Tuesday, December 30, 2003
December news and obituaries in review, with links to each of my monthly news roundups throughout 2003. Plus a look back at some of the most intriguing articles I found this year, including why chemical and biological weapons should not be considered "weapons of mass destruction," the mysterious disappearance of a Boeing 727 in Angola, the building of China's Three Gorges Dam, the science of itching, how often "the butler did it," and more ... LINK/ARCHIVE
A look back at the year is never complete without reading the annual review essays by George Will and Dave Barry.
Also, saw this today in the Wash. Post's year-in-magazines column:
Redbook published a cover photo of actress Julia Roberts that USA Today revealed to be a composite created by sticking the head of a year-old photo of Roberts atop the body from a four-year-old photo. The cover line read: "The Real Julia."
May next year again be a time for pursuit of truth. Happy New Year!
Tuesday, December 23, 2003
Here's some of my column from the Tribune one year ago on Christmas Web sites:
In a pickle over Christmas? Get your mouse a stirring
December 20, 2002, Tempo; Pg. 2; AT RANDOM. INTERNET
Admit it: you're no Grinch, but at some point during the ordeal of hauling your Christmas tree into your living room, leaving your stomach lined with pockmarks from needle pokings, you may have asked: Why exactly does society mandate we transplant a tree inside our homes each December?
The answers to these and other Christmas-related queries can be found online, if you know where to look.
This is Christmas 101, or, in keeping with the theme of the site, "How Christmas Works." Why the tree? Why the caroling? Why the poinsettias? (Hint: it has to do with a guy named Poinsett, and no, they're not poisonous -- that's a myth). It's a cursory review, and the answers are sometimes a little thin, but it does cover most of the basic questions and you're guaranteed to learn something.
More in-depth (and occasionally morbid) ventures into Christmas folklore are best handled by Barbara and David Mikkelson, arbiters of truth, myth and urban legend at the Urban Legend Reference Pages. It's not true, for example, that anyone has ever died after dressing up as Santa and getting stuck in a chimney. It is true that in German tradition, a pickle ornament is the crowning touch on the tree. The Mikkelsons also offer a more comprehensive history of Santa Claus and the strange superstitions surrounding holly and mistletoe. And the poinsettia myth gets debunked again.
Whether or not your Christmas tree has you perplexed, it's a good idea to take this advice from the experts at the National Christmas Tree Association. Their tree-care tips cover topics such as tree stand size, cutting the stump for maximum water absorbency and a rule of thumb for adding water to the stand (one quart for every inch of the trunk's diameter). But it doesn't take an expert to tell you, "The best secret for keeping your tree fresh is water, water, water."
www.christmasarchives.comTo get a taste of the holiday's international flavor, start with this series of essays on Christmas in Hungary, Poland (see also www.polishworld.com/christmas), Spain and Egypt, a collection edited by Christmas historian Maria Hubert Von Staufer. ...
Can't think of a Christmas movie you haven't seen five times already? According to the Internet Movie Database, you have 568 to choose from (if you include TV movies). One page has helpfully culled IMDB's list to a manageable few dozen (including the seven different versions of "A Christmas Carol). ...
IMDB's most intriguing features are trivia and goofs; here you read, for example, that one scene from "A Charlie Brown Christmas" originally included a soft drink logo posted in the background; that "It's a Wonderful Life" originally ended with "Ode to Joy," not "Auld Lang Syne"; and that "Miracle On 34th Street," an ode to Christmas cheer trumping commercialism, was originally released in May in order to maximize ticket sales.
www.christmas-carols.net'Tis the season for bustling through malls so fast you find yourself humming the slick soundtracks pumped through the stores without knowing what you're humming or what the words are. This site lists the lyrics to over 50 Christmas songs, and plays the related tune when you click on a title.
For popular recordings, see the oldies lyrics database at www.webfitz.com/lyrics/xmas.html which ranks the top 101 Christmas songs (No. 1, of course, is Bing Crosby's "White Christmas") and features a to-the-second Christmas countdown. For Christmas music of a different flavor, check out "Cajun Twelve Days of Christmas" ("Nine oysters stewin', eight crabs a brewin'") at www.cajunradio.org/christmas.html
And to really outdo yourself, learn the words to "Auld Lang Syne" and wow fellow revelers on New Year's Eve: www.elmbronze.demon.co.uk/scotland/burns /langsyne.htm That intimidating title, which means "old long since," can be rendered "times gone by," says www.howstuffworks.com/question279.htm
www.infostarbase.com/tnr/xmasFor a more contemplative Christmas surf, delve into readings such as the original "Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus" editorial from the New York Sun in 1897 and Clement Clarke Moore's 1822 poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas," better known as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas." This site also tells you how to say "Merry Christmas" in a variety of languages, from Polish to Punjabi.
You can find other classic and contemporary Christmas stories at www.christmas-stories.com, and if you have a laptop, you can curl up with the full text of "A Christmas Carol" by clicking on "Charles Dickens" at www.literature.org/authors
And here's a clever op-ed contribution from Sunday's Tribune:
The flack in the hat
By Martin Kimel. Martin Kimel lives in Potomac
December 21, 2003
(with apologies to Dr. Seuss)
Sally and I had nothing to do.
We stared out the window.
We were bored with the view.
So we turned on the tube, and what did we see?
The Cat in the Hat! He was there on TV!
He was on Ch. 2!
He was on Ch. 4!
He was peddling goods in commercials galore!
"These burgers are good for you kids," said the cat.
"They are good for you, yes,
"Though they'll make you grow fat.
"Have plenty of soda, potato chips too.
"Your mother won't mind it at all if you do."
But our fish did not like it.
Not one little bit.
He loudly complained.
He would not let it sit.
He said, "You wouldn't be selling out all we hold dear
"If Theodor Geisel--Dr. Seuss--were still here!"
"Look at me!" said the cat.
"Yes, it's fun to be funny.
"But in the real world, you have to make money.
"For a reasonable fee,
"I'll pitch what you wish.
(Just get me away from that bothersome fish.)
"I can plug Mr. Clean.
"Or push dishwasher soap.
"I can sell you 10 kinds of Jam-jigger-roo rope.
"I'll sell digital toys,
"Or girls' clothes for boys,
"Or useless devices that make funny noise.
"But I am not through.
"No, I am not done.
"If you like, I can sell you Thing Two or Thing One!"
Then the cat turned to pick up a rake he had bent.
On his back was a sign reading, "This space for rent."
With a tip of his hat,
The famed cat gave a wave.
And he left Dr. Seuss to spin, spin in his grave.
Monday, December 15, 2003
My first story in the Sunday Q section, on Alica Magal, daughter of Holocaust survivors, former tour guide in Israel, and recently installed rabbi at a small downtown synagogue
A mini-essay on O'Hare Airport on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' first flight. Plus, Stephen King on the function of fear, analyzing brain waves of spiritual experiences, the legacy of astrology, what's going on at Guantanamo Bay, the state of the essay, and more ... LINK/ARCHIVE
Speaking of the Wright Brothers, here's the Washington Post on the bumpy flight of a Wright replica, and on the first father-daughter cockpit team in a 737.
Wednesday, December 10, 2003
My first op-ed for the Baltimore Sun, on college grads who live with their parents:
Roundup of the news of November. Plus, a postcard from Megan Feenstra in New York City, a primer on the Nobel Prizes, David Brooks on gay marriage, how to save Mount Kilimanjaro's ice cap, the short shelf life of scholarly references to Web pages, and more ... LINK/ARCHIVE
My Metra train slowed to a halt not 50 yards from the Ravenswood Station right about this time last year. Eventually, a conductor appeared in the front of our car. "Ladies and gentlemen, we have had a suicide. The train will be delayed." Everyone gasped, but, detestably, it was half-saddened, half-annoyed reaction. We pitied the poor soul, but we were also late (amazing how stubbornly petty people can be). Later, I asked the conductor how rare these incidents were. I think he said they happened a few times a year. "But," he said, "they're more common this time of year."
This is the first Christmas in several years that hasn't snuck up on me. Usually December ambushes me; this year I wanted to put the tree up on November 1 and start singing carols. The sole reason, of course, was that this was the year I spent mostly at home, writing, lonely as anything, and I longed for the sense of hearth and togetherness that is embedded in the holidays. But I've been wondering about how we experience these feelings and about the holidays. We use--as I have--this aura of goodwill and cheer as a stimulant, an opiate to stave off the rest of the year, when we carry on our "lives of quiet desperation," as Thoreau said. But we also dread that aura, or at least the sense of obligation that comes with it--an unwanted mandate to be happy. I was talking with a friend a week or two ago who was on the verge of tears as she talked about how the holidays make her depressed after getting married a couple years ago and adjusting to different family dynamics. For her, the incessant chipper Christmas soundtracks oozing through department store speakers must be especially grating (most of all, the constant "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year"). And I remembered one of my favorite episodes of West Wing, Excelsis Deo, in which Charlie asks Mrs. Landingham why she has been feeling down. Turns out her sons were killed in Vietnam on Christmas Day. This time of year, more than any other, she says, "I miss my boys." The man who stepped in front of my Metra train might have been feeling much the same way.
This obligatory giddyness and persistent glumness--what to make of it? For these people, would it not do more for cheeriness on earth to forego the whole season, to just call it off? And yet, for others, like me this year, don't we need the rhythms of tradition and warmth of reunion with loved ones to anchor the end of our year? The least we can do, I guess, is keep our sugary salutations and holiday platitudes in check, mindful of those for whom the holidays and their "cheer" have the opposite effect.
Footnote: It's worth noting that "Christmas cheer" has little to do with the first Christmas, and is largely a contrivance of our nostalgia and our department stores. Christ's arrival, as profound an invasion of hope as it was in a world of despair, was not the kind of material of which carols are easily made. His unmarried parents had hassled with traveling to register for a census by an oppressive Roman regime, no doubt unnerved by the whispers surrounding their pregnancy. Their baby was born in a nondescript house (most likely--the Bible says nothing about a stable) and cradled in a trough, bound for a lifetime of misunderstandings, especially in a Jewish society starved for a heroic political revolutionary after a series of thwarted wannabes. It was a day of victory, but of delayed victory--almost as much of a reminder of the misery that lay ahead as the eventual end of that misery. Walking through a mall today, Mary and Joseph would wonder how the heck we turned the birthday of their firstborn into this extravaganza.
• Previous Thought: Why does nature evoke childhood?
1 : extremely commonplace or trite
2 : characterized by insincere or overdone pathos : excessively sentimental
When English speakers turned "apathy" into "apathetic" in the 1700s, using the suffix "-etic" to turn the noun into the adjective, they modeled it on "pathetic," the adjectival form of "pathos" from Greek "pathçtikos." People also applied that bit of linguistic transformation to coin "bathetic." In the mid-19th century, English speakers added the suffix "-etic" to "bathos," the Greek word for "depth," which has been used in English since the early 1700s and means "triteness" or "excessive sentimentalism." The result: the ideal adjective for the incredibly commonplace or the overly sentimental.
• Previous E.T.
Saturday, December 06, 2003
Book of the Week: "City," a copious record of the rise and fall of downtown New Haven, Connecticut, is heavy on the what and when, but fuzzy on the how and why. It rolls right past this central question: Were Americans meant to spread out through the countryside, as Thomas Jefferson wished, or should we be less isolated and more concentrated in cities?
"City" is on New Haven; here's an article from Common-place.org on Concord, Mass. Earlier: My review of "Sidewalks in the Kingdom" by Eric Jacobsen.
Update: Urban Design in His Kingdom from ByFaithOnline.com. Joseph Terry's New Urbanism Links, Periferia's NU bibliography, Listmania lists here and here; Amazon book pages: Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000 by Dolores Haydn and Downtown: Its Rise and Fall, 1880-1950 by Robert M. Fogelson; Reason on the brawl over sprawl; companion blog to the book How Cities Work, blogger and author Dave Hegeman, Jacobsen on Kuntsler and sprawl (more), Planetizen on Florida sprawl and the end of suburban sprawl, USA Today on shopping shifting to off-mall stores, Franklin&Marshall on Levittown, architect-books.com page on Death and Life of Great American Cities.
Update Two: More here, here, and here.
My B&C blog is idle this week; it returns Monday with a roundup of news from the month of November.
Why are pastoral paintings so evocative of childhood? Maybe it's just me, but when I see a portrayal of a field or countryside, or take a walk in the woods, it triggers flashbacks to some of my earliest memories. Which is odd, because I didn't grow up in the county, though it must have something to do with the fact that I now live in a big city. I think it also has to do with how the child's mind conceives places and scenes. Calling on some of my earliest accessible memories of storybooks, Sesame Street, and the paintings of fields and barns on my grandparents' walls, I recall just how vivid the scenic drawings were to me--they weren't just pictures, they were places that my mind brought to life. (In contrast, seeing the Marshall Field windows on State Street this year, with their serial renderings of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, reminded me of how viscerally horrified I was when they sat my second grade class in front of the movie adaptation. I had nightmares about the boy who plunges down the chute and the girl who balloons and turns blue because they were so real to me.)
The child's mind is so vivid because it is not conditioned. Part of becoming an adult, I've been reflecting, is seeing what you expect to see when you look around. You lose at least half of your sense of wonder. When you drive around, you care less about the scenery and more about where you have to be and when. When you watch a movie now, it's harder to "suspend disbelief" because disbelief is now wired into you, especially in an age of cynicism about the entertainment industry. As a child, though, on a parent's lap, there were no boundaries, no cliches, no formulas or rehearsed meanings to the text and pictures before my face. What an evocative state to be in. At the same time, what a horrific one. Those Marshall Field windows evoked such dread in me, some 15 years after watching that movie as a child. And that was just a movie. I can only imagine what children who were abused go through. Lately I've found myself dissing the Freudian principle that, as one columnist once put it, our emotional selves are the "sum of our childhood traumas." But the warmth and wonder of these idyllic flashbacks, this instant transportation back to early youth (as Antoine Fisher experienced in the opening scene of that movie), has a gruesome parallel. Maybe that is why we shed some of our wonder as we get older.
Footnote: "For it is rather in nature that we see resemblance to art, than in art to nature; and we say a hundred times, "How like a picture!" for once that we say "How like the truth!" The forms in which we learn to think of landscape are forms that we have got from painted canvas." Robert Louis Stevenson, An Autumn Effect
• Previous Thought: Do we define ourselves by what we are not?
Tuesday, December 02, 2003
The film proceeds with a stop-start motion, as if it lacked enough gas for a certifiable plot. This may be deliberate; you could argue that plotlessness is the family’s problem, as they fight to lend thrust and purpose to their survival in a foreign land. And thus we get the search for a home ... link
Also from that issue: Malcolm Gladwell on institution as a moralistic buzzword, and Louis Menand on John Updike.
As I wrote in the debut of my B&C blog, some of my favorite writing is about places--how we shape them and how they shape us. The ongoing daily drama of people in places--and the context of a place's history, landscape, culture and social shifts--mostly eludes the headline-driven news media. Here is a file from the past year of exceptions to that rule, which I had clipped but never ran in my B&C blog. Since they aren't driven by the "news cycle," they're well worth revisiting months later.
-Places&Culture strand in my B&C blog
-Previous Places&Culture strand in this blog
NEW BEDFORD, Mass. -- As a damp dusk fell on this hard-luck port, Manuel Pereira guided the Sea Siren ashore, its hull packed with 15 tons of lemon sole and yellowtail flounder, its future uncertain. These are the darkest days for the fishermen who trawl the North Atlantic's frigid depths, shackled by regulations, while they wait for barren seas to grow bountiful again. ... All along New England's craggy coast, fishermen face the same sad choice: Soldier on toward economic -- and ecological -- ruin, or abandon the only livelihood they have ever known. Theirs is a self-inflicted wound. Decades of overfishing depleted all ground-fish species -- tasty bottom dwellers such as flounder, cod and haddock -- from New England waters by the early 1990s. Cod, the region's signature fish, declined by more than 70 percent in that time.
SEATTLE, Sept. 17 -- The tax seemed perfectly brewed for a city addicted to latte and liberalism -- at least to those who managed to get it on the ballot. Voters here were asked to tax espresso drinks for the sake of children. Ten cents more per cup for expanded preschool programs, tax supporters had reasoned, would be noble and barely noticeable. After all, these are citizens who, without a trace of self-consciousness and rarely a complaint about price, will bustle into a Starbucks (the world headquarters is here), order a triple tall non-fat decaf vanilla cappuccino and pay nearly $4. Seattle, too, has a progressive tradition of taxing itself to clean up lakes and build low-income housing and mass transit. Good intentions, though, were crushed Tuesday by caffeinated reality. Voters resoundingly rejected the tax, 68 percent against to 32 percent for.
The Rev. Bob Gomez says people can find Jesus anywhere. Even, he says, under a disco ball at a Texas bar. For the past two Sunday evenings, Gomez, a four-person choir and a keyboardist have spread God's word on the dance floor at Christopher's Bar and Grill in Kingsville, Tex., a town about 200 miles south of San Antonio. The services -- which Gomez characterizes as "lively and celebrative, with a little bit of Latin flair thrown in" -- have been a hit, attracting nearly 100 people each time. Just a few weeks ago, Gomez, a Southern Baptist minister who also conducts services at a Corpus Christi Ramada Inn, was preaching in Kingsville to "huddles" -- small groups that meet weekly to study the Bible. When Gomez started searching for a place to convene the huddles on Sundays, Christopher's was the first place to offer.
MONTERREY, Mexico -- Jose Maiz Garcia, a 100-pound power hitter, played left field on this city's Little League team in 1957, when it became the first non-American team ever to win the Little League World Series. Now Maiz hopes to make more Mexican baseball history by bringing the first Major League Baseball team south of the border. Maiz, a construction magnate, is one of the partners bidding to move the vagabond Montreal Expos to a new permanent home here in Mexico's richest city.
GREENWICH, Conn. -- Once the U.N. headquarters and a vast international city of skyscrapers were supposed to rise here, amid the genteel estates and rolling hills of this wealthy suburb. To obtain the land for this new city, a State Department official in 1946 proposed to use eminent domain to seize several dozen estates, not the least those of Time publisher Henry Luce, jazz leader Benny Goodman, financier John S. Rockefeller and Wall Street banker and future U.S. Sen. Prescott Bush, father to the former president and grandfather to the current one. This proposal failed to amuse Greenwich estate owners. ... With a referendum and a few dirty tricks, they beat back the plan. Only then did the U.N. selection committee turn a covetous eye toward Turtle Bay in Manhattan. A new exhibit here has cracked open the door on this long-forgotten episode, the story of how the United Nations lost its battle in 1946 for a massive, 100-square-mile campus in southern New England and Westchester, N.Y.
ULAGUPITCHANPATTI, India -- Two years ago, after graduating from high school at the top of her class, Sukanya Sakkarai put aside her dreams of college and resigned herself to the fate of most young women in this farming village of trampled earth and mud-brick houses: marriage to a stranger in a match arranged by her parents. Then the Information Age arrived on her doorstep. Life hasn't been the same for Sakkarai, or her village, since. Scouts from a communications company approached the teenager last year, when she was working one day a month as an accountant for a village credit cooperative, and asked if she was interested in opening a computer-equipped "information kiosk" in the village, which at that point didn't even have a telephone. .. Today the 19-year-old runs a thriving small business, charging modest fees for services that range from Internet browsing and e-mail to daily computer classes to weekend screenings of Tamil-language films by means of her computer's CD-ROM drive. Perhaps most important, she acts as a kind of village ombudsman, brokering e-mail exchanges and even videoconferences -- again, for a fee -- between semiliterate villagers and the government bureaucrats who still control many aspects of their lives.
Hurricane Isabel whipped up gusts of winds, unleashed torrential rains and introduced modern farming technology to the Amish of Pennsylvania's Lancaster County. Meteorologists probably could not have predicted the last one. The hurricane tore up cornfields and the Amish method of harvesting. Horse-drawn wagons and gas-powered corn binders had no chance of navigating the fields, and farmers needed a quick way to pull the corn off the downed stalks before the crop grew moldy. Local bishops gave their blessing for the one-time use of modern-day heavy farm machinery. So for the past few weeks, contractors operating corn harvesters from as far away as Maryland have worked the Amish cornfields in central Pennsylvania, saving what nearly became a ruined season.
NANJING, China -- On Aug. 22, Weng Biao was preparing to buy a lunch of steamed fish and pickled vegetables for his wife when officials from the government Office of Demolition showed up at his family's two-room shack in a small field slated to become a shopping mall and ordered him to come with them. A 39-year-old part-time laborer with a bad leg, Weng limped to the office 200 yards away. Minutes later, several other officials barged into Weng's house, took a jerrycan of gasoline and forced his wife, 11-year-old son and 74-year-old father outside. A bulldozer arrived and knocked down the house even though local residents had been given until Aug. 30 to leave the area, witnesses and Chinese reporters said. ... Weng's neighbors and family members say they suspect that demolition officials sprinkled his body with fuel to persuade him to stop demanding more compensation for his condemned house. Somehow the fuel ignited. Weng's story is the latest tragedy in a war being fought across China pitting a juggernaut of development against growing grass-roots resistance.
SEOUL -- On the thoroughfares of Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, five remarkable roadside billboards are scheduled to go up later this month. In one, a young man will stare out with an expression of wonder once reserved for official posters of North Koreans gazing upon their leader, Kim Jong Il. This time, the object of awe will instead be a shiny new Fiat. The billboards are part of what is being dubbed the first corporate media blitz to hit North Korea. Pyeonghwa Motors Corp. -- a South Korean company with close ties to the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church -- coaxed the North Korean government this year into a major break with its communist doctrine: the launch of a capitalist marketing campaign. Even as North Korea has belligerently confronted the West with threats to become the world's newest nuclear power, foreign business leaders, political analysts and South Korean officials say the government has been quietly taking bold steps to deepen a budding foray into capitalism.
NEW DELHI -- This is one war that PepsiCo and Coca-Cola are not waging against each other. Since an Indian environmental watchdog group released a report alleging that the drinks contain high levels of pesticide residue, the two international cola giants have battled consumer panic, "smash-the-bottle" street campaigns and angry lawmakers calling for a ban on the products. Both PepsiCo and Coca-Cola have issued countless rebuttals and published advertisements disputing the allegations. ... The unlikely alliance formed soon after the release on Tuesday of a report by the Center for Science and Environment, a private group based in New Delhi that has fought numerous environmental battles against the bottled water, automobile and paper industries. Tests of 12 leading drinks produced and marketed in India by the two companies showed that "all samples contained residues of four extremely toxic pesticides and insecticides: lindane, DDT, malathion and chlorpyrifos," the report said.
"Give me one red abstraction, two green landscapes and an orange soda -- and super-size it, please." Practice placing such an order before heading to "China Pizza Chicken King," the weird and charming summer exhibition at G Fine Art in Georgetown. The links between fast food and fine art don't spring immediately to mind, but this new show makes a strong argument for them. A local art collective called Team Response (recent Corcoran graduates Matt Sutton, Jason Balicki and Justin Barrows) has turned brave Annie Gawlak's gallery into a full-scale facsimile of your average food court restaurant. The main space, painted floor to ceiling in an electric, eat-up-quick yellow, now hosts seven built-in booths such as you would find in any chicken joint. Or make that any burger dive; there are squeeze bottles -- one red, one yellow -- on every table. ... There are handy yellow trash bins in the corners, with a cheery cursive "Thank You" on the swing-top of each one.
The forest-green 1994 Buick LeSabre with whitewalls is still reliable at 100,008 miles, the salesman said. It sits on the lot next to a maroon Toyota Supra with peeling paint and a rusting gold Camry that's seen better days. Like the other cars parked on the gravel patch on Hyattsville's main drag, none of them sells for more than $5,000, the kind of bargain that Vernon Wolverton's customers have expected for 33 years. Head north out of the District on U.S. Route 1 and you'll pass dozens of places like Wolverton's Suburban Motors. Nearly half the 97 licensed used-car dealers in Prince George's County do business on or around the 20-mile stretch from the District line to Laurel, a road once known as the Washington region's Car Alley. Over the decades, large new-car showrooms and secondhand dealers left for less-crowded suburbs. That left the small independent lots that cater to a local clientele -- a landscape like many sections of Route 1 between Key West and the Canadian border. Now, under a plan set in motion by county leaders three years ago, the car lots are about to be zoned out of existence. Beginning Sept. 1, it will be illegal for used-car lots smaller than 25,000 square feet to operate in the county, a limit that will force nearly all of the dealers on the highway to close.
Andy Del Gallo was down on both knees carving the word "Dream" into the hard granite, aiming his chisel like a dentist's drill over the middle letter, when someone asked for his autograph. ... People who make inscriptions in stone are rarely at the center of attention or the focus of autograph-seekers. But Del Gallo's recent assignment is an exception -- etching five lines onto the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that mark the exact spot where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stood to deliver his "I Have a Dream" speech 40 years ago. So Del Gallo, 38, one of the owners of Eastern Memorials, the Falls Church company that does work for the National Park Service, signed his name on a folded piece of paper. The man, Herbert James Anderson III of Houston, wrote the date below Del Gallo's signature. Anderson said that was probably the closest he would ever come to being in King's presence, and he wanted something to remember it by. That's how it has been for Del Gallo since Tuesday, when he first knelt down and started carving -- moments of intense concentration, pleasantly interrupted.
MONROVIA, Liberia -- Sekou Bility waited in a house built on the ruined promise of Liberia. It stood well up Snapper Hill, in the shadow of the towering, formerly majestic Masonic Temple that lately reeked from the exposed filth of a thousand people cowering within its moldering walls, listening for the sound of shooting. Among them, until recently, was the sister of Bility's fiancee, who during her stay in the temple's dank caverns contracted cholera. So did her 8-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter. Now they were living with Bility. Nine people were crowded into a single room in a city of crowded rooms, another fact of life during wartime. ... In a steaming capital swollen with families uprooted by fighting that resumed with a vengeance over the weekend, Bility's crowded room on Snapper Hill offered a glimpse at what passes for refuge in Liberia after 14 years of war. A day last week with this lean and likable 33-year-old, once the well-off sales manager for an oil company, was a window to the daily struggle of people living inside the collapse of Africa's oldest republic.
ATLANTIC CITY -- Over the years, this seaside city has been given more write-offs than a bankrupt airline, but still has continually tried to reinvent itself. It's where the spectacle of women on diving horses evolved into the Miss America pageant, where the boardwalk was enshrined on the Monopoly board and where the Beatles played at Convention Hall -- which, long before the Astrodome, presented football games indoors. When casino gambling came to the resort in 1978 the competition was Nevada, a bit of horse and dog racing, and a few state lotteries. These days it seems every mosh pit has a slot machine; there are more riverboats than Mark Twain could count, and Powerball is rapidly becoming the national pastime. And, again, Atlantic City is looking for a new new thing. The latest hope is Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, a 2,002-room edifice with a three-acre casino floor covered with 145 gaming tables. Its 3,650 slot machines are coinless and issue tickets when players win -- no unseemly clinking of coins, nor any reason to bend over to pick them up off the floor.
SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK -- This mountain sanctuary is under siege. The air pollution tainting its magnificent views is thick enough that it violates federal standards for ozone, which, scientists say, is stunting forest growth and pocking leaves with black spots. The effects of acid rain are killing prized young brook trout. An almost invisible exotic bug has doomed thousands of the park's mighty hemlocks. Meanwhile, poachers have slaughtered black bears for their gall bladders, considered an aphrodisiac in Asia, while other harvesters are depleting the park's wild ginseng root. Many visitors to the 197,000-acre Blue Ridge preserve about 80 miles west of Washington are blissfully unaware of these troubles. The pollution diminishing the vistas from Skyline Drive -- the scenic north-south road that runs the 105-mile length of the park, from Front Royal to Waynesboro -- strikes many as a natural haze.
BUENOS AIRES -- The ghost train arrives at dusk. Hauling rucksacks, pushing grocery carts and makeshift dollies, the people known as cartoneros tumble to the platform in clots, then scatter through this twilit neighborhood of leviathan high-rises and marbled condominiums to sift though the evening's garbage for soda bottles, cardboard, newspapers: whatever the recyclers will take off their hands. ... When night falls, an occupying army of mostly cashiered factory workers rides the trains into the city from its rust-belt perimeter. On any given night, government officials estimate, there are as many as 40,000 garbage-pickers, or cartoneros -- cardboard men -- roaming Buenos Aires. That number has increased more than tenfold since Argentina's economic collapse.
WARANGAL, India -- In the early morning buzz of a busy market, hundreds of cotton farmers arrive on tractors and bullock carts with sacks full of their harvest of "white gold." But this season, some crops are attracting more attention than others. Farmers have planted India's first approved crop of genetically engineered cotton, known as Bt for the soil organism that is toxic to some plant pests. The new seed, developed by St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. and approved by the government after four years of bitter opposition, is hailed by some as the solution to a vicious cycle of devastation by pests, heavy pesticide use and soil depletion that has trapped Indian farmers for decades.
MANNING, N.D. -- In a bar in this hamlet on the great American prairie, some wheat farmers gathered one night not long ago. They drove for miles through blowing snow, and more than 50 of them packed the Little Knife Saloon, doubling the regular population of Manning. They came to ask questions about a new kind of wheat, and the more they heard from a panel skeptical of the crop, the more their brows knitted in worry. The wheat was created in a St. Louis biology laboratory, through genetic engineering. It is meant to benefit farmers, but a lot of people in the room fretted that it would put them out of business. ... In the states that grow the fabled amber waves of grain that symbolize America's heritage of plenty, the most plentiful commodity these days is trouble.
VAIL, Colo. -- A week's vacation in this pampered mountain mecca can set you back thousands of dollars. That's the bad news. The good news is that if you do it right, you can deduct your ski trip when you fill out your income tax return. Among those who can do that were the doctors and lawyers who gathered around a television set one afternoon last week in the Geneva Room of Vail's elegant Swiss Hotel and Spa, where rates run about $350 per night. In stretch pants and ski sweaters, they had just come in from a day on the slopes. Before heading for the hot tub, they watched a one-hour educational video on "Employment Law for the Healthcare Office." The taped lecture was designed to help the skiers improve their medical and legal skills. But it also improved their bank balances, because attending that apres-ski class brought them within the ambit of Section 162.5 of the federal income tax code, the "travel and education" write-off. ... According to American Educational Institute Inc., the training firm that runs the video seminars here and at 30 other ski and golf resorts around the country, those who attend its classes can write off not only the $425 tuition but also "travel, lodging and meal expenses" as long as "the primary purpose of your trip is to maintain or improve professional skills."
? From the
REYDON, Okla. ? Tornadoes, droughts and the brutal busts after gas and oil booms have chased people from western Oklahoma for decades. Settlement after settlement has crumbled into the red-slate soil. Others hang on, barely. In Reydon, population 161, a turtle crosses Main Street unscathed. And yet after 70 years of flight from the rural Great Plains, a resolute core of people just will not go. They are people like David and Berla Barton, both 45, owners of a three-bedroom white stucco bungalow on Fifth Avenue, where spider plants hang over the patio, an orphaned black calf lies in a shed and eight fishing rods line a wall of the garage.
INDIANAPOLIS - A huge, light-gray building, trimmed jauntily in blue, rises from the rolling, grassy fields on the far side of the runways at Indianapolis International Airport. From the approach road, the building seems active. But the parking lots are empty and, inside, the 12 elaborately equipped hangar bays are silent and dark. It is as if the owner of a lavishly furnished mansion had suddenly walked away, leaving everything in place. That is what happened. United Airlines got $320 million in taxpayer money to build what is by all accounts the most technologically advanced aircraft maintenance center in America. But six months ago, the company walked away, leaving the city and state governments out all that money, and no new tenant in sight. The shuttered maintenance center is a stark, and unusually vivid, reminder of the risk inherent in gambling public money on corporate ventures. Yet the city and state are stepping up subsidies to other companies that offer, as United once did, to bring high-paying jobs and sophisticated operations to Indiana. Many municipal and state governments are doing the same, escalating a bidding war for a shrunken pool of jobs in America despite the worst squeeze in years on their budgets.
KOKOMO, Ind., Nov. 6 - The worst has been removed from this industrial city's largest hazardous waste site. Barrels of chemicals have been carted away. Contaminated front yards have been stripped and covered with fresh sod. The rusty buildings where rats and homeless men took shelter have been demolished and removed. Three years ago, a chain-link fence with barbed wire was put around the site, the former home of Continental Steel, a Kokomo manufacturer that went bankrupt in 1986. Since then, the city has been waiting for the federal government to finish the cleanup. But the money for the Superfund program, which restores the nation's worst abandoned toxic waste sites, has not kept pace. Kokomo officials have been told for two years that the full cleanup is not being paid for and they fear that the delay will continue indefinitely. A three-inch-thick redevelopment plan sits on the shelves of the downtown library. And the city, which is trying to revitalize itself by building brick gazebos and renovating condominiums downtown, has a toxic site centrally located along one of its busiest roads.
WEST JORDAN, Utah - Sears, Roebuck is a 117-year-old retailer wandering in search of its future. And the trail has led here, to this prosperous Salt Lake City suburb, and a month-old store called Sears Grand. From the outside, the 210,000-square-foot store is a box like the other chain-store boxes lined up in a shopping plaza in one of the nation's fastest-growing regions; Wal-Mart, Sam's Club and Lowe's are all here, too. Inside, though, an evolving Sears personality is on display. Along with the usual array of Craftsman tools and Kenmore dishwashers, shoppers find merchandise Sears has not stocked before: racks of DVD's and music CD's; a grocery section with milk, eggs and frozen pizza; and a garden center, empty now ahead of the Utah winter but soon to brim with seedlings and fertilizer as well as rakes and hoses.
In a 21st-century twist on Roosevelt-era public works projects, Salt Lake City and 17 other Utah cities are planning to build the largest ultrahigh-speed digital network in the country. Construction on the project is scheduled to start next spring -- if the cities can raise the money to pull it off. The network would be capable of delivering data over the Internet to homes and businesses at speeds 100 times faster than current commercial residential offerings. It would also offer digital television and telephone services through the Internet. With a $470 million price tag, the project is considered one of the most ambitious efforts in the world to deploy fiber optic cables, which carry data in bursts of light over glass fibers. Though it has not received much attention outside the area, the project has raised questions here about the role of government, particularly from telecommunications companies, which are starting to complain about the prospect of competing against a publicly sponsored digital network.
SAYRE, Okla. -- Nearly 1,000 criminals were hauled away from here this summer, all of them incarcerated convicts, never to return. It pained nearly everyone to see them go. The exodus from this remote western Oklahoma town took with it about 225 jobs and a third of the government's revenues after a furor over the cost of inmates' phone calls led to the closing of a prison. ... With the prisoners gone, the operating budget this year has been chopped by a third to $2.7 million, Ms. Barker said. Plans for a new City Hall have been halted indefinitely. The city has put off renovating an old building for the Police and Fire Departments and constructing a 60-unit apartment complex to relieve the acute housing shortage. Hiring has stopped. One of five water department jobs has been cut. With nothing to build, the city construction manager has been let go. The job of economic development director has been eliminated. The city had budgeted for a full-time treasurer to succeed the part-time treasurer, who retired, but now Ms. Barker has inherited those duties.
Harlem, which has everything from an Old Navy shop to a Disney store these days, has been without a major hotel since 1966, when the Hotel Theresa, where Fidel Castro once stayed while visiting the city, closed for good. This morning, however, real estate developers and a group of investors that includes Gene Autry's widow and the president of Def Jam Records planned to announce the construction of a Marriott Courtyard Hotel in a parking lot near the 125th Street Metro-North station. An artist's rendering of the building shows a soaring 29-story glass structure that will hold more than 200 hotel rooms, some 250,000 square feet of office space and another 46,000 square feet for retail businesses. It will also include a public park and a sidewalk cafe that promise to brighten a dingy central Harlem intersection where the elevated train now runs the length of upper Park Avenue. The planned hotel is yet another sign that Harlem, which in the last 10 years has undergone a boom, is continuing its second major renaissance.
It has taken more than a decade, but the United States Postal Service and the General Post Office in New York City are finally about to part company. In fact, seemingly overnight, most of the building is already empty. That is because the president is coming to town. The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan worked for years to transform the grand old building at Eighth Avenue and 33rd Street into a train station, but even after securing federal, state and city cooperation, no one could pin down the Postal Service on an exit date, said Kevin Sheekey, Mr. Moynihan's former chief of staff. Then the Republican National Committee chose New York City for its national convention. Mr. Sheekey, who went on to work for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and now coordinates convention preparations for City Hall, saw a dual opportunity in the post office building: Use it as a media center for the 15,000 journalists who will cover the convention, and use the convention as a wedge to get the post office out. ... Sometime after the convention ends, in early September 2004 and once the Empire State Development Corporation actually owns the building, construction on the train station is expected to begin.
TOYOTA CITY, Japan -- Though the writing on the wall is still faint, to Nobuhiko Narita it is unmistakable: Toyota City and its 350,000 residents are on a collision course with industrial inevitability. As director of the city government's industrial and labor policy division, Mr. Narita knows that Japan's motor city has prospered for years because of its namesake, Toyota Motor, Japan's richest corporation. But he also knows that the Japanese auto market is in a long, slow decline and that Toyota Motor must rush overseas to keep growing. Last year, the company earned more than America's Big Three automakers combined. Still, the job market in its hometown peaked a decade ago, and workers can no longer take raises and bonuses for granted. Every year, Toyota Motor builds more cars and buys more parts overseas, and its hundreds of domestic suppliers are having to compete ever harder with foreign rivals, sometimes by cutting prices so low that many cannot make ends meet. Many are quietly closing their doors because their outlook is bleak. With the seeds of decay in the city's signature industry now planted, Mr. Narita and local business leaders are doing something they never dreamed would be necessary: Looking to attract new commerce.
Autumn is always wedding season in China, but this week record numbers of couples have been marrying in cities like Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai, according to officials and news media reports. In Beijing, by one report, more than 2,000 couples were married on Oct. 1, while the state news agency put the nationwide total that day at tens of thousands of couples. Some began lining up at wedding registration offices at 5 a.m. The surge began on Oct. 1, when China celebrated its National Day and enacted a handful of new laws. None has garnered more attention or enthusiasm than the new marriage law, which ends two longstanding requirements: a health certificate and, most annoying, a letter from an employer confirming that a person is single. Chinese officials are touting the new marriage law, as well as a new streamlined divorce law, as evidence of government reform. ... But the new law is not causing social change as much as keeping up with it.
ELSINORE, Denmark -- Traveling by ferry from Sweden, Bjorn did not bring so much as a bag. But he did not forget his large yellow mover's dolly. He needed it for the return trip, to cart his newly purchased beer back home. "Alcohol is much less expensive in Denmark," explained Bjorn, 37, who did not want to give his last name and who was pushing the heavily laden dolly as he boarded the ferry for the 20-minute return trip to Sweden. His trip to Elsinore had been brief -- basically, he went to the liquor store -- and familiar: he makes it every few months, when supplies run low. Every year, millions of Swedes travel to Denmark and bring back 20 percent of all the alcohol consumed in Sweden each year. Their reputation in towns like Elsinore, which is known as much for its multitude of liquor stores as for the castle where Shakespeare set "Hamlet," is of weekend bingers, people who drink themselves into insensibility.
A vast and remote expanse of green in the heart of Siberia is part of the largest wetland on earth. It produces oxygen at a rate rivaled only by the Amazon. It contains ancient forests, endangered species of beavers and Siberian sturgeon. It also holds oil, lots of it, and environmentalists are warning that a sudden splurge of hurried extraction, along with a virtual absence of government oversight, is changing the face of this delicate wilderness. Much damage in Siberia was already inflicted during the Soviet era, when the Communist government ravaged the environment on a calamitous scale. ... While there is little doubt that industry practices have improved, the exploitation now is being driven by the aggressive entry of private oil companies into an arena that just a decade ago was the exclusive domain of the state.
KOMPONG PHLUK, Cambodia -- The power of the Mekong's current forces the Tonle Sap River to swallow its own water, change direction, and flow back up to fill the lake again. The changeable river, forever retracing its past, is often taken as a metaphor for Cambodia, a nation that cannot seem to break free of its unhappy history. Around it, though, the world is marching forward. In southern China, ambitious plans are under way to transform the landscape by damming the Mekong and its tributaries. ... The annual floods and the regular rise and fall of the lake here will be affected, threatening its finely tuned environment. Most of Cambodia's protein comes from the fish of Tonle Sap and more than a million people make their livings directly from the lake. This poverty-ridden nation has little alternative food or employment to offer. Few people here know anything about dams or China, and for now, the seasonal ebb and flow of the great lake and the life around its edges continue as they always have.
Wednesday, November 26, 2003
Saturday, November 22, 2003
Do we define ourselves by what we are not rather than by what we are? When we reassure ourselves or present ourselves to others, do we use more negative statements than positive ones? For example, I'm much more certain about not being a Republican than I am about being a Democrat. I'm also more certain about not being pro-choice than I am about being pro-life (that is, I'm more unimpressed by arguments that the life of the fetus should have no legal protection outside its mother than I am sure in which cases abortion should be allowed). If I were to make a political platform for myself, I'd want to do it by distancing myself from positions I think are stupid more than I would want to make a list of what I endorse. Similarly, when I tell people I'm a Christian I try to find a way to insert that I'm not one of those simple-minded Bible-thumpers just waiting to preach to you the moment you let your guard down. And when I tell people I'm a journalist, I try to emphasize that I don't want to be just a reporter assembling quotes from press conferences.
Maybe it's easiest for us to tell others what we are not because that's how we communicate to ourselves. We tell ourselves upon seeing a flake, or a dork, or a jerk: I'm not like that. In fact, this was the prayer of the vain Pharisee in Jesus' parable: "God, I thank you that I am not like other men--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector." (General rule: don't begin your prayers with "God, I thank you that I am not...") Sermons on this passage always talk about humility, but maybe part of the point of the parable is that the tax collector was healthier because he wasn't busy talking about what he wasn't. He wasn't in denial. Instead, he was being straight with himself and with God about who he was, how broken he was: "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!" Maybe one of the routes to healthy self-perception is to make positive statements about our negative attributes.
• Previous Thought: is a person's life a story?
: a group of nine
To the ancients, nine was a very special number, one often associated with gods and divinity. Legends and literature have long characterized groups of nine as having a special, in some cases magical, significance. Ancient Egyptians organized their gods into groups of nine; even today, their principal group of gods (headed by sun god Re-Atum) is called the "Great Ennead of Heliopolis." The "Ennead" English speakers use in that name traces to "ennea," the Greek word for "nine." "Ennead" is also used generally to refer to other groups of ancient gods. Furthermore, it is the name given to six sets of nine treatises by Greek philosopher Plotinus that were collected and organized by his 3rd-century disciple, Porphyry.
• Usage Nuances from M-W: onerous \AH-nuh-russ\
1 : involving, imposing, or constituting a burden : troublesome
2 : having legal obligations that outweigh the advantages
"Onerous," "burdensome," "oppressive," and "exacting" all refer to something which imposes a hardship of some kind. "Onerous" stresses a sense of laboriousness and heaviness, especially because something is distasteful ("the onerous task of cleaning up the mess fell to the lowest-ranked member")."Burdensome" suggests something which causes mental as well as physical strain ("the burdensome responsibilities of being a supervisor tired her out"). "Oppressive" implies extreme harshness or severity in what is imposed ("the oppressive tyranny of a police state takes its toll upon the residents"). "Exacting" suggests rigor or sternness rather than tyranny or injustice in the demands made or in the one demanding ("the exacting employer required great attention to detail, but rewarded it well").
• Previous E.T.
Monday, November 17, 2003
How "brights" are becoming a religion of their own. Also: My postcard from Washington, D.C., the global roots of democracy, the history of the Serenity Prayer, the nickel gets a face-lift, and more... LINK/ARCHIVE
Related item: Speaking of the nickel, it will commemorate the expedition of Lewis and Clark. Last year, I linked to an item from Slate that questioned their place in history. It quoted one author as saying, "If Lewis and Clark had died on the trail, it wouldn't have mattered a bit." Here's a story on the explorers from last month's Common-Place.
Sunday, November 16, 2003
Is narrative inherent or imposed on a person's life? Is a person's life a story? Or is story a device we place on someone's life to try to get a hold of it? I've been thinking about this as I do some personal profiles for the Trib: one on a rabbi who was a tour guide in Israel and whose parents were Holocaust survivors, another on a Filipino immigrant and his latest business venture here in Chicago. I introduce them by describing and quoting them, but you can't do an profile without the when and what of their lives. In the case of the rabbi story, this is especially true, since the theme of the story is how unexpected occurrences have strung her life together. But is life essentially a chronology, or is it not a temporally defined experience?
My questions of this were fleshed out by the profile of screenwriting workshop guru Robert McKee in the New Yorker's recent Making Movies issue. McKee is the guy portrayed in Adaptation, when Nicholas Cage is asking these kinds of questions--how life is like and unlike a story, why certain kinds of storytelling conventions resonate with audiences (according to Hollywood, anyway). How does life amount to what happens, and how does life transcend what happens?
Stories, McKee says in his seminars, are "metaphors for life." The New Yorker quotes Barbara Hardy as saying “we dream in narrative, day-dream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, construct, gossip, learn, hate and love by narrative.” The profile continues:
McKee seems persuaded that real life has the shape of a story-there are third acts, even if they may have a second-act air about them. “Yes, there are turning points, and points when the curtain comes down-ta-da!-then the thing starts again.” For all McKee’s gloom, and his love of stories in which grown men cry ... he is driven by a kind of melancholy optimism: “Hopefully, you can live in a way so that you can die with the notion that, on balance, the sense of achievement outweighs the regret.” ...
In McKee’s description, this is what a story is: a human being is living a life that is more or less in balance. Then comes the “inciting incident.” (McKee borrows the phrase from “Theory and Technique of Playwriting and Screenwriting” which was written in the late forties by John Howard Lawson, the first president of the Screen Writers Guild, and an inspiration to McKee.) The protagonist reacts, his life falls out of balance, and he now has had aroused in him a conscious or unconscious desire for whatever it is that will restore balance-“launching him on a quest for his object of desire against the forces of antagonism.”
But is this really who we are, or who we are about? The sum of our "inciting incidents," our achievements and failures, our loves and partings? Or is the human person something else, someone whose essence these models only begin to explore? For example, you could say a person is defined by her relationships with other people and God, her personality traits, her thoughts, her emotions. When she dies, those are the most important measurements of what has been lost. And perhaps the elements of achievement and progression in McKee's story archetypes are empty exercises whose worth does not match dread of death. But as Adaptation asks, why do we need a story--why aren't those wondrous orchids compelling enough without some kind of progression, without a narrative arc?
McKee sketches out the “Classical Design” model--as the New Yorker describes: stories with causality, closed endings, linear time, an external conflict, a single, active protagonist. (He ignores a question from the audience that inquires about the meaning of the success of banal blockbusters, as the New Yorker summarizes: "are some resonant stories not metaphors for life? Or are the fans of 'Titanic' leading lives that make lousy metaphors?") The way he talks about himself suggests McKee's own fear of death shapes him the same way he says it shapes characters. The New Yorker piece ends with him talking to a friend about Adaptation ahead of time and saying, “I cannot be a character in a bad movie. I can’t be.” Of course, the New Yorker piece was itself a story about McKee--talking about where he got what degree and what accomplishments (and failures, including a long unfinished novel) compose his life. For a piece about story, it never suggests to us whether this story about McKee is how we should know him and understand him. After reading it, I feel like I've sat in on one of his seminars, but not that I know who he is. To know another person, story alone won't cut it.
• Related: When writers turn their friends into characters, from the Sydney Morning Herald
• Previous Thought: Does everyone keep to a comfort zone?
-Husband giving gift to wife: “If you don’t like it you can always use it as another example of how I have no idea who you really are.”
-Wife to husband reading paper, You know, lately I’ve been fantasizing about having a twosome."
-Woman being proposed to: “I’m looking for a man who doesn’t want anything to do with the wedding planning."
-Sign in office: “14 Days Since The Last Inappropriate E-mail.”
Wednesday, November 12, 2003
That ambivalence posting was prompted by a recent offer I got to write some newspaper op-eds. My problem with op-eds is that I hate the sanctimonious and presumptuous tone in which they're usually written, and which I struggle to avoid myself. Mostly, I hate trying to boil things down into overly simplistic terms. I was reading this interview with my brother-in-law, Stephen Henderson, by the Poynter Institute, which two years ago gave him an award for his editorial writing in the Baltimore Sun. The questioner asks if he's "opposed to editorials that say, 'On the one hand...' and 'On the other hand...'" Steve responds, "That's the kiss of death. ... You've got to get all that out of your mind before you sit down at the keyboard." His point is not that an argument should be boilerplate or take on straw men, just that it shouldn't be muddled. Still, in light of Kristof's column, I think that as long as opinion pieces end up at a solid conclusion, they should do a better job of illuminating the merit of two or three sides if they are to truly serve the public and not just rally an interest group.
Monday, November 10, 2003
A look back at Take Back Your Time Day, and why our working lives are out of whack (and why more TV watching won't help). Plus: two banks' dubious plea to stop and smell the roses and not worry about money. Also: Shangai's sinking skyline; the Pope's legacy; Unmarried America by the numbers; the social effects of spam and phonecams; George W. Bush, member of Skull and Bones; stiff-arming asteroids, "Armageddon" style; how sonar kills whales; roundup of music and "Matrix Revolutions" reviews; and more ... LINK/ARCHIVE
More on my B&C items this week:
-Quote from the linked story on Skull and Bones:
“The preoccupation with bones, mortality, with coffins, lying in coffins, standing around coffins, all this sort of thing I think is designed to give them the sense that, and it's very true, life is short,” says Rosenbaum. “You can spend it, if you have a privileged background, enjoying yourself, contributing nothing, or you can spend it making a contribution.”
-Re: phonecams: A reminder of the ephemeral nature of gadgets.
-More Matrix: I should have added this Slate story on how the trilology lost its way:
Does everyone live in a small world? I'm not talking about the Six Degrees of Separation principle, interesting as that is--which says that everyone is linked by informal and remote relationships (see link below). Nor am I talking about the "global village" supposedly introduced by the Internet. I'm wondering if most people, wherever they live and whatever they do, remain mostly confined to their comfort zone--a well-worn routine of home, work, and back (and maybe a leisure spot or two). We tend to traverse typically narrow paths that cover little ground. Or so I've been thinking, in my first year living in a big city. Even though it's a far larger and more dynamic place than my mid-sized city hometown, with more things to do and better means of getting around, my wife and I tend to inhabit but a slice of it. We can list a respectable number of things we've done in the city--from sporting events to the theater to other cultural events--but for the most part we keep to our familiar patterns and routes of home to her work, home to church, and in my case, just home. I was reminded of this as we flew back from Baltimore after a couple days spent in an unfamiliar locale. As our plane glided over the northern reaches of Chicago, we stared down at the grid outlined by the orange specks of streetlights, and I noted the contrast between this vast tableau and the small beaten path we were searching for in vain; the former unfamiliar (at least from above) and threatening, the latter familiar and comforting. I've been thinking lately that this applies to most city-dwellers; we have our home, our work, our commute, and that is the extent of what we regularly experience of this massive metropolis. It's part of the reason I started my Chicago 101 collection, a photo tour of some of the city's historical spots, including some non-tourist destinations many Chicagoans don't know are there. This is also why I chose to go into journalism--to regularly meet people and go places I ordinarily wouldn't. I think this narrow periphery is also true, figuratively, of travelers--I wrote earlier about how business travelers are numbed by the monotony of airplane cabins and airports, and the same may go for truckers and highways. They cover geographical ground but stay stuck in a groove. Funny how this is true of so many people in so many walks of life even after the last century's revolutions in transportation, information "industries" (replacing manufacturing), and communication technology.
As I mentioned, for me, as I work from home, the boundaries of my periphery are immediate: my four walls. I do have a high-rise view of the city and the horizon, and, by writing about places and ideas, I do mentally connect with a broader world than I might in other professions. But the majority of my living happens in a very small space. I wonder how natural and healthy our patterns of narrow periphery are, and how much they are not. I also wonder about what my friend earlier called the "interior universe." As I read, or listen to the radio, I imagine the place or person being conveyed. As broad as I suppose my horizons are metaphorically, this nonetheless means that most of my engagement with reality happens in my apartment and in my head. Time to re-read what Walter Lippmann said about Plato's cave shadows, and then watch the Matrix again, in order to better worry about this.
• Earlier Thought: The examined life
• Previous Thought: The purpose of ambivalence
• Here's more on the Six Degrees principle from the NYTimes. I also talked about it in my B&C blog here.
Socially, it may be a small world, but it's hard to get from here to there. In the current issue of the journal Science, researchers at Columbia University report the first large-scale experiment that supports the notion of "six degrees of separation," that a short chain of acquaintances can be found between almost any two people in the world. But the same study finds that trying to contact a distant stranger via acquaintances is likely to fail. ... In this global study, more than 60,000 people tried to get in touch with one of 18 people in 13 countries. The targets included a professor at Cornell University, a veterinarian in the Norwegian army and a police officer in Australia. Despite the ease of sending e-mail, the failure rate turned out much higher than what Dr. Milgram had found, possibly because many of the recipients ignored the messages as drips in a daily deluge of spam. Of the 24,613 e-mail chains that were started, a mere 384, or fewer than 2 percent, reached their targets. The successful chains arrived quickly, requiring only four steps to get there. The rest foundered when someone in the middle did not forward the e-mail. As in most social networks, it is not just a question of who knows whom, but who is willing to help.
1 : an accessory item of clothing or equipment — usually used in the plural
2 : an identifying characteristic
"Accoutrement" and its relative "accoutre," a verb meaning "to provide with equipment or furnishings" or "to outfit," have been appearing in English texts since the 16th century. Today both words have variant spellings — "accouterment" and "accouter." Their French ancestor, "accoutrer," descends from an Old French word meaning "seam" and ultimately traces to the Latin word "consuere," meaning "to sew together." You probably won't be too surprised to learn that "consuere" is also an ancestor of "couture," meaning "the business of designing fashionable custom-made women's clothing."
• Previous E.T.
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In recent weeks the devices have been banned from some federal buildings, Hollywood movie screenings, health club locker rooms and corporate offices. But the more potent threat posed by the phonecams, privacy experts say, may not be in the settings where people are already protective of their privacy but in those where they have never thought to care.
"Even simple things like your daily grooming habits around your nose and mouth can be embarrassing if captured by someone else," said James Katz, a professor of communication at Rutgers who says he has witnessed people being physically threatened for using their phone cameras. "We're moving into an era where there will be almost nothing that's not captured by somebody's camera, and that has dramatic implications for how people choose to live their lives in public."
Legally, the new generation of shutterbugs is probably safe for now. In a public place, the expectation of privacy, which American courts must weigh in evaluating whether a violation has occurred, is assumed to be negligible. News cameras can photograph people in public without their permission, and we have become accustomed to security cameras watching us in elevators, cabs and A.T.M.'s.But ethically, the new surveillance tools seem to puncture a long-held assumption that it is possible -- and often desirable -- to lose oneself in the crowd. And in an image-conscious culture, hidden cameras in the hands of fellow citizens with instant access to a global audience may provoke more outrage than government or corporate surveillance cameras whose images are not shared with the world. ... Camera phones have begun to outsell digital cameras. ...
The object of street photography, whose legacy dates to the invention of the Kodak camera in the 1890's, has always been to capture life as it is lived, and photographers have eagerly adopted technology that would allow them to record it more faithfully. In the mid-1930's, Helen Levitt famously attached a right-angle viewfinder to her 35-millimeter Leica so she could photograph children in New York City neighborhoods without pointing the camera at them directly. But even the most miniature digital cameras require holding the camera up to the eye, signaling that a photograph is being taken. It is the stealth capability of camera phones, combined with their ability to broadcast the image instantly, that some legal experts say may eventually call for a rethinking of privacy laws. ...
-Back to B&C blog
Saturday, November 08, 2003
"I'm ambivalent about everything," I told a friend a few weeks ago. I meant that lately, in my thinking about my faith, my marriage, and my political views, I find myself saying, "On the one hand, there's x, on the other hand, there's y, and I guess the truth lies somewhere between or beyond them." The tagline to this weblog says "ideological ambivalence." I've noticed how "ambivalence" is often used as a synonym for "ambiguous" and even "apathetic." If you say someone is ambivalent about something, you may mean she doesn't really know what to think, or she doesn't care. I tend to wince when I hear the word this way. To me, ambivalence is a powerful, profound human emotion. Experiencing tension in life, seeing the merit in two conflicting attitudes and points of view, is healthy and underrated in a culture that makes Ann Coulter and Michael Moore bestselling authors. So when I use "ambivalence" in my tagline, I mean that, unlike the majority of blogs, I try not to just rant from a predetermined point of view in a predictable way--I'm looking for merit promiscuously. I believe conservatives are capable of having some good ideas (well, at least a few), and so are liberals. This previous sentence is all but un-uttered in public life today. I called my news column in my high school paper "The Radical Moderate," because I disagree that one's enthusiasm and emotions about politics are reduced the closer you get to the middle and increase the farther away you go. I want to be outspoken, and yet not boxed in. So when I say "ideological ambivalence," I don't mean that nobody's perfect and why bother with arguments and issues--I mean instead, life is complicated, and why pretend that it's simple?
But then I looked "ambivalence" up this morning. The first definition is the one I like: "simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings (as attraction and repulsion) toward an object, person, or action." The second one, though, validates the usage I don't like: "continual fluctuation (as between one thing and its opposite)" and "uncertainty as to which approach to follow." This is not a desirable state. Indeed, the objections I draw on a listserv of college friends tend to be along the lines of: it's nice to appreciate different points of view, but you can sit around deliberating until you're old and gray while other less conflicted people are out there getting things done. I'm sympathetic to that view (uh oh, does that make me ambivalent?). I guess the middle ground between what I would call "strong" ambivalence (active pursuit of truth through the exploration and appreciation of differing perspectives) and "weak" ambivalence (a limp mind and disillusioned or apathetic withdrawal from the search for truth) is being confident about your beliefs while respecting others' (although that sounds a little hokey).
I was thinking about this question of "strong" ambivalence on my trip to Washington D.C. this week, where my wife and I plunked down in the gallery of the House of Representatives. There, some Congressman was unburdening himself of his displeasure that a bill they just passed (increasing funding for veterans' benefits) hadn't been passed sooner. And I'm thinking: your job is to make laws, buddy, not waste our time complaining about a bill that just passed which you support anyway. But the real question is this, and this gets at the guts of the problem with political rhetoric: if your case is as patriotic and sensible and noble as your rhetoric suggests (and this guy's speech was gooped in patriotic slogans), then, unless you acknowledge the merit of your opposition, don't you leave it implicit that the only cause for opposition is the lack of patriotism and sense and nobility? Don't you imply that you are not just right, but you are righteous, since, if your case is as plain and grand as you say, only a dunce or a devil could thwart it? Would your opponents say, Yes, we agree our veterans have provided our nation a valuable sacrifice, but we have a different view about budget priorities or amendments tacked on to the bill or the administration of the funds it calls for--or would they not? I was sitting there feeling disheartened about just how boring and pointless this was to listen to; there was almost no chance of hearing anything meaningful. There was no suspense. And so almost no one in the mostly empty chamber was listening. Even the presiding officer was staring at the ceiling for much of this guy's speech.
This is my problem with 99 percent of rhetoric by politicians and columnists. They don't help us understand what the two (or three or five) sides are and how they compare with each other. Instead, they make it sound like the side they're promoting is so obvious that their opponents are either foolish or manipulative in opposing them. Every time I read an op-ed by Peggy Noonan or Kathleen Parker or Paul Krugman (and I seldom do anymore), I wish it were legally required for them to spend one paragraph on why people disagree with their position. They may just think it's because people are dumb, or they may see a better reason for disagreement, but either way, they should say it if they want an audience of anyone but the choir they preach to (and I see no indication that they do). This polemic thinking lies at the root of our culture wars: the pious Right says, those godless liberals wouldn't know goodness if it bit them in their fornicating behinds; the snooty Left says, how can we trust country bumpkins and this monosyllabic cowboy president they voted for to know anything? My pie-in-the-sky idea is that if politicians and pundits spent less time parading and more time helping us actually understand issues and options, people would be more engaged with politics. If independent swing voters really are becoming the majority in this country, it would seem this approach would be as effective as it is good.
- Related: the problem with issue-empty campaign coverage, from my B&C blog
- Previous thought: babies and idealism
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