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.