January 1, 2005

Tsunami numbers.

I keep reading news reports about two numbers: those that died in last week's tsunamis and the amount of money that has been donated. There is a mismatch between those two numbers. The dead do not need money. It is very sad that so many people died, but the money is not for them. Money is needed to help the many people who survived and need fresh water and food. How many living people are suffering now? I haven't seen that number. And, of course, the pledge of money does not instantly cause food, water, and shelter to materialize where these people are. Soon we will hear -- will we not? -- about all those who have died because aid did not reach them soon enough. I have seen nothing about the many people must have perished long after they were swept out to sea: did they not cling to wreckage for days, waiting for someone to save them? We feel so helpless here, so far away, and we check the websites and feel sad over the number dead and happy over the money donated. But what grasp do we have on the ongoing tragedy of the living? Will the help we are trying to give reach these people before it is too late?

"I roared. And I rampaged. And I got bloody satisfaction."

"I've killed a hell of a lot of people to get to this point, but I have only one more. The last one. The one I'm driving to right now. The only one left. And when I arrive at my destination...."

UPDATE: The comments over there -- after an Instalanche -- are cracking me up. Especially: "the nostrils they are obviously different." Because, really, the difference between Uma and me ... it's mainly in the nostrils!

For good luck.

I'm not superstitious, really. But that last post makes me think I should look into some new year's good luck traditions.

You might want to buy traditional Japanese amulets -- omamori -- pictured here.

Maybe you just need to cook the right food. Maybe some Hoppin' John: black-eyed peas, salted ham, and rice. Some folks emphasize collard greens with the black-eyed peas and some form of pork. This seems related to what my mother used to make for the new year's meal: "pork and sauerkraut." It wasn't very good!

Hmmm... this could be considered cabbage-blogging.

Let's see. Here's a list of new year's luck traditions, including this info:
Many parts of the United States celebrate the new year by eating black-eyed peas. They are usually eaten with ham or some cut of pork meat. Black-eyed peas and other legumes have been considered good luck in many cultures. The hog and its meat is considered lucky because it symbolizes prosperity.

Cabbage is another "good luck" vegetable that is consumed on New Year's Day by many. Cabbage leaves are also considered a sign of prosperity. Cabbage is representative of paper money!

Okay, now I'm definitely cabbage-blogging!

Here's to the new new year's tradition!

For good luck: cabbage-blog!

UPDATE: And there is also watermelon-seed-blogging, which is based on a Vietnamese tradition of eating red-dyed watermelon-seeds for the new year. Checking to make sure there really is such a Vietnamese tradition, I found this nice site describing a lot of new year's traditions. (And, yes, I realize January 1st is not necessarily the new year holiday.)

And the first precipitation of the new year is...


Yikes! In a similar vein, the first word I said out loud in the new year was a word I avoid printing on this blog. Well, that's to be expected when you're the first person up in the house and you go about doing things that might cause frustration. You have no one to talk to, what's going to cause you to vocalize?

UPDATE: That hail turned to rain, which became glassy ice on the streets. We ventured out at 4 pm, intending to drive out Mineral Point Road to Point Theater to see "The Aviator." The anti-lock brakes engaged as we skidded way too long to the stop at our corner, and we kept going after that for a mile, until we saw police cars blocking the road ahead and about ten cars skidded into the curb on Mineral Point just past the two graveyards. I started to make a turn to take an alternate route, and we too skidded into the curb, and, finally, I realized we needed to get back home. It took about half an hour to drive that mile home, and every approaching car, every parked car was intimidating, as I drove as slowly as a car can drive. It wasn't the most treacherous situation I've ever dealt with in my many decades of driving, because everyone else was aware of how bad it was and also drove as slowly as possible, but it was definitely in the top 5.

Bush isn't "Person of the Year" in Madison.

The Capital Times explains why President Bush isn't "Person of the Year," Barack Obama is:
Bush was a dominant figure in 2004, as any sitting president is in any particular year. But his re-election by the narrowest margin of any incumbent president since Woodrow Wilson was hardly impressive. And it is difficult to see how Bush redefined politics - unless, of course, points are awarded for simultaneously spinning big lies about your record, your opponent and the state of the nation.

Indeed, within weeks after the election, Bush's web of deceit was already beginning to unravel as it became clear that his misadventure in Iraq was turning deadlier and more chaotic by the day. ... In his own way, Obama was a dominant figure. The first African-American elected to the Senate in 12 years, one of the few Democrats to win a previously Republican-held Senate seat in a year that was not generous to his party, and the acclaimed keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention, Obama seemed to be everywhere in 2004. And, to a far greater extent than Bush, he was redefining politics.

What do you expect? Forget it! It's Madison.


Some nice recognition.

Poll answer revealed: "Kill Bill."

Even though the first place answer is wrong, I'm surprised how many of you got the right answer on this poll. 34.9 percent of you guessed "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," and perhaps you were assuming that my opinion would track the general critical opinion about which was the best in the set of six films I saw in the theater in 2004. If you want to see what I thought about "Eternal Sunshine," here's what I wrote back when I saw it. And I blogged back in November that I liked it much more when I watched the DVD. This was a poll about whether I would make the effort to go out to see the film if I had known in advance how much I would enjoy sitting through it in the theater.

The correct answer came in second, with 20.2 percent of the vote, and the other four choices were well behind, with no clear favorite. How did you readers do so well with that? I don't think I've ever blogged about the film, other than quoting Quentin Taratino saying a little something about his love of strong women in response to an interviewer's question that noted that "'Jackie Brown' and 'Kill Bill' are female empowerment fests."

Judicial independence.

Linda Greenhouse has this account of the Chief Justice Rehnquist's year-end report. A key point:
"There have been suggestions to impeach federal judges who issue decisions regarded by some as out of the mainstream." ...

Chief Justice Rehnquist said ... that it had been clear since early in the country's history that "a judge's judicial acts may not serve as a basis for impeachment."

"Any other rule," he added, "would destroy judicial independence," since "judges would be concerned about inflaming any group that might be able to muster the votes in Congress to impeach and convict them."

What "suggestions" is he referring to? Greenhouse cites the House Reaffirmation of American Independence Resolution, which states that "inappropriate judicial reliance on foreign judgments, laws or pronouncements threatens the sovereignty of the United States, the separation of powers and the president's and the Senate's treaty-making authority." One of the resolution's sponsors alluded to impeachment as a remedy. It's hard to imagine that any judge feels any kind of threat of impeachment merely for citing foreign law. The resolution refers to "inappropriate ... reliance" on foreign law. Presumably, at some point, the use of foreign law really would damage United States sovereignty to the point where a judge ought to be removed.

I don't agree with the bright line rule Rehnquist seems to proclaim: a judge ought never to be removed for anything he does as a judge. (I'm not looking at the full text of the report as I write that.) And I don't see why judicial independence is "destroy[ed]" simply because a judge would be "concerned" about motivating people to call for his impeachment. Federal judges have extremely secure positions, founded on the Constitution's provision for lifetime appointments. But the Constitution also provides for impeachment, and some pushback against judicial power is a good thing. The demand for an absolute rule against impeachment for "judicial acts," lest the judge feel any pressure from the political sphere, is actually quite extreme.

Anyway, this issue of using foreign law is a lively current issue, and I note that Justices Scalia and Breyer are going to have a big debate on the subject at American University in Washington, D.C. on January 13th. My old conlawprof, Norman Dorsen, is going to moderate. Too bad I can't attend. I'm mean, too bad I'm not going to travel to Washington just to attend. But I see they are going to livestream, and I'm planning to simulblog.


It's always exciting to write the new year number for the first time in the new year. I'm going to declare it propitious that the number is divisible by 5. I like the look of the new number. It is particularly solid and balanced. We've had the two zeroes in the center for a while, but the 5 offsets the 2 particularly well, because 5 closely resembles an inverted, backwards 2. So, 2005 is an especially stable, secure looking number, a number that inspires hope for a world that is more stable and secure, both politically and seismically. If you are reading this, you have made it to the new year, and that, in itself, is a good sign. May we all find something worthy to do with this additional time on earth we are so blessed to have received.

UPDATE: Actually, the backwards similarity of 2 and 5 makes the number 2005 almost looks right in a mirror: I predict that in this year we will come to see ourselves more clearly.

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.