December 31, 2004

Should we not celebrate the new year?

A sad New Year's has arrived on the other side of the globe, where prayers replaced celebration. In many European countries too, celebrations have been called off. Are celebrations being cancelled in the U.S.? I've seen no news of that.

Top ten lists.

Here's a nice compilation of top ten movie lists. Both the "cream of the crop" and the less exclusive collection of critics put "Sideways" first and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" second in the sense of being on the most lists. "Sideways" is also first on both lists in the sense of placing first on the most lists. The "cream of the crop" critics give "Million Dollar Baby" the second most number 1 mentions, and the less exclusive list keeps "Eternal Sunshine" in second place.

What is the movie on the most lists without ever getting a single number 1? It's "Spiderman 2" for the nonexclusive critics, a movie that isn't on the cream's top 20 at all. The cream put "The Incredibles" on the most lists without ever giving it a number 1. A much ballyhooed movie that doesn't even make the cream's top 20 is "Ray."

A few of my own very biased opinions, based on having seen very few of these movies (as noted here):

Most overused formula for trying to manufacture an Oscar-begging, critic-pleasing movie: the biopic.

Most successful way to earn the love of the typical "cream of the crop" critic: show a relatively unattractive man finding a satisfying relationship with a pretty attractive woman (e.g. "Sideways").

Typical scheme for producing the sort of movie that women supposedly want and that they will be able to drag their husband/boyfriend to: show a relatively unattractive man finding a satisfying relationship with a pretty attractive woman.

Alternative scheme for the same: have a sports movie with a strong female character (e.g. "Million Dollar Baby").

Movies that are supposed to be excellent that you'd have to pay me a lot of money to sit through: "Maria Full of Grace," "Vera Drake."

Movie that you might think I'd be interested in that I couldn't care less about: "Before Sunset."

Okay. Enough cranky opinions for now. Have fun at the movies!

Goldberg and Cho.

I like Jonah Goldberg, and I dislike Margaret Cho's politics, but I find Goldberg's insistence that Margaret Cho isn't funny completely obtuse. You can't judge Cho's humor from the written text of her act. Most of the humor is in the voice and the facial expression. If you can set aside your aversion to her politics and watch a DVD or two, you would understand why it doesn't make any sense to read the text of her jokes and pronounce them unfunny. Try watching "I'm the One That I Want." It really is quite hilarious.

UPDATE: Thanks to Jonah for linking -- and for writing "Althouse is cool." (I should put that in my sidebar.) And, as long as I'm updating, let me add another example about comedy that this point about Cho reminded me of. The new Seinfeld DVDs have interviews with some of the supporting actors, including one with the actor who played Uncle Leo, a character I find hilarious. He first appears in "The Pony Remark," and the DVD has a nice interview with the actor, Leo Lesser. Lesser talks about auditioning for the part. Everyone laughed at his reading, and he looked at the script and wondered: "What are they laughing at? There's nothing funny in what I'm saying. I repeated a couple of more lines, and they laughed again. And the entire time I'm thinking what the hell are they laughing at? There's nothing funny here." Then the clip of Lesser delivering those lines in the episode is played and we hear the lines: "You wanna hear something? Your cousin Jeffrey is switching parks. They're transferring him to Riverside. So he'll completely revamp that operation. Do you understand? He'll do in Riverside now what he did in Central Park. More money. So, that's your cousin." On paper, there's no joke, but every time I hear Lesser say those lines it cracks me up. It's comic acting, not joketelling. Much funnier than jokes, really, I think.

No ark needed.

There are lots of articles in the last few days about the fact that human beings were the only animals killed by the recent tsunamis, but I was struck by the title of the one in the Washington Times: "No ark needed for flood in Asia." There is nothing in the article itself about the story of Noah's Ark, but I wonder if Biblical literalists will feel some need to reexamine their fundamentalism. (Answer to my own question: No, of course not. There are so many other practical difficulties with putting all the animals on the ark that this new difficulty could not shake a literalist.)

Drinking chocolate at the Flushing Station.

As noted in yesterday's late night post, we had to drive to Milwaukee yesterday. I had to drop John off somewhere at 4, and I went to hang out in the art museum until the time came to drive home. Driving in the fog, I misjudged where to turn and ended up driving way too far up Lincoln Memorial Drive (along the lake shore) and was just looking for a place to turn around and drive back south. I took the first left turn and pulled into a little driveway by an old building. Why are all these cars parked here? It's a coffeehouse! It's still only 3:30 so we go inside. I order a hot chocolate and ask the barista guy, "What was this old building?" He says, "It's a pump house." I say, "What the hell is a pump house?" He says he has no idea, but it's explained in the next room. What an incurious barista! Or maybe he's just tired of explaining it.

But what a cool café, and how fun to find it so fortuitously! "Pump house" seems to be a euphemism for "flushing station":
The Flushing Station was built in 1888 to pump fresh water into the Milwaukee River from Lake Michigan, to flush out pollution. The 1,700-sq. ft. cafe takes up two-thirds of the building, with the still-functioning flushing pump filling the remaining third.

Is there a better place than Alterra to drink chocolate and ogle nineteenth century machinery?

Happy New Year's Eve Day.

No, I haven't got any new year resolutions. I'm in the middle of struggling through three piles of work: my Civil Procedure exams, my Religion and the Constitution exams, and my Admissions Committee files. I don't need to concoct any new obligations.


Men are tweezing and waxing their eyebrows these days, according to this NYT article. Women seem to love it, but other men -- at least other men who have not faced the reality of their own monobrowfulness -- are disdainful:
Charles Coxe, the executive editor of Maxim, the men's magazine, used the term "mantropy" to describe what he calls the growing feminization of men. "Guys are losing everything that makes them manly," he said. "The unibrow is there for a reason. How are you going to keep that spot warm? Besides, that's your plumage. It's the equivalent of a bird's big red chest. Be proud of it."
Who does the manly man listen to on the question of what makes a man attractive to women? Women or a men's magazine editor with an economic interest in the continuing market for a magazine that supplies men with photographs of women?

December 30, 2004

End of the year observation.

I realize I've only gone out to the movies six times this year. Just a few years ago, I went to the movies two or three times a week. What has changed? Is it me? Is it the movies? Have the people in the audience gotten more annoying? Or is it that the world has changed in a way that makes movies seem less important?

What were those six movies I saw? They were "House of Sand and Fog," "Kill Bill: Volume 2," "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," "Donnie Darko," "Hero," and "Finding Neverland." Had I known in advance how much I would like these six movies, I might perhaps have only gone to see one of them. I'll let you guess which one:

[POLL DELETED: It was hanging up the loading of the page.]

UPDATE: The answer is revealed here.

At the Milwaukee Art Museum.

Today it got quite warm here in Wisconsin. In the morning, the front step was icy from a misty rain, and then later the temperature went up into the 50s. This weather shift stirred up a big fog, and we had to drive to Milwaukee. The fog gave a mysterious look to the Milwaukee Art Museum -- that architectural marvel designed by Santiago Calatrava.

From the inside, instead of the usual view of Lake Michigan, there was a blue glow:

The big exhibit was Masterpieces of American Art. Here's a detail from a dramatic painting by John Singleton Copley (from 1777-1778) [ADDED: Did George Washington and Thomas Jefferson gawk at this fearsome shark?]

Here is a less frightening detail from a waterscape with an animal, from a painting by George Caleb Bingham:

I checked out the other exhibitions:

And walked through the stylish hallways:

There's that elaborate glass sculpture:

Okay, take a picture of me in front of it:

We had a nice little meal in the museum restaurant, then drove back to Madison in the foggy darkness, the second to the last night of the year.

Tsunami relief.

I've put up a free ad for the U.S. Fund for UNICEF over there in the sidebar.

Choice quotes, renamed award.

Andrew Sullivan has his annual awards posted today. The recent death of Susan Sontag has forced him to rename the Sontag Award. It's now the [Michael] Moore Award. He's got some choice quotes, from both the left and the right. It's just amazing what stupid things people who presumably care about their reputation are willing to say and even put in writing.

Yes to cellphones on airplanes.

Here's the usual collection of letters to the NYT carping about the proposal to allow the use of cellphones on airplanes. Typical:
Allowing cellphone use on airplanes is uncivilized. Why should any passenger be forced to endure the loud-voice chatter so typical of cellphone users? Passengers have a right to relax, read, work in silence or simply meditate.
Silence on airplanes? There is a constant loud roar of the engines! There is no silence to be enjoyed. In any case, you're in a big group of people. How can you imagine that you have a "right" to silence? Silence fans expect everyone else to shut up.

Yes, people on cellphones talk too loudly and say boring things like "I'm on an airplane right now," and hearing only one side of a conversation is especially irritating. But you have an easy solution: wear headphones and play music to mask the noise. It's not like the problem of smoking on planes. You can't bring your own air.

I really can't understand how people this sensitive can bear to travel at all. Let the people have their cellphones on the plane. People love to stay in touch with their friends and family, especially when they are traveling. Cellphones are a big part of life today, and we've got to learn to deal with it. If you want to meditate in silence, stay home. If you just want to avoid irritations and distractions and get some reading done while putting up with all the usual discomforts of traveling, get an iPod. And go to the iMusic store and do a search for albums with the words "Most Relaxing" in them.

And you want to be my gossip columnist?

A correction in today's NYT:
The Boldface Names column yesterday, a poem to celebrity news-makers of 2004, used an incorrect spelling in some copies for the given name of the singer who lip-synched during a performance on "Saturday Night Live." She is Ashlee Simpson, not Ashley.

Following the snake.

Following the snake did not work out well for Eve, but it saved the life of this Indonesian woman (and the twins she carried on her back). The snake, which she says was the size of a telephone pole, knew the way to shelter from the tsunami.

"You must marry Blog when we reach the village ... or you die!"

Surely, this is one of the all-time great blog posts. (Via Polipundit, via Best of the Web, probably via everybody by now.)

December 29, 2004

Earthquake-inspired thoughts

The recent earthquake has led to articles reviewing the other calamities the earth might one day unleash upon us. I was particularly struck by this passage in an editorial in the Times of India titled "Violent Planet":
Yellowstone National Park in Montana is a mega-eruption waiting to happen. When it last blew, two million years ago, it created enough ash to bury New York state to a depth of 20 metres. Forget nations, our entire species might not survive such a cataclasmic giga-event — which for our planet is but a twitch of its skin. Such stupendous forces beyond conception can inspire only awe. And ultimate humility in the face of a mysterious creation which, to make itself complete, must inevitably contain the seeds of its own eventual dissolution.

Fired for refusing to wear makeup.

The NYT reports:
A bartender who refused to wear makeup at a Reno casino was not unfairly dismissed from her job, a federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled. The bartender, Darlene Jespersen, who had worked for 20 years at a Harrah's casino bar, objected to the company's revised policy that required bartending women to wear makeup. Ms. Jespersen was fired in 2000, and she sued, alleging sex discrimination. In a 2-to-1 decision, a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld a lower court's ruling in favor of Harrah's.
Is it hard to imagine a person who has held a job for 20 years refusing to do something that is this simple and painless to avoid getting fired? I can think of several reasons a person might take a stand here: religious objection or strong feminism. There might also be a more complicated dispute with the employer; perhaps being forced to wear makeup was just the last in a series of rules that, taken together, made the employment odious. A Google search turned up this article in Mother Jones magazine, which portrays Jespersen as having the feminist objection (which is consistent with suing the employer for sex discrimination) and quotes her as saying: "I felt that it would have been a higher price to pay if I had stayed there and let them humiliate me."

Harrah's took the position that "that they are in the entertainment business, and employees must play their parts." It's not surprising that the courts permit employers to have different grooming rules for men and women. (Harrah's forbad makeup for male employees.) But even if the law permits it, Harrah's did not have to treat its longterm employee so harshly.

UPDATE: An emailer writes:
I'm a management labor attorney, who works with management employment attorneys. In almost all of these cases, the reason for the dismissal is not as black and white as the plaintiff would have it appear. I see you anticipate that by noting the possibility that this may have been one in a series of rules that made work odious. (But odious by whose definition?) And the fact that someone has been there for a long period of time should not be of any moment whatsoever. Some companies keep poorly performing employees around, especially women or minorities, just because they think they might sue if they're fired. That's a big mistake, because eventually it reaches a point where they are so bad they have to get fired, and they the employee sues anyway. Then they offer their experience as evidence that they couldn't have been so bad, or else why would they have lasted so long. It's an unfortunate catch 22 for employers.

Other employers keep poorly performing employees for purely sentimental reasons, like they knew their relatives. Many others do so because they don't want to leave a family without a breadwinner, no matter how lousy the guy is. It is frequently a case of "no good deed goes unpunished" when the employee sues anyway, and offers long experience for evidence of good performance.
I have no expertise in labor law myself, but as a matter of personal opinion, I will say that I think there is some room for sentimentality in business, and certainly there is room for benevolence. On the other hand, I don't think it's right for some employees to be excused from rules that will be enforced against others. If one older women bartender gets to go without makeup, I don't see how you can fire a newer worker who wants to do the same.

Still, there are some new rules that could be imposed that might work to drive out older workers. The linked Mother Jones article refers to casinos that require women to wear high heels, a rule that would be much harder for an older woman to tolerate.

Note that Harrah's went beyond requiring makeup. It had professional stylists fix up the employee, who was then photographed, and that photograph was used as a "personal best" standard that the employee was supposed to maintain. Is that odious or benevolent? I don't know. It's hard to tell what the real experience for employees was from the short articles I've seen. You might think it's fairly benevolent. They gave the employee a makeover and then held the employee up to a standard of grooming individual to her. No one asked her to look like a picture of a model. But maybe it was onerous. Anyone who has ever had her makeup and hair done by a good professional knows you can't do it as well on your own.

So I'd want to know how intrusively and stringently the photograph was used to pressure the employee into reaching that "personal best." In any case, I'm sympathetic to employers who fear lawsuits, and I note again that I'm not talking about where the judicial system should step in. I think a rational employer -- even a cold-hearted one -- ought to want its employees to think they are working in a great place that treats them well.

ANOTHER UPDATE: How Appealing links to my post and provides a link to the Ninth Circuit opinion, which I've now read. I see that the main problem is that the plaintiff (Jespersen) failed to show that the standard imposed on women was more burdensome than the one imposed on men. The case law was clear that it isn't illegal sex discrimination to have different appearance rules for men and women, but it might be illegal if the rules imposed on one sex were more burdensome. There was a case involving weight standards where men only had to keep their weight at the level recommended for a "large" build but the women had to meet the level recommended for a "medium" build. Harrah's required the men not to wear makeup, which is less work and expense than having to wear makeup, but this this obvious difference in burden wasn't enough to avoid summary judgment for the defendant, because the court insisted on looking at the whole set of grooming requirements imposed on men and women. The men had to keep their nails and hair trimmed, for example.

Jespersen argued that "cosmetics can cost hundreds of dollars per year and putting on makeup requires a significant investment in time," but the only evidence was academic literature about the "cost and time burdens of cosmetics generally." How much does it actually cost to buy the lipstick, mascara, foundation, and blusher that Harrah's required? You could easily spend hundreds annually on such things, but if you buy ordinary brands at the drugstore, it would be much less. The fact that many women (including myself) are lured into buying luxury brands is not part of what Harrah's is requiring. The court was willing to take "judicial notice" that some expense was involved, but is it really significantly more than what the men have to spend? Those frequent haircuts really could cost more and take more time.

Of course, none of this addresses the problem that Jespersen had with being forced to conform to a female stereotype, which the dissenting judge was willing to take on.

Disaster relief donations.

It's very easy to make a donation to the Red Cross South Asia Earthquake and Tsunami Disaster Relief Efforts here, on Amazon. If you already have an Amazon account, you'll be able to do the whole transaction in about ten seconds, so stop thinking about making a contribution and just do it right now.

UPDATE: Here's the NYT page of links to groups taking donations for relief, including many affiliated with particular religions.

December 28, 2004

"I was alone in the middle of the ocean."

Harrowing tales emerge in the aftermath of the tsunami. This one, from the NYT, comes from Indonesia:
Mulyana, a 24-year-old housewife, had just sat down to a wedding party Sunday morning when the tsunami struck. She ran and held onto a coconut tree. But the water pulled her away anyway, far out to sea.

"I was alone in the middle of the ocean," she said from her hospital bed here in this town on the northeastern coast of Aceh province, the area hardest hit the disaster. "I was afraid of being pulled all the way to India," she said.

Mulyana, who cannot swim, clung to a coconut tree floating nearby and held on to it. After a few hours, she said, she saw boats and tried to scream and wave at them, but they couldn't see or hear her.
She was finally rescued after four hours. How many people have been (or still are) clinging to debris in the ocean?

The linked article also notes the large numbers of small islands near Sumatra that have not been heard from yet and where the destruction may be worse than in the places we have heard from.

The new National Film Registry films, including "Duck and Cover."

The new 25 films for Congress's National Film Registry have been announced. These are films chosen for their "cultural, historical or aesthetic significance." The only ones I've seen are "Eraserhead" (1978), "The Nutty Professor" (1963), "Schindler's List" (1993), "Unforgiven" (1992), and -- I'm guessing now -- "Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor" (1936) and "Pups is Pups (Our Gang)" (1930). And, like most people, I've seen part of "Jailhouse Rock" (1957). One I haven't seen but was curious enough to look up is "Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers" (1980). It really is a documentary about garlic.

Also on the list, and clearly a part of the American cultural heritage, is the 1951 civil defense film "Duck and Cover." I don't remember ever being shown this, maybe because I didn't reach elementary school age until the late 1950s. I do, however, remember air raid drills. These did not involve getting under the desks, as famously depicted in "Duck and Cover." We went out in the hall and curled up on our knees, with our heads against the wall and our hands clasped behind our necks. I can certainly remember having no idea what we were preparing for. I knew what "air" meant, and I knew what a "fire drill" referred to, even though the word "drill" didn't mean anything. "Raid" didn't mean anything either. So "air raid drill" was just one of those things we did, like "pledge allegiance." They told us to do it, and we did.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, when I was 11 and had some vague idea of what was happening, the school sent us home with a memo to give to our parents. The memo informed the parents that they needed to teach those of us who rode the bus how to make our way home on foot. Presumably, the school envisioned a nuclear war in which the children would be wandering about and ought to at least attempt to walk home. My parents did nothing in response to this memo, which puzzled me back then (when I also fretted about their failure to build a bomb shelter). I'm sure they wouldn't have thought much of our air raid drills either.

UPDATE: "Duck and Cover" is in the public domain. You can download or stream it here. Okay, I've watched it now. That's really quite disturbing. You begin with an animated turtle ("dum dum deedle dum dum") and before long you're being told over and over again that 'the flash may come at any time," so you must be instantly ready to jump onto the ground and cover yourself up, like these people on a picnic who go under the picnic cloth ("They know that even a thin cloth helps protect them"). Just before the peppy music ends the film, the kids are told: "Older people will help us, as they always do. But there might not be any grownups around when the bomb explodes. Then, you're on your own!"

A life made out of reading.

From an early obituary for Susan Sontag, who has just died of leukemia:
Sontag was reading by 3. In her teens, her passions were Gerard Manley Hopkins and Djuna Barnes. The first book that thrilled her was "Madame Curie," which she read when she was 6. She was stirred by the travel books of Richard Halliburton and the Classic Comics rendition of Shakespeare’s "Hamlet." The first novel that affected her was Victor Hugo’s "Les Miserables."

"I sobbed and wailed and thought [books] were the greatest things," she recalled. "I discovered a lot of writers in the Modern Library editions, which were sold in a Hallmark card store, and I used up my allowance and would buy them all."

She remembered as a girl of 8 or 9 lying in bed looking at her bookcase against the wall. "It was like looking at my 50 friends. A book was like stepping through a mirror. I could go somewhere else. Each one was a door to a whole kingdom."

Edgar Allan Poe’s stories enthralled her with their "mixture of speculativeness, fantasy and gloominess." Upon reading Jack London’s "Martin Eden," she determined she would become a writer. "I got through my childhood," she told the Paris Review, "in a delirium of literary exaltations."

At 14, Sontag read Thomas Mann’s masterpiece, "The Magic Mountain." "I read it through almost at a run. After finishing the last page, I was so reluctant to be separated from the book that I started back at the beginning and, to hold myself to the pace the book merited, reread it aloud, a chapter each night."

Sontag began to frequent the Pickwick bookstore on Hollywood Boulevard, where she went "every few days after school to read on my feet through some more of world literature — buying when I could, stealing when I dared."
I have never heard of anyone loving reading that much. Say what you will about Sontag and her various political ravings, the woman did truly love reading.

The wave of criticism that follows the tsunami.

It's really not all about us, but prepare for the rank exploitation of the tsunami tragedy as an occasion to criticize the United States. Yesterday, a U.N. official called the U.S. "stingy" for not giving enough, and today's NYT has this letter:
It was the lingering spirit of Christmas that left me wondering whether the earthquake and tsunami south of Asia could have been an opportunity to fight terrorism in a different way.

If we weren't so wrapped up in war and the military pursuit of peace, we could afford an organized force that is prepared to "invade" devastated areas on a moment's notice to help with recovery.

If we were as prepared to extend good will as we are to wage war, we'd have a lot more friends in the world and a lot fewer enemies. That's something our gargantuan military power has failed to achieve.

Blogging from the disaster zone.

The NYT has a link-rich article about people blogging from the tsunami disaster zone. The Times includes quotes about the positive side of blogging:
Bloggers at the scene are more deeply affected by events than the journalists who roam from one disaster to another ...

"[Bloggers] are helping us understand the impact of this event in a way that other media just can't," with an intimate voice and an unvarnished perspective, with the richness of local context...
There is also some disappointment:
One veteran of the online medium said he was initially "a little disappointed" in the reports he got from the blogs. Paul Saffo, director of the Institute for the Future in California, said that with the widespread use of digital cameras and high-speed digital access, he was expecting to see more raw video and analysis.

He said that upon reflection he realized that it was difficult to get information out of hard-hit areas and that putting digital video online is still the domain of "deep geeks" with significant resources. "This brought home to me just how far we have to go," he said.

“I think we have done something wrong and God is punishing us."

There are very few statements like that in the news stories about the tsunami. Here is a story of a Hindu group in Michigan condemning the characterization of the wave as divine retribution. Many prefer to see God's hand in the way some survived, like the baby who floated on a mattress. The willingness to thank and not blame God is sometimes truly astounding:
"I was in the field as a referee. The waves suddenly came in and I was saved by God -- I got caught in the branches of a tree," said Mahmud Azaf, who lost his three children to the tsunami.
An Alabaman man who was on vacation in Phuket when the tsunami hit saw hundreds of dead bodies, but perceived the will of God in the fact he was able to save one child: "That must have been why God let me live this long."

Here is an opinion piece from a Christian minister (Roger Ray) that does a straightforward job of presenting the religious perspective:
There is an account in John's gospel about a time when Jesus and his disciples encountered a man who had been born blind. His disciples asked Jesus why this had happened; was it the man's sin or his parents? Jesus' answer stretches across the boundaries of religions: "Neither this man nor his parents sinned. He was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him."

That is the only perspective on a crisis I ever want to have. God didn't send the earthquake or the tsunami. God didn't cause people to be killed or hundreds of thousands to be left in danger. But this crisis is an opportunity to demonstrate the works of God.

Hindus, Muslims, Catholics and Buddhists are the victims of this natural disaster but this isn't a Hindu, Muslim, Catholic or Buddhist crisis. Persons of all faiths have the opportunity to do a good thing and support one another's efforts.

Supporting the BBC.

Look at all the effort the British government goes through to check on citizens who claim they have no TV and therefore do not owe the £121 ($233) fee that TV owners must pay to support the BBC.
Enforcement officers visit homes and businesses about three million times a year. They have a variety of weapons at hand, including a law that requires retailers to notify the government whenever someone buys a television; a database with TV-owning information about 28 million Britons; and specially equipped vans and hand-held devices that can detect unlawful television-watching.

The final step is a home visit, whose purpose, Mr. Reed said, is "to identify genuine non-users of television so that we can minimize future contact with them." Homeowners are not obliged to let the agents in, but the agents can get search warrants if there is sufficient evidence of television viewing. Every day, more than 1,000 people - 380,000 in 2003 - are caught watching television without a license.
That's awfully oppressive. And why deter the poorest people from having TVs? What a terrible system. Why not just support the BBC from general tax funds if you love the BBC so much? You're already operating on the assumption that everyone wants to have a TV. There are a few outliers who actually don't want TV, like the man profiled in the linked story, but it seems as though most people who don't have a TV are just trying to avoid the fee. Those who do pay are partly paying for all the invasive enforcement:
The fee is very much a part of British life. It is a criminal offense for anyone with a television set not to pay it, whether they watch the BBC or not. Fee-evasion cases make up 12 percent of the caseload in magistrates' courts. Although most evaders are fined, 20 people were imprisoned for nonpayment last year.
This enforcement is not just oppressive, it is a complete waste of money. Why do the British people stand for this?


In the time I was writing the last post, the NYT online changed the number of dead from 35,000 to 40,000. My paper copy says 25,000. Very, very sad. We may never know the real number.

Tsunami deaths.

Terrible, tragic pictures of the dead appear today. The NYT paper edition has a photograph of a floor covered with the bodies of children. With colorful blankets wrapped around them, and one boy's arm reaching over to another's shoulder, they would look as though they were sleeping, were it not for the grieving woman in the corner.

The NYT reports:
The deaths from the disaster - which climbed today to more than 35,000 and many unaccounted for as Sri Lanka and Indonesia increased their confirmed tolls - came into sharper relief on a day when it seemed increasingly clear that at least a third of the dead were children, according to estimates by aid officials...

The realization began to emerge today that the dead included an exceptionally high number of children who, aid officials suggested, were least able to grab onto trees or boats when the deadly waves smashed through villages and over beaches. Children make up at least half the population of Asia.
Were children more vulnerable than others? If children are half (or more) of the population and a third of the dead, they might appear to be less vulnerable. But many who died were those who were out in boats when the waves hit, and many were tourists in search of peace on remote, tiny islands:
"All of the fishermen who went to sea haven't come back," said Yusuf Ismail, a spokesman for the president [of Somalia].

In Thailand, the government said 918 people had died, 7,396 were injured and thousands were missing, mostly on small resort islands or among boatloads of recreational divers who had headed out to sea in the morning before the wave struck...

The smaller island of Phi Phi Lei, which was the scene of the movie "The Beach," starring Leonardo DiCaprio, was reported to have been mostly leveled. On another small island, the proprietors of the elite Phra Thong Resort said only 70 of 170 guests were accounted for."
The incongruous appearance of Leonardo DiCaprio in so many of the news stories may strike some as an offensive intrusion of our obsession with glamorous celebrities, but I think the real point here is that the movie stirred travelers' interest in the remote islands of Thailand. See this "eco tourism" site about Phra Thong (which is translated as "Golden Buddha"). Here's the Golden Buddha Beach Resort's site, which still has its original material, with an added note:
Nothing happens on clicking, though. Here, at least now, are some pictures of the resort:
The concept of Golden Buddha Beach was about putting dreams into reality. This special corner of Thailand is managed quite differently to other resorts. Those that wanted their own property and also to be a part of retaining Koh Phra Thong's natural environment could purchase from an ecologically-minded property developer, Lost Horizons.
Presumably, these things are all truly lost now, along with many of the people drawn to a place that promised the most beautiful, peaceful escape.

There is great sadness for all who have died -- the vacationers in search of peace, the fishermen out on a day's work, and the many children and ordinary people near their homes.

December 27, 2004

The worm and the pleasurable endoscopy.

The paddleworm inspires scientists to design a better endoscopy device:
They say their device would be able to "pull" itself along, rather than having to be forced into the body....

The [paddleworm], which is often used as fishing bait, moves in wet environments containing large amounts of solid and semi-solid material - similar to that often found inside the body...

"We looked to nature for a model and chose the paddleworm because it is capable of 'swimming' with ease through relatively soft, unstructured environments."...

"The advantage from our point of view is that the paddle worm has a much greater variety of styles of moving, since it can remain straight and just move the paddles, wriggle and keep the paddles still, or wriggle and move the paddles as well....

"Ultimately our idea is to turn the current ordeal of the colonic endoscopy procedure into something akin to a pleasurable experience!"

"K style."

Argentina's president, Néstor Kirchner, has a style of his own, which used to seem refreshingly eccentric, but isn't so cute anymore.

"Unsnapping a Purse o' Politeness."

Alternatives to "opening a can o' whupass."

Naming the dog.

In Canada, the biggest sitcom in years, according to the NYT, features a family that has a dog named bin Laden. I read this out loud, and John says, "Does that mean they like bin Laden or are they trying to insult bin Laden by giving that name to a dog?" I say I don't know, and this leads to a discussion of how some cultures think it's insulting to be made the namesake of a dog. John remembers that people in India were offended when President Bush named his cat India, and that one man had said "How would he feel if we named our dog Bush?" I say, "Bush would probably think it was nice." John notes that Doc in "Back to the Future" named his dog Einstein, and that clearly was not intended to disrespect Einstein. I say, "Still, Bush ought to have people to advise him about things that happen to offend people in other countries."

For more on the politics of that Canadian sitcom, read the article ("The show's edgy satire and depiction of a poor family taking on the system seems to capture the mood in Quebec in these days of scandals"). I'm thinking the Canadian sitcom makers named the dog bin Laden as part of a pattern of inappropriate behavior by this sitcom family. And I'm thinking actual bin Laden fans don't think it's a compliment to name a dog after him.

December 26, 2004

"The beginning of a new great democracy."

So says the new victor, Viktor Yushchenko. The best of good wishes to the poisoned Ukrainian hero.

Those #@!* blinds.

On November 13th I wrote:
I need to put the new blinds up on the five six-foot windows in my bedroom ... These blinds have been lying on my bedroom floor for several weeks. The paint-splattered step ladder is right there by the first window, and the power drill is in the spot on the desk where I put it shortly after the blinds arrived. I keep thinking I'm about to put the blinds up, and all these things in my room are there night after night, mocking me. It's a wonder I can sleep at all.
Later that day I wrote:
Somehow in all this time, I've only managed ... to put up one of the blinds. Some cursing was involved. ... [A]t least now I understand how the new brackets work and why they can't be put in the same spots as the old brackets....
Sometime between then and today, I got the second one up. Today, I managed to get the third one up. Was any cursing involved? It's quite likely that I haven't cursed at anything in my life as much as the blind I put up today. Only two more to go. When will the paint-splattered ladder ever get out of my bedroom? February?

"We swam out of the room neck deep in water, forcing our way through the tables and chairs in the restaurant and up into a tree."

A BBC reporter in Sri Lanka reports on his escape from the earthquake's tidal wave and describes the situation there now ("There are no kind of emergency services here ... There are no real medical services here").

Jesus at 12.

Applying automated aging technology to the image on the Shroud of Turin the Italian police produce a picture of Jesus at age 12. According to the computer, Jesus was just adorable, a teenybopper's dream.

"I advise them to be patient and wait for a short time."

The prospects for tourists in Iraq.

One last preen from Oliver Stone.

For some reason, the NYT gives a big, long interview to Oliver Stone, about his movie flop "Alexander," in its "Year in Culture" section.
Q. With movies like this, I think it's very hard to figure out what to do with the element of camp --

A. But it's an epic, you have to go with the concept of heightened dialogue, soaring music, soaring score, soaring theme - man, God, earth. I mean it's classic biblical, too. You know, it came down by Cecil B. DeMille. I wanted to get the language simple and strong like Greek dramas, so it was more like Euripides and also Aeschylus.

Why didn't they write a play about Alexander? Could have easily been a trilogy. Why didn't anybody do that? I mean why didn't Shakespeare touch the guy, or Marlowe or Goethe? He was famous. Nobody touched him. Why? Because there's too much success. He's too much - too much for people.
In spite of the incoherence, that snippet provides some insight into the mind of Stone. He thinks that the grand movie directors -- DeMille and him -- are capable of presenting the grandest stories that are beyond the reach of those stagebound mortals like Shakespeare and Euripides. And if moviegoers didn't get it, it's their damn fault:
With "Alexander" I was ... coming in with a lot of complexity, but at the wrong angle to the American people. They don't see the political parallels between empire-building, between Alexander and George Bush. They see on the surface. They say: "Oh, Alexander's gay. And George Bush isn't." I mean, Bush would have no inclination to see a movie where the guy is gay. If you say that in a headline, you're killing it. Unless you have a certain interest in Alexander. But if you don't know anything about Alexander, "Oh, it's another freaky Colin Farrell picture where he plays a gay guy."
Yes, yes, your movie flopped because Americans are homophobic, ignorant of history, and can't handle complexity. If only we had perceived that "empire" angle, we would have loved your inane pile of crap. How big was that pile of crap? Per Stone:
I feel good, I feel like I've got something out of my system. I feel that I achieved a mountain for myself. A mountain.
UPDATE: As an emailer points out, Euripides and Aeschylus have an airtight excuse for not writing about Alexander. Check the chronology. Stone's history lessons are, as we know, laughable.

"My fear that my family, and all of civilization, was about to collapse in some swinging, groovy orgy."

Walter Kirn gets a little too upset about New Yorker cartoons after having a childhood flashback reading his review copy of "The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker" (a big book he compares to a "tombstone" at one point):
Depending on the reader's age, a point will come in the book when the cartoons stop representing The New Yorker's history, let alone American society's, and start recalling bits of his own life. For me, this happened on Page 382 with a William Hamilton cartoon from 1972. I was 9 years old when I first saw it, growing up in a Minnesota village that had changed in four or five short years from a sleepy ma-and-pa farm town to a hip colony for outdoorsy Twin City professionals. This new crowd, which included my parents, was on a tear just then, drinking, dancing and divorcing. When my parents threw one of their smoky, noisy parties (many featuring fondue) a terrible sense of moral peril floated upstairs to my bedroom. Please save us, God. My fear that my family, and all of civilization, was about to collapse in some swinging, groovy orgy that would leave me and all other young children homeless merged somehow with certain objects: the bottle of Smirnoff vodka in our pantry, the copy of ''The Happy Hooker'' in my father's sock drawer and, most frightening of all, the stack of magazines beside the toilet in our downstairs bathroom.

I'd opened one of them once and seen a drawing -- angular, snappy and very mod in precisely the manner I found so menacing -- of a strange man and a woman seated in a restaurant in front of a crowded, lively bar. The man had long hair, big glasses, a droopy mustache and a flowery wide tie. The woman had a plume of frizzy hair, chunky earrings and startlingly thin arms. He was leaning back, smoking. She was drinking wine. She was saying something, but I didn't get the joke. It hardly mattered. The picture's feeling, its vibe, was disturbing enough. It haunted me. Seeing it again, I got the chills. (''It's hard to believe,'' the forgotten caption reads, ''that someday we'll be just so much nostalgia.'')

The magazines in the frightening stack beside the downstairs toilet were New Yorkers? A 9-year-old hears a party and fears an orgy? And what was it about this fateful cartoon that disturbed Kirn so much? A man and a woman, in the fashions of the time, out on a dinner date?

This is the cover review of the NYT Book Review today, not a wacky personal essay.

The portion of the review that appears on the cover tries to connect the history of New Yorker cartoons to the present day fussing about red state "moral values" and the election. The notion seems to be that the mere look, the urbanity, the smirking of blue staters appalls the skittish people of the heartland, who see frizzy hair and a glass of wine and have palpitations.

"All the planet is vibrating."

We wake up to the news of the 8.9-magnitude earthquake near Sumatra, with thousands dead in tidal waves. This is the largest earthquake since a 9.2 in Alaska forty years ago. Three days ago, there was an 8.1 earthquake at the bottom of the ocean, between Australia and Antartica. This is very sad news.

December 25, 2004

A Madison Christmas peace vigil.

A Madison man walked around the Capitol Square for six hours yesterday wearing sign that read "1,300" (the number of U.S. dead in Iraq):
"We're such a culture that is about doing. Are we such a busy, crazy, manic culture? Meditation says no," he said. "You start with being. You start with peace in your own heart. And then it spreads."

People have not yet gotten energized for the long fight ahead, he said. Circumstances will spur action, he said.

"Things haven't gotten bad enough. But they will."

Here's a man who is sure things will get much worse, yet believes there's a point to trudging around for six hours wearing a sign. Do you consider him an optimist or a pessimist or some weird blend -- an opti-pessimist?

UPDATE: The email is showing enough of a difference of opinion that I thought a blogpoll was in order.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Jim Lindgren at Volokh Conspiracy responds with a comparison of the number of Americans dead in Iraq to the number who died in Vietnam.

A white Christmas.

Only once all season had there been even a slight trace of snow on the ground, so the chances for a white Christmas seemed low. But at dawn, a pretty dusting of gently falling snow could be seen from the deck:


UPDATE: On looking at this picture again, I said it should be called a "blue Christmas," which touched off a round of Elvis impersonating.

AND: Now we're listening to various versions of "Blue Christmas" -- first Elvis (the best), then Ringo, then the Beach Boys (the second best), Jon Bon Jovi, Vince Gill, Willie Nelson (nicely zippy), Fats Domino, Low, Leon Redbone, the Platters, Chris Isaak, Dean Martin, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Harry Connick Jr., Sheryl Crow (the worst!), Booker T. & the MGs, John Holt (reggae does not fit this song), Tammy Wynette... I note that most artists try to sing the song like Elvis -- it's pretty much homage to Elvis for Ringo, Bon Jovi, and many others. Too many people make a big point of slowing the song way down (which is, apparently, a way of life for Low). Ah, now we're back to Elvis, with a different version, from the 1968 TV special. The greatness of Elvis really came through in that little exercise.

The topic of a spider in a urinal comes up on Christmas.

A dialogue on opening a present:
"This has the story of the spider in the urinal."

"Very few Christmas families are talking about a spider in a urinal.... Wait a minute."

"She's blogging."

"She stops Christmas to blog."
Here's how the chapter "Birth Death, and the Meaning of Life," in this book, begins, on page 208:
One summer more than ten years ago, when I taught at Princeton, a large spider appeared in the urinal of the men's room of 1879 Hall, a buiding that houses the Philosophy Department.

A liberal Christmas.

The erstwhile ascetic koan-blogger, R.L. Cohen, has used Christmas as an occasion to break into full out political blogging:
My support of the widespread and cheerful use of the word “Christmas” is not just a gesture of ecumenicism, it’s a protest against euphemism. A euphemism is always a coverup. Where there’s euphemism, there’s dishonesty. And to say “holiday” when the whole world knows you’re referring to Christmas is to engage in an especially silly kind of euphemism.

There are far too many people on the left who spend far too much of their time trying to compel others to use the approved euphemisms, and trying to invent new euphemisms to press upon the public. People who are seriously worried about whether other people are saying “autistic” or “person with autism” need to turn their attention to something else, if for no other reason than that the approved catchwords will probably change next year.

The euphemists practice a kind of sanctimony which is offputting to people in the center. I’m convinced it’s a large part of what moderate and conservative people visualize when they visualize a liberal: someone who is constantly trying to force a petty, humorless conformity upon us all.

R.C. points out that it costs the liberals votes! I note that "liberal" implies freedom, and this desiccated sanctimony is no fun at all.

McGovern and Santa Claus.

Former Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern has a letter in today's NYT:
I'm for keeping Donald H. Rumsfeld as secretary of defense because he is against increasing the number of American soldiers in Iraq. Sending more soldiers only means more targets for those Iraqis who don't want our army occupying their country.

I did not want any Americans to risk their lives in Iraq. We should bring home those who are there. So better Mr. Rumsfeld than some eager beaver who wants to double our army in the desert as we repeatedly did in the jungle to no avail in the 1960's and 70's. We toppled Saddam Hussein; as George Aiken, that wonderful old Republican senator, said of an earlier time of troubles, Declare victory and come home.

Once we left Vietnam and quit bombing its people, they became friends and trading partners. Iraq has been nestled along the Tigris and Euphrates for 6,000 years. It will be there 6,000 more whether we stay or leave, as earlier conquerors learned.

I tried to persuade Santa Claus to bring our troops home for Christmas, but he said, "No, Rumsfeld sees light at the end of the tunnel if we hang in there and don't listen to old veterans like McGovern."

Is there really a Santa Claus, Virginia? If so, why were 14 soldiers killed at lunch after a hard night searching for that light at the end of the tunnel?

I don't remember Santa Claus having the function of bringing us peace. But here we have McGovern talking with Santa, getting an answer, and then questioning his existence because he failed to give him what he asked for.

Even assuming McGovern was really praying to Jesus or God, since when have believers questioned their faith because soldiers have died fighting for a cause? How could any religious faith be left in the world if that is the way we think it works?

In the poem "Twas the Night Before Christmas," "The children were nestled all snug in their beds," and, according to McGovern, "Iraq has been nestled along the Tigris and Euphrates for 6,000 years." Oh, yes, it was having a sweet old time dreaming visions of sugar-plums before we came along. We should just stop fighting (for what those soldiers have already died for) and leave, McGovern tells us, and the Iraqis can go back to being the happy friends they've been for thousands of years. They've got those rivers to nestle alongside of, after all.

Aw, come on, George, admit it. You really do believe in Santa Claus.

Blogging on Christmas?

I don't know how old you are or how old your kids are, but, let me tell you, when you are as old as I am, and you have kids my kids' age, there's a substantial time gap between when you get up and when they get up.

Oh my gosh, stop giving away your age on your blog!!

Somebody emailed that to me in response to the photo in the previous post. Sorry. It's not that I'm above lying about my age or haven't thought of the idea, it's that I have too many stories to tell from the deep past and too many opinions that connect to social and political events that I lived through.

One thing about being older is that there are more things that any given thing reminds you of. That might make a person tedious -- why I remember when I was a little girl -- but it's a big source of blogging material. Having been around at the time is a source of authority. It's sometimes untrustworthy, but it may be interesting nonetheless, and at least it's not shared by the vast majority of bloggers, who tend to be young.

I'll bet those other bloggers didn't get out of bed at 5:30 a.m. this morning.

It's more likely that they have really little kids. When you're young and have really little kids, they get up before you on Christmas morning, and they prod you to get up, and you drag yourself out of bed way before you want to get up. But when your kids stay asleep, and you're the one that gets up early, you don't even make some extra noise to try to get them up. You just make some coffee, dash outside -- it's 14 degrees -- to pick up the New York Times, and sit down to read the paper. Will there be blogging? Of course! The daily pleasures are at least as enjoyable as the annual ones. At my age.

Merry Christmas!

December 24, 2004

First encounter with Santa Claus.

Here I am, the skeptical one in the center. I'm almost 3, and the year is 1953. My sister Dell is enjoying the moment, while I'm suspicious about that beard and the lack of convincing attachment around the mouth.


"If I wanted to face insurgents I would've spent Christmas with my relatives."

Letterman goes to Iraq for a Christmas Eve show. Grinder Girl and Hula Hoop Girl go too and are much appreciated.

The article (in the Marine Corps News) points out that Letterman is "a staunch supporter of the Marine Corps":
On the Sept. 17, 2001, episode of "The Late Show," his first show after the attack on the World Trade Center, Letterman declared he had "three new heroes now. They are New York's bravest, the firefighters; New York's finest, the cops; and the United States Marine Corps because, as you know, before this thing is finished, it will be the Marine Corps that goes in and settles the score."

At the Blue Moon Café.

We celebrated Christmas Eve over cheeseburgers and beer at the Blue Moon Café, a local bar and grill. Chris and I had just gone to see "Finding Neverland," which we criticized all the way to the car: boring, badly directed, flat screenplay, some good acting, some nice set decoration and costumes.

"Well, you cried."

Yes, I can't help crying -- despite my aesthetic objections -- at certain sorts of melodrama.

We were hungry, and we called John to come meet us at the Blue Moon. When we pulled up I could see through the window that the Packer game was playing on about 10 TVs.

"Oh, there's a big Packer game."

We went in anyway. As we were finishing scarfing down the food in a booth upstairs, the game was 31-31 with a few minutes to play. We came down to pay the bill at the bar, and at that point the Vikings had taken their last time out with 3 seconds to go and the Packers within easy field goal range. So, I care enough about the local pleasure caused by football that I said hang out and wait for the last play. The Packers get their field goal, and the group of guys that were sitting at the bar cheer. One guy starts jumping around yelling: "Go home, Viking fans!" Then he turns around and sees us and I hear him say, "Oh, there actually are Viking fans here."

Outside, as we get into the car, I say to John and Chris, "We were so undemonstrative, he thought we were Viking fans."

I really don't care about football, but I am happy enough that the local folk are happy that the Packers won the game.

A Christmas disclaimer.

Richard Lawrence Cohen writes:
As a Jew, a liberal, a lover of the Constitution, and a loather of Fox News, I wish to declare that the word “Christmas” does not faze, throw, offend, upset, or disconcert me in the slightest...
More at the link.

The Time Tracker.

A few days ago, the NYT had an article about a new toy that was supposed to dismay us, the Time Tracker:
Shaped like a colorful peppermill, with a digital readout panel, lights that suggest a traffic intersection and an electronic male voice that booms "Begin" and "Time's up," the Time Tracker, which sells for a list price of $34.95, has turned into a surprise hit of the holiday season, according to some toy sellers. By using the tracker during playtime, homework or any other activity, children are supposed to develop a sense of passing time - 20 minutes, half an hour, an hour - that translates into better management during tests. Siren sounds indicate when a certain period has gone by, and the lights switch from green to yellow to red to demonstrate how close the child is to the end of the allotted time....

"It's obviously not the type of thing kids would want for themselves," said Andrea Galinski, product development manager at Chelsea & Scott, a Lake Bluff, Ill., company that owns Leaps and Bounds. But, she added, "We've had a very positive response from parents."

Supposedly, parents think the gizmo will help their kids adjust to a life of standardized tests. Duly dismayed Times readers weigh in today. A psychology professor writes that "the deepest and most creative thought often occurs outside clock time," so children ought to be left free of the awareness of time so they can tap this deep part of their potential. A professor of education writes that the toy won't help anyway, because "test preparation is not real learning." And the former editor of the Harvard Education Letter detects a political problem: politicians send their kids to private schools, which rely less on standardized tests, yet they "foolishly and cruelly" impose the standardized tests on other people's kids at the public schools.

Is a toy that teaches a sense of time really so bad? I sometimes set a timer as an incentive to get through a task quickly. Would it really be so bad to set a timer for 20 minutes and say, if you can get your toys picked up in this time, you can watch a TV show? It might be a good way to learn to get certain things done without dawdling and distraction. There are many little chores that children need to learn to do: life isn't all about dreamy, timeless, fantasy play.

I note that all the letter writers are men. I don't know anything about them as individuals, and I too like enhancing a child's capacity for deep thought, creative play, and true learning. But have these letter writers had to manage children trying to get ready for school in the morning, picking up their rooms, and helping with getting dinner on the table? Would these people who romanticize the child's ignorance of time abolish bedtime, that classic imposition of time upon the child? Do psychology professor dads call bedtime on their kids when they are duly engrossed in creative play?

Time awareness is a valuable thing to learn! It's not just about dealing with school. And even in the context of school, time awareness has many applications outside of the standardized test. The class period has a time limit (who has not watched the clock while a teacher speaks?), an essay test has a time limit, and many sports and games have time limits. Many people find competing against the clock stimulating and fun. And a deadline can unlock mental powers.

I wouldn't mind having a Time Tracker myself to push me on through a certain task that is piled up right next to my computer at the moment. Okay, if you grade exams for one hour, you can have 20 minutes to blog.

UPDATE: An emailer writes:
Had you ever heard that ADD or ADHD kids should use timers? Because they have such trouble focusing, the timer gives them structure and allows them to meet shorter-term goals. Thus, they do 5 min of homework (or whatever) and then they are permitted to do some other activity that they find pleasurable. And what's weird is, it works. My daughter is not diagnosed with ADHD, but has some of the symptoms (distractability being chief among them). The timer trick works like a charm. I can see where this gizmo would be a cooler way to do the same thing.

December 23, 2004


An emailer, having read my last post, declares: Forget tire-blogging! The new thing is cabbage-blogging! I look into it the new trend. Hey! Just yesterday a head of cabbage was revealed as Fafblog's Man of the Year!

Well, maybe you are in the midst of making your Red Cabbage Christmas Salad. Maybe you are Croatian, celebrating a traditional Croatian Christmas, with some fine stuffed cabbage. Here's some Spanish Christmas cabbage. How many nationalities have a Christmas cabbage dish? Feel free to cabbage-blog!

Or maybe you have a Christmasy cabbage miracle to tell about.

Did you know broccoli is a type of cabbage?

Did you know "cole slaw" is just Dutch for sliced cabbage: koolsla?

Did you know Cabbage Patch Dolls are back this year? Maybe you've got one wrapped under the tree right now. Did you know there was an urban legend that the CIA or President Reagan had Cabbage Patch Dolls designed to get people used to loving ugly babies so humanity could carry on after a nuclear war?

Speaking of ugly, did you know you can get a Donald Trump Cabbage Patch Doll?

And then there is the cabbage of fable:
It is said that no sort of food causes so much thirst as cabbage, especially that called colewort. Pausanias tells us it first sprang from the sweat of Jupiter, some drops of which fell on the earth. Cœlius, Rhodiginus, Ovid, Suidas, and others repeat the same fable.

Rabelais: Pantagruel, book iv. (Prologue). “Some drops of sweat happening to light on the earth produced what mortals call cabbage.”—
The poets have lavished their attention on the lowly cabbage. Yeats:
All his happier dreams came true
A small old house, wife, daughter, son,
Grounds where plum and cabbage grew,
Poets and Wits about him drew;
“What then?”sang Plato’s ghost, “what then?”
Lewis Carrol:
"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--
Of cabbages--and kings--
And why the sea is boiling hot--
And whether pigs have wings."
There is also the cabbage of politics. H.L. Mencken has good political wisdom framed in cabbage terms: "An idealist is one who, on noticing that a rose smells better than a cabbage, concludes that it will also make better soup."

And George Orwell begins his "1984" with the reek of cabbage:
The ideal set up by the Party was something huge, terrible, and glittering—a world of steel and concrete, of monstrous machines and terrifying weapons—a nation of warriors and fanatics, marching forward in perfect unity, all thinking the same thoughts and shouting the same slogans, perpetually working, fighting, triumphing, persecuting—three hundred million people all with the same face. The reality was decaying, dingy cities, where underfed people shuffled to and fro in leaky shoes, in patched-up nineteenth-century houses that smelt always of cabbage and bad lavatories.
Well, that reminds me what I don't like about cabbage. So maybe I won't get too carried away with the new cabbage-blogging craze. So don't hesitate to pick up the slack and cabbage-blog yourself.

A dialogue about food.

"What do you think is the best food? I mean, not taking health into account. If you had to pick one food and say that it is the best, what do you think it would be?"

"Ice cream."

"Really, because I had an idea..."


"I was just thinking -- not because I really think it's the answer -- but it just came into my head as the answer ..."


"Cole slaw."

UPDATE: The dialogue continues a half hour later:

"You know, I think cabbage is one of the most repulsive foods."

"I don't like cabbage either. It's cole slaw."

"If life gives you lemons, make lemonade. If life gives you cabbage, make cole slaw."

Another perspective on "Merry Christmas."

Here's a quote from J.B. Priestly:
Something in me resists the calendar expectation of happiness. Merry Christmas yourself! it mutters as it shapes a ghostly grin.


There's been a lot of talk lately about preserving the greeting "Merry Christmas." Some folks think the phrase has too much religion in it, and it's undeniable that "Christ" is right there in the word Christmas. Yet much of what makes Christmas tiresome to non-Christians is that it goes on for over a month, and this time-stretch ought to trouble Christians too. From a Christian perspective, this is not the Christmas season, it's Advent, a time of waiting and hope, not a time of merrymaking. But even if it were already Christmas, is "merry" the right word to express the religious meaning? The American Heritage® Dictionary defines "merry" this way:
1. Full of high-spirited gaiety; jolly. 2. Marked by or offering fun and gaiety; festive: a merry evening. 3. Archaic Delightful; entertaining. 4. Brisk: a merry pace.
E. Cobham Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1898) traces the history of "merry":
The original meaning is not mirthful, but active, famous; hence gallant soldiers were called “merry men;” favourable weather, “merry weather;” brisk wind, “a merry gale;” London was “merry London;” England, “merry England;” Chaucer speaks of the “merry organ at the mass;” Jane Shore is called by Pennant the “merry concubine of Edward IV.” (Anglo-Saxon, mœra, illustrious, great, mighty, etc.). (See MERRY-MEN.) ’Tis merry in hall, when beards wag all (2 Henry IV., act V. 3). It is a sure sign of mirth when the beards of the guests shake with laughter.
"Merry" has little to do with the message of Christianity. It connotes eating, drinking, dancing, joking, laughing, and horsing around. "Merry" turns Christmas into a generic winter festival. To express the spiritual happiness of Christmas, you would do better to say "Joyous Christmas." But the word "joy," standing alone, contains the meaning of Christmas. Why not make the one-word expression "Joy!" the seasonal greeting? It's both more inclusive and more Christian. UPDATE: "Merry" is only used in four places in the English translations of the New Testament that I checked. It is used in a positive way to describe the celebration of the return of the Prodigal Son and in this short passage, but it is used negatively in Revelation and in the context of the famous phrase "eat, drink, and be merry." "Joy," by contrast, appears in 60 verses in the New Testament, all of which seem quite positive, including the quintessential Christmas passage: "And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people." "Joy" is also a fine Old Testament word. "Merry," on the other hand, seems to have mostly to do with drinking a lot of wine. ANOTHER UPDATE: Nina says the Polish Christmas greeting -- "Wesolych Swiat" -- translates as "Merry Holi-days." (She seems to imply that the second word there is something in between our "holidays" and "holy days.") She titles her post "Eat, Drink, and Be Merry," but I note that the New Testament passage with that phrase provokes a rebuke from God ("Thou fool"). Note that I have nothing against partying, by Christians and others. I just don't think it's particularly religious.

December 22, 2004

A pile of books raises a question.

Books left on the chair by the last occupant of the table I was lucky enough to grab here at Borders café today:
Matter (serious looking book of poetry)

I Keep Falling in Love with You (cheesy looking poetry anthology)

Readings in Economic Sociology

Principles of Economic Sociology

Obsessive Compulsive Disorders: A Complete Guide to Getting Well and Staying Well

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: New Help for the Family

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder:The Facts

Tormenting Thoughts and Secret Rituals: The Hidden Epidemic of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Wouldn't you think someone that interested in obsessive compulsive disorder would reshelve his books?

Is "Merry Christmas"/"Happy Holidays" the new red/blue?

I see Metafilter is discussing the Lileks response to the James Woolcott response to Lileks, Instapundit, etc. etc., commenting on the way "Happy Holidays" is replacing "Merry Christmas." Now, the whole subject has been talked about so much that it's going to seem like saying "Merry Christmas" is throwing down the gauntlet. Is "Merry Christmas"/"Happy Holidays" the new red/blue? We're declaring political positions now with our choice of seasonal pleasantry?

In a related development, my local Borders bookstore is not playing any Christmas or seasonal music of any kind this week, it seems (based on my afternoon visits on Monday and Tuesday). Is this some sort of declaration of blue state-iness? Personally, I found it a relief not to hear Christmas music (or the related "it's snowing"/"I'm cold" music) while shopping, but I wonder if turning it off is now some sort of staunch political move.

People have worried about the commercialization of Christmas, but now we've got the politicization of Christmas. Must politics leak all over everything?

The magnificent Tony Blair.

I was just listening to C-Span's re-airing of the press conference that took place yesterday in Baghdad with Tony Blair and Iyad Allawi. Blair's brilliance as a speaker always amazes me. My intense admiration for his speaking is tinged with the pain of the comparison to President Bush, whose gift for communication is modest. If only Bush could speak like Blair, it seems, things would go much better. I know Blair has his troubles back home, but I marvel at his capacity to inspire. This part of the press conference particularly impressed me, as a reporter tries to pin him with a hard question:
Q: Nick Robinson, ITV News: Can you just give us a sense of your feelings today? You flew here in secrecy under armed protection into what is still a safe zone more than a year and a half after Saddam fell. Can you honestly say to yourself, this is what I meant to bring about when I said that we ought to invade Iraq?

Tony Blair: That's a good question. I'll tell you exactly what I felt coming in. Security is really heavy - you can feel the sense of danger that people live in here.

He takes a very long pause here -- long enough to make you worry that he's going to crack and reveal his despair.
But what I felt more than anything else was this - the danger that people feel here is coming from terrorists and insurgents who are trying to destroy the possibility of this country becoming a democracy.

Now where do we stand in that fight? We stand on the side of the democrats against the terrorists. And so when people say to me, well look at the difficulties, look at the challenges - I say well what's the source of that challenge - the source of that challenge is a wicked, destructive attempt to stop this man, this lady, all these people from Iraq, who want to decide their own future in a democratic way, having that opportunity.

And where should the rest of the world stand? To say, well that's your problem, go and look after it, or you're better off with Saddam Hussein running the country - as if the only choice they should have in the world is a choice between a brutal dictator killing hundreds of thousands of people or terrorists and insurgents.

There is another choice for Iraq - the choice is democracy, the choice is freedom - and our job is to help them get there because that's what they want. Sometimes when I see some of the reporting of what's happening in Iraq in the rest of the world, I just feel that people should understand how precious what has been created here is. And those people from that electoral commission that I described as the heroes of the new Iraq - every day... a lot of them aren't living in the Green Zone, they've got to travel in from outside - they do not know at any point in time, whether they're going to be subject to brutality or intimation even death and yet they carry on doing it. Now what a magnificent example of the human spirit - that's the side we should be on.

UPDATE: An emailer suggests that Tony Blair comes across as too slick when you have to hear him all the time. Conceivably, Bush's imperfect, but strong and heartfelt speech is more effective.

ANOTHER UPDATE: The link above is to the text of the press conference, but you can watch the streaming video here. The delivery is a big part of the effect.

The travails of the stay-at-home father.

The NYT reports that it's a hard life for the man who stays home with the kids and has a wife who's a good provider:
"If I were a woman, people would say I was amazing," he said, sitting in his kitchen on a gray day this month. "But I'm a man, and so this is seen as weak."

And they are left out of play date arrangements. They've had to go out of their way to find other stay-at-home dads to arrange play dates with. Some of them, anyway. Then there's this guy (who, I suspect, is more the usual stay-at-home dad type than those play date guys):
"I would like to get other people's tips and hear how they handle things, but I'm not really interested in finding men just to talk to..."

[The man's wife] has encouraged him to make more male friends near their home..., but he says he is content to doze or play video games during his downtime in the day.

I have nothing to say individually to the particular couple in that anecdote. But just generally, guys, when your wife says something like that to you, maybe she's not just trying to prod you to derive a little more enjoyment out of life. Maybe she's letting you know that you are not a very interesting person to come home to. People imagine that women will think it's just great to have a man who devotes so much time to taking care of the kids. But will this dozing, video-game-playing man remain attractive to the woman who is out in the world interacting with lively, career-driven men?

The Times article concentrates on the way the men feel and drags in the pop-culture reference of the day:
And while the desperate housewives on Wisteria Lane have their exciting trysts with teenage gardeners and mysterious neighbors, there are seemingly few worries that these stay-at-home husbands have any potential for steamy affairs with their female counterparts. After all, what is threatening about a man loaded down with diapers?

"It takes one's manhood, chews it up, spits it out and does it again," said [a man] who has taken care of his daughters for two years. "You really need a strong marriage and confidence. I don't have a lot of friends who could do this."

Hmmm ... let's see. Who is more likely to have an affair -- the man who feels secure in his masculinity or the man who feels his manhood has been ground into a pulp?

UPDATE: Nina writes that the dozing, video-game-playing guy was probably already inherently boring, which is way he's satisfied to doze and play video games. This is a chicken-and-egg conundrum: do people do boring things because they are boring or are they boring because they do boring things? I'm inclined to think boringness is a big complex interactive mix of inherent tendencies and acquired attributes. But if the question is not are you really boring but will your spouse lose interest in you, the context matters. Picture two boring men: one is dozing on the couch when his hardworking wife comes home and the other comes home to his stay-at-home wife after a long day as the most boring man in the office. Which marriage is more at risk?

ANOTHER UPDATE: I've been asked whether I'm simply trying to justify traditional sex roles. Not at all. I'd like to see the most freedom for people to decide who stays home with children, who goes to work, and whether both go to work. I'm only saying that choosing one approach or the other does not insulate you from the hard feelings or the erosion of the relationship that may follow. There is nothing about choosing a nontraditional division of labor that insures that you will not have retro-feelings that hurt the relationship.

December 21, 2004

When is it considered socially acceptable to joke to a stranger that people like you should all be dead?

Answer: When you find out someone is a lawyer.

I learned this little point about the expression of hatred when Christmas shopping today. The salesman saw that I had an American Bar Association credit card and proceeded to tell the ancient joke about what you call a large number of lawyers in a crashed bus at the bottom of a body of water, with the answer being "A good start." He was Madison enough to make the body of water Lake Mendota.

Now, you could substitute any group for lawyers in that joke, and I'm sure the joke has had many versions over the years, used to express hostility to all sorts of groups. But the only version I've ever heard is aimed at lawyers, because apparently it's just perfectly fine to say anything nasty you want about lawyers. But here I am, buying Christmas presents at the man's store. How about a little "Merry Christmas"? Or even "Happy Holidays"? What the hell, I'd settle for "Seasons Greetings"?

A strangely recurrent Wisconsin dialogue.

"Did you get a haircut?"

"No, I was wearing a hat."

Notes on yesterday's press conference.

Here are just a few assorted things that struck me about Bush's press conference yesterday.

1. Most enigmatic exchange:
Q I'd like to go back to Secretary Rumsfeld. You talked about --

PRESIDENT BUSH: (Inaudible.)

Q Thank you.


2. Cutest quip:
Q Mr. President ... As you know, presidents back to Carter have searched for a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Your dad worked hard for it. Your predecessor said once it was like going to the dentist without getting your gums numbed. I'm wondering what great --

PRESIDENT BUSH: Guy had a way with words. (Chuckles.)

3. Nice recognition:
[I]n case you're not following high school football in Texas ... the Crawford Pirates are the state 2-A, Division 2, champs. And we look forward, don't we, to wave the championship banner above the Crawford High School.

4. Best save after petering out:
[T]he minute you bring up Social Security reform, people go running around the country saying, "Really what he says is, he's going to take away your check," or that which you become dependent upon will no longer be available for you to live on. And so therefore part of setting the stage, laying the groundwork for there to be a successful reform effort is -- is assuring our seniors that they just don't have to worry about anything. When they hear the debate is that is taking place on the floor of the Congress, they just need to know that the check they're getting won't change, the promises will be met; that, you know, if there's to be an increase in their check, they'll get their check. In other words, the -- the formula that has enabled them to -- to -- to extent -- to the -- to a certain extent to -- the formula they're relying on won't change. Let me put it that way. I was trying to be really brilliant.

5. Best occasion for a chuckle:
PRESIDENT BUSH: ... Now in terms of the --




PRESIDENT BUSH: -- DNI -- the -- I'm going to find somebody who knows something about intelligence -- (chuckles) -- and capable and honest and ready to do the job.

6. Part of the press conference that made me say, "Notice how many times he said 'heart.' That makes me think this really is what he originally wanted his presidency to be about."
Q. Yeah, Mr. President. Since early in your first term you've talked about immigration reform, but yet people in your own party on the Hill seem opposed to this idea, and you've gotten opposition even on the other side. Do you plan to expend some of your political capital this time to see this through?

PRESIDENT BUSH: Yeah. I appreciate that -- first of all, welcome. I'd like to welcome all the new faces, some prettier than others, I might add. (Laughter.)

But yes, I intend to work with members of Congress to get something done. I think this is a -- a issue that will make it easier for us to enforce our borders, and I believe it's an issue that is -- will show the -- if when we get it right, the compassionate heart of the American people. And no question it's a tough issue, just like some of the other issues we're taking on. But, you know, my job is to confront tough issues and to ask Congress to work together to confront tough issues.

Now let me talk about the immigration issue. First, we want our Border Patrol agents chasing, you know, crooks and thieves and drug runners and terrorists, not good-hearted people who are coming here to work. And therefore, it makes sense to allow the good-hearted people who are coming here to do jobs that Americans won't do a legal way to do so. And providing that legal avenue, it takes the pressure off the border.

Now, we need to make sure the border is modern and we need to upgrade our Border Patrol, but if we expect the Border Patrol to be able to enforce a long border, particularly in the south -- and the north, for that matter -- we ought to have a system that recognizes people are coming here to do jobs that Americans will not do, and there ought to be a legal way for them to do so.

To me, that is -- and not only that, but once a person is here, if he or she feels like he or she needs to go back to see their family, to the country of origin, they should be able to do so within a prescribed -- and the card and the permit would last for a prescribed period of time. It's a compassionate way to treat people who come to our country. It recognizes the reality of the world in which we live. There are some people in -- there are some jobs in America that Americans won't do and others are willing to do.

One of the important aspects of my vision is that this is not automatic citizenship. The American people must understand that. That if somebody who is here working wants to be a citizen, they can get in line like those who have been here legally and have been working to become a citizenship (sic) in a legal manner. And this is a very important issue.

And it's a -- and I look forward to working with members of Congress. I fully understand the politics of immigration reform. I mean, I was the governor of Texas, right there on the front lines of border politics. I know what it means to have mothers and fathers come to my state and across the border of my state to work. Family values do not stop at the Rio Grande River is what I used to tell the people of my state.

People are coming to put food on the table. They're doing jobs Americans will not do. And to me it makes sense for us to recognize that reality and to help those who are needing to enforce our borders; legalize the process of people doing jobs Americans won't do; take the pressure off of employers so they're not having to rely upon false IDs; cut out the coyotes, who are the smugglers of these people, putting them in the back of tractor trailers in the middle of August in Texas, allowing people to suffocate in the back of the truck; stop the process of people feeling like they got to walk miles across desert in Arizona and Texas in order just to feed their family -- and they find them dead in the -- out there, you know.

I mean, this is a system that can be much better, and I'm passionate on it because the nature of this country is one that is good-hearted and our people are compassionate. The system we have today is not a compassionate system. It's not working. And as a result, the country is less secure than it could be with a rational system.

UPDATE: I see that Jacob Weisberg has made a "Bushism of the Day" out of the misspoken "working to become a citizenship" in that last quote. Doesn't Weisberg have anything better do? A "Bushism" should at least be a distinctively Bushian type of mistake, not the sort of speech slip that everyone makes. And it really ought to be also, maybe, you know, a little funny. I really hope people point and laugh inanely at Weisberg whenever he fails to say everything just right. Jeez! Am I sick of him!