Thursday, February 27, 2003

Last night I finished reading the first relatively contemporary history monograph I've read in quite some time. John Dower's War Without Mercy discusses comparatively the anti-Japanese racism in America in the years up to and including WWII, and the anti-(Anglo) American racism of the Japanese in the same period. The dualism here gives this book a gravity that yet another monograph about America's racist past just wouldn't have. The basic argument is that these dual racisms were a key contributing factor (if not the key factor) in the intensity of the brutality of the war in the Pacific. After a while I did find myself skimming some sections, perhaps just falling into old grad school habits. If you're interested in WWII and/or cultural history (especially of race) this is an important book and a worthwhile read. Others might enjoy it too. But I wouldn't recommend it as much as I would Dower's second book, Pulitzer Prize-winner Embracing Defeat, which discusses the post-war U.S. occupation of Japan.

The real story here for me was the reason I read this book, which was that I told other people to read it. In the comments section at Eschaton, I recommended this as a good book on this particular issue because related topics were in the news. Then I stepped back and realized that--outside the context of graduate school, where knowing basically what's in lots of books you haven't actually read is a big part of your job--this was a strange thing to do. So I read it myself. I don't know if I'd do that again, because the result was that I basically learned what I already knew because the Beallsvonian's L.A. legal correspondent had already pretty much told me all about it. As it turns out, and as I already knew, if you know what's in an academic book already, there's not a whole lot of value to reading it. (I'm not suggesting that no one reading this should read the book, because I've only given you a very brief synopsis.) I would not, of course, say the same about quality fiction, where the actual content is presumably not the only attraction.

Entries have been shorter lately not because I don't love my readers dearly, but because I have been spending all my free time at work (read: most of my time at work) putting together resumes and cover letters and whatnot. In the midst of a temp job it was psychologically very easy to settle in a bit, not worry so much about that sort of thing, and put off the real work of getting on with my life. Now that this particular assignment is approaching an end, I think something clicked in my head that said "get on with it!" So I am once again sending things out left and right to see what happens. Certain possibilities are intriguing, but I'm trying not to get my hopes up too high on any one job possibility.

The cryptic message yesterday, for those of you who didn't click through and are unfamiliar with Ms. Hart's work, was that I am starting to think seriously about moving back to Los Angeles. There are a number of reasons for this, but first and foremost is the fact that I have already decided that that's where I ultimately want to settle, and all the plans I've made and revised and abandoned over the last 8 months have been all about the question, "What should I do in the meantime until I can get back to L.A.?" So maybe the answer is to cut out the middleman. Barring a nice opportunity in Pittsburgh or DC in the next few months, unexpected expenses that prevent me from saving up, or yet another dither/waffle on my part, I suspect I will be in SoCal by the mid-to-late summer. Of course, my mind has changed so many times on all this that I wouldn't recommend placing your bets; this is just where my head is right this minute.

Wednesday, February 26, 2003

I'm starting to think that maybe Beth Hart had it right.

Tuesday, February 25, 2003

The Orange County correspondent, with whom the Beallsvonian has recently re-established contact, sends along this story whose one-line movie pitch might read: It's Straight Story meets the French Connection.

Monday, February 24, 2003

Two personal updates. The Civic was partially fixed last Tuesday. The headlight cover, turn signal, and fender have been replaced. So everything functional is now fixed--I have a working front right turn signal, and nothing scrapes when I turn. However, the bumper the body shop ordered was the wrong model year and did not fit. So I have my car back, partially fixed, while we await a new bumper. The good news is twofold: the remaining damage is only cosmetic, and the multi-bumper fiasco won't cost me anything. The bad news is also twofold: my car still looks like a fire-eating Truckzilla took a big bite out of it at a monster truck rally, and it turns out that my car also badly needs a tune-up. The second personal update is that the current temp gig is now scheduled to end on March 7 due to arcane union rules about the hiring of temporary employees and acceptable duration thereof at this particular university, regardless of whether (a) you'd rather stay and (b) the department would rather that you stay. This will not cause me to grumble loudly and angrily against unions in general, but it does annoy me. Hopefully a new temp gig will be in the offing soon. It's hard to imagine that it will involve a shorter commute or more blogging time, but hopefully that will be made up for by somewhat better $$$.

Eschaton made a "Schroedinger's terrorist" joke about this. I can't top that.

Are you interested in distributing Kikkoman brand soy-based products in your home prefecture?

Sunday, February 23, 2003

I also went to see a sneak preview last night of the new Steve Martin/Queen Latifah vehicle Bringing Down the House. I would give it about 3 to 3 1/4 stars out of 4. Based on audience reaction, this movie really has the potential to do well if it starts to find an audience, because I can't remember the last time I was in a theater so uproarious with laughter from adults. Teenagers get uproarious more easily, so I don't count them. Martin and Latifah are good, but some supporting performances really make this movie--Betty White as the racist neighbor, Eugene Levy as Martin's co-worker totally smitten with Latifah, Steve Harris (a.k.a. the black guy from The Practice) as the bad guy. Mostly, though, I'm convinced that the people behind this movie made it as an excuse to answer one question: wouldn't it be funny if we got Joan Plowright stoned?! The answer is yes, and the film is definitely worth a look, though if you're not an avid moviegoer it can wait for the DVD/video release. Also, if any of my USC history buddies are reading this, you need to help me figure out if Betty White's house is actually Carole Shammas' house. In the credits they thanked the residents of McCadden Place, and I started putting 2 and 2 together. I don't want to know, I need to know...

On the advice of, and due to a gift from, the New Jersey correspondent, I just finished reading John Nichols' The Milagro Beanfield War. You may remember this as a very good but little noticed film directed by Robert Redford in the late '80s. I don't believe in the whole "the book is better" thing, but I will tell you that the supporting characters are much more flushed out, and long-term motivations are much clearer in the book.

The basic story is that in the northern New Mexico town of Milagro, most everyone is poor, disenfranchised, and victimized by unfair land and (especially) water laws that have forced them away from subsistence agriculture and largely into service-sector employment or odd jobs. Out of hostility, anger, frustration, or perhaps for no reason at all, one of the townspeople (Joe Mondragon) starts illegally irrigating a beanfield. This makes authorities and a local land developer very nervous, because they don't really want to rile up the locals but they also don't want to risk their investments. Every event comes to be seen in light of the growing tension in town, and eventually a kind of political consciousness starts coming together.

While this might sound dull or propagandistic, Nichols avoids either because the novel is very comic, especially the scenes involving an unwitting VISTA volunteer from New York completely out of his element and prone to horrible luck. What I particularly liked about this book is that, unlike in the previously reviewed Stones for Ibarra, I felt that everyone here was a real character and not just window dressing. Even the politicians and land developers here are not caricatures, but are real people with real interests and with sensitivity and even sympathy for the locals, even though they have decided to work against their interests. The other thing I particularly liked about this book was that it had elements of magical realism, but which erred on the side of the uncanny (unlikely, fortuitous, but ultimately possible)--which I like--as opposed to the downright supernatural--which I have no tolerance for. This book also made me happy because I have been shying away from longer books, but at 456 thick pages I made it through just fine and fairly quickly to boot. So maybe I'm past that aversion for the time being.

Friday, February 21, 2003

Best class ever!

65 people died in Rhode Island yesterday because they went to a Great White concert. I think we can all agree that this is somewhat more punishment than they deserved. To my mind this is a much greater tragedy than the recent Columbia disaster because 10 times as many people died, they were not taking the kind of self-conscious risk that astronauts blasting off into space on a rocket were, they were probably by and large younger, and they probably represented a good third to two-fifths of the state population. I am still trying to get my head around the idea that there were hundreds of people at a Great White concert, but I suppose there were. I do hope that these two recent nightclub/concert venue tragedies make us look a little more closely at the safety of these venues; I know from my own historical research that there is precedent for that to happen.

The 1903 Iroquois Theater Fire in Chicago is illustrative not just for its public safety implications, but for the way we deal with tragedy as a society and a culture. Twice as many people died in this fire as in the so-called "Great Fire" of 1871 (though, admittedly, the amounts of property damage were not comparable), yet this event is largely forgotten while the Great Fire is commonly known. At that time we had a very ambiguous attitude toward popular culture, and spectating was widely seen as inappropriate leisure activity. I think there's still a thread of that in our culture, though not the dominant thread certainly, and I'll be interested to see how coverage of this incident will progress in that light. My hunch is that we will see a much greater expression of some variation of the idea "they had it coming" or at least are somehow less deserving of mourning because of the low-brow activity in which they were engaging than we would normally see in a tragic situation. Hell, I couldn't even pass up a couple of cracks before moving on to analysis. I guess we shall see in the days and weeks to come.

In personal news, I found out today that this temp assignment will end after two more weeks, so I'll be out looking for another temp job on March 10 barring massive and unforeseen movement on the permanent gig front in the next week or so.

Thursday, February 20, 2003

The other day I noted that I again had reason to be ashamed of my state. Now, it's my county. Even Eschaton took notice.

I had a long conversation last night with the Beallsvonian's New Hampshire correspondent. (I'm going to run with this gimmick for a while--humor me.) In the course of the conversation, he said that he had finally found a movie worth fitting into the third slot of the ultimate "Movies that Suck So Hard that They're Really Fun to Watch" tripleheader. The two movies we already had in place for this were Tammy and the T-Rex and Garbarge Pail Kids: The Movie. Here's the remarkably succinct and dead-on plot summary of Tammy and the T-Rex from the IMDb:

An evil scientist implants the brain of Michael, a murdered high school student, in an animatronic Tyrannosaurus. He escapes, wreaks vengeance on his high school tormentors and is reunited with his sweetheart Tammy. Together, the couple try to elude the mad scientist and the police and find a more appropriate vessel for Michael's brain.
What this leaves out is that this movie stars a before-she-was-famous Denise Richards. There's comedy, there's high comedy, and then there's Denise Richards being out-acted by her talking animatronic dinosaur boyfriend.

If I need to explain to you why Garbage Pail Kids was a horrible, horrible movie, then there's just no hope.

The new nominee, which I cannot personally vouch for, is The Never-Ending Story 3. From the conversation, I gather that the only thing this movie has going for it is another before-they-were-stars siting--Jack Black in a role that will surprise you. I make no claims for or against this film, but I trust the judgement of the person who does.

Three movies immediately come to my mind for that coveted third spot:
  1. Nail Gun Massacre. All you need to know is the tagline: Cheaper Than a Chainsaw.
  2. Slaughter High. The first thing I ever contributed to the IMDb was this film's classic tagline: Marty majored in cutting classmates.
  3. Viva Knievel. I can't say enough about this movie--Lauren Hutton, Dabney Coleman, Red Buttons, Leslie Nielsen as a villain, Frank Gifford as Frank Gifford, and of course Evel himself. I rented it and ended up watching it twice. For some people, Gene Kelly's legacy is An American in Paris and Singin' in the Rain; for me, it will always be Viva Knievel and Xanadu.

I might also suggest this movie, but I don't actually hate my readers.

No entry yesterday because was coming up 404 every time I tried to bring it up. Annoying. All I was going to say yesterday, anyway, was that the downside of the comments doohickey is that I now find myself checking it obsessively, and actually getting upset when there's a comments drought. I know it's my own fault for getting caught up on stuff like Mauritania--and after this post there will definitely be a Mauri-torium, at least until I think up or steal something funny to add about it. So if you've got something to say, share the love.

Tuesday, February 18, 2003

I've continued my non-fiction kick over the last couple of weeks, and I've finished two books since I lasted posted here about my reading. Joan Didion's Slouching Toward Bethlehem is basically the first half of a two-book set with The White Album. Again the major topics and California and the 1960s, and the essays range from fairly straight reporting to intensely personal. The title essay looks at the culture of Haight-Ashbury around 1967, and the story is much more complex than the reminiscences of either conservatives or former flower children. Didion tells of the drugs without really moralizing, although she is clearly horrified by the five-year-old children "turned on" to acid and the like. She also tells of stories of free love and of rape--sometimes the same stories. But she is fundamentally sympathetic, even as she identifies these youngsters (and most are in the 14-18 range) as a type of not-exactly victim, but "product" perhaps of an anomic culture where bonds that held people together (she talks about concrete relationships--cousins, great aunts, lifelong next-door neighbors) have fallen apart. The historian part of my brain is skeptical of the explanation (plenty of people still grow up around great aunts, and plenty of people 100 years ago moved around a lot as children), but I appreciate the reportage--the combination of empathy and intelligence that tells me that Didion comes by her explanations honestly, even if I ultimately disagree with them. "Goodbye to All That" was also very interesting to me, as she told about how it feels to fall into and out of love with a new city as a young adult. Been there, done that, and though the details are very different, Didion definitely captures the idea.

Before Slouching I read Wallace Stegner's 1954 history Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West. The fact that I'd never heard of Powell until graduate school confirms something I also learned in graduate school--American history looks very different from the West than it does from the East. Powell led the first American expedition all the way from the beginning of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon to the Virgin River at the Arizona-Nevada border. Powell's expedition and subsequent work in the West was central to modern mapmaking, geology, and other earth sciences. Since Stegner wrote this landmark account, Powell's ideas about water usage have also been seen as a tragic road not taken for many people who believe that water rights in the West have been granted in inefficient and unfair ways. I still don't know enough about Western water rights to comment intelligently on that idea, but Stegner does make a convincing case that Powell's waning influence in the late 1880s and onward was a tragic misstep orchestrated by a coalition of Western politicians and business interests, and certain "truisms" that held for the East and Midwest but not for the arid regions of the Plains and Rockies. Basically, Powell denied the idea that water would always ultimately be plentiful where it was needed and that "rain follows the plow", and suggested rational management of scarce resources.

The first section of the book stands out if you're looking for an exciting narrative--the story of the actual expedition down the Colorado is a true adventure story. The rest of the book is about Gilded Age politics and, to a lesser extent, science. Some things don't work for me, most notably the continued references back to Henry Adams as an Easterner and contemporary of Powell's with very different experiences and ideas. OK, that's probably true, but I'm not sure of its relevance or what it contributes to the book's arguments. Still, if you want some insight into the still complex and controversial water politics of the West, this is a good place to start. Supposedly the book to read on this subject is Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert; I'm hoping to get to that before too long, and I will of course share my thoughts here if and when I do. In the meantime, I'll be taking a break from my break, as I'm actually getting back to reading my Western fiction thanks to a timely gift from the Beallsvonian's New Jersey correspondent.

This weekend, in an effort to avoid driving in the snow, I managed to drive through the worst snowstorm to hit the area in ten years. Other than the obvious answer (because I'm a dumbass), why did this happen? Well, on Friday reports were that 4-8 inches of snow would be coming early on Saturday. Since I had to teach in Pittsburgh Saturday afternoon, I asked Bill if I could stay over at his place five minutes from downtown Friday night. I did that, and as I headed in to class Saturday afternoon, not one flake had fallen on my car or anywhere else. I taught class, then visited some other friends in the city who I hadn't seen in a really long time (I'm not telling who--wild turkeys couldn't drag it out of me), and then met Bill and a whole group of people to see Daredevil. (I enjoyed it, though I attribute that at least partially to just being happy to go to any movie nowadays, since it's infrequent.) After the movie we went to Eat 'N' Park (think Denny's, but more, um, Pittsburghy) for desert, and it was approaching midnight by the time we got out. As we were driving back to my car I commented about how unexcited I was about the hour drive home, and Bill suggested I stay again. This, of course, was the FRAUGHT portion of the weekend.

I woke up Sunday morning and waited for the snow to stop. And waited. And waited. Finally, at 3:30, I decided to leave at four if it hadn't let up, so that I could be home before dark. I made the normally 50-minute trip in about an hour and a half, and there were some very treacherous moments, but interestingly the roads got better the farther into the country I got, and so everything was OK. I was home at 5:30--or, almost home, rather, because I couldn't actually pull my car into the driveway due to snow accumulation. I was able to park at my uncle's next door because he has more of a lot than a driveway proper. At that point we had maybe 6 inches of snow. When I got in the house, I found out that by the following morning we were expected to have 18-24 inches. When dad and I were shoveling the driveway Monday afternoon (work, school, anything involving leaving the yard was right out), we put the yardstick into a flat, undrifted area and got a reading of 17 inches. At least I got the cardio of shoveling out half the driveway, and neither of us had a heart attack, which is an extra bonus!

We did ultimately make one brief trip yesterday, as once we got the cars dug out, the actual roads were pretty clear. As a result, my car is now at the body shop, and by tomorrow afternoon it should be as good as, well, used.

Oh and just when I thought the news about Pennsylvania's antiquated and ridiculous Liquor Control Board was getting better, along comes this moron to once again squelch any state pride I may have been starting to feel.

Friday, February 14, 2003

Who's the leader of the club that helps when you can't breathe?

Here's a toy I could play with all day. See what hot-button issues are forcing average Americans such as you as and me to take action. Here are some actual petitions I found browsing this site:

Good God, I could do this for hours. My readers will come to rue the day I learned to make an unnumbered list!

Thursday, February 13, 2003

You can now follow the U.S.'s current Terror Alert status in the blue area of the left column. Click here to see all the possibilities.

Lonely Planet's take on wanting to go to Mauritania is a somewhat politer version of, "what? are you stoned?!"

We're looking at another day with a high of about 20 degrees here. On the whole I'd rather be in Nouakchott. "Mauritania" and "chess" does not make for a particularly good google search unless you're into stamp collecting. And, no, the 1984 World Chess Championship does not seem to have had anything to do with Mauritania--they just did the stamp. If I were Dave Barry, however, I might point out that "The Rooks of Mauritania" would make an excellent name for a rock band.

Wednesday, February 12, 2003

This link is blatantly stolen from Mr. the Bruce. I agree with him that it may give the "average American" a lot of credit, especially for map skills. It words for me though, except I think it underestimates the threat posed by Mauritania and our, um, sand and rock gap.

For the hell of it, I just copied my entire blog from day one into a Word file and did a word count, and I'm at 17,774 words prior to this entry. I'm not sure what to do with that info, I just found it interesting.

Funny animation is funny. Here's some, and here's some more.

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

I don't know that this is fraught per se, so with a nod to Mr. Infield-Harm, I declare this news story "rife".

Oscar nominations are out. Last year I saw literally every movie with a major nomination by Oscar night. This year I've seen practically nothing. But my totally uninformed early handicapping is thus:

  • Best Actor: Brody's got no shot, Caine's got almost no shot, and the other three are legitimate contenders. I thought Cage was wonderful, but Day-Lewis' performance was amazing, and I think it'll be rewarded. Jack's won enough.
  • Best Actress: Lane and Hayek win by being nominated--Frida was a tiny film on the radar, and I thought Unfaithful came out in 1998. Probably ditto for Moore, so this is a two-horse race between Kidman and Zellwegger. My gut instinct is Kidman, but if this is that one year in ten when a totally unknown film surprises, there's a chance this goes to Hayek.
  • Best Supporting Actress: I've got no clue here, but maybe Moore gets rewarded as a double nominee.
  • Best Supporting Actor: Wow, this category is filled with heavyweights. Unless Newman or Walken gets a lifetime achievement award, though, I have to think Cooper will be rewarded. Cooper and Day-Lewis are the two actors in recent memory I can remember creating very original characters, and I hope they win for it.
  • Best Director: This has to be the lifetime achievement award for Scorsese, doesn't it? If not, it'll come down to whichever of The Hours and Chicago gains more Best Picture momentum.
  • Best Picture: I think this will come down to Chicago and The Hours. Lord of the Rings has no other major nominations, people had mixed opinions of Gangs of New York, and The Pianist is another very small film. Is Chicago this year's Titanic or this Year's Color Purple? I'm thinking somewhere in between, but my prediction is that it will win Best Picture.

February 11, 1975 was an interesting day. Jorge Mir was born. Indiana topped the AP basketball poll. Linda Ronstadt's "You're No Good" was #1 on the WABC Musicradio Survey. Warren Beatty's Shampoo opened. The Chinese year of the rabbit began. The Happy Days episode "Cruisin'" (in which Richie, Potsie, and Ralph go cruising for girls) first aired. Former Steeler preseason kicker Joe O'Donnell was born, as was Orlando Magic backup point guard Jacque Vaughn. Oh yeah, so was I.

Monday, February 10, 2003

I'm just testing settings--don't mind me.

As regular readers know, in addition to my day job as a temp secretary, for the last few weeks I have been teaching a GRE class for what, if I were on, say, Sale of the Century, I would call a Major Test Preparation Company. It is a mild pain to drive an hour into Pittsburgh and an hour back (conservative estimates) to teach a two-hour class, but I have taken advantage of the trips to do other fun things, like hang out with Bill and Terri or eat Mineo's Pizza for lunch. Very good times.

I bring up my class for a couple of reasons. One is that it's clearly one of the major things in my life right now--between the commute, the teaching, and the preparation, it's only behind work, sleep, and maybe TV in terms of my hours per week. I'm enjoying it enough that I will probably continue, and possibly even train to do more tests. The second reason I bring it up is more specific.

DEK and I have this running gag developed watching football this year whereby we refer to problematic things as fraught. "Fraught" always goes with something, and it's never good--DEK's example being that nothing is ever "fraught with puppies". So just saying "fraught!" presumes a "with problems", "with issues", "with danger", etc. "Fraught" has also shown major signs of spreading as a concept, so here's your fraught primer.

Something is fraught when your immediate reaction is "oh, this is NOT going to end well," and something is DEFINITELY fraught when you think, "oh, this is NOT going to end well, and I want to be there to watch." For example's sake, here are some things that are fraught:

  • Throwing late over the middle
  • Getting a tattoo on your face
  • Your star point guard shooting 43% from the free-throw line
  • That movie you've been looking forward to being given a January 15th release date
  • Anything the guys did in the "Bad Idea Jeans" commercial
  • A People magazine cover story about Robert Downey Jr./Christian Slater/Matthew Perry finally having their life in order
  • Referencing "Bad Idea Jeans" to anyone under 23

So I was preparing to teach a lesson on a Major Standardized Test Verbal Question Type Saturday morning, and one of the points of the lesson was to discern whether words have a positive charge (pleasant, outstanding, Dushku) or a negative charge (abhorrent, tragic, WB). The teacher's edition actually contains definitions of all the words and answer choices, and on one question "fraught" appeared as an answer choice. As I mentally chalked that up to very negative word charge, I glanced at the definition provided, and it boiled down to "abundant, having many". I ask you, are there any other words that mean something so positive but are so negative in connotation, or vice versa? I'd be hard-pressed to come up with another one.

Something that was fraught for me on Saturday was that for half of the class, the only students there were of the English as a second (or subsequent) language (ESL) variety. This is generally not a problem as they are smart people and fairly fluent, but as we know English is a funny language and at times frustrating to understand even for native speakers. I hereby declare "fraught!" any effort to explain the prefix "in-" to ESL students: "So, when you can't define a word and you want to take it apart, 'in-' will tell you that you're looking for the opposite of the root, like 'insensitive' or 'inaccessible'. Except that sometimes instead of 'not' it means 'particularly' such as 'inflammable'." "OK, Joe, so what should we do in this situation?" "Um, let's talk about some strategies for making educated guesses on these types of questions."


Thursday, February 06, 2003

I recently finished reading Tom Wolfe's collection The Pump-House Gang. Through a diverse set of articles, Wolfe pursues a common hypothesis. Basically, after World War II, the middle and lower classes in America and Britain (and to some extent the upper-middle as well) decided that they had no interest in pursuing the traditional mainstream quest for status, because (a) the rich are stodgy and who wants to emulate them anyway, and (b) the rich never really let anyone in anyway. If you're not born into high cultural status, you can't truly achieve it because you'll always be a Johnny-come-lately.

In place of this common quest, various groups pursued status within distinct subcultures. Wolfe writes here about California surfers and bikers, London mods, and other mostly young groups doing their own thing, but doing so within a strong set of conventions that arise within each group. Hugh Hefner in one essay becomes the ultimate exemplar--pursuing a rich lifestyle based on acquisition but never becoming acceptable in mainstream rich circles because he'll ultimately always be someone who made a fortune on skin mags. So Hef literally locks himself in his own world--in fact staying in his house without leaving for months at a time.

Wolfe bogs down for me at times when he gets into the details of different styles; style in and of itself is not very interesting to me, as anyone who has ever seen my wardrobe can attest. But he does say something about a fragmented society, and why perhaps we should cautiously welcome such fragmentation. In fact, he expresses shock at one point when he is on a panel that his fellows talk about all the problems of the mid-'60s, while he is seemingly the only one to notice a major outbreak of happiness among people rebelling against the mainstream.

Oh yeah, and at one point he goes to a titty bar with Marshall McLuhan.

I found this book to be worth reading, but if you want to pick up Wolfe essays on the '60s, I preferred The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.

Wednesday, February 05, 2003

This post reminded me that I hadn't seen my favorite poster of all time in a while. Also, if you enjoy Dave Barry columns, now you can make your own.

I have been reconnecting with a few people over the last several days, and I have applied for some jobs. Most notably, I am now trying to get hired at my alma mater, an idea that I have resisted for some time. However, they have posted a few jobs that interest me now if the price is right--specifically, there are some positions in academic advising that sound as if they could be interesting, and since they are looking for people with a master's I am hopeful that they will pay a little bit. Also, some of my old contacts from OAFA and the UHC have close ties there, so I may have an in. We shall see.

Also, I've finished the math section of my GRE class, and I'm not sure what to think. I thought everyone was doing OK, and then during the last session I gave them time to work individually and when we came back together it seemed as if they had forgotten most everything. I don't know whether to chalk that up to performance anxiety or lack of practice, but maybe it will at least convince them that they need to do their homework like I've been saying.

Sunday, February 02, 2003

In part to assuage the "too soon" crowd that pops up when people talk about bad things, I waited 24 hours, but here goes:

When I heard about the Space Shuttle explosion yesterday afternoon, I had pretty much the same reaction I had when the Challenger blew up 17 years ago. This reaction was well expressed by a commenter at Eschaton going by candyboy; I don't agree with every word, but here's the key sentence:

"My feeling is that these astronauts should be mourned appropriately, which means neither more nor less than today's first seven auto accident victims."

Once I was in a class where a debate was going on about how the media deadens us to violence and tragedy, and my position on the topic suddenly crystallized in my head, and then out loud: That's true, and thank our lucky stars for it. What I meant was that, if you want to wait out the next 7 people in the world who you don't personally know dying, chances are you will have to wait about 7 seconds. Literally every second, someone somewhere in the world dies. Fortunately, our minds are such that we do not dwell on this fact, because if we did it would totally incapacitate us all the time. My totally untested hypothesis is that every once in a while a particular death or a particular group death catches our collective attention somehow--the Challenger, Princess Di, JFK (Sr. and, less explicably, Jr.), perhaps now the Columbia--and by engaging in a massive public outpouring of emotion, we colelctively wash away all that mourning that fails to go on for the countless hundreds, thousands, millions who go basically unmourned except by a handful oif people very close to them. Is this a good or a bad thing? I don't think so--I think it's just a thing. Ultimately, though, I personally cannot place any more (or less) value on the seven lives lost 200,000 feet above Nacogdoches than I can on the lives of seven poor people who died yesterday in Botswana, seven rich people who died yesterday somewhere in private hospitals, seven people listed in the obituary section of my local newpaper this morning who died within 30 miles of my house yesterday, seven people who died on the ground in Nacogdoches yesterday, etc. etc. etc. Maybe some people feel a little closer to them because six were Americans (2 dead Americans always seem to trump 1,000 dead foreigners on the news anyway), but I'm not wired that way.

The part of my brain ruined by grad school has some interesting questions, though, about comparative tragedy and how we deal with death as a culture. For instance, are seven deaths in one incident more tragic than seven scattered deaths? Is tragedy additive, geometric, or is there some other mechanism there? My favorite book on this subject (yes, I have a favorite book on comparative tragedy; I know, I should seek help) is Peter Novick's The Holocaust in American Life, which is a cultural history about the curious process by which events on European soil basically committed upon other Europeans has been incorporated into our national psyche as an American tragedy. He compares the DC Holocaust Museum to the notion of having a museum of the American slave trade in Berlin.

The most interesting bits to me are to watch how Novick traces a cultural change in which being a Holocaust victim in the late '40s through the mid '60s was seen as tragic but just one more obstacle to overcome like good Americans do (we don't dwell on tragedies, we move on), to a change whereby being a survivor literally becomes an identity that it is presumed cannot be put behind but will be carried through life and is ritually reenacted (the identity, not the Holocaust) by having the person speak and appear repeatedly as a "Holocaust survivor". But the most relevant bits to what I'm describing are efforts by America's Jewish community leaders to preserve the Holocaust as a unique tragedy; I'm not going to argue the merits of their point (OK, I am--if we're talking about all-time comparative tragedy, I give the title to Pol Pot's Cambodia, but the Holocaust is right up there of course), but what I found interesting was the attitude that Cambodia, Yugoslavia, Rwanda, etc. could be horrifically awful, but not only could they not be AS awful as the Holocaust, but the comparison itself was insulting and possibly anti-Semitic.

What will be interesting to follow in the days to come is to see the effect the Columbia explosion has on our policy toward space. I am all in favor of continued space exploration if the case is made based on tangible benefits of scientific research and so forth, and if those benefits are placed in cost-benefit analysis with other federal funding decisions. But I don't like the idea of space exploration as adventure, competition, aspiration, etc.--at least not public funding of space exploration on that basis.

Tomorrow's entry should be more cheery, because frankly how could it not be?!?!