Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Obvious unspeakables

We have a weekly pizza lunch in one corner of a lab, and a former employee brings in old magazines. The cover of a journal I'd never seen before (Spin) quotes a singer I'd never heard of (Hayley Williams) to the effect that “sexy doesn't have to be a tan blonde girl showing off her goodies.”

Hurrah for the resoundingly obvious! "Sexy" means capable of exciting sexual desire, and if the number of babies in the world is any guide it is a quality shared by those "tan blonde girls" and by stout middle aged African women and by elderly Japanese women and so on around the globe. Perhaps each one she passes doesn't go "Ahhhh," but she has it where it counts.

What people seem to mean by "sexy" instead is something more like young and available, which is a dirty linguistic trick to play on unsuspecting minds, especially in conjunction with the implicit assumption that "sexy" is what makes a woman valuable. It follows that to be valuable you must always be young and always available, or at least apparently available.

And it is so obviously wrong...

Another unmentionable fact is that by the time a child reaches kindergarten he has learned to speak, to walk and run and play games, moral rules, the ways of the neighborhood, and probably his letters and numbers as well. From observation and imitation he has learned more than you realize--if he could reach the pedals he could pilot the car down the block. Of course he'd want to play bumper cars too. Teaching him how to use the toilet took effort. All taught by his parents (probably mostly mommy). The credentialed educators aren't going to be teaching him nearly as much, nearly as fast, or nearly as well. Why kowtow to a teaching certificate? The hard teaching jobs are at home, and so is expertise (except for class management). But we have such great respect for degrees and credentials that what grandma advised never shows up on the radar. Did she enroll everyone in Little League, or tell them to get out of the house and go play until dinner time?

Sunday, August 29, 2010

"Is that how that works?"

We helped give some international students a tour of Madison this Saturday, ending the tour at a host home where we narfed goodies and chewed the fat. I talked for a while with an earnest young grad student from India, who was concerned about the poverty rate in his home country and what to do about it. The conversation went on to what we'd been doing the previous day, and I said I'd been fixing things and doing household maintenance--the usual sorts of things you have to do when you own a home. He seemed a little surprised: "We have a maid to do that sort of thing." I pointed out that salaries were a little higher in this country. I wonder if he made the connection to the poverty rate he was worried about...

Monday, August 23, 2010

Infinite Campus

Youngest Son's math teacher emailed us that we ought to sign into "infinite campus" to keep track of his grades this semester in high school. Perhaps the phrase is meant to convey the impression of unconfined learning, but I was in high school myself long ago, and instead it conveys a whiff of "Hotel California:" you can never leave.


Sunday, August 22, 2010

Ground Zero

I think I agree with Shrinkwrapped: this whole tempest would never have gotten out of the teapot if we’d actually started building something to replace the twin towers. The obvious absence advertises a lack of something on our part: confidence, vision, will, ability—and it seems to be a very sensitive sore point.

And it does seem to be much ado about very little. The site isn’t at ground zero and apparently was planned a long time ago.

The list of claimed purposes of the site starts with such gems as

  1. Uphold respect for the diversity of expression and ideas between all people
  2. Cultivate and embrace neighborly relations between all New Yorkers, fostering a spirit of civic participation and an awareness of common needs and opportunities
  3. Encourage open discussion and dialogue on issues of relevance to New Yorkers, Americans and the international reality of our interconnected planet

I often see lists like this. They serve more like pleas for attention than serious plans. The imam seems to have accomplished point 3 in his list, though.

The Orthodox church troubles in rebuilding their destroyed church seem to partake of a "he said she said" quality. I can believe that they overreached in trying to get funding to rebuild, but I can also believe that the city of New York was throwing up obstacles. Absent further information I can’t tell what’s going on, though I’m less inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to the heirs of Tammany Hall.

French Grammar

I made my weekly foray into Facebook this afternoon, and Middle Daughter’s fiancé turned out to be on at the same time and struck up a chat—the first time I’d chatted on Facebook. He is a Senegalese student (almost Masters) of French grammar, whose spoken English needs some serious work, though his written English is understandable.

Most of the chat went on in French, he using a few “text-message” shortcuts and I using my inimitable mixture of French and English. I can never remember when to use "passé simple" and when imperfect, so I generally use "passé random."

I figure the best rule is to speak with courage and throw in English when I don’t know the French.

Pawn shops

When I went to Champaign to study for a doctorate, I found I needed a few tools, and there were a couple of pawn shops nearby. One offered a cheap socket set. I still have it, though the common sizes wore out and were replaced by Craftsman sockets when I could afford them. The other shop had a “Going out of business” sign outside, which it still wore when I got my degree years later. I visited both from time to time, but rarely saw anything I cared to spend my scarce dollars for.

It wasn’t until later that I wondered how the second shop managed to make any money—perhaps it was the jewelry, or perhaps something not quite legal; but the merchandise I noticed didn’t move quickly.

Once I had a family of my own (and wasn’t using stacked boxes as a dresser anymore) I started to get a more personal understanding of the sometime need for funds and lack of need for an old TV. I never pawned anything myself, but I started to see the shops as a window into the culture and what was really going on at the bottom rungs in town, and developed a little curiosity about them. I think regular visits would tell something interesting about the changes in a town, and there’s a local flavor to them. The shop I visited in Montana was, as you might expect, more stocked with horse gear and guns than the Illinois shop.

A chain opened in Madison recently, and I decided to pay a visit. The parking lot was crowded, the pawn windows were busy, and there was a huge store to go with it.

It has a huge selection of cheap CDs and DVDs, and I shudder at how little the previous owners must have gotten—10 cents on the dollar or less. Since this is a chain, they doubtless ship excess merchandise from place to place and I can’t draw clean conclusions about Madison. But one aisle was grim: almost all of it was well-used pneumatic nailers, with a few pneumatic wrenches and other items of power construction gear.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Could be?

Is having a bad credit rating a fate worse than debt?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Eastward to Tartary, Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus by Robert D Kaplan
There is no better example than the story of Zviad Gamsakhurdia to show that Shakespeare is a better guide to politics than political science.

The book is from 2000, and of course much of the Middle Eastern and Balkan political landscape took new faces since then. I got it out of the library on the recommendation of Assistant Village Idiot, because my knowledge of the Balkans is meager and of the Caucusus even worse. Kaplan doesn’t pretend to give a systematic history of the regions he traveled through—this is a travelogue with history to explain what he sees and why he stops at certain places, such as Merv, which made the mistake of trusting Tuluy (one of Genghis Khan’s sons).

Kaplan says several times that he hates describing people in terms of national characteristics, but that he’d have to be obstinately blind to deny the facts on the ground and the way the people describe themselves and each other. But

The fact that national characteristics were undeniable did not mean that they would always be so. The fact that the Near East was a battleground of power politics did not mean that power politics could not make a positive difference. It was the impermanence of bad governments that gave me hope.

Ancient history (think Assyria or Genghis Khan) rhymes over and over through the area, where tribe is vital and megalomaniacs build cults to themselves and exterminations are part of the background.

Anarchy in some form or another, as I had seen, was almost everywhere in the Near East. Thus far in my journey I had found vibrant institutions only in Turkey, Israel, and, to a lesser degree, in Jordan. Even in Romania and Bulgaria, the countryside was anarchic, while the situation in the Caucasus was much worse. Syria was like Brezhnev’s Soviet Union: instability kept at bay by a stultifying sectarian tyranny. Meanwhile democracy—which offered the best hope for building and sustaining vibrant institutions—was facing serious obstacles when one considered Romania’s seamy coffeehouse politics; Bulgaria’s corruption; Lebanon’s company-run state; and the various power vacuums in the Caucasus. History shows that only states with the unity and strength to preserve themselves remain sovereign, and I had seen few o f those in my travels. The rest would be likely to be absorbed into some new imperium—unless they disintegrated to the point where nobody cared. Herodotus had recorded cycles of autocracy, freedom, chaos, and autocracy once again.

He describes areas so poor that the police don’t even bother to demand bribes from travelers, considers Shevardnadze the unsung hero of Glassnost, and interestingly bemoans the partitioning of “Greater Syria” as resulting in the creation of a severely unstable Syria. The legacy of the Soviet empire is everywhere, and almost always horrible—but the natives often judge that there are things worse than an oppressive empire. They’d rather be governed by one mafia than several competing ones.

I think we need to rethink our model of the nation-state. I’ve thought so looking at Africa, and I’m certain of it after reading about the Caucasus.

Read the book.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Science with a Smile by Robert L Weber

This is the third in the series of collections of science humor that began with A Random Walk in Science.

There are a few gems in here, such as how to deal with bureaucracy ("MAXIM 3: Every organization is self-perpetuating. Don't ever ask an outfit to justify itself, or you'll be covered with fact, figures, and fancy. The criterion should rather be, "What will happen if the outfit stops doing what it's doing?" "). It also features medical humor and an interesting chapter on hoaxes. And don't forget:

The phases of a project are:
  • Enthusiasm
  • Disillusionment
  • Panic
  • Search for the guilty
  • Punishment of the innocent
  • Praise and honor for the nonparticipants

Alas, the pieces tend to be longer than in the earlier books, and with a somewhat lesser humor density. He generally got the best stuff in the first book.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Unorthodox massage

This year we've a plague of Japanese beetles, a voracious little invasive that loves grape vines and roses and similar things we prefer to beetles. Rather than spray we decided to set out hormone traps: beetles fly to the smooth plastic rig, walk around, slip and fall through the funnel into a receiver. When we've collected a few inches worth the thing makes a faint eerie rustling groan.

We found the simplest way of disposing of them was to dump them out into a box or plastic bag, close it and stick it in the deep freeze. An hour later, we pour them out on the lawn as a free meal for the birds.

Youngest Son has been wondering about how to use them, suggesting that perhaps one might find a way to render them into biofuel. Yesterday he poured a quart's worth of catch into a plastic bag, and noticed that it wiggled curiously under his hand. He suggested to me that it would be interesting to make a cushion of these to sit on as a massage chair.

Obviously this wouldn't work, because you'd crush them; but I suggested that it might work as a "blanket," and that with the appropriate "Life Energy" jargon you could probably make a mint in California offering earthworm "massages."

Friday, August 06, 2010

Newsfeeds and the Commentariat

Give an ordinary man a day to write an article, and he will remember the things he has really heard latest; and may even, in the last glory of the sunset, begin to think of what he thinks himself. Give him an hour to write it, and he will think of the nearest text-book on the topic, and make the best mosaic he may out of classical quotations and old authorities. Give him ten minutes to write it and he will run screaming for refuge to the old nursery where he learnt his stalest proverbs, or the old school where he learnt his stalest politics. The quicker goes the journalist the slower go his thoughts. The result is the newspaper of our time, which every day can be delivered earlier and earlier, and which, every day, is less worth delivering at all.

G.K. Chesterton: