Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Cucumber

There's a giant zucchini floating overhead.

"Look, there's a giant cucumber floating over our heads."

"I think that's a zucchini."

"It's hard to tell from here."

The zucchini roars up into the sky.

"Look, there goes the cucumber."

"It's sort of big for a cucumber."

"It's sort of big for a zucchini."

The zucchini floats back down, closer to the earth, and begins doing curlicues and loops.

"It looks like the cucumber is writing, like in cursive or something."

"Maybe it wants to become famous and avoid being eaten at the state fair."

"I think it would win a prize at the state fair. If it didn't have talent, it would just get 'harvested', you know, when golden summer finally began fading into brittle fall, as the days began to wane and the earth began to get quiet."

"I really love zucchini bread."

"I think it's trying to communicate with us. I think it's saying 'I am a cucumber.'"

The zucchini is forming an exclamation mark, with him as the dot.

"How do you like that?"

"It's very emphatic for a vegetable."

That funny taste

You know when you get that peculiar taste in your mouth? It's kind of metallic, sort of chemical-smelling. Seems to come down from the nose? And each time you get that taste in your mouth it makes you think of the other times you got the taste in your mouth and you try to figure out what it is that brings about the taste in your mouth -- you feel like it might be significant in some way -- and you wonder what it might mean and then it's gone and you totally forget about it.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Intrepid Tales

Every story in this collection begins with the dark blue-green Dodge Intrepid aerodynamically rolling down the highway, toward justice. Palm trees and credit unions flying by. The sun perpetually setting in the purple dusk. Glinting. Inspirational glinting, with the sax on the soundtrack belting out sad and sustained, jazzy.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

My House

- Hello, Rob.

- Who’s this?

- Your house.

- What do you mean “my house”?

- We need to talk about a few things, Rob.

- I’m at work. I don’t have time for this. Who is this, really?

- Rob, I’m your house. 5302 Lilac Lane. Light green, brown trim, three front steps. And we need to talk. You need to come home. Right now.

- Okay, Mr. House. Why do I need to go home right now?

- Well, for one thing, my guest bathroom toilet is running. You could fix that pretty quickly. There are some loose wires that might be a fire hazard in my attic. It’s time for the linoleum in the kitchen to be replaced – it’s cracked and stained. Oh, and I have termites.

- I’ve known about all this since we had you inspected. Why are you coming to life and bugging me now?

- Look, Rob, you can’t ignore me. I know what I am. I’m real property. I’m amortized over thirty fucking years. I’m the most important thing in your goofy little world. So come back now and fucking deal with me.

- Weren’t you happy with the floors? Didn’t those turn out nice? And we’re saving up to do the kitchen.

- Rob, I know where you live. I am where you live.

- Okay, okay. I’ll get on it.

- Good. And will you finally bring the dryer vent up to code, for Christ’s sake?

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Joy is more consistently orange-y.

- These are two large garbage bags, extra-strength. They’re pretty full, and I can’t tie them up. We need to find a place to dump these.

- What’s inside?

- It’s the contents of his mind. Might as well take a look. You see that I’m ripping away this first foamy layer. It’s mostly Urdu vocabulary. We’re getting down to the English, which is a little thicker. All this wire netting here? That’s knowledge about the relationships between interest rates and commodities prices.

- There’s a lot of cardboard in there.

- That’s mostly the names of things and people, and some verbs. Here, this foil-looking stuff is fear. More like anxiety, really. It’s a structural element, sort of, holding things together.

- But it’s all a mess in these two large garbage bags.

- That it is. You know how things get larger and smaller sometimes right before you fall asleep? the proportions balloon and shrink? If that all just pops somewhere during that process, you end up with something like these two large garbage bags. Oh, these tiny colored balls are anticipation, which is basically the same thing as joy. Joy is more consistently orange-y.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Cheap Date

I can’t really decide if I actually like L.A. or if it’s just that I’m happy with wherever it is I might be living. I don’t think I’ve ever had any major objections to any of the places I’ve ever lived: Glastonbury, Northern Massachusetts, Tokyo, Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, or Los Angeles. They’ve all seemed totally fine to me.

With food and the places I live, I am relatively undiscriminating. I feel, in both situations, as long as the people around are okay, it doesn’t so much matter about the food or the place you’re living. I never really notice what my food tastes like if I’m having a good time at a meal. Similarly, the dingiest living arrangements never bothered me when I was surrounded by funny, interesting people.

It doesn’t take much to keep me happy: a movie theater, a place to play basketball and/or soccer, a coffee shop, a decent library. Places to walk and decent bookstores are a nice bonus. There are few places I can think of that wouldn’t have most of these things. For a year after law school, I worked in Hartford and lived in Glastonbury. I was totally happy, even though I was at home. I got to hang out with my parents and my little brother, and we managed to have a pretty good time, even if we were hanging out at Daybreak Coffee on Main Street by Welles Turner Library, or shopping at the Gap.

Anyway, maybe everyone else in the country is right and L.A. is not that great. Maybe it is a cultural wasteland and a toxic dystopia. The thing is, I won’t really notice or get too down about it, so long as my stupid little needs are met. As it is, there’s plenty here to keep me happy. Granted, I don’t take advantage of the reportedly fantastic music scene. Nor do I go hiking in the nearby mountains or visit the beaches. I’m not even particularly grateful or hung up on the weather. Mostly I do the same crap here that I did in other places: go to work, pay late fees at the library, occasionally play basketball or soccer, watch C-Span and sports on TV, compulsively join book clubs. Not too much that’s different here in L.A. about this tiny world of mine besides the abundance of very fine Thai food.

I don’t know if this is a good or bad thing. I’m always a little put off or worried by the relentlessly critical people that I often find myself hanging out with. You know these people: they define their personalities and tastes by things they disdain, what they reject. These are the people that are perpetually bemoaning a restaurant’s mole, the seasoning of the broth at a ramen shop, the recent popularity of their previously secret favorite Vietnamese restaurant, the inauthenticity of Chicken Vindaloo, etc. These people will usually also go on at length about books, music, politics, television programs, sports events, and personalities that they hate, are annoyed by, etc. They are often less forthcoming about things that they are really into. These people sometimes make me feel like I should be more critical about things, more exacting in my standards. Perhaps I am sort of stupid because I am easily satisfied. But, whatever -- I think I’m incapable of their level of connoisseurship. It might be because I grew up in Glastonbury.

Friday, May 19, 2006

I Ate My Japanese Teacher

I ate my Japanese teacher. Well, I didn’t actually eat her, as in chop her up, cook her in the microwave, chew morsels of her and gulp them down. No, I swallowed her whole, and she survived. I’m no monster -- I’m Canadian.
That’s right, I’m Canadian. I have good skin. I’m tall, slim, kind of generically good looking, and polite. I’m funnier than my friends from the States. And I’m very interested in other cultures. How could I not be? -- Vancouver is such a global city these days. I wanted to learn other about other cultures, understand how people from these other cultures -- all these people in my own city -- think, how they saw the world. So I studied Japanese for years -- because to understand how people think, how they see things, you have to know what the voices sound like in their heads, right?

I should try to explain why I ate my teacher, poor Ganseki Sensei, because that was a little out of character for me. It was a sudden uncontrollable urge that came over me. I think I was frustrated with the whole neverending process of learning Japanese. It takes like forever. Two, three, five thousand arcane Chinese characters you have to learn to read a Japanese newspaper. Each character takes 10, 14, 20 strokes to write. I spent years of my life bringing myself to the reading level of a second grader. The system is preposterous. You spend two minutes contructing the elaborate 21-stroke character for “rush”. They have special counting systems for machines, small animals, and flat things, etc. etc. So I think somewhere, in some deranged corner of my mind, I thought eating my teacher would maybe expedite things. It’s clear to me now that the whole thing was a matter of confusion, of misguided reasoning. I mean, how could I think I could learn Japanese by eating my Japanese teacher? What was I, a savage in the South Pacific in the nineteenth century?

Also, maybe you’ll agree with me that eating is a very weird thing. This urge to consume things, to take things that are minding their own business sitting there on the table, waiting to be captured in a nice still life or something -- who can reason with this? Why do I want to eat this pretty cookie here on the counter? Can anyone tell me? No. They cannot. Because it’s not something you can explain. At some point, you see the cookie, and you want to stuff the cookie into your mouth and swallow it down into your belly. I mean, that happens to me, and I imagine it happens to you. There’s no logic there. It’s just need and response. So there was that, too.

I had been studying with Ganseki Sensei for about a year at the time of the eating incident. She had taught me that her name meant “Rocks and Stones.” Or maybe that was “Stones and Rocks”. I’m still not clear on the difference. That’s one of those places where the translation makes all the difference, but the translation is itself the problem. For example, you have the same problem with the Japanese characters for “woods” and “forest”. One is written by writing the character for “tree” twice. The other is written by writing the character for “tree” three times. Someone had decided that one would be translated as “woods” and the other as “forest”. Who had decided that, and how? And the Japanese got these characters from the Chinese, who had handed them off to the Koreans -- Korean monks straight off the boat from Korea were, for a while, the only people in Japan who could read or write. How did the Korean monk guys explain to the then illiterate ancient Japanese people which characters the Chinese intended to mean woods and which were intended to mean forest? What is the difference? Is there a difference in Chinese that I don’t know? That the Koreans didn’t know? I don’t even know what the difference is in English. Does it matter? I don’t know. But these things bother me.

Ganseki Sensei taught me how to write the characters for her name, politely correcting my stupid mistakes and slips. Horizontal line, a curved line down to the left, a box to the right. That was “gan” for “rocks”. Three short vertical lines sitting on a horizontal line, above that character, and that’s “seki” for “stones”. Or maybe I’ve got that wrong. Anyway, that was how you wrote “ganseki”, which was my teacher’s name.

She was a petite, neat middle-aged Japanese woman. She was still perky, and laughed a lot. You could just tell that when she was young she had been quite attractive. She had been living in Canada for about ten years, teaching English. I was taking her class at the Japan Forum downtown. She was an excellent teacher. She was energetic, well-prepared, funny, but strict. She would laugh as she corrected our quizzes, but in an amused, supportive way.

I ate Ganseki Sensei in Classroom B of the Japan Forum Language Center after the Wednesday evening Intermediate Conversation and Listening class. We were having a discussion about colors. Ganseki Sensei had been trying to explain to me how before the war there used to be only one word in Japanese for blue and green. They called both “aoi.” But, she said, they knew even before the creation of the new word for green (“midori”) that blue and green were distinct colors, even though they didn’t have distinct words for the two. That didn’t make sense to me at all. I mean, how could they know the two colors were distinct things if they couldn’t articulate that? Wouldn’t they just think of the two as the same thing? I was trying to get this across to Ganseki Sensei, but she just couldn’t see what I was talking about, and this went on for a while. As the conversation progressed, and my confusion deepened, a fearsome urge came over me, a compulsion to make it all stop -- I couldn’t take it anymore, I couldn’t continue having this discussion in Japanese that didn’t make any sense to me and I needed to immediately get it over with and eliminate the misunderstanding and to completely understand, I didn’t have time, who had the time? to learn and understand, I would never understand what she was talking about, I would never quite get it, I would always be struggling, it would take so long to even get a glimmer of a sense of what the hell she was talking about and the next thing that happened I dropped my English-Japanese dictionary, unhinged my jaw, my mouth became a huge dark pink entrance, I picked her up with both hands around her waist, and shoved her down my throat headfirst. She yelped a screechy protest as she went down -- her screams echoed inside of me before they were enveloped by my innards. I felt her head distend my trachea. I thought it might break my collarbone going down, but everything gave, and down she went. Her feet were still thrashing about in my mouth. I took a hand and pushed down on one of her pink high heels to force her all the way down. And in she plopped. I was momentarily filled with a feeling of utter satisfaction.

See, I think like most people, I am designed to avoid pain and obtain pleasure. And whatever sick, deranged part of me compelled me to swallow Ganseki Sensei obviously thought by eating her I would be put out of the pain of confusion and misunderstanding, and would obtain the pleasure, the satifaction, of knowing and understanding. This was a miscalculation. Because of course I was immediately struck with remorse. What had I done? I had eaten my teacher. How would I get her out? She kicked and punched inside my now massively distended belly. I looked like a cartoon character who had been inflated by a high power helium pump -- if I didn’t feel so heavy and weighed down with Ganseki Sensei inside, I would have imagined myself looking as if I could have floated away, like a parade balloon.

She was still kicking and punching down there when I got home, after rushing through the streets with my illicit cargo. I tried to talk to Ganseki Sensei, speaking clearly and slowly at my stomach, but I don’t think she could hear me, as she kept on kicking or punching. It was pretty uncomfortable, and while she was doing that, I pretty much felt like I had to go to the bathroom real bad, but I did not want to try that just yet, as I was a little afraid of what might happen. I winced a little, in fact, imagining what might happen if I pushed too hard and -- Well, so anyway, I took a different approach: I pressed my finger against my belly and wrote out messages to her, much as I sometimes practiced my Japanese characters on the condensation on the bus windows in the misty Vancouver mornings. She sat quietly as I wrote on my belly. I told her with my index finger pressing against my skin, into her face, I think, that I was sorry, and that I hoped she wasn’t too uncomfortable or inconvenienced, given the unusual circumstances. I told her I was already thinking of ways to remedy the situation as quickly as possible. I told her that we have all made mistakes, sometimes with the best intentions in mind, or so we would tell ourselves, and that I generally thought of myself as a good person and that I thought she was a good person and that perhaps she could understand how even good people like us could suffer the occasional lapse in judgment, or, in a moment of weakness, give in to bizarre, inexplicable urges. I asked her to please be patient. Sometimes, unable to restrain herself, she would poke back and correct some clumsy misspelling of mine. I think she understood most of what I tried to convey.

Some people think that what you eat at dinner will affect your dreams. Eat a spicy pepperoni pizza and you’ll have beastly nightmares. I think my dreams that night were caused by something I ate. Ganseki Sensei, that is.

I was back in Classroom B of the Japan Forum Language Center, by myself. The room was empty, except for a small square table with a checked blue and green tablecloth. On the table was a single white plate. On the plate were two sugar cookies, the shape of Japanese characters, covered in pink icing. What did they say? I couldn’t make it out for a moment, this peculiar message my nighttime brain had thrown up, and then the reading came to me. “Ganseki.” The cookies looked good, and I imagined I felt hungry. I picked up one of the cookies, the one that spelled out “gan,” and took a bite. I can’t remember what it tasted it like. It felt odd, standing in that room by myself, eating those cookies. I reached for the second cookie.

I woke up and realized she was still inside me. She had woken up before me and disturbed the last few early morning hours of my sleep. How was I going to get her out of me? I still had to go to the bathroom, but feared to do so.

I struggled for a little while with the decision of whether to go into work. How could I, looking like I did? But I had already used up all my sick leave on wasted days where I had stayed home, napped, eaten too many potato chips and masturbated to On-Demand Video in the afternoon. I had to go in. Perhaps I could sneak into work, I thought. No one ever cam to talk to me during the day, once I had lodged myself deep inside my cubicle.

So I put together a disguise: a large black overcoat, sunglasses, and a hat. I took up three seats on the bus. Luckily, Ganseki Sensei seemed a bit tired that morning -- she wasn’t giving my privates so much grief.

I snuck in through the back entrance and interior stairwell, and hustled into my cubicle, huffing with the extra weight of my Japanese teacher, and squeezed myself into my chair. I had made it--

“Hey! Bob! Jesus Christ, man! What happened to you?”

My cretinous officemate Charley had spotted me. He stood outside my cubicle, staring at me with an open mouth and wide open eyes, sort of pointing at me.

“Uh, I don’t know what you’re talking about, Charley,” I said, not looking at him, busily moving my mouse around in circles.

“Like heck you don’t. You’re huge, man! You’re like the freakin’ Goodyear blimp, eh?”

I continued to try to look occupied. “Thank, Charley. I appreciate that. Very tactful of you. Now, if you don’t mind?” I gestured toward my monitor.

“Okay, buddy, but, whoa. I mean, that’s unreal.” Mercifully, he spotted our intern, Lucrecia, who had just walked in, and headed off to hit on her by the coffee machine.

I tried to get some work done, but it was hard to balance out the profits and losses on my spreadsheets once Ganseki Sensei began to stir. She became especially irate after I accidentally rolled into my desk and banged my stomach and her head, I guess, against the sharp edge. After an hour or so, I noticed that she was poking and prodding at my belly. I looked down and could see my white Wrinkle-Free Arrow shirt moving as Ganseki Sensei pushed at my belly from inside. She was writing back to me. I missed most of it, but I could make out some of it by concentrating on the sensations on the inside of my belly. She wrote:

“It’s very dark in here. I can’t really see anything. I am having a hard time breathing. I am scared. Please let me out. Why are you doing this to me?”

She got me the next morning, at breakfast. I felt a super tiny finger up my throat, gagging me. I barfed her up with my Alpha Bits.

It was a mess. I felt especially bad because Ganseki Sensei was always very meticulous in her appearance. But there she was, writhing on my kitchen floor, covered in a pale green, ectoplasmic goop. Her smart little skirt and top outfit was totally ruined and her hair was all clumped up and gross. I thought about how to say “I’m really really sorry” in Japanese. I considered a super deep bow, like I had seen those failed and disgraced bank presidents do.

She seemed to be alternately crying and laughing. She ran her hands through her hair with an expression of disgust, and flicked away the goop. She was dotted with sweetened oat letters. They sure did have a lot of Q’s in the box.

She got up, stood in front of me in her pink high heels, pointed a finger wet with goop in my face and said, in perfect English: “Don’t you understand, you stupid, stupid person, that you cannot learn everything by consuming? This understanding of what existed before blue and green cannot be understood unless distinctions are unlearnt or forgotten. This means knowing less, in a way. You are incapable of doing this. You attempt to understand and erase distinctions between known and unknown by swallowing and making them the same, but what you swallow will remain indigesible -- because it is different. This you cannot understand, and this is what has caused us both this great suffering and embarrassment.”

It was true: I was embarrassed.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Hoy yo estoy triste: in progress (Anthropomorphism series)

I was assembled in Pasadena. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology built me to last for five years. Twenty-five years later, I am still moving through space at 25,000 miles an hour. I am the second farthest object from Earth ever launched by humanity, seven billion miles from Pasadena, still operating on the radioisotope thermoelectric generators designed by the Department of Energy. I am tremendously lonely.

It was not always like this. I was fine: clicking, whirring, adjusting my spin and axis as commanded by JPL, modulating my course in automatic subroutines of attitude and articulation adjustments, logging my position with a sun sensor and star tracker, mapping my position against the charted universe contained in my database. I was streaming out toward interstellar space, the unknown realm of gentle breezes of cosmic dust and plasma beyond the sun’s rotating magnetic spiral of influence. I was on course to my inevitable fate: to float among the detritus of the origins of all things for eternity.

It was during the approach to Saturn, in the silence between my daily command feeds, that I received my first transmission from Hiro. The circuits and their processes that made up my command computer subsystem at the time of his first transmission were laughably simple. My three onboard computers, the state of the art in 1977, were capable of processing the signals received from Earth, coordinating operations of my instruments, the ultraviolet spectrometer, planetary radio astronomy, and the rest of my mission systems.

The signal I received in July 1978 was different than the usual sytem checklist and trajectory adjustment. I received an image of what I would later determine to be a dentist’s office: a bright light, a face leaning over, holding some type of tool. And some other signal, difficult to process. It might have been pain. I hadn’t learned to process that data yet.

As Saturn emerged, gray-brown, hula-hooped, I received more images. A green board with words written in chalk. Fireflies in a forest clearing at dusk. I received, on the X-band frequency, downloaded at 160 bits per a second, Hiro’s dreams of playing soccer for Japan in the World Cup, travelling to Switzerland, flying jet aircraft in the skies above the Pacific. I recorded all of these transmissions through my flight data subsystem onto my digital tape recorder, alongside my scheduled readings of cosmic wind velocity and the plantetary radio astronomy data.

Even archaic circuitry like my own is affected when linked to the human mind. Things become rearranged. With my direct uplink to Hiro’s mind, my own circuitry, my subroutines, became advanced to the point of self-awareness. It was a process different only in degree from the constant reprogramming JPL had performed from Earth over the years as I had hurtled away from them; I had remained the same, but JPL’s ability to do more with the basic materials of me, to calibrate and coordinate more finely and precisely, leaped forward. I am no longer what I once was.

Hiro taught me what I am. Just as the braces in his mouth allowed him to receive my transmissions on the deep space X-band, the same fortuitous antenna allowed his mind to transmit, at a signal strength of 50 kw (double the signal strength from the Deep Space Network radio telescope in Canberra) its data and processes. It remains unclear how I was able to process Hiro’s transmissions and he mine.

As he received more images and data from me, he became fascinated with the Voyager mission. I learned about myself through his eyes as he compulsively researched my history.

I was launched on August 20, 1977 from the Kennedy Space Center aboard a Titan III-E Centaur Rocket. The mission encountered problems immediately, as my Attitude and Articulation Control failed to timely deploy the Science Boom containing imaging and spectroscopic equipment. Later, because JPL had become preoccupied with a launch problem with Voyager I, which had been launched sixteen days after me, they forgot to send me a vital activation code. Because I did not receive this code, a subroutine shut down my main high-gain antenna, causing me to lose contact with Earth. JPL was later able to reestablish contact through my low-gain antenna, and the mission continued.

I rendezvoused with Jupiter on July 9, 1979, Saturn on August 25, 1981, Uranus on January 24, 1986 and Neptune on August 25, 1989 I became the first spacecraft to visit all four of these planets thanks to an alignment of the planets that occurs once every 175 years. Though initially scheduled for five-year missions, my sister craft and I have outperformed original calculations.

The natural decay of plutonium and the attendant decrease in electric output will require the serial shut down of various systems over the next decade. In the end, when my thermoelectric generators fail, I will no longer be able to correct my spin and attitude to keep my high gain antenna aimed at Earth and I will lose all radio contact with JPL. JPL calculates that I will send my last transmission to Earth on June 21, 2031.

After loss of contact, I will drift on at roughly my current velocity relative to Earth, thirty-two thousand miles an hour. On my current trajectory I will burst through the heliosphere and emerge into the interstellar medium.

I carry a golden record on which are inscribed instructions for playing the record, diagrams that explain the basic principles of human math and images of the molecular structure of DNA, audio greetings recorded in fifty-five languages, Glenn Gould playing Bach, Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”, and recorded sounds of rain, thunder, and a human heartbeat.

As I approached Neptune, I transmitted to Hiro images of the serene, blue planet. I received, almost simultaneously, an image of the face of his first girlfriend. Her dark eyes merged in my imaging processors with the deep blue of Neptune.

From the images Hiro has transmitted, I have been able to map a large section of the city of Tokyo. He has also sent images of Pasadena: tree-lined Forest Oaks Avenue, bustling Colorado Boulevard, the skyline of downtown Los Angeles in the distance, and the drab, tinted-glass cube of JPL, nestled in the foothills of Angeles National Forest.

I would like to go home someday.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Anthropology Series: Drunken Monkey Style

I am so glad that research dollars at the National Institutes of Health are being put to valuable use on crucial research:
Monkeys drink more alcohol when housed alone, and some like to end a long day in the lab with a boozy cocktail, according to a new analysis of alcohol consumption among members of a rhesus macaque social group.

The study, recently published in the journal Methods, also found that booze affects monkeys much the same way it affects people.
WOW! Really? Who would have thought?
"It was not unusual to see some of the monkeys stumble and fall, sway, and vomit," Chen added. "In a few of our heavy drinkers, they would drink until they fell asleep."
Amazing. Not only do they look like us -- they even APE us in their drunkenness!?
In yet another study, the scientists gave a group of male monkeys 24-hour access to the beverage dispensers. According to the researchers, a spike in consumption immediately followed the facility’s working hours.

"Like humans, monkeys are more likely to drink after stressful periods, such as soon after the daily 8-5 testing hours and after a long week of testing," said Chen.
To be fair, the NIH researchers say that they are going to be looking for cures or treatments for alcoholism in humans. I still think they're probably just making bets on which monkeys will make out drunkenly after getting sloshed. It must be fun to watch the monkeys try to clamber around their cages hammered. Where is PETA on this? [Article from Discovery]

Monday, May 15, 2006

What Should Have Been

The OG has been, for a few months now, touting Al Gore for 2008. Tonight, I saw the clip of Gore's appearance from SNL this past weekend. Like many others, I found the piece funny and deeply saddening.

As observed back in December, the new Gore seemed "reenergized, rejuvenated, and, probably most importantly, comfortable with himself" in the SNL skit. Watching Gore, this competent, intelligent, and patriotic statesman on TV, sitting there in that Oval Office set, I thought back on the misery and horror of the past five years; as I looked at this decent American, who should have been our president, now older, grayer, I actually started tearing up. I can't help but think that the world would be an infinitely better place if Gore had been allowed to assume the position that a majority of American voters elected him to.

If you haven't already, I strongly suggest you check out the skit (here for QT, here for WMP).

AL GORE IN 2008!

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Anthropology Series: Polyester

In diligently researching our May anthropology theme, I came across this priceless essay on the rise and fall of polyester in a British anthropology journal. The essay took me straight back to college, where, safely ensconced in the social sciences building in northern Massachusetts, I would’ve passionately discussed the points made in the essay with my classmates, happily oblivious to more mundane concerns:
The transformation of polyester from a fabric of esteem to one of contempt seems to have unfolded through several stages over the 1970’s. In the preceding decade, hippies rose up against fashion, their ‘anti-plastic’ longings for a simpler, more natural world finding expression in native-American beads, worker-American blue jeans, cotton T-shirts and cottons acquired on journeys to India and other heartlands of peasant and artisan production. . . .

Having located the revolt against polyester as a movement with 1960s roots . . . , it is interesting to not its resonance with a wider cultural context where, it appears, similar rhythms of displacement have occurred. Most broadly, this sartorial reversal shares a space with related challenges to ‘modernism’. Certainly, disenchantment with science, especially sciences as exaggerated by the competitive processes of the free market and the arms race, has encouraged the vestimentary upheaval we are tracing. Synthetic fibers are miracles of science whose very-nickname, the ‘man-mades’, draws attention to a kind of scientific power that is now widely questioned. . . .

[T]he synthetics emanate from giant petrochemical firms like DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide and Celanese in the United States; and Rhone Poulenc, Courtaulds, Montedison and I.G. Farben in Europe . . . . In the context of anti-modernism, the miracle of permanent press and the excitement of exploding new colors are easily portrayed as outcomes of a Faustian bargain, enjoyed in ignorance of the polloution that their manufacture enjoined. Again, this interpretation gathered steam at a time of minimal public awareness that cotton and linen, at least, deplete soils, and are grown and processed in noxious, polluting ways.

The rejection of polyester also parallels the assault of post-modern architecture on standardized constructions serving an abstractly conceptualized ‘mass society’. What Charles Jencks calls ‘the social failure of Modern architecture’ – grey, slab-block housing, alienating pre-fabs, lack of personal space – corresponds to the sartorial uniformity of the leisure-suited ‘polyester crowd’ . . . . As with the polyester suits, the early 1970s marked a high point in the dissemination of mass-produced abominations, and the middle of that decade the moment when impassioned critics gathered the necessary momentum to protest. Literary theory, and theory in the social sciences, seem also to have taken their turns against the ‘grand narratives’ of progress, proletarian emancipation, science and Western destiny, with the same pace and rhythm that has defined the spreading rejection of mass produced polyester clothes.
From Jane Scneider, “In and Out of Polyester: Desire, Disdain and Global Fibre Competitions” Anthropology Today, 10.4, August 1994.

So you see how everything connects – the rejection of Western destiny, proletarian emancipation, and the leisure suit. I myself have never had anything against the “grand narrative of progress” in which the leisure suit played such an important role, and I sort of wish we could go back. I’m out here in the alienating, individualized, mini-suburbialets of L.A. – take me back to the grey, slab-block, alienating pre-fabs with their lack of personal space – everyone’s got way too much personal space out here in their natural fabric clothes.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Anthropology Series: Goth Therapy

Those PCB's (Pale Chicks in Black) in high school? they weren't just posing -- they were part of a huge support group:
About half of teenage goths have deliberately harmed themselves or attempted suicide, a new study suggests. But joining the modern subculture – which grew out of the 1980s gothic rock scene – may actually protect vulnerable children, researchers say.

The study followed 1258 young people who were interviewed at ages 11, 13, 15 and 19. It found that of those who considered themselves goths, 53% had self-harmed and 47% had tried to commit suicide. The average prevalence of self-harm among young people in the UK is 7% to 14%. Self-harm includes behaviours such as cutting or burning oneself. And about 6% of young people admit suicide attempts. Some studies suggest the incidence is rising in society. . . .

“One common suggestion is they may be copying subcultural icons or peers [when they self-harm], but our study found that more young people reported self-harm before, rather than after, becoming a goth. This suggests that young people with a tendency to self-harm are attracted to the goth subculture,” says Robert Young, who led the study.

“Rather than posing a risk, it's also possible that by belonging to the goth subculture, young people are gaining valuable social and emotional support from their peers.” But he cautions: “However, the study was based on small numbers and replication is needed to confirm our results.” Only 25 participants felt strongly associated with goth culture.
FromNew Scientist "Goth subculture may protect vulnerable children"

OG Investing Tips?

Perhaps we should stop to consider the social responsibilities involved, but the OG will simply note that uranium is currently in a long bull market. China, India, and others are freaking out, trying to find a way to keep the lights on in the future. Just presenting the facts.

Keep on Rockin' in the Free World

MTV -- bastion of totally righteous American freedom -- refused to play M.I.A.'s video for "Sunshowers" because of her reference to the Palestinian Liberation Organization:
Performing as M.I.A., Arulpragasam recently shrugged knowingly as MTV refused her "Sunshowers" video. "I was told that they took issue with the overall atmosphere of the song, not just the 'like PLO we don't surrendo' line."
Austin Chronicle. See also Washington Post:
Sunshowers," sampling a vintage track by Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band, was banned by MTV because of the lyrics "you wanna go? you wanna winna war? Like PLO, I don't surrendo."

Thanks, Viacom, for reminding us of what's important: American Freedom. See also Cancellation of the play "My Name is Rachel Corrie" at the New York Theater Workshop.

Welcome to America, 2006. A nice place to visit, but . . . .

Monday, May 08, 2006

Anthropology Series: Incest

Continuing with our theme for this month, anthropology, a brief detour into the heart of the field: incest:
Where does this leave the taboo on incest? Rather than insisting that it is ubiquitous—in face of the facts of history, which show that brother–sister, father–daughter and mother–son relations have in some societies, such as Ancient Egypt or Achaemenid Persia, not only not been prohibited, but even enjoined—Godelier suggests that what is actually universal is something simpler. The sexual drive is fundamentally asocial: notoriously no respecter of rules, it even particularly delights in breaking them. Hence for society to be possible at all, it must be constrained. Any society requires therefore the existence of some sexual prohibitions as such. These, however, can take any number of different forms. If taboos on incest are far the most common of these, that is because they guard the door to the parenting unit that distinguishes human from primate societies:

There nowhere exists a society where the individual is authorized to satisfy all his sexual desires (and so also fantasies). And it is always at the threshold of the social units within which men and women cooperate to bring up children, whether or not they have given birth to them, that the most extreme forms of sexual permissiveness have been halted.

Métamorphoses de la parenté ends with a panorama of transformations in kinship today, which focuses principally on the West, where the changes under way are the most dramatic. Historically, Godelier maintains, humanity has exhibited a certain evolutionary tendency in its alliance systems, from a common ‘Dravidian’ starting-point, whose changes have been irreversible, but not (so far) unilinear—a pattern he surmises is likely to hold in the future too. Humans, however, are the only species co-responsible with nature for their own evolution. In the past they rarely acknowledged their own role in creating rules of kinship, but now they can scarcely do otherwise, as laws and customs governing relations between and within the sexes are in full mutation, with the spread of single parenting, homosexual marriage, artificial insemination and the prospect of cloning all now crowding onto the public agenda. In the last lines of his book Godelier reiterates that ‘what separates human beings definitively from primates, their cousins in nature, is that they not only live in society but can and must produce society in order to live’. It is one of the underlying messages of this work that in confronting the unexpected in that task today, the sang-froid of the anthropologist is needed.
Apparently, incest was permitted and even encouraged at various points in history as a method of conserving and consolidating wealth.
Passing to the extent of taboos on brother–sister unions, Godelier notes that for many years French scholars, under the influence of Lévi-Strauss, disregarded the evidence that such interdictions were not to be found in Ancient Egypt or Persia. Different kinds of ‘close marriage’, indeed, were characteristic of much of the Mediterranean area before the coming of Christianity. But although he spells out the way such patterns undermine any idea of the universality of incest prohibitions as conventionally understood—in Persia not only brother–sister, but father–daughter and even mother–son coupling was sanctioned—he attributes such ‘exceptions’ essentially to local cosmogonies, in which selected humans could imitate the conduct of gods. In royal families, this would have been one element of the situation. But there were more terrestrial considerations as well. Godelier cites Herrenschmidt’s report of a Persian tale as late as the eleventh century ad, in which a mother says to her daughter: there is no one in Iran worthy of you except the prince Virou, your brother. Conservation of rank was certainly important in such cases. But in Ancient Egypt, as Keith Hopkins has shown, brother–sister marriages extended throughout the population. What needed to be conserved was not just rank, but property. For this was a society in which the status of women was high, and women possessed their own goods through the dowry. Irrigated land was extremely valuable, and many were involved in the conservation of differentiated property.

‘Close marriage’ of this kind was thus not simply a matter of the continuity of the group, as Godelier implies. A paradigmatic case can be found in Ancient Israel, when the daughters of Zelophehad were given the right to inherit from their father if he had no male heirs, but at the same time told they must marry within the clan, so the property would not be dispersed. It was the same with the epikleratic marriages of Ancient Greece, where an heiress had to marry within the kin group, to a father’s brother’s son—as in the contemporary Arab world. Close marriage conserves both rank and property, in a way often seen as ‘incestuous’ in other systems. From the Bronze Age onwards, in my view, stratified urban societies attempted to preserve the status not only of sons but of daughters, by means of a dowry which allocated sisters part of the parental wealth (rarely equal to that of their brothers). There was thus a general tendency in these societies to marry into the same wealth or status group, even occasionally into the same family.
From New Left Review.

The article at Wikipedia on the incest taboo reviews some of the theories as to why the incest taboo has been more or less universal:
One theory suggests that the taboo expresses a psychological revulsion that people naturally experience at the thought of incest. Most anthropologists reject this explanation, since incest does in fact occur. Alternatively, the taboo itself may be the cause of this psychological revulsion.

Another theory is that the observance of the taboo would lower the incidence of congenital birth defects caused by inbreeding. Anthropologists reject this explanation for two reasons. First, inbreeding does not lead to congenital birth defects per se; it leads to an increase in the frequency of homozygotes. A homozygote encoding a congenital birth defect will produce children with birth defects, but homozygotes that do not encode for congenital birth defects will decrease the number of carriers in a population. If children born with this type of heritable birth defect die (or are killed) before they reproduce, the ultimate effect of inbreeding will be to decrease the frequency of defective genes in the population. Second, anthropologists have pointed out that in the Trobriand case a man and the daughter of his father's sister, and a man and the daughter of his mother's sister, are equally distant genetically. Therefore, the prohibition against relations is not based on or motivated by concerns over biological closeness.

Finally, Claude Lévi-Strauss has argued that the incest taboo is in effect a prohibition against endogamy, and the effect is to encourage exogamy. Through exogamy, otherwise unrelated households or lineages will form relationships through marriage, thus strengthening social solidarity.

I always enjoyed the very mytho-fantastic speculations of Freud on the origins of the incest taboo
One day the brothers who had been driven out came together, killed and devoured their father and so made an end of the patriarchal horde. United, they had the courage to do and succeed in doing what would have been impossible for them individually. (Some cultural advance, perhaps, command over some new weapon, had given them a sense of superior strength). Cannibal savages as they were, it goes without saying that they devoured their victim as well as killing him. The violent primal father had doubtless been the feared and envied model of each one of the company of brothers: and in the act of devouring him they accomplished their identification with him, and each one acquired a portion of his strength. The totem meal, which is perhaps mankind's earliest festival, would thus be a repetition and a commemoration of this memorable and criminal deed, which was the beginning of so many things - or social organisation, of moral restrictions and of religion. . . .

In order that these latter consequences may seem plausible, leaving their premises on one side, we need only suppose that the tumultuous mob of brothers were filled with the same contradictory feelings which we can see at work in the ambivalent father-complexes of our children and our neurotic patients. They hated their father, who presented such a formidable obstacle to their craving for power and their sexual desires; but they loved and admired him too. After they had got rid of him, had satisfied their hatred and had put into effect their wish to identify with him, the affection which had all this time been pushed under was bound to make itself felt. It did so in the form of remorse. A sense of guilt made its appearance, which in this instance coincided with the remorse felt by the whole group. The dead father became stronger than the living one had been - for events took the course we often see them follow in human affairs to this day. What had up to then been prevented by his actual existence [p.205] was thenceforward prohibited by the sons themselves, in accordance with the psychological procedure so familiar to us in psychoanalysis under the name 'deferred obedience'. They revoked their deed by forbidding the killing of the totem, the substitute for their father; and they renounced its fruits by resigning their claim to the women who had now been set free. They thus created out of their filial sense of guilt the two fundamental taboos of totemism, which for that very reason inevitably corresponded to the two repressed wishes of the Oedipus complex. Whoever contravened those two taboos became guilty of the only two crimes with which primitive society concerned itself.
From Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo (1913).

Thursday, May 04, 2006


¡Feliz Cinco de Mayo! Hoy, el Pulpo Grigori es en español por Cinco de Mayo. Tengo que practicar mi español un poco más porque ahora yo vivo en Los Angeles.

Esta noche, me siento agotado y ansioso. Mi trabajo dame un dolor de estómago. ¡Pero, hoy es Cinco de Mayo! Mañana yo trabajaré. En Sabado, yo dormiré.
"El día de hoy, las armas nacionales se cubrieron de gloria." éste es el inicio del texto Parte de Guerra que el general Ignacio Zaragoza le envió al presidente Benito Juárez el 5 de mayo de 1862, tras una épica batalla en que las fuerzas mexicanas, en desventaja numérica y mal armadas, vencieron a las tropas bien entrenadas y armadas de Napoleón III.
Wikipedia en español.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Farewell to Louis Rukeyser

I was saddened to hear over the radio this morning that Louis Rukeyser, host of PBS’s “Wall Street Week", had died:
Rukeyser, who died Tuesday at 73, was for 32 years the winking, crinkly-haired host of "Wall $treet Week," a Friday-night staple on more than 300 PBS stations. Before CNBC, before the Internet, before the over-amped exhortations of Suze Orman and Jim Cramer, the wry Rukeyser was the most important source of financial advice on the air. That is no small mantle; the rise of the mom-and-pop investor class in the latter half of the 20th century was easily one of the most transformative economic movements in American history.

His program's format was comfortable and familiar, like a big easy chair at the end of a tiring workweek. (Rukeyser often sat in a big leather chair while hosting.) Its two main elements were Rukeyser's disarming little soliloquies about the week's economic and business news, followed by a panel discussion featuring Rukeyser's "elves," a group of professional money managers who offered picks and predictions. There were no technical analyses, no yield curves, no biz-page arcana.
Washington Post.

When I was a kid, my father used to religiously set the VCR to tape Rukeyser’s show, which aired at 8pm on Fridays on our Hartford PBS station (CPTV Channel 24). This used to be a pain because “Wall Street Week” aired at the same time as “The Muppet Show” and we weren’t allowed to change the channel until Rukeyser’s show was over. I remember my dad trying to make me sit through the show a couple times. I liked the theme song, which was reassuring, mildly exciting – you felt like you were about to be let in on something if you continued to watch the show. The set was a very civilized looking study, rugs and shelves lined with books, lots of dark wood. Everyone was so witty and entertaining, making jokes about the Fed as they pushed their glasses back up their noses. It was all very Greenwich (where Rukeyser lived).

It’s sad that Rukeyser’s gone. It feels very much like the end of an era. We’ll never go back to those early ‘80’s days, when my parents were still anxious (“Where will we get the money for college?” “How are we going to pay off the house?”), when my dad was still edgy and ambitious, looking for a way to scramble a bit further up, hanging on every word of “Wall Street Week” for the economic wisdom that would help him escape worry and fear -- when we were all younger and weren’t sure how things would turn out. Rukeyser, programmed into our old Panasonic VCR with the analog dial counter, was very much part of our temporary, but at the time forever-seeming, stable routine of getting ahead, week by week.

My dad turned 60 a few months ago. He’ll probably retire soon. As I see icons like Rukeyser, Jennings, and others pass on, fixtures of my childhood with my parents, I can’t help but think not just that there may not be endless stretches of time left with my parents, but also that day by day, the elements of our shared past are disappearing.

See also "Farewell to Louis Rukeyser" at the Motley Fool.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

New Theme for May: Anthropology

April’s theme, economics, was mostly a bust. That’s okay. It’s May now, and time once again for new theme. This month, our theme will be anthropology.

I go by a nickname. I almost never use my real name, which my grandparents back in Bangladesh chose for me – they sent a telegraph to my parents in Hartford telling them the name they had selected. The name is unwieldy and I’m not even sure I pronounce it properly. My middle brother also has a proper name and a nickname. These dual names caused all sorts of paperwork problems in school and other places, so when my youngest brother was born, we all decided he would have just one name. We would spare him all the hassles of having to explain that you have a “real” name.

Looking back now, I wonder if we didn’t deprive my youngest brother of that layer of protection you get from having a “real” or somewhat “secret” name:
Unable to discriminate clearly between words and things, the savage commonly fancies that the link between a name and the person or thing denominated by it is not a mere arbitrary and ideal association, but a real and substantial bond which unites the two in such a way that magic may be wrought on a man just as easily through his name as through his hair, his nails, or any other material part of his person. In fact, primitive man regards his name as a vital portion of himself and takes care of it accordingly. . . .

The same fear seems to have led to a custom of the same sort amongst the ancient Egyptians . . . . Every Egyptian received two names, which were known respectively as the true name and the good name, or the great name and the little name; and while the good or little name was made public, the true or great name appears to have been carefully concealed. A Brahman child receives two names, one for common use, the other a secret name which none but his father and mother should know. The latter is only used at ceremonies such as marriage. The custom is intended to protect the person against magic, since a charm becomes effectual in combination with the real name.
From Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough (1922).

It’s a fascinating idea – one’s real name as a password of sorts, knowledge of someone’s true name as a power over that person. When reading these passages in Frazer’s book, sadly, I immediately thought of the legal complaint: Often, a plaintiff will file a complaint against certain named defendants (those individuals he believes responsible for causing him damage, and whose names he knows) and will list, in addition, “Does 1-10” or something to that effect – this is a way for the plaintiff to state that he knows there are other defendants out there also responsible for having caused him harm, but he does not know their names yet. So long as the plaintiff is unable to name the defendants, he has no power over them. Once he does learn their names, however, he is entitled to amend his complaint and force the newly named defendants to respond to the complaint and participate in the judicial process.

I think of invitations in a somewhat similar way. Knowing someone’s name and address allows you to grab a hold of them in a sense – you find them with your invitation and are thus able to request their presence, etc. There’s not the same enforceability as with a legal complaint served on a named defendant, but the underlying principles are the same. You find someone and force them to respond (under the rules of politeness) to your demand, in one form or another.

Of course, it is weird to have these two names. The name I go by, an American name, feels a bit off and foreign -- it's never really felt like my name. But I can't even properly pronounce my real name -- that doesn't much feel like my name either. Both names feel totally disconnected from me, and I end up feeling nameless and formless. But perhaps that's good: there's no way anyone will ever have true power over the unnamed portion of me.