Monday, April 30, 2007


The arrival of spring is making our cat crazy. She runs around the house, begging to be let out, speaking in tongues, and generally being a pest. Once I take her out, she wants to go somewhere beyond the backyard. She's not too clear on the details, and much of her quest involves standing in front of objects that are too large for her to jump up to, such as trees and fences, whining for them to pick her up.

Part of the problem is that our neighborhood is infested with cats that are much larger than she is, and so we are not comfortable with the idea of Lola roaming around freely. There are some huge, feral cats in the area, and she has no front claws, not to mention the fact that she hasn't the slightest sense of how tiny she is. Anyway, you can see why we want to be there if she goes outside.

Her wanderlust is insatiable though. She is enchanted by nearly everything in the world. Pieces of junk mail fascinate her with their strange smells. Gobs of lint fascinate her because they fly in all directions when she pucks them. Rolling in the sunlight is rapturous for her. Like all cats, she is a node in a scent and sound network that we can hardly sense. The world is transmitting a vast array of information to her at all times. Unfortunately, however, she still hasn't figured out that trees can't hear her whining.

I know how she feels though. I'm ready to wander wherever I will; but I have to finish my exam readings right now. I've always had a certain wanderlust because things around me have always struck me as trite or temporary. I remember, when I was a teenager, I couldn't wait to get out of the house and live on my own. I moved out about a week after my high school graduation, got a room and a job, and started saving money to travel. Finally, I got enough for a Greyhound ticket to San Francisco and rode out there to spend a summer couch surfing and wandering around. I remember meeting a lot of people, playing golf in the street with a young man who taught me the importance of the word 'ludic', watching a marathon of biker movies with an audience of bikers, reading smut at an open-mic poetry night, sleeping in the forest, witnessing a shooting, and wandering dazed through a near-riot after the Superbowl.

I did a lot of wandering after that, probably culminating in my moving to Canada and getting married. We've done a lot of wandering since then. Currently, we have mason jars where we stick money for future trips. One is marked 'India', another is for Ireland, and a third, I think, is for Alberta. I think we'll spend our lives wandering.

Travel is the best-way to avoid small town depression and it keeps you from taking anything too seriously. It disorients you and makes it possible to think in new and unique ways. Spending all of your time in one place makes you worry about things that are very small and petty. Travelling allows you to wonder about things that are very vague and big. I understand Lola's wanderlust- I feel it too.


Things to Look At

Here's a gallery of photos by Kal Kogali, many of which feature life in Shanghai.

And here is the blog of NYC artist Cynthia von Buhler, who has created some gorgeous painitings, and who once built a vending machine for pets. If someone could figure out a way to get our cat to pay money for cat treats, they would be very wealthy.


Sunday, April 29, 2007

Today's English

Laodicean: Lukewarm; half-hearted, or indifferent in religion or politics.
Derives from the reproach to the church of the Laodiceans in Revelation 3:15-16


Nobody's Business but the Turks

Approximately 1 million secular-minded Turks protested in Istanbul today over the government's decision to appoint a Muslim-leaning candidate, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, for the presidency. The military has threatened to defend Turkish secularism by force if necessary, in keeping with a Turkish tradition of military coups; but the protesters want "Neither Sharia, nor coup d'etat. Democratic Turkey."

The European Union is telling the military to cool their jets, but from the sound of it, they're not far out of step with modern Turks. The state has been secular since it was founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and the Young Turks in the 1920s after the Ottoman Empire collapsed in the melee of WWI. Ataturk imposed Western laws, replaced Arabic script with the Latin alphabet, banned Islamic dress and granted women the right to vote. He also banned the fez, which is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you look at it.

Anyway, the Ottoman Sultans weren't particularly devout themselves, in spite of holding the caliphate. A frequent complaint in the dar al-Islam was that the Ottomans were not true Muslims; however, these complaints were seriously muted by the fact that the Ottoman Empire was a successful Muslim empire; the strongest in the world for quite some time.

Istanbul has always been a place where East met West and saving souls was less important than saving tax revenue. The Sultans had an official policy of tolerance towards people of the book, which is why so many Jews wound up in Salonica in 1492, when Ferdinand and Isabella sent Christopher Columbus out of Spain, along with all of the Jews in the country. Interestingly enough, many of the Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany would also be taken in by the Turks over 4 centuries later. Istanbul has not always been secular- in fact, the name is a mangled version of Islambol, or great with Islam- but, it has a tradition of tolerance.

(Correction: According to 'Miss-stanbul' the word derives from the Greek (i)stimboli(n)meaning basically 'the city'.)

This tradition was nearly destroyed in the nationalist mania of the 19th and early 20th century, which played a huge role in tearing apart the empire. The officials were much more pragmatic than the nationalists. As Philip Mansel phrases it, ''They saw nationality as a career, not as a cause''. In the 1840s the Sultan Abdulmecid told Alphonse Lamartine that he saw the empire as a rampart against nationalism. But, by the end of the century, the sultans were shoring up their crumbling empire by exploiting ethnic hatreds, unleashing the Muslim mob on rebellious Armenians on at least three separate occasions before the widespread massacre of Armenians in 1915, which many now call a genocide. Of course, they don't call it a genocide in Turkey, where saying such things can get you arrested for ''insulting Turkishness''.

Nationalities are varieties of madness. In the end, the Ottoman Empire was destroyed by a number of factors, but the most active agent might well have been the nationalist mania of the era. And modern Turkey is similarly threatened by the religion mania of the 21st. But the two are really the same thing, aren't they? Besides, there are plenty of reasons to have hope for Turkey. Istanbul is still one of the greatest cities in the world. And it's frankly amazing to see such a large protest in the name of secularism. Who knew such things were still possible. Hopefully Turkey can come through this to avoid both theocracy and militarism.

P.S.- Incidentally, let me know if there are any mistakes here. Istanbul is one of the approximately 7 billion things I'm supposed to know about for my oral exams.


Saturday, April 28, 2007

Today's English

Unguent: A salve for soothing or healing; an ointment.

''In vials of ivory and coloured glass
Unstoppered, lurked her strange synthetic perfumes,
Unguent, powdered, or liquid—troubled, confused
And drowned the sense in odours''
-T.S. Eliot. from The Waste Land


good news/ bad news

The bad news is that the nation's 'AIDS czar' who was responsible for promoting abstinence and monogamy as the best means of preventing HIV infection has been caught visiting escorts.

The good news is that he was also responsible for promoting irony.


Love Free or Die

All human civilizations hitherto have had some form of marriage, burial of the dead, and gods. To be excluded from these things, therefore, is to be excluded from human society in some very real way. It's easy to understand why gay couples want to be married.

To be honest, I don't know very many people who care a lot about gay marriage. My friends are all fine with the idea, and I find that, in general, younger people are fine with the idea of gays being married. Remember also that we live in Canada. Gay marriage has been legal here for nearly two years- it became legal the same week Claire and I got married ourselves- and, so far, society has not collapsed, God has not smited us, and nobody has been able to marry their dogs. In general, I think that countries such as ours will serve as proof that gay marriage is really not a big deal.

It might take time for people to accept it though. It's a bit like stepping into a swimming pool on the first day of summer- most people go in one toe at a time. But, I think that they'll come around eventually. The only people I know who are actually ''opposed'' to gay marriage are a few older relatives who are mostly upset about the nomenclature: they don't have a problem with gay couples having all of the same rights as married people; they just don't want to call it 'marriage'.

I realize that gay people want their relationships to be accepted and celebrated by society at large; but it might take a while for that to happen. Having 'civil unions' that include all of the legal rights and privileges associated with marriage seems like a logical compromise for the time being. This way the religious people can keep their marriages, and see if they collapse or whatever is supposed to happen, and we don't have to have laws in which the state gives preference to the religious practices of a particular faith. Not everyone would be happy, but for the time being, this would seem like a sane and fair compromise.

Therefore, it's bewildering that American Republicans are so adamantly opposed to any sort of compromise. New Hampshire has now passed a civil unions bill, making them the fourth state in the union to extend legal rights to gay and lesbian couples. Somewhat surprisingly, all of the Democratic Presidential candidates have come out in support of the bill, and all of the Republican Presidential candidates have come out in opposition to it. Rudy Guiliani apparently changed his mind about gay marriage, and pandering. And John McCain did the same. Andrew Sullivan notes- ''Remember that when the Republican leadership favored the Federal Marriage Amendment, they said they did not necessarily oppose civil unions. They were lying, of course.''

There's something really bizarre about this to me. I mean, fine, lie; but don't be so stupid about it! Republicans could easily paint themselves as the 'moderates' on the issue by supporting civil unions, but not marriages, and in turn argue that Democrats really want to force churches to perform marriages that make them uncomfortable. It wouldn't exactly be true. However, that's never stopped a politician. And yet, they've decided to paint themselves as the extremists, playing the same role as Democrats once played in relation to interracial marriage. Are they really so stupid?

And is there any way to compromise with the anti-gay marriage people? I mean, it's possible to keep an open mind and understand, on some level, their fears about losing the sanctity of marriage. But, here you have a state saying ''Fine, keep your sacred marriages. Just don't expect us to punish people that your church dislikes through unfair laws.'' And still that's not enough for them! They claim to care deeply about the institution of marriage, but really they just care about getting even with gay people for not living in the closet. And there's something about being so open in your irrational bigotries and counterproductive demands that just seems... well, stupid.


Friday, April 27, 2007

Today's English

Obstreperous: adj. Noisily and stubbornly defiant. Aggressively boisterous. Stubbornly resistant to control.

"...obstreperous and ill-behaved children..."


Today's French

Gouffre: Gulf. Abyss. Whirlpool.


End of Semester Reflections

We have reached the last day of instruction and not a minute too soon. I've actually come to enjoy teaching, although it often feels like my pleasure is completely solitary; but it's also exhausting work. Often a day in which I've only taught three one-hour recitations will end with me asleep in the grad student lounge. People think our jobs are easy because the hours are short. I've had full-time construction jobs that were less physically and mentally enervating.

It's exhausting for the students as well. By the end of the semester, teaching is a lot like being the member of an occupying army. Their hostility is barely muted. You get the sense that the natives are getting restless, that in a few more weeks they'd be rioting. The last day of the semester feels like you're leaving the roof of the embassy in Vietnam clinging to the landing gear of a helicopter. It's a narrow escape.

Teaching in the liberal arts is uniquely challenging because, ultimately, we are concerned with developing the inner lives of our students, and this is something that seems to have no utilitarian function whatsoever. This is especially difficult in a blue-collar town like the one I teach in where an inner life seems like a special privilege that the students have no real right to. I've grown accustomed to the macho bluster of my students, and the anger and irritation they express whenever a discussion verges on the abstract and away from the functional. I remain convinced that these things have value.

In essence, I attempt to explain to my students the historical contexts that came before them and the ones that they were born into; not only is this 'boring' to them, but it hints at the correcting power of tradition and the inhibiting power of context. It is ultimately somewhat conservative. No matter what our personal political views are, educators in the liberal arts are, by nature, culturally conservative. At least in a Burkean sense; in the face of a society that is endlessly fascinated with the new, the novel, and the fleeting, we are staunch defenders of cultural tradition. We are the people who demand that the dead and departed still be taken seriously. We honor intellectual and scholarly traditions that are seen as restraining. We are scourges. We can be a drag. Some of can be downright curmudgeonly.

But, we also care very much about our students. This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of the job. There is something deeply brackish about reading an essay that is simply not written at a college-level; you feel queasy about the fact that the student is actually in college and somewhat nauseous about the decision before you. The worst part of it is that, as unpleasant as teenagers can be, they all mean to succeed at this, and some of them simply don't. I spent an inordinate amount of time this semester reading multiple drafts of the 'final' essay because I desperately wanted my students to do well on the assignment. The most painful experience I've had this semester was with a student who wrote five drafts of the essay, but never really understood the question she was answering no matter how many times I explained it to her. Part of understanding history is being able to orient events in time and space, and some people simply can't do that. As much as we like to believe that it's just a matter of our patience and kindness in teaching these things, and the students' diligence in studying them, sometimes that isn't true.

So we're put in the position of teaching something that can be extremely frustrating to learn, which the larger culture finds to be inutile in the first place. Remember again that many of my students are third generation steelworkers; what do they care about neo-Platonism or dependency theory? Is it worth flunking a girl who is studying to be a nurse simply because her essay was so off-the-mark?

Of course not. For all of my old-fashioned reverence for the ennobling ideas of the past, I can be just as utilitarian as anyone else. I am endlessly forgiving of the failings of my students, because I sense that many of them came to us completely detached from any sort of larger culture whatsoever. They hate us and we forgive them. We push them to make huge strides, they make very small steps, and we celebrate those small steps. As much as I despond here on this blog, I am likely known as a kind and indulgent TA. My students make the slightest effort and it makes my whole week. They approximate the right information on an essay exam and I give them a high grade. I am a softy who takes the slightest sign of life from them as proof that they have incredible potential and that education can still be a transformative experience. I remain convinced that these students have value.


Thursday, April 26, 2007

Nota Bene

American newspapers are doing away with their book reviews. After all, what's the point of book reviews in a nation of non-readers? Scott McLemee says "Hey! Wait a minute!"

I'm glad he's taking a stand for those of us who are still bookworms. But, in my experience, we tend to congregate in big cities, and to be as rare as albinos everywhere else in the states.

I know this question is blasphemous for someone who wants to be an educator to ask, but does it really matter that most Americans don't read? I mean, whenever I read these articles about how Americans are largely unfamiliar with books, there seems to be a tone of inflated despair to them, as if this truly does not bode well for the future. But somehow it's hard to be overly concerned after you visit other countries where most people are still actively reading. Greg, you can let me know about the ''German lands'', but everywhere I went in France, there were people sitting around on benches reading books. And good books! Not 'The Secret' or the latest 'courtroom genetically-engineered spy murder thriller'! Every other television show was people sitting around debating books. And, in general, I found a much higher level of cultural literacy in conversations with people. Therefore I find it hard to believe that literacy or the art of writing will die out in the modern era. Granted, none of my students read for enjoyment- not a one- but I also don't feel so tied to the fate of the nation that this worries me greatly. If I get sick of it, I'll just move. America is just one of the places I frequent. And besides, the nation-state is so 19th century.

This isn't to bash on Americans really; actually I'd like to question the idea that American illiteracy affects anyone but illiterate Americans. Is there any reason to worry about this? If people don't want to read books, can't we just avoid them altogether?


18th Century Gay Rights

Another interesting day in the archives!

A scholar at the University of Manchester has discovered a text by one Thomas Cannon, arguing for the tolerance of homosexuality in the 18th century. The 1749 work is entitled "Ancient And Modern Pederasty Investigated And Exemplified". In England, there are actually earlier accounts of homosexual behavior, largely because sodomy was a capital offense, punishable by death until 1861. Granted, not a lot of people were actually arrested for sodomy, and in general, police have never been wont to make arrests for sodomy. But it tended to come up occasionally when families were fighting over estates. However, this is one of the first defenses of male homosexual behavior written in England, and perhaps the first such Western writing after the fall of the Roman Empire. I understand that such writings were still common in the near east until the early modern era.

Anyway, this is exciting news for people who study this sort of history, and culturally interesting as well. At the least, it should challenge the idea, strangely fashionable in recent years, that homosexual identity was a 19th century invention.


Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Picture of the Dalai Lama at an appearance last spring.


Today's Spanish

Lugar: Place. Spot.

''Fueron 50 años de permanecer en un mismo lugar.''
It stayed in the same place for 50 years.
(French- endroit)


Today's French

Cornue: 1. adj. Horned, Preposterous.

2. noun. Retort (This refers to the object. In chemistry, a retort is used for distilling substances. One is pictured here.)
In response to Taine's hopes that science could solve the question of the mortality or immortality of the soul, Pasteur replied:
"ah! Monseur, a cette question vous ne trouverez pas une solution dans nos cornues.'' (Sir, you will not find a solution to this question in our retorts.)


Movie Notes: Cut and Run (1985)

For reasons that I don't quite understand, Italy went cannibal crazy in the 1980s. Every other Italian horror film from that era is about cannibals in the Amazon, and the ones that aren't about cannibals are about zombies who also eat people. Italy's 'Cannibal Summer' was something akin to Beatlemania, but with guys in loin cloths running around and mumbling- so, basically like later-period Beatlemania. Ruggero Deodato directed the best of the cannibal films Cannibal Holocaust, but to be honest, saying 'best cannibal movie' is a lot like saying 'prettiest girl in the leper colony'.

Italian producers wanted Deodato to follow up Cannibal Holocaust with another cannibal film, but he felt that this would compromise his creativity. So, instead, he made a cannibal film in which nobody actually gets eaten, and there's more guns. I don't know... we can call this ''stretching his creative wings'', I suppose. Anyway, I rented Cut and Run expecting a cheesy 80s exploitation movie and, despite the fact that it was a cannibloitation film without actual people-eating, I was not let down.

Indeed, I knew what I was in for from the first frame...
Ah, New World Pictures! Makers of Warlock and Humanoids from the Deep. I sink into your films like they were a comfy 80s exploitation couch with gratuitous nudity. Your logo seems to say "Hello, astronaut! You're about to land on Planet Quality!"

Anyway, the film begins deep in the heart of the Amazon river basin, as a group of mom & pop cocaine manufacturers are attacked by natives who kill them via a combination of machetes, blow darts, and a mid-80s synthesizer score.
The men are killed violently, the women are stripped nude and then killed violently, and the art of synthesizer music is beaten and left for dead. Meanwhile, a plane lands in the background and a seedy looking character played by exploitation stalwart Richard Lynch signals to the group of natives. The presence of Richard Lynch indicates that, even if no people get eaten in this movie, plenty of scenery will be chewed.

At the head of the group of natives is 80s character actor Michael Berryman, whose stirring portrayal of a cave-dwelling mutant in the original The Hills Have Eyes propelled him to a string of films, like this one, in which he played mutants, and guest appearances in various heavy metal videos, in which he played mutants. Apparently, Berryman looks like he does due to a rare condition known as Hypohidrotic Ectodermal Dysplasia, which he has parlayed into a film career. So, mazel tov!

The film now jumps to Miami where a spunky investigative reporter is investigating a series of disturbing murders in which drug dealers are stripped nude and killed. Following the story, she interviews the strip club owner Vargas, who doesn't really know what's going on, but allows Deodato to film more nudity. The word on the street is that all of this is somehow related to the Jonestown Massacre. So we have a mystery of sorts here. Will it be solved during the movie? Mmmm, not if by 'solved' you mean 'ever make any friggin' sense'. Anyway, the voluptuous Karen Black cameos as the spunky boss of our spunky investigative reporter and tells her to get her spunky ass to Colombia pronto-like!

Meanwhile, in the jungle, a cartel of drug producers are making life miserable for the good-hearted, but godawfully over-emoting Tommy (Willie Aames) and the good-hearted, and frequently naked Ana (Valentina Forte). The evil drug lord Vlado is pimping Ana out to other members of the drug cartel, and she's taking a lot of showers to get over it, and you start to wonder if Deodato wouldn't be happier making movies for Cinemax. Also there's a love story of sorts between Ana and Tommy, which would be moving, except much of it takes place in the shower and he's an insufferable cry-baby. She keeps emoting in Spanish. And he's miserable
over her sex life. Oh, what a tangled web we weave when we're pimped out to South American drug lords!

Just when you're ready to scream ''Enough of this crap!!'', Michael Berryman and the savages show up to kill everyone. There is a heated battle with a lot of people getting hit with poison darts and a convincing decapitation, and finally the spunky reporters arrive in their spunky plane.

But, before long, it's too late- Valentina Forte gets killed, and the spunky reporter isn't willing to do nudity. Deodato's pallet is now seriously lacking in color. Thinking quickly, he shoots a scene in which a character get ripped in half like a wishbone for no real reason, pops open a beer, and basks in the glow of a job well done. All is right with the world.

Ah, but this doesn't solve the problem of nudity. So, answering his muse, Deodato sets another scene in the strip club, where Tommy's father meets with Vargas the pimp and finds out where the drug camp is. And so, we return to Nudityland. To a large extent, this scene makes no sense whatsoever, because the father sent the reporters to the drug camp in the first place and has a satellite link with them. Also, it's not at all clear why Michael Berryman is stalking the reporters through the jungle, but not killing them. But, at this point, we can't quibble over a little thing like logic.

Vargas pays dearly for giving the father this information- two drug dealers throw him in front of a train. Why do they care that this random fellow knows where their camp is? What do I look like? A mind-reader? I don't know!

Things get worse in the jungle, and finally we find out that the natives are working at the behest of Richard Lynch, who is a deranged Col. who orchestrated the Jonestown Massacre. Meanwhile, Tommy snivels, and cries, and all but begs for someone to smack him with a flyswatter.

Finally, the heroes get caught and tied to a tree, and Richard Lynch gets to make a long-winded speech about the evils of the media (Oh thank God! The movie's about something!). He clearly has issues with the television news and we're led to believe that this drove him to mix the Kool Aid at Jonestown. Before you can say ''Colonel Kurtz'' he starts rambling insanely while stroking a snake in a hammock. The next day, he makes another long-winded speech about society and lets his henchman cut his head off. The spunky reporters scream, the natives all scream, even Karen Black screams in Miami. Chaos ensues. In the melee, the heroes steal a plane and fly away. Hooray!

Okay, so they're alive, and how happy we all are for them. But, before they can get too comfortable, Michael Berryman jumps up in the back of the plane and menaces them with a machete. The reporter sprays him with a fire extinguisher, which is surprisingly effective actually, and then they shoot him and fly away. In the end, they've lived a little, laughed a little, screamed a lot, and learned something about the futility of the war on drugs and the voyeurism of the media. Oh, and crybaby Tommy reunites with his father, who if this were a better movie, would have kicked him in the nuts. That would be a happy ending!

Is it a good movie? Oh, bless your soul! Of course, it isn't! But, it paid Michael Berryman's grocery bills during one summer back in 1985, and that, my friends, is all we can ask for.


Today's English

Asperity: 1. a. Roughness or harshness, as of surface, sound, or climate: the asperity of northern winters.

b. Severity; rigor.
2. A slight projection from a surface; a point or bump.
3. Harshness of manner; ill temper or irritability.

"(Ernest) Renan's final judgment on the evils afflicting France: the essence of modern democracy is a lack of abnegation and asperity in demanding individual rights, and war is its polar opposite."
-Federico Chabod, Italian Foreign Policy: The Statecraft of the Founders


Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Greg, How About this Photo for the Header at Angry Pedant Dot Com?


Today's English

Hegemony: The predominant influence, as of a state, region, or group, over another or others.


German Word of the Day

Rundfunkempfangseinrichtigungen - ???

This word appears on a form that we received from ORF, which I think stands for something like Österreich Rundfunk (Austrian Broadcasting). It is a notice that we must register and pay registry fees on any radios or televisions that we have (which we don't). Trying to tackle the massive compound nouns of German is a challange and this one is a whopping 31 letters long. Here's what the parts mean:

der Rundfunk - broadcast (service) or radio
empfangen - to receive, listen, pick up (as in a transmission)
das Einrichten - setup, rigging, or setting
einrichten - to adapt, arrange, construct, control, dispose, equip, establish, furnish, install, institute, make arrangents for, make ready, mount, open, positition, prepare, set up, or suit

You can probably guess as well as I can, what the composite word might be getting at.

RF, you're going to have fun learning this language.


Dawn Powell!

Here's a good article from the Washington Times about Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, and Dawn Powell. To be honest, I'm not terribly interested in the vagaries of literary fame, and at least 90% of the goodness of the article is embodied in its subject matter. That said, any appreciation of Cather, Wharton, and Powell is worth reading. My first response was actually to exclaim "Dawn Powell!" in the student lounge. I had been looking for a great writer to recommend to a friend and Powell is an absolutely fantastic American satirist. Read "The Locusts Have no King" as soon as possible, and definitely before you die, or go to Manhattan, or both.


American Idol for the Psychotic

Listening to a news story on the radio about recent terrorism in Iraq on the drive this morning.

Terrorism is basically a 19th century fashion that seems to have been changed somehow in recent years. Guerrilla warfare dates back to the French invasion of Spain during the Napoleonic wars. Terrorism generally had to wait until later in the 19th century. It was quite popular in Tsarist Russia, for example. Suicide bombings seem to have begun with the Algerian Revolution, although one could make the case that kamikaze pilots were practicing a form of suicide bombing.

What seems to be new is suicide bombers sending out press releases and videos. It's sort of like American Idol for the psychotic- anyone can go to being a semi-celebrity from utter obscurity. Anonymity seems like a modern form of a universe without immanence. I'm quite serious when I ask if suicide bombers really need to kill others to be successful. It's noteworthy too that the Virginia Tech rampage actually had an intermission in which the killer sent a video to the media.

Is the modern equivalent of a meaningless death one that isn't recorded by the media?


Sunday, April 22, 2007


electric cars 3

I discussed the electric car with my gear head relatives tonight. Their take on it? It would be less fuel efficient and burn more carbon to charge the batteries on an electric car than to simply drive a regular automobile. Apparently, nobody's developed a good battery yet, and that's the problem. The motors are fine. But, until we have a good battery, the electric car won't be an improvement on a gasoline car.

They seemed to think that a hydrogen car would work well, simply because its emissions would be mist or steam. They think, and this is news to me, that it would be possible to create a car that would be fueled by water, separate the hydrogen out, burn the hydrogen, and emit water mist. I have no idea how you would separate the hydrogen out of water in an automobile. But, they seemed to think it could work. In fact, the impression that I got from the die hard gear heads in the family was that hydrogen is probably the best solution, especially in regards to emissions. I have no idea how readily available it would be.

So, it's hard to tell how the problem will be solved. Chinese automakers are working hard on it though. They believe, correctly, that nobody has the advantage as far as creating a clean energy car, so if they get in now, they can compete with every country in the world. They are trying to make a hydrogen car, but say the trouble will be in creating hydrogen filling stations. Ethanol is also an option, although (and I could be wrong about this) it's extremely difficult to make and consumes more energy to create it than it would save to burn it. Natural gas cars are also in the works, although here I think the problem is the same as with ''peak oil'' and I'm not sure just how much cleaner they are. The Chinese automakers seem to agree with the gear heads I know that hydrogen is the way to go.

The Chinese automakers have an incentive that Detroit doesn't- they can corner the market because they don't have to play catch up like they would with traditional automobiles. I think they're right, and it may well be the open market that solves this problem. Odd as it might be to think it, free market capitalism could well be used to save the planet.


Earth Day

Happy Earth Day!

I know that people tend to get a bit dreary on this topic, fatalistic even, but it's really not necessary to. I teach in a part of the country that used to be so polluted that people would roll up their windows when they drove through it. Some sections still stink, but after the steel industry fled the region for Mexico, the environment rebounded. Actually, at least two of the great lakes, Erie and Ontario, are now clean enough to support life. I think people forget that nature comes back too.

Another reason to be positive is that it's quite possible to make these projects work. My father is a lobsterman in Maine. He is required to follow certain guidelines, the most important of which is to mark, not harvest, breeding mothers of a certain age. The end result of these laws is that the Maine lobster industry is a world model of sustainability.

So, be positive this Earth Day! In the end, I have a feeling that the nerds are going to save the planet.

End Mountaintop Removal
The Center for Ecoliteracy
Union of Concerned Scientists Clean Energy Program


Quote- Unquote

''Curiosity is an inborn human trait which is the daughter of ignorance and the mother of knowledge.''
-Giambattista Vico, The New Science


Saturday, April 21, 2007

More of my Bookshelves


Today's English

Atramentous: Inky. Black. Raven. Black as coal. Pitchy.

''His helmet was of old rusty iron, but the vizard was brass, which tainted by his breath corrupted into copperas, nor wanted gall by the same fountain; so that whenever provoked by anger or labor an atramentous quality of most malignant labor was seen to distill from his lips.''
-Jonathan Swift, The Battle of the Books

Thanks to Somaieh for the suggestion.


Nigerian Democracy

Interestingly enough, another African nation is making tentative steps towards democratic normalcy. Nigeria is set to make history. According to Le Monde, the coming elections will mark the ''first time since independence in 1960 that the power of Nigeria, the most populous nation in Africa and its leading producer of oil, should pass from a civilian to another civilian.'' Believe it or not, this is something of a first for the entire continent.

Nigeria, like most of Africa, wasn't a state as such before the Europeans arrived. But, the area was home to a variety of tribes, kingdoms, and ethnic groups, with some of the strongest being the Songhai Empire, the Hausa states, and the Igbo and Yoruba peoples. This general state of affairs is, of course, not much different than the situation in Europe during the pre-modern period. Here, however, the situation changed quickly as parts of Western Africa came under the influence of the Royal Niger Company and then the British government in 1900. In response to increasing demands by nationalists, a common occurrance after World War II, Nigeria was granted independence in 1960.

From the beginning of independence, there were tensions and inequalities between the North and South, which errupted in the Nigerian Civil War, or the Biafran War, in 1967, when the South tried to succeed as the Republic of Biafra. Military rules lasted from 1975-1979, and a second Republic was attempted again in 1979. In 1983, the military again staged a coup. One might notice a pattern similar to what was observed in Uganda.

The Third Republic lasted from 1990-1993, and was again followed by the rule of a military dictator, Sani Abacha, which lasted until 1998. The Fourth Republic has lasted since 1999. Amazingly, this election will mark the first time that an elected civilian has succeeded an elected civilian in Nigeria.

It won't be easy. Violence and chaos has marked the election, and inter-communal rioting has marked recent years of the presidency. The elections have been poorly organized and haphazard, and corruption is suspected. Nevertheless, if Nigeria completes the election it will be a landmark, and some voters have reported success on that front.
Note: Admittedly, this is not the most interesting thing in the world. But, if you are following this blog, you have perhaps learned about two African nations in the last week, along with me. That's good for something, no?


Public Education

My Grandfather has a tendency, as do most old people, to talk like a bigot from time to time. This used to drive my sister crazy and she would make attempts to ''teach'' him to be more open-minded about different ethnic groups. My mother, in turn, would remind my sister that, while Grandpa tends to talk a big game, off the record, he used to spend quite a bit of his own money on the local black high school because he thought it was unfair that they were so desperately underfunded. This was back in the sixties, and we're supposed to remember how bad those days were. After all, the schools with the black children didn't even have textbooks.

Of course, not much has changed on that front, aside from a more widespread acceptance of the status quo. It was right after my friends started graduating from college that a number of them began working in DC public schools. We grew up in Fairfax County schools that were palatial by comparison. An ex-girlfriend of mine worked in an elementary school that didn't even have chalk, much less textbooks. Many of the students came to school, at seven years old, on the public bus. Others had seen relatives murdered recently. Very little education happened. Many kids simply gave up by the fourth grade. What's strange is that most people I've met understand perfectly well that schools in poor black neighborhoods are dumps; but unlike my 'bigot' grandfather, they just accept that this is the way things are. It's reality. It's up to people to fend for themselves. Even in regards to public services. Living in a lower class part of Canada, I would like to point out that this is the way things are in the US, not here.

I've been told that the government spends more on poor students than they do on rich ones by people who probably read that crap on the Internet. It's not accurate. Jonathan Kozol has written a number of books explaining, school by school and county by county, how much more money goes to students in wealthy suburbs as compared to students from poorer areas in the US. Considerably less money goes to poorer children, who are considered to be a less worthwhile investment than their middle class white counterparts, and much of the pittance that does go to poor areas is used to maintain crumbling, ancient school buildings. Everybody has to go to school, and most have to go to public schools. The condition of those schools, and the absolute refusal to spend more public funds on certain school districts, makes a mockery of our ideas of democratic equality of opportunity. We literally don't behave as if we believe things which we claim are fundamental to our nation.

My skepticism about university affirmative action is based on the fact that I think it's too little and too late. University-level students are not the ones that need the help. The real problem is that very few lower class students make it to the university level, and given the state of their schools, I understand why. On the other hand, people who say that affirmative action is ''unfair'' and ''racist'' are surprisingly selective in their sense of outrage. When I lived in a poor black neighborhood in Buffalo, the public school on our street was an overcrowded former bus station with no playground or schoolyard. Inevitably I heard the same crap from people... ''But the state is spending a fortune on these kids already!'' God knows where- the school didn't even have janitors.

This is where I think the Internet can be of some use. It's just amazing that I can sit here in Canada and read about the parents who are trying to improve DC public schools. One of my favorite sites actually details exactly what repairs need to be made in DC schools, complete with pictures. Even better- it lets the students themselves post comments on the quality of their schools. This is the sort of transparency that Enlightened thinking has always embraced.

I've heard a lot of astute critiques of hip hop music in the wake of Don Imus and 'nappy ho-gate'. The critics of the music say that it degrades black women and insults black men. It is said that young black men don't value the lives of other young black men. I hear that the 'black community' doesn't value education, or faith, or its own children from people who have, literally, no idea what they are talking about. On one hand, the criticisms are very fair. On the other hand, if the larger society wants black children to behave as if their lives have worth, it should start treating them that way, and stop accepting such a horrid status quo.

Note: Current Photo of Cardoza High School classroom in DC.


Whose Response to the Virginia Tech Shootings was the Most Obnoxious?

I hate to focus on the negative. I really do. But, there's something totally unnerving about the tendency of public officials to turn the recent tragic and unforeseen events at Virginia Tech into a point towards their own arguments. So far, these are the worst responses I've found to the tragedy at Virginia Tech, listed by order of sheer lousiness.

Barack Obama’s comparison of the violence at Virginia Tech to the ‘verbal violence’ of Don Imus wasn’t sinister; just stupid. It made him seem unserious at a time when seriousness was sorely required. What’s next? The ‘dental violence’ of tooth decay? It was especially troubling since Obama has long battled the impression that he’s inconsequential in his thinking. Will it hurt him? It should make us pause. But, just wait- Hillary will say something stupider any day now.

Camille Paglia: Hook up culture? Britney Spears? Paglia's description of suburban high schools is dead on here, but then she goes off on an even stranger tangent than any of the tangents in the shooter's rambling video. Paglia is great fun at times, but she's not the best person to interview on this subject.

Dinesh D'Souza: Definitely not as offensive as some commentators, but D'Souza used the opportunity (and what else can we call it but an opportunity for these people?) to bash atheists, who weren't invited to speak publicly about the tragedy. According to D'Souza, atheism isn't prepared to deal with tragedies and meaningless deaths. On the other hand, atheism isn't exactly disproved by tragedies and meaningless deaths in the way that theism is. Does anyone remember when Dinesh D'Souza wrote things that were worth reading?

Rich Lowry: Basically a variation on that tiresome screed about how 'liberals, when confronted by pure evil, don't stand up to it, but instead capitulate to it'. You'd think having our ass handed to us in Iraq for five years might put the kibosh on some of the theatrics, no? Nope. Hell, why even wait for the dead to be buried before rushing in to blame them for having read something other than the National Review while they were alive? In this case, the academics who had a mentally unbalanced student in their class didn't have him committed, like a macho conservative would, because, according to Lowry, they read too much Foucault and are fascinated with the insane instead of ''honoring wholesome normality''. Yes, another idiot who hasn't been on a university campus in years is telling us that it was the fault of 'postmodernism', not bullets. They pretty much just phone these things in, don't they? (Thanks to Hiromi for that one.)

Fred Phelps: You pretty much expected this one, huh? Old Phelpsy's going to protest the funerals with a bunch of signs about 'fags'. Sort of lost the shock-value at this point since most of us saw it coming. Don't know if it's the right time to start up the Fred Phelps drinking game either.

Various Macho Men: John Derbyshire has never been in harm's way in his life. He writes ''I hope, however, that if I thought I was going to die anyway, I'd at least take a run at the guy.'' Mark Steyn, a Canadian who dropped out of High School to become a disk jockey, and who has also never been in any danger in his life, doesn't let an utter lack of information about what happened in the classrooms stop him from musing that the dead male students didn't recognize the obligation to act. Meanwhile, the keyboard commandos at the Free Republic lose their ever-loving minds about the ''wussification of America'' as demonstrated by the young men who wimpily got shot dead. Glad to know that these men have the guts to live their own way and the savvy to make it work; they have shown great courage in regards to completely hypothetical scenarios. Seriously, at what point can we add ''American conservatism'' to the DSM-IV-TR?

The American Family Radio Productions posited a fake letter to God. Hey God, why did you let all of those kids die in school shootings? God: "Dear concerned student. I am not allowed in schools. Sincerely, God." So, apparently God is a passive-aggressive little bitch. Well, that or omniscience is no match for a hall monitor. It's a bit strange to think of myself as being stronger than God. But, there you go. Lest ye think that the American Family Radio Productions has some sort of empathy for actual American families, the screed goes on to let us know that we have greatly angered God through everything that usually pisses these people off- abortion, lack of school prayer, video games, music videos, homosexuals... basically, God killed these kids for listening to the Pussycat Dolls. Never mind the fact that the shooter was seemingly a lot more into that vengeful God shit than rap music.

So far the responses seem to be breaking down by party affiliation, with the Democrats saying things that are retarded and Republicans saying things that are psychotic. But, it's still too soon to tell. That might change. A radical might step forward to say that ''this is what happens when we forget the lessons of Mother Earth'' and take the grand prize. It might well say something, though, that the conservatives are so far well in the lead as far as bat-shit craziness goes. Incidentally, please feel free to send me these things and I will add them. I'm sure there's somebody missing.

One last thing- I know this post is a bit snarky, but the undertone is anguished. There's something very troubling to me about our utter need to talk at all times, and our utter inability to focus on the matter at hand without going off on these bizarre predetermined tangents. A young man, who was deeply disturbed, shot and killed 32 people and then took his own life. What else do we really need to say after that?


Friday, April 20, 2007

One of my Bookshelves


How to win friends and influence people

Here we have ten tips on ''How to Write a Successful Blog''. For my money, I don't think a blog is really successful unless it is bringing in either money or sex. But, let's go through these and see if I'm doing anything that would seem to ensure me future success...

1. Stay on topic.

Nope. I started off with the plan to blog about being in grad school. Hence this would be an ''academic blog''. This plan soon changed for two reasons. 1. I discovered that the academic blog, with a few noteworthy exceptions, is basically an entity that combines the tedium of academic writing with the narcissism of blogging. Also, I have ADD, which my doctors tell me stands for ''Attention Deficit... oh, something or other.

2. Be informative

Probably a lot more than I used to be. I tend to store notes for myself here and I'm basically interested in everything. Also, I got mighty tired of blogging about how much I hate my job, so it's gotten more interesting. On the other hand, my series of notes for my exams was tedious, no doubt.

3. Old news is not news

I guess so... I tend to stay current, although I am naturally interested in history, so that shows up too.

4. Adhere to a schedule

Pretty good there. It's started me thinking that I should find a more profitable place to write, if I'm going to do it every day. Maybe an online magazine of some sort.

5. Clarity and simplicity

Hit or miss. Sometimes I'm as clear as a crystal stream. Other times, even I don't know what I'm writing about. Actually, this post might count among the later.

6. Keyword-rich


7. Quantity matters

Well, that's good.

8. Frequency

Yep, no problem there either.

9. Spell checking and proof-reading

Oh, shut-up! Actually, does anyone remember the angry troll who kept posting on here that I had no business in grad school because I had misspelled the word 'pursuit' several months earlier?

10. RSS


So, there you have it. Proof positive that I am not going to be very successful doing this. Alas, I'm not in it for the fame or the money or the sex. Actually, I have no idea what I'm doing here.

Update: Greg, weren't you suggesting some sort of online journal? 'Pretentious bastard monthly' or something? Does anyone know how to do that?



I apologize for suggesting that 'desertification' is only a problem in China. It's also wiping out huge swaths of Africa. And Australia is experiencing its worst drought in history, threatening the Murray-Darling river basin that supplies 40 per cent of the country's farm produce. Is it safe to suggest that Prime Minister John Howard, who has long argued that global warming is a myth, and who led Australia to reject the Kyoto accords, along with the US, and who is soon up for re-election, might be roit screwed, mates?


Keepin' it Light

When and why did the American News media become Pravda staffed by spokesmodels?

Bill Moyers is set to explain all of that on a PBS documentary entitled 'Buying the War'. Certainly, corporate advertisers and White House pressure are partly to blame for the truly startling fact that, of ''Of the 414 Iraq stories broadcast on NBC, ABC and CBS nightly news in the six months before the war, almost all could be traced back to sources solely in the White House, Pentagon or State Dept.'' But we still hear this horseshit about the 'anti-American liberal media' from citizens who should know better. Of course, that's part of the problem too- a public that outright demands to be coddled and lied to about war, and everything else, for that matter. The media, reflecting their audience, isn't anti-American; they're anti-seriousness.

Here's a startling section of Moyers' interview with CBS's Bob Simon:

Instead he covered the marketing of the war in a "softer" way, explaining to Moyers: "I think we all felt from the beginning that to deal with a subject as explosive as this, we should keep it, in a way, almost light – if that doesn't seem ridiculous."

Moyers replies: "Going to war, almost light."


Today's English

Jingoism: Extreme nationalism characterized especially by a belligerent foreign policy; chauvinistic patriotism.

''We don't want to fight,
But, by jingo if we do,
We've got the ships,
We've got the troops,
We've got the money too.''
-Popular Ottoman song, circa 1870s, origin of the word 'jingoism'.


Today's Spanish

In case anyone was wondering, since I've been deemed proficient in French, I am now getting ready to take the Spanish proficiency test. Next year, I would like to start German, and possibly re-learn Latin, which I was never really good at in the first place. Whew! Happily, French and Spanish aren't too different from each other. Another good thing about this is that I'm rather sick of the US news sources, as I've mentioned, and I can read more of the foreign papers online. I have no idea if Cuarto Poder is reputable, but I'm mostly reading it to learn to read it.

Estremecer: To shake. To tremble.

And today's editorial, which is quite interesting actually, begins

''Estremecidos por la matanza de la Universidad Tecnológica de Virginia, que segó vidas jóvenes y prometedoras, nos encontramos esta semana con un hecho igualmente aterrador: cada día son asesinados en México dos niños menores de 14 años.''

Roughly ''Shaken by the slaughter at Virginia Tech, which cut down young and promising lives, we are confronted this week with an equally frightening fact: each day, two children below the age of 14 years old are murdered in Mexico.''


Movie Notes: Notes on a Scandal (2006)

Dame Judy Dench and Kate Blanchett could read the phone book convincingly and movingly, which helps in the case of such a difficult to understand topic, that of a teacher having sex with a 15 year old student. I wouldn't say that they wholly succeed, but they make the film as fascinating as prurient. Also, the writing is excellent, casting sardonic aspersions on the English class system and public education, which are, as elsewhere, often one and the same.

That said, the film is also filmed and edited in a jarring and ugly sort of way that has become entirely too commonplace. Apparently, the idea of unobtrusive direction is all but dead. It takes an odd structure; the first half of the film is told largely from the point-of-view of Dench's character, an old battle ax of a teacher who witnesses the arrival of a younger teacher, played by Blanchett to her public school, and soon becomes enamored. After Dench discovers that Blanchett is carrying on an affair with a student, the perspective changes and we begin to realize that the older teacher is not quite right in the noggin.

One major problem with the film is that we almost understand why Blanchett threatens her idyllic bourgeois existence for a dalliance with a child, but not quite. The boy pursues her, she is lonely in her marriage, she feels entitled by the privileges of her class; all of these motives are quite convincing. Yet, we're still alarmed by the sight of a middle-aged woman schtuping a pubescent brat. This might be a gender-based reaction, but I somehow doubt it; Jeremy Irons was similarly repugnant in the bone-headed remake of Lolita.

I think that, ultimately, the problem is that Blanchett's character is as deluded as was Humbert Humbert was, but Dench is also totally deluded. There is no oxygen in the room, and no strong character to act as the voice of reason. Everyone is deluded, which the film suggests is an intrinsic part of adulthood. This is an interesting insight, but it makes the film a bit maddening. After a while, we took to calling it 'The Crazy Old Lesbian and the Horny Kid-Fucker'- probably a bad response to have to a serious thriller.


Thursday, April 19, 2007

Lola in the Sun


Today's French

Émousser: To dull, to blunt.

''Tout ce qu’on a vu sur Alger a sans doute émoussé beaucoup la surprise qu’on pouvait encore éprouver à l’aspect des charmantes maisons.''
-Eugène Delacroix, Notes on a Voyage in Morocco


Today's Spanish

Retrato: Portrait, picture, photo, description, depiction, likeness.
Retratar: To paint the picture of. To depict or describe.

''El retrato es mixto, como mixtas son nuestras realidades.''
-Today's Cuarto Poder editorial


Today's English

Catamite: A boy who has a sexual relationship with a man.

''I have nothing to say against the one with clean skirts. A thousand curses on the unclean catamite.'' - Ottoman Sultan Murad IV.


Electric Cars 2

Good news. It turns out that I'm not the only one thinking it's time to beat the major automakers by producing a really good electric car. Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal and something of a genius anyway, is putting out a $92,000 electric sportscar called the Tesla Roadster this summer, which can go from 0 to 60 mph in four seconds. The Italian company Venturi also has an electric sportscar coming out, but it's a fairly limited run. And the start-up Universal Electric Vehicle Corp is bringing out something a sportscar called the Spyder that is $70,ooo. Meanwhile, Honda has a hydrogen-powered car called the FCX in production and students at San Diego State have developed a gorgeous electric-bio hybrid called the Enigma.

Apparently, it's quite possible to produce an electric sportscar that runs like a dream. Now, the trick is making one that costs $30,000 or so to buy. The big three automakers, Larry, Moe, and Curly, have yet to produce a viable hybrid car, and are currently being lapped by the Toyota Prius. If the coming electric cars are as well-built as they're reported to be and gas prices keep rising, the internal combustion engine might well die out. I hope the big three can catch up, but if they don't they deserve to go extinct.


The Origin of Specious

As you might know, my wife and I are very religious. I'd image that, between the two of us, we probably obey all of the ten commandments. So this article on the evolutionary benefits of religion was of interest, in spite of the fact that I imagine the research has consisted of biologists arguing about whether or not going to church would get them laid. Where do religious beliefs originate? Does religion serve any evolutionary function? Oh, I don't know... Does anyone else think that 'evolutionary psychology' is beginning to err on the side of crap lately?


An angry young man...

A young man grows up in Centreville, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, DC, angry at the world around him, burning with hatred for the complacent, conformist, 'rich kids' and their pathetically insecure ultra-competitive materialistic parents. He feels lost in an bureaucratic educational warehouse. He feels alienated from his stifling family life, with parents whose crumbling marriage is largely being held together by focusing on the young man's 'problems' instead of their own. He hates his overbearing father, alcoholic mother, and is indifferent towards his sister. His teachers are worried about the young man- he's sullen and difficult and has a morbid streak. He spends all night writing profane and bizarre screeds, laced with profanity. He doesn't fit in at all, and often fantasizes about killing his parents... himself... anyone. Nobody has any idea what to do with him. Sound familiar?

That was a fairly accurate description of my own teenage years. I grew up in Centreville, or as my friends called it 'Centre of Hell', and despised the petty adult authority figures who seemed to delight in picking on the class weirdo. I sat in my room writing pages and pages of bizarre stories, which were admittedly sillier than angry, and listening to music that was probably more angry than musical. And I hated my parents, teachers, and most of my classmates. We used to call Centreville High School 'Sweet Valley High'; there was something genuinely creepy about its artificiality. You felt like you could be expelled for having a bad day.

I was never fully expelled, but I was sent away to another High School's satellite program for the 'emotionally disturbed', which in my case meant miserable. I tried to kill myself by drinking a bottle of Windex. It's funny now, especially because the smell of most glass cleaners still makes me gag a little. But, at the time, being forced into an institution and out of school was devastating. Even worse, the case that was made to ship me out was more than a little falsified. It was the first time in my life that I had seen adults openly lie about something like that. (Apparently, suicide attempts weren't enough to kick a student out at the time, so they wrote that I had threatened a teacher and had to be removed from class for doing so. Totally untrue. Whatever.) At the school for the emotionally disturbed, I shared classes with kids who were angrier than me, including a girl who, quite memorably, played the piano with her face. Eventually, I did so badly in my classes that the school called me on the day of graduation to let me know that they had held a special meeting and decided that they would let me graduate after all. I don't know if anyone would have expected me to end up in academe.

But, I think I was luckier than the Virginia Tech student in two ways-
1. I had a circle of weirdo friends. Like Greg, who I still remember walking the of the school in 19th century finery, including a cane, top hat, and tails. Or Emily Rems, who hung a huge banner in the front hallway of the school welcoming me back from the institution. Or Jim, Mike, Sadaat, Omar, etc. etc. etc. My friends weren't just different than the administrators, teachers, and students at Centre of Hell- they were a fuck of a lot smarter than them as well.
2. I could somehow see outside of it all- I had a certain critical distance from the world around me. To this day, I tend to view social gatherings or public spaces of any kind as primarily theatrical- I feel like I'm watching a play. At age 14, I knew that High School was meaningless, the suburbs were even more meaningless, and that there was a whole world outside of that. I knew it wouldn't last forever.

So when I read about the 'monster' who committed these horrible acts at Virginia Tech, it's hard not to wonder what would have happened if all of my problems as a young man had been compounded by some very serious mental illness. And, judging by the video, a certain lack of wit or self-awareness, for that matter. What might have happened if I had lost faith that there was a world that was more tolerant and creative and life-affirming than American High School, and increasingly American universities? Or if I had lost faith in my own abilities and the hope that one day I might find a girl who would recognize that my quirks aren't 'warning signs' so much as quirks, and who might even love me for them? Or if I hadn't been exposed to DEVO, the Dead Kennedys, MDC, Robert Anton Wilson, Salvador Dali, David Lynch, the Crucifucks, Lydia Lunch, Friedrich Nietzsche, John Waters, Black Flag, Frederico Fellini, and the Church of the Subgenius? Good lord, I might well have turned out normal!

But, I came out the other side. It's as simple as that. I'm glad I did. I wish everyone did.


Movie Notes: The Last King of Scotland (2006)

The charismatic, ursine General Idi Amin Dada was the President of Uganda from 1971 to 1979. A British protectorate from 1894, Uganda was given independence in 1962. In 1966, Prime Minister Milton Obote declared himself President, ushering in an era of coups and counter-coups. In 1971, Idi Amin took power. A popular ruler, but deeply unstable, Amin would go on to banish all Asians from the nation and have some 300,000 people killed before being driven off by the Uganda-Tanzania War in 1979. A military tyrant, Amin eventually gave himself the modest title "His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular", suggesting that his business cards were also monstrous.

Any film about Amin has the advantage of being able to draw from Barbet Schroeder's fascinating 1974 documentary General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait, which I highly recommend seeing. Schroeder's film follows Amin around Uganda in a series of interviews in which his behavior gradually transforms from being quite charming to truly bizarre. By the middle of the film, it's hard not to be convinced that Amin was mad as a hatter. Forrest Whitaker's performance here is really spot on, capturing Amin's strange blend of charm and sheer lunacy mixed in a heady hypo manic brew. He is extremely likable and exciting even; until gradually he is not.

Whitaker's performance is bombastic and luminescent- his performance is the main reason to watch this film. Surprisingly, the central character of the film is entirely fictional, a Scottish doctor, played by James McAvoy who serves as a proxy for the real-life European associates of Amin, as well as the audience, and who is gradually drawn into a thriller world of deceit and double-crosses. It's a strange choice making this fictional character the focal point of a historical story, and it actually comes from the novel on which the film is based. And so it's not entirely clear exactly how fictionalized the film is. Also, like Blood Diamond, one has to wonder if English-speaking audiences are just not expected to be able to identify with an African character, even in films about Africa.

Because the doctor is the main character as well as Amin's personal physician, the film becomes a parable about loyalty and European expectations and caricatures of Africa. Unfortunately, it's also a bit glib and the thriller format doesn't help in that area, and ultimately it becomes something of a African caricature as well. What redeems the film is Forest Whitaker, who humanizes someone as beguiling as Idi Amin. The film is not perfect, but his performance is.

Note: Currently, Uganda is a Republic with a President, a Prime Minister and a Parliament. Elections are held, although in recent years, opposition parties have been limited or outright harassed. President Yoweri Museveni, who toppled Milton Obote (who himself returned to rule from 1980-1985) is certainly a far better President than Amin, but he as well has been accused of corruption and using strong tactics towards the opposition. in the late 80s, Amnesty International detailed gross human rights abuses by troops from the National Resistance Army, and torture is still heard of today. In recent years, Museveni has taken steps that seem to indicate he is moving towards a more permanent position, and he has been criticized by various Westerners. Even more depressing, he has made plans to allocate 30,000 hectacres of rainforest to an Asian sugar company, and his police have fired on protesters who are upset with these plans. On the other hand, Museveni has led Uganda towards relative economic growth and an effective response to the HIV crisis. In 2006, he was elected for another 5 year term, after having promised in 2001 to never run again.


Wednesday, April 18, 2007

An Effigy and a Gentleman

Outraged protesters in India burned an effigy of actor Richard Gere recently after he kissed Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty during a public function to raise money for AIDS awareness. I'd to make a joke about this, but to be honest, it's not like I haven't burned an effigy of Richard Gere before.


The Fred Phelps Drinking Game

Okay, this is completely inappropriate, but that's never stopped me before...

Has anyone watched the BBC documentary on the Westborro Baptist Church? It's hosted by the great Louis Theroux and is here on you tube. Of course, it's infuriating, and the Phelps clan are disgusting yokels, but... well, while watching it, all I could think of was what a good drinking game it would make! You could take the documentary, or any interview with the Phelps Church members really, and whenever they use the word 'fag', you could take a drink, preferably of a cosmopolitan. It's like all they frickin' say!! I mean, look, there's no reason to take these people seriously, even if to seriously hate them. They're cultish mutants. Besides, I think it's psychologically healthy to just stop taking mutants seriously. I have a dream of 100 gays and lesbians, all in drag, following the Phelps weirdos around and taking shots of hootch whenever they say anything! Does anybody else see that?

So, let's mix the martinis!

Update- Claire and Hiromi may drink Bubble Tea, if they'd like.


More Thoughts on Virginia Tech

As I mentioned earlier, my colleagues have been dealing with the tragedy at Virginia Tech in different ways, but they all seem to be deeply shaken by it. I think if you're a teacher, an instructor, or a Professor, the first thing that you think when you hear something like this is 'would I be able to protect my students?' We have certain responsibilities to them and I think the responsibility to keep them safe is the most basic of these.

Violence is as strange on a campus as in any adult public place. Everyone remembers the fist fights that took place in their high school, no doubt. But when we had a fist fight at our university a few semesters ago, many of us were completely taken aback by it. There seems to be an unwritten rule that violence is not acceptable on a university campus. In many other ways, a campus is unrecognizable from a high school.

And yet, the suggestion that what happened at Virginia Tech should prompt those of us who instruct to arm ourselves is somehow chilling. I'm quite fine with people owning guns in their homes, but absolutely not on campus. Many of my colleagues in the department are gun owners and members of the NRA, but none of them believe that we should be carrying guns either. The idea of a classroom in which some students and some teachers are carrying firearms is just somehow irreconcilable with a civilized society. And those people who would suggest that we are somehow abdicating our responsibility by not carrying firearms seem, frankly, a little bizarre to me.

Are there other precautions to take? Would metal doors have made a difference? Would doors that lock from the inside have made a difference? It seems likely, but who can say? Everyone knows how to save a ship after it sinks- hindsight bias is 20/20. And yet, when you're in a 20 foot by 40 foot concrete room with one door and someone bursts through the door firing a semi-automatic weapon at lightning speed how do you react? Hopefully none of us will ever know.

And what to do with a troubled student? We sometimes forget that our relationship with students is both professional and personal. And yet, for all of the things I've read about how difficult it is to contact the police about a troubled student, there would seem to be a responsibility as well to actually reach out to the student. Would it make a difference? Maybe not, but again, how can we say? It sounds like many people reached out to this particular young man and to no avail. In the end, we have to remember that only one person is to blame here.

I have been lucky in this regard so far. But this makes me think that I've also been too distant as an instructor. I think I will teach differently after this. I've wondered about students who seemed to suddenly became sullen in my recitations after the first few weeks, wanted to know if they were alright, but I've not asked anything for fear of embarrassing them. Even worse, I don't always know their names, even after several weeks. It's only an hour a week, and yet, in some way, they're our charges.

Recently, another TA received a disturbing writing assignment from a student that all but said the boy was going to kill himself. Some of us discussed the writing and tried to figure out how to handle it. Honestly, our first thought was not what professionals to contact, but how he should contact the boy. Obviously, we all knew the TA would have to contact the councillors in health services as soon as possible, and he did, but there also seemed to be a responsibility to try to just talk to the young man. Universities like ours are huge and labyrinthine and it's easy for students to get lost in them, in some cases to just get more lost than they were already. Would it prevent the suicides to just let the students know that we care about their well being? Maybe. Did it help this student? Clearly, it did not. But, if we give up, and put no hope in anything but guards and police, then we've lost hope in civilization in some very real way.