tomes of analysis and argument they produced. But sometimes it's useful to remember why they became "founding figures" in the first place.

In the current Prospect Magazine (UK), Michael Prowse writes about the joys of discovering Emile Durkheim, a founding figure in both sociology and British social anthropology:

A few years ago I was planning a book on market capitalism—one that would demonstrate its inestimable virtues. But in a moment of candour it occurred to me that I had not exposed myself sufficiently to the arguments of the market's critics. In particular, I had not read any sociologists. So, reluctantly, I bought some works by Emile Durkheim, the French founding father of modern sociology. They would be tedious and imprecise, I feared, but they could surely do me no lasting harm. A few afternoons in Durkheim's company would salve my conscience without altering my convictions.

I was wrong. Reading Durkheim helped to initiate a process of intellectual change that left me more sensitive to the market's failings than most of my contemporaries. When I encountered him, sociology had already been out of fashion for at least two decades. So it was hardly surprising that few shared my enthusiasm for Durkheim's tracts. Moreover, I would be the first to concede that some sociology is verbose and poorly argued. Sociology is still regarded as an undemanding subject at school and university, so it probably attracts some undisciplined minds.

But Durkheim was not just any sociologist. Most budding intellectuals would concede the desirability of a passing familiarity with the ideas of Plato in philosophy, Locke in political theory and Keynes in economics. They should add Durkheim to their reading lists. And they should not fear thickets of impenetrable prose: he writes with the same lucid charm as the British empiricists. He is occasionally dogmatic, but he always backs his claims with rational arguments.

From Words Into War

Joe Scott, over at The Body Politic, has an good commentary today on the "unsheathed" neoconservatism of W's second administration:

Bush officials, following the president’s rousing inaugural address promoting God, freedom and liberty, deny a significant shift in U.S. foreign policy. But skepticism in the U.S. and abroad is rampant. The lack of specifics or mention of either terrorism or Iraq, is now less puzzling. W, in retrospect, and under the radar screen, has quietly been shifting from a prime focus on terrorism, which defined his presidency from 9/11 through the 2004 election, into a new priority - a more aggressive and radical foreign policy. The new global mantra is a redefinition of tyranny as an enemy threatening freedom and global security.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

The Cultural Dynamics of Dieting

Finally, it seems, a journalist is picking up on the cultural encoding of food and dining in American culture, however one wishes to define that slippery label. Today's NYT contains a first-person account (the so-called "autoethnography" in academic parlance) by William Grimes of his experiment with the new Agricultural Department's dietary guidelines. In conclusion, Grimes concedes that to be fully accepted, the cultural model about what constitutes a proper meal has to change too:

The guidelines were beginning to feel like wartime rationing. I walked around with a nagging feeling of being just slightly deprived. After two days, it began to haunt me.

I also began to chafe at the relentless assault on pleasure that the guidelines seemed to represent. At every turn, Americans were being urged to consume foods in their least tasty forms. There they were, the dreaded chicken breast with the skin removed, the unadorned steamed fish and the unspeakable processed cheeses.

In the world of the guidelines, food is a kind of medicine that, taken in the right doses, can promote good health. In the real world, of course, people regard food and its flavors as a source of pleasure. And therein lies just one of the problems with the guidelines, which my wife took one look at before saying with a shake of her head, "No one is ever going to eat like this."

As a cultural document, the guidelines are strange. They set themselves the worthy but futile goal of imposing a style of eating for which Americans have no model. It's all very well to announce that everyone should eat five servings of vegetables a day. But where does that fit in the culinary template that Americans instinctively consult when planning a meal? The typical American dinner is an entrée with a starch and a vegetable, preceded in some cases by a salad or soup and followed with dessert.

For Asians, it's quite normal to eat multiple vegetable dishes at the same meal (even at breakfast), and to prepare very small quantities of fish or meat with much larger quantities of rice. But Americans rarely eat multiple vegetable dishes except on Thanksgiving. If they are going to triple their vegetable consumption, they'll have to greatly enlarge the vegetable portions they do eat, throwing the meal off balance, or else walk around nibbling on carrots and cauliflower florets from a plastic bag.

The new guidelines are not just health policy, they're cultural policy, too. To comply fully, Americans will have to rethink their inherited notions of what makes a meal, and what makes a meal satisfying.

This is the key that needs to be addressed by nutritional activists and social scientists. Cultural anthropologists come back from the field with hundreds of stories about food and dining which seem "strange" to non-anthropologists only because these cultural codes differ to greatly from their own.

It always amazes me to see "eating healthy" shows on PBS or Food Network finish a menu with a dessert - why bother if the point is to take in fewer calories? My family also has some classic tales of wedding parties in which some of the guests came out to California for the happy day, only to turn down the salad course at the sit-down formal dinner, preferring to move on to "real food." Conversely, I surprised to be served coffee at dinner at a relative's house in Illinois - coffee out here in the West is served afterwards, but not with dinner. Tapas restaurants are catching on around the country, but still seem vastly foreign to consumers who can't envision having a satisfying meal consisting entirely of appetizers. Furthermore, when I came back from fieldwork in Mexico some people would innocently ask, "How was it eating Mexican food three times a day?" My answer was that it was good enough for the Mexicans to be happy with (and, I might add, most "Mexican" food served in the U.S. is a poor substitute for standard fare in La Republica).

Grimes is right. What the new standards are really about are confronting American cultural concepts of dining, and those are going to be very hard to change.

Two Brit Lit Stars

The Guardian's Books Section has an article reputedly on Ian McEwan due to the title, "The Story of His Life," but a close reading shows more interest in his literary yang - Martin Amis - to his yin. Makes me wonder if the correct metaphor should be a binary star system?

In the absence of many young writers of consequence, McEwan found himself linked with the other enfant terrible of contemporary English fiction, Martin Amis. A year younger, Amis was just as precociously gifted. His first novel, The Rachel Papers, had been published to critical acclaim in 1973.

In all other respects, Amis was the polar opposite. Amis was a master of sentences, but a novelist who papered over the cracks in his narratives with the bravura exercise of style. McEwan was a more natural storyteller but stylistically reserved. And where McEwan was a self-made professional, Amis, the son of the celebrated author of the Fifties classic Lucky Jim, had been born to the purple. With an English first from Oxford, Amis was the latest metropolitan heir to a tradition of university wits.

By the late 1970s, a two-man 'new generation', Amis and McEwan were endlessly linked, possibly because they shared the same fashionable publisher, Tom Maschler of Cape. In practice, their literary careers were diverging. Amis attracted the headlines, published work of dazzling technical accomplishment (Money; London Fields; The Information; Time's Arrow) and became a feature of the metropolitan scene, 'the Mick Jagger of fiction'.

By contrast, McEwan applied himself to his craft and went for long walks in the Lake District. His first novels (The Cement Garden, The Comfort of Strangers, The Child in Time) seemed to some readers like over-inflated short stories, but there was a thematic consistency. He continued to exhibit a fascination with the corruption of Englishness and to explore the endless tyrannies of the past. Where Amis gloried in a macho-American prose, McEwan's literary voice was feminist and appealing to the Europeans.

The Wisdom of Patrick Stewart

The London Observer regularly runs a first-person narrative "This much I know" by prominent personalities. I couldn't help but notice that this weekend's choice is Patrick Stewart - aka Captain Picard of the Enterprise:

Patrick Stewart
Actor, 64, London

Ben Mitchell
Sunday January 23, 2005

I have grown bored of answering questions about baldness and almost everything to do with Star Trek. Those are the ones that make me roll my eyes.

In time Beavis and Butt-head will become defined as a very, very significant part of American culture. It's brilliant. I've got all the tapes

Age has never really been an issue with me. I get a bus pass this year. I had a drink with Sir Ian McKellen on his 65th birthday last year. He waved his bus pass in my face and said, 'I am going to take advantage of this.' What's good enough for Sir Ian is good enough for me.

I haven't been falling-down drunk for decades. We could be looking at 30 years. Nothing makes me happier than a whole day spent on the Fells. I have a house in North Yorkshire, very remote. I come from a family of dedicated, serious long-distance hikers. That, for me, is bliss.

Vices is a strong term. Luxuries? How interesting that you correlate vices with luxury. Indulgences, shall we settle on that? I love very, very expensive bed linen. It makes a difference to every aspect of being in bed.

My girlfriend has never seen an entire episode of Star Trek so she hardly knows anything about it. The night before last we were flicking, looking for something to watch over dinner, and there was Star Trek: Nemesis. We watched it and it made me cry because it was our last movie. Crying at one of my own movies!

It's a funny thing about success, how much it filters through into all the areas of your life. It gives you confidence. Looking back now, I was handicapped by low self-image. Was that to do with losing my hair? A lot of it actually, yes it was. I always had an image of someone I wanted to be, which was not myself.

I was in a romance with Los Angeles for a long time. It died. It's very seductive lifestyle, but it wasn't why I became an actor. Here, on these dark, overcast grim mornings, I wake up with a smile every single day.

It's a source of some irritation that I've never done Desert Island Discs. I have my list of eight records in my wallet and I update it, waiting to be asked. Music came very late into my life. I worked in Liverpool in 1963 and didn't know who the Beatles were. When a guy called Sting told me he played the bass, I thought he meant the double bass. I knew nothing.

Women are a really good thing. I'm for them, I really am. If you have one in your life, be grateful.

In America it's not vulgar to talk about money. I was in denial for about two years when I went to LA. I bought a Honda. A Honda! Can you believe that? When I arrived on the set they were horrified.

Doing Star Trek was such a changing experience for me. I was a prick when I went over there. We had a meeting, the nine principal cast, about some discipline problems we'd been having on the set. One of the company said, 'What's the problem? Come on, we've got to have fun!' I said 'Fun? We're not here to have fun, we're here to work.' As the years went by the cast would love to quote this speech back at me.

You know the reason Michael Caine gave for leaving California for England? It was
time to come home when he was ordering sparkling water with every meal. There's somebody who's got his shit together.

I had a very enlightened English teacher who first introduced me to Shakespeare and gave me a part in a play when I was 12. One of the great delights of my senior years is that, a month ago, as chancellor of the University of Huddersfield, I presented him with an honorary degree.

I obsessively play Tetris. I like the old-fashioned Game Boy, but I left mine on a plane.

My father was a soldier. After he died, somebody who had served with him said to me, 'When your father walked on to the parade ground the birds in the trees stopped singing.' Was I close to him? No. Nobody was.

I fucked up too many times to be a good father. I have two great kids and the sense of loyalty they have is so strong, but I was completely wrapped up in my career during their early years.

I'm OK with technology. Not as good as the captain of the Enterprise ought to be. I truly no longer know where Captain Picard begins and Patrick Stewart leaves off.

Patrick Stewart appears in A Life In The Theatre at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London, from 2 February

Friday, January 21, 2005

More Globalization, More Rights

And keeping on the theme of trade, globalization, and human rights, David Held at Prospect Magazine argues that social democracy needs to be expanded along with trade liberalization.

The writer, a professor of Political Science at the LSE and author of Global Covenant: The Social Democratic Alternative to the Washington Consensus (Polity Press) is no crass enemy of free markets. Imagine my surprise, then, when I read this choice research observation:

Furthermore, recent research has found that one of the main factors limiting the capacity of the poorest countries to develop is the liberalisation of capital. Geoffrey Garrett, a professor of political science at UCLA, has shown that what hurts developing countries faced with a broad liberalisation programme is not the pursuit of free trade per se, but the free movement of capital. While tariff liberalisation can be broadly beneficial for low-income countries, rapid capital liberalisation in the absence of sound domestic capital markets can be a recipe for "volatility, unpredictability and booms and busts in capital flows." Countries that have rapidly opened their capital accounts have performed significantly less well in terms of economic growth and income inequality than countries that have maintained tight control on capital movements but cut tariffs. An IMF study published in March 2003 found that there is no consistent support for the theory that financial globalisation per se delivers a higher rate of economic growth.

Fair Trade Consumerism

For those of you who shop with an eye to ethics, today's Guardian has an article on fair trade consumer products:

Ethical consumers are spoiled for choice. Fairtrade, organic, local, second hand, vegan, animal friendly, environmentally sustainable - the list for socially-minded shoppers is constantly growing.

The amount spent on ethical consumerism adds up to £24.7bn a year in the UK, according to the Co-operative Bank's recent ethical purchasing index. While the figures remain low when compared to total domestic consumption (about £1 in every £29 is spent ethically), market growth rates of 40% since 1999 show a strong upward trend for buying ethical goods and services.

The willingness of UK consumers to take action through their wallets is seen most obviously in the uptake of Fairtrade-certified goods, such as tea, coffee and chocolate. This grew by 40% in 2004, and now represents an expenditure of £85m a year.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Lakoff Debate

Cognitive linguist George Lakoff has been in the center of the Democrat's debate over how to best frame their message during W's second term. After reading the Judith Lewis commentary below, go over to Metaphor Country, who has had issues with Lakoff during the campaign.

Four More Years? Here's a Start

Today I am quite sick - spiritually, mentally, and, alas, physically (the body and mind thing seemed to merge in the wee hours of the morning) - so my posts will be light for today and tomorrow. But, it is also alternative press Thursday in SoCal, and the LA Weekly provides a useful compendium of counter-narratives to save the soul of our nation for the next four years:

The Next Four Years: A Survival Guide

Let the countdown begin to January 20, 2009.

JOHN POWERS on a new vision for the left.

DOUG IRELAND follows Howard Dean and the fight for the DNC’s soul.

MARC COOPER outlines the Democrats’ move to Plan B ("b" as in billionaires).

SCOTT WILLOUGHBY explains what’s not the matter with Colorado, while CHRISTINE PELISEK peeks under the covers at the Boulder High School sleep-in. Plus, an essay by Boulder student protester TRAVIS MOE.

JOSHUAH BEARMAN experiences a Goldwater Moment.

LOU DUBOSE looks at the potential cast of characters in Bush’s Watergate.

HAROLD MEYERSON maps out plans to make those red states blue.

JOE DONNELLY makes the case for secession.

Web Exclusive: DAVID L. ULIN gives another take on secession.

JUDITH LEWIS tells George Lakoff: "Frame This!"

EZRA KLEIN polls young voters.

STEVEN MIKULAN lays out a to-do list for -progressives.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Next Editor, Please

Well that didn't last too long....Tomorrow's NYT reports that Plimpton's replacement at The Paris Review is out:

Plimpton's Big Shoes Are Vacant Yet Again

By EDWARD WYATT Published: January 20, 2005

The Paris Review is searching again for a new editor, barely a year after appointing a replacement for George Plimpton, the only other person to fill the post in its five decades as one the nation's premier literary magazines.

Brigid Hughes, who succeeded Mr. Plimpton as the magazine's top editor last January, four months after his death, will leave The Review when her contract expires in March. Thomas H. Guinzburg, the president of the foundation that oversees the publication, said yesterday that the board had decided not to renew Ms. Hughes's contract.

Neither he nor Ms. Hughes would specify the reasons for her departure.

A Big Atomic Tree in the Forest

From the "nonsensical Department of Homeland Security " department, we learn that some historical buffs recreated, then drove 800 miles in full view, a model replica of an atomic bomb:

In today's security-obsessed, post-9/11 era, one might think that it would be difficult to haul a convincing replica of an atomic bomb across the country. Not so, as John Coster-Mullen inadvertently proved in October 2004.

"We drove a full-scale WMD 800 miles across the United States and no one stopped or questioned us," Coster-Mullen told me. "In fact, it was quite easy!"

In this case, the "weapon of mass destruction" would more appropriately be called a "weapon of mass duplication"--a nearly 600-pound, shiny steel replica of "Little Boy," the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, painstakingly recreated by Coster-Mullen with help from his son Jason.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

MA Sighting in the Blogosphere

Mart lives life backwards.... Posted by Hello

Sorry to scare you with the pic of Martin Amis, but Ayelet Waldman over at Moorishgirl chimes in with her one of her picks for an underappreciated novel - Time's Arrow (1992) - in which the narrator lives his life backwards inside the body of a Nazi doctor.

Now if you think I'm being mean to MA, cruise on over to the Martin Amis Discussion Forum (known simply by the MAD acronym) and fasten your seat belt.

Eat Your Broccoli

What Would Papa Bush Say? Posted by Hello

We all know that the NYT is on our president's official "shit list," so the graph accompanying the new HHS dietary guidelines via a broccoli chart should ensure their exlusion from the next four years of White House briefings and informal chats.

Now, what about the colon health of Red State America?

Trailhead Skirmish in Altadena

Once again readers of the Los Angeles Times are reminded that the influx of new Californians brings with them a certain myopia, and at times plain ignorance, of local environmental conditions, including building in the path of mudslides, flash floods, drought zones, or in the present case, at the entrance to a historic path in the Angeles National Forest:

In the early 1990s — a time angrily recalled in Altadena — developers offered a swath of historic Millard Canyon as public open space for hiking in return for permission to carve an upscale tract into the hills at the edge of the Angeles National Forest.

Yet "No trespassing" signs were recently posted to keep out hikers and equestrians who have traversed the lush canyon for decades, even without the trails that were to have been built as part of the agreement with Los Angeles County.

The area in question serves as a natural bottleneck for hikers and equestrian riders accessing national forest trails, and was a trade route for Indians centuries before developers gazed upon the baren hillsides. But, not only do homeowners have to deal with elevated risk of fires and landslides (think La Conchita up the coast), they also have to deal with the worst aspects of unregulated development at the edge of the forest:

Legal battles over the practicality of building so massive a project at the edge of the forest tied up the development in court for nearly a decade. No sooner had construction begun than the project was hit by financial and legal scandals.

In 2003, the county investigated claims that mature oak trees had died after being dug up and stored in planters during construction of the luxury homes.

Around the same time, La Vina's final 26 homes sat unoccupied and incomplete because the builder had defaulted on loans and payments to suppliers. The large stucco homes were eventually completed and, like the other units, sold for between $600,000 and $1 million.

Another controversy over La Vina ended up in criminal court. A year ago, Orange County home builder Timothy N. Roberts was sentenced to three years' probation in connection with diversion of money meant for upgrades to the unfinished homes, said Jane Robison, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles district attorney's office.

Even arch-conservative LA County Supervisor Mike Antonovich has urged the county to sue the association, "In approving the La Vina projects, I made a commitment — with unanimous board support — to the Altadena community that trails would be provided," Antonovich said. "This was mandated in the specific plan, the tract map and conditional-use permit.

The real reason, it seems, comes down to plain greed, coupled with unscrupulous development:

Homeowners' association leaders, meanwhile, say they are not about to give up private property in a place where home values are increasing at a rate of about $100,000 a year.

And our own version of a local soap opera continues.

Posts from the Anthropological Mirror

This week's Observer contains two interesting articles looking at people in places which are rarely reported - the perfect anthropological twist on the news.

For years, Britons have been only too happy to jump the Channel in search of a better life. So why, then, are so many of our Gallic cousins making their home over here? Lucy Siegle meets some of the 300,000 emigres who have decided to go on permanent French leave.

A female architect's poignant and witty dispatches about living with her mother-in-law in the West Bank have become a surprise publishing success, revealing the absurdity and adversity of everyday Palestinian life.

Better Than Windex!

Every family has their favorite industrial cure-all. Mine was WD40, the magical lubricant spray that seemed to perfume the family garage, permeating fabric, woods, metal, and human skin. But I didn't realize until today's article in The Guardian that the popular smelly can is also a key in the war on drugs:

Don't snort, spray

WD40 is not a chemical normally associated with combating illegal drug use. Defoliants over Colombia, maybe. But not WD40.

According to a report on the BBC Radio Five Live Breakfast show (wind the player through to 01:40 and listen), Avon and Somerset police are advising Bristol bar owners to spray the household cleaner and lubricant in their bathrooms to stop cocaine use.

The spray puts an "invisible film" over toilets and basins that absorbs the cocaine when any tries to snort it off them. It instead turns it into a congealed mess. The advice comes just a few days after BBC Wiltshire reported that a pub owner in Swindon was spraying it on toilet seats because anyone who then tried to snort cocaine off them got a nose bleed.

When telephoned, a spokeswoman for WD40 told Guardian Unlimited it did not recommend the use of the spray internally. But the company is otherwise keen to promote as a wide a use of its products as possible and the press release section of its website is a testament to ingenious PR. Even things that you never knew were problems – such as snow stuck to shovels or too-tight wheels on rolling ping pong tables – can be remedied with WD40, it claims.

It doesn't end there - most imaginative is the advice from "TV's Handy' Andy" on how the spray can pep up your love life. Before a night of romance unstick the dimmer switches, free-up the corkscrew and fix creaky bedsprings. Around the point I stopped reading it suggested WD40 can "ensure zips slide freely". Drugs and WD40, you can just about take it - but please, not sex.

Know Your Base

I'll have more to say about the Social Security reform debate at a later date, but today Josh Marshall over at Talking Point Memo culls some interesting data from the Social Security Administration:

Top ten highest concentrations of Social Security beneficiaries as a percentage of a state's population ...

West Virginia 22.4%
Maine 20.1%
Arkansas 19.9%
Florida 19.6%
Pennsylvania 19.3%
Alabama 19.3%
Kentucky 18.7%
Iowa 18.5%
Mississippi 18.5%
Missouri 18.1%

Worst demographic for President Bush on Social Security, by age ...

Perhaps the WH, slightly buzzed on the oxygen-rush of a close win, have moved beyond Karl Rove's mantra of GOP politics, "get your base out."

Friday, January 14, 2005

Which Came First - the Uniform or the Legislation?

Is it any surprise that one day after Prince Harry gets nailed for wearing a nazi uniform to a fancy dress party (and hey, the royal surname was Saxe-Coburg-Gotha before they changed it to Windsor - remember?), the Guardian reports that the House of Lords is debating legislation to "modernise" the monarchy:

Radical moves to modernise the British monarchy - including lifting the bar on first-born females inheriting the crown - will be considered by parliament today.

The House of Lords will hear a bill abolishing anachronistic prohibitions such as banning the monarch from marrying a Catholic, or allowing male children to leapfrog their older sisters to the crown.Radical moves to modernise the British monarchy - including lifting the bar on first-born females inheriting the crown - will be considered by parliament today.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Hitting the Road

To the readers of TAA from around the world, I'm signing off until early next week on account of a road trip that takes us into the colder regions of the country (family business). Unless I post a small item or two over the weekend, look for more news coverage and commentary beginning in just under a week.

The New Global Diet

In yet another example that globalization of 20th century trends extends to the waistline (i.e., urbanization, sedentary lifestyles, diet rich in sugars and carbohydrates, etc), the NYT reports that Brazil is now afflicted with obesity:

But the statistics show what nutritionists and doctors regard as undeniable proof of an alarming growth of obesity since the mid-1970's, when the survey was first done in its current form. As elsewhere around the world, the main culprits, they say, are an unbalanced diet and a sedentary lifestyle, with some variants that are particularly Brazilian.

Brazilians have, for example, a pronounced sweet tooth, perhaps natural in a country that is the world's largest exporter of sugar. People routinely sprinkle sugar on naturally sweet fruits like pineapple or papaya, and it sometimes seems that half the mass of a cafezinho, the espresso coffee consumed everywhere in the country, is sugar, not liquid.

"Brazil and the United States are the countries that have the highest levels of consumption of sugar in the world, accounting for about 19 percent of calories," said Carlos Augusto Monteiro, a nutritionist at the University of São Paulo who was a consultant to the government study. "Consumption of soft drinks, for example, has grown 400 percent in the last 30 years, and we think that could play an important role in Brazil's growing fatter."

In addition to incorporating increasing amounts of fatty, processed foods in recent years, the Brazilian diet is also unusually heavy in starches and other carbohydrates. A typical luncheon plate, especially in the countryside or in poor neighborhoods, will contain not only a small piece of meat and beans for protein but also rice, potatoes, pasta, bread and cassava too.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

The Big Green Pig on Wheels?

Dan Neil, the always-entertaining auto journalist for the LA Times (and 2004 Pulitzer Prize winner), covers the hydrogen-hype at the LA Auto Show (ending this weekend) with the usual relish:

To know what strange times these are in the automotive world, you need only contemplate the words: hydrogen-powered Hummer.

At first glance — and second and third — using hydrogen to power a 3-ton SUV seems a sadly comical misapplication of technology. Why not a bulldozer powered by hydrazine rocket fuel or a minibike shot through with plutonium fuel rods? Why not capture 3.5 billion fireflies and use their precious incandescence to power a Buick?

And yet, there it sits on the floor of the Los Angeles Convention Center, a big, Dalton blue Hummer with an enormous carbon-fiber bottle in the back. Such monstrosities can only come from monstrous egos, and sure enough, behind the H2H — pushing it uphill, straining our credulity — are California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and General Motors Vice-Chairman Robert Lutz, who made a personal appearance to deliver the vehicle in October. GM's interest is obvious enough. The Hummer brand has become synonymous with a kind of ecological infantilism — to drive one is to be seen as throwing a tantrum over inconvenient facts such as America's addiction to foreign oil and global warming. Anything to paint this pig green is a help.

I went last weekend and, as in years past, the Hummer exhibit was overrun with large families, all trying to fit as many sticky-fingered offspring as possible into the show vehicles. Hummers, it seems, have replaced the people-packing Beetle as the car of choice for this stunt.

Dumb Tourists from Around the World

Having just endured my own trials with hordes of dumb tourists coming to the Rose Parade, I was happy to read of another writer's plight. Chris at the Spiked Magazine Scattered Blog, who lives in Bangkok, gives us his personal eyewitness account of dumb tourists visiting Cambodia:

You can encounter these people in droves at Angkor Wat, the spectacular ancient temple complex in Cambodia, more recently used as the backdrop for the first Lara Croft movie. They're known as Angkor Wankers. They can be spotted milling around outside whining about the $25 entrance fee, seriously debating whether they should simply content themselves with the distant view of the temples from the road despite the fact they've paid hundreds of dollars to travel the length of Cambodia specifically to get there. (I do actually know of one couple who did precisely that. It's the sort of revelation that can be only met with open-mouthed awe at such breathtaking stupidity). Or, once inside the temple complex, they can be seen wandering aimlessly from ancient ruin to ancient ruin, wondering why there's no McDonald's. Or Lara Croft merchandising stand. They usually manage two hours and then leave, thoroughly bored.

Like Chris, having lived outside the states for a period of time, I too can relate a few zingers about clueless tourists. My favorite is the seemingly ubiquitous American clutching their tour guide who, once they learn you have been living in town for the past year or more doing research, will ask you about "the better places to eat in town" (this example was in Oaxaca, Mexico). When you provide them with a long, detailed list, plus good advice, they immediately start to thumb through their paperbacks muttering, "but it isn't in here." (And if they do try an "unlisted" restaurant, they are likely to complain about the service, fare, etc.)

Of course not - the travel writer flew into town, stayed in the better hotels downtown, and vanished after a couple weeks. Part of the joy of travel is exploring the unknown, not the prepackaged rubbish that becomes a laundry lists of travel destinations. Next time you want an adventure, ask the locals.

Is Anyone Reading the Papers?

A thoughful essay appears in the current edition of the Columbia Journalism Review which asks, "Is it possible to do great journalism if the public does not care?"

It is not hard to see why; the data on readership are consistent and depressing. Vin Crosbie pointed to statistics that showed that in 1964, 81 percent of Americans read a daily newspaper, while today that figure hovers around 54 percent. Soon newspaper readers will be a minority of the population, given the even more distressing figures he cited concerning the reading habits of younger Americans. As recently as 1997, 39 percent of Americans 18 to 34 were reading newspapers regularly; by 2001 this had dropped to 26 percent. That statistic is even worse than it seems, because newspaper reading — or nonreading — is a habit, like smoking or a preference for Coke or Pepsi, that once acquired tends to remain in place. The older Americans who are the mainstay of newspaper subscriber lists have been reading newspapers since their teens and twenties, and younger Americans who have not yet picked up the habit are not likely to develop it later in life.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Not the Gipper's Party

When the Reagan conservatives took the helm of the GOP, many stated, "It's not Nixon's party anymore," meaning that the moderate Rockefeller-wing had been moved out of the party. But while the GOP revels in their reelection, I would argue that the Bush II GOP, "Isn't Reagan's party anymore" either.

The forthcoming specter of social security "reform" is causing even the most ardent Republicans in to worry about a populist backlash, as we read in today's LA Times commentary:

What Pawlenty realized — and what President Bush apparently fails to grasp — is that the Republican Party has changed. The rich still vote for Republicans in large numbers, but they're not the party's heart and soul. To win elections, the GOP increasingly relies on socially conservative voters of modest means.

Which is why Bush's second-term agenda is so spectacularly wrongheaded. Social Security privatization (a good idea whose time hasn't come) and tax cuts for the rich (cast as "tax reform," of course) are on the front burner, and an amnesty for illegal immigrants (which would put even more pressure on native-born workers without college degrees) isn't far behind. The Freedom Club GOP is riding high — and the Sam's Club crowd is left in the dust.

Consider this from the perspective of a not atypical GOP voter — say, a young married woman with three small children living in Ohio. She voted for Bush because he promised to vigorously defend her family against terrorists and because he shares her values. But she has material interests too. She would like to raise her kids full time, but the money isn't there. Her husband is working long hours, but it's not nearly enough, and the tax cuts barely made a dent in their debts. At some point, she has to wonder, what has President Bush done for me lately?

Precious little is the right answer, and GOP politicians would do well to take note. Liberals like Thomas Frank, author of "What's the Matter With Kansas," have long argued that populist conservatism is nothing more than a con. Conservatives sell values to the working class, but they deliver economic ruin. It's a view that is overheated, under-informed and more than a little condescending. Unfortunately, it contains a grain of truth.

Onna Darts, Innit?

"You don’t never show no disrespect for the darts." Posted by Hello

The world of darts is busting out of the British Isles. The NYT’s reports today on the increasing worlwide popularity of competitive dart matches, bringing the sport out of the smoke and haze of pub culture into the bright lights of TV cameras. I’ve thrown a few games of cricket and 501 in my time, but never in competition. But while reading about the assorted characters that darts attracts, I couldn’t help but think of one of my favorite novels, “London Fields,” by Martin Amis, who created one of the most memorable protagonists in modern British literature – the criminal/dart-thrower Keith Talent. Shortly after its US debut, the NYT gave this following assessment:

Keith Talent represents Mr. Amis's best creation in the book - a grotesque who is nevertheless both surprisingly vivid and desperate. It is a portrait done in verbal glitter. Yet Keith's dispassionate cruelty is almost mythlike. Born into poverty and emotionally without resources, he seeks escape by becoming a petty thief and professional cheat. He yearns for the best that life offers, at least in his terms -a dart-throwing championship and television-celebrity status.

For a bit of pure, self-indulgent pleasure, please read the following passage between Keith and Sam, the novel’s narrator, culled from my well-worn copy, which, I might also add, is personalized by the author:

In an atmosphere of tingling solemnity I approached the oché, or throwing line, 7ft 9 ¼ ins from the board, ‘as decided’, glossed Keith, ‘by the World Darts Federation.’ Weight on the front foot; head still; nice follow through. ‘You’re looking at that treble 20,’ whispered Keith direly. ‘Nothing else exists. Nothing.’

My first dart hit the double 3. ‘Insincere dart,’ said Keith. My second missed the board altogether, smacking into the wall cabinet. ‘No clinicism,’ said Keith. My third I never threw: on the backswing the plastic flight jabbed me in the eye. After I’d recovered from that, my scores went 11, 2, 9; 4, 17, outer bullseye (25!); 7, 13, 5. Around now Keith stopped talking about the sincerity of the dart and started saying ‘Throw the fucking thing in there’. On and on it went. Keith grew silent, grieving, priestly. At one point, having thrown two darts into the bare wall, I dropped the third and reeled backward from the oché, saying – most recklessly – that darts was a dumb game and I didn’t care anyway. Keith calmly pocketed his darts, stepped forward, and slammed me against a heap of packing cases. Our noses were almost touching again. ‘You don’t never show disrepect for the darts, okay?’ he said. ‘You don’t never show no disrespect for the darts. . . You don’t never show no disrespect for the darts.’

Storm Coverage

From LA Blogs we learn of an impressive photo essay on the La Conchita landslide yesterday.

Our National Color Scheme

Since when did the two major political parties adopt totemic colors? I've often wondered about that, but didn't track down the reason why, nor wrote to the Explainer column at Slate. Luckily, long-time journalist and commentator Joe Scott at The Body Politic provides his own explainer today, and contends that the color map as counting crutch masks the true variability of voter preference:

Here’s why. In 1976, when the presidential electoral map designation came into existence, it followed a rotating color pattern every four years based on which party controlled the White House prior to the November election. Bill Clinton was the “blue” incumbent in 2000 and Bush the “blue” challenger. In 2004, Bush was the “red” incumbent and Kerry the “blue” challenger. But in 2008, with Bush again the “red” incumbent, the next GOP nominee will be blue; conversely, the red map will reflect the Democratic nominee. Confused? It would be wiser if the simplistic U.S. electoral map process was scrapped in the future.

Monday, January 10, 2005

The Burger that Ate CKE Corp

Two all-beef patties that can kill. Posted by Hello

Today's LAT both thrills and offends readers with a prominent article on Hardee's new Monster hamburger, a colossal creation, "Loaded with two 1/3-pound Angus beef patties, four strips of bacon and three slices of cheese, slathered with a generous glob of mayonnaise and encased in a buttered bun."

The public policy debate over food portion sizes, diet, and overweight Americans has echoed many of the same themes over the decades, many of them conflicting: Americans are slothful and obsessed with fat food; Americans want healthy food but fast food outlets won't give it to them; Americans are savvy consumers of fast food and get a higher marginal return of calories for little extra cash with "super sized" meals, etc.

Today's article raises another angle; namely, that a core segment of the fast-food market - young, single men - actively participate in cultivating their own masculine culinary culture by eschewing healthy portions and menu items:

The Monster has been singled out — the Center for Science in the Public Interest called it the "fast-food equivalent of a snuff film" — but the $5.49 4-inch-tall sandwich is just the latest in a heart-clogging trend.

Big is nothing new at fast-food restaurants. McDonald's, for instance, famously offered Super Size fries and drinks until it overhauled its menu to promote a "balanced lifestyle" in March — coincidentally, or perhaps not, after the gross-me-out documentary "Super Size Me" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

But the newest trend isn't just about size or value. It's about thumbing your nose at the food police.

Hardee's has received fan mail from people grateful for the guilty pleasure of the Monster Thickburger (about the equivalent in calories of two Big Macs and a strawberry sundae at McDonald's) and offended that health watchdogs would want to take it away from them.

"While other restaurants were a bunch of Nancy-boys and became low-carb cowards in the face of moronic 'they made me fat' lawsuits, you did the AMERICAN thing," John Frensley, a 22-year-old college student from Texas, wrote in an e-mail, "by spitting in the face of lawyers, nutritionists and food-nazi types and offering a monument to Americanism."

This may be helpful in explaining why a certain segment of a consuming public readily adopts trends, even if they are unhealthful (think of the prominent discourse and marketing campaigns with regard to steak houses, cigars, and martinis, which have once again become popular even as Americans exercise more, fewer smoke, and hard liquor consumption continues to decrease), but it really doesn't get at long-term trends.

A historical look at food trends points to a "size creep" towards larger portions, calories, and serving container sizes. The American Dietetic Association found that some of the more popular American food items increased in size dramatically over the 20th century from when they were first introduced:

A Hershey's Milk chocolate bar weighed in at 0.6oz in 1908 and now the bar sizes are 1.6, 2.6, 4, 7, 8oz

Burger King French fries - in 1954 2.6oz was described as Regular. Now 2.6 is described as Small, 4.1 Medium, 5.7 Large and 6.9oz King.

Similarly, McDonald's French fries weighed in at 2.4oz in 1955. Now 2.4oz are Small, 5.3 Medium, 6.3 Large and 7.1oz Supersize.

Hamburger sandwich at Burger King weighed in at 3.9oz in 1954. Now is it 4.4oz (Hamburger), 6.0 (Whopper Jr.), 6.1 (Double Hamburger), 9.9 (Whopper), 12.6 (Double Whopper).

McDonald's Soda, from fountain - in 1955 it was 7fl oz, now the sizes are 12fl oz (Child), 16 (Small), 21 (Medium), 32 (Large), 42 (Supersize) 7-Eleven

Coca Cola, in 1916 the original bottle contained 6.5fl oz now bottles or cans come in sizes of 8fl oz, 12, 20, and 34fl oz.

In 2003 JAMA published a research article on trends in food portion sizes from 1977-1998, which found an overall increase in portion size both in the home and at fast food establishments:

Portion sizes vary by food source, with the largest portions consumed at fast food establishments and the smallest at other restaurants. Between 1977 and 1996, food portion sizes increased both inside and outside the home for all categories except pizza. The energy intake and portion size of salty snacks increased by 93 kcal (from 1.0 to 1.6 oz [28.4 to 45.4 g]), soft drinks by 49 kcal (13.1 to 19.9 fl oz [387.4 to 588.4 mL]), hamburgers by 97 kcal (5.7 to 7.0 oz [161.6 to 198.4 g]), french fries by 68 kcal (3.1 to 3.6 oz [87.9 to 102.1 g]), and Mexican food by 133 kcal (6.3 to 8.0 oz [178.6 to 226.8 g]).

And MSNBC reported on academic studies showing that consumer really did eat what's on their plate, meaning that, coupled with marketing campaigns emphasizing larger portions, customers would consume more calories over time, with little awareness, save for the extra clothing sizes:

In one study -– which Rolls believes to be the first academic research to examine portions in a restaurant, not a lab -- she and her team served an average portion of a baked pasta dish, along with one that was 50 percent larger. The entrees were served in the same sized dish but on different days, so both would appear the same and diners would have no basis to compare them.

When served the regular entrée, people ate an average 399 calories worth of pasta; those who ate the larger portion consumed an average 571 calories, according to the study, published in the March edition of the journal Obesity Research.

Surprisingly, when eating the larger portion, diners also ate more accompanying side dishes, and tacked an average 159 extra calories onto their meals. Rather than their stomachs accommodating the outsized entrée by eating less of everything else, or eating less during another meal, they simply absorbed the extra calories.

The same marketing journals that discuss "super sized" food portions trends also point to "light and healthy" meals as a new marketing segment, and the same fast food firms that are creating killer burgers are also selling low-fat alternatives, salads, and putatively "healthy" fare. How to account for the popularity of both, apart from an increasingly divergent consumer base (red food/blue food states)?

During a recent phone call to a friend I was asked whether I had made any New Year's resolutions. I hadn't, but his question pointed to a peculiar aspect of American culture, in all its variations, that I think relates to food. We are deeply conflicted consumers, especially of food, given that we relish fatty fast food (an empirical observation born of the data) and at the same time worry about our health, trying on new diets and health kicks as if seasonal fashion (also an empirical observation born of the data - just look at the Atkins craze, including "low-carb pasta" for God's sake). It reminded me deeply of conflicted Protestant culture, prone to excess but rife with guilt, making amends for the weaknesses of the world to which you succumbed. Hence, during Prohibition we also had one of the greatest decades of social and cultural excess ("The Roaring 20s").

The recent rash of New Year's-related articles on dieting point to the tendency for dieters to rebound, gaining their weight back after a few months of trying. In a similar sense, the American consumer as a whole is rebounding, drifting towards healthy habits and food, then gravitating towards larger portions, which - it can't be denied with the data - do resonate with customers.

Obviously, diet control is multivariate and complex; individual choices must be made within the context of historical trends, public health policy, food traditions, and corporate marketing campaigns. But people also exhibit behaviors which I think lends itself to the "internally conflicted" view of the fast food consumer. Years ago a friend visited Los Angeles after many years of living in Seattle where he had become a vegetarian. Upon driving by an In-N-Out hamburger stand, he broke down and had a Double-Double, "Just for old times' sake."

The Real Sound of NPR

I am wondering if any of you have heard what I have the past couple weeks. As an avid NPR listener (junkie), Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and all the other shows are playing constantly in my home as a kind of thinking person's white noise. Along with the astounding content of the programming, of course, is the astounding quality of the presentation; cool, sophisticated, and utterly lacking in blemishes or any colloquial speech patterns.

But I have noticed recently the rare "uhh," awkward pause, or other linguistic potholes that the rest of the known world includes in every conversation, in Morning Edition and other shows. Are NPR presenters becoming human at last?

Well, the answer might be that they aren't editing with as heavy a hand as they did previously. On December 31, WNYC's On The Media gave us an inside look at the editing practices of NPR with "Pulling Back the Curtain." A portion of the transcript reveals the secret of the NPR magic:

JOHN SOLOMON: While many public radio programs --particularly call-in shows -- are live, I was surprised to find out that newsmaker interviews for the daily NPR national news shows, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, are often not. Usually they are pre-taped and quickly edited down. Likewise, I was stunned when I learned that the main Fresh Air interview is actually condensed from a longer Q&A, and at times the Car Talk Guys will edit in some extra laughs kept on file.

Is the more "linguistically humane" NPR to be standard fare in the future? Or will they revert to the polish of yesteryear? I'll be listening.