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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Europe is better in some ways

The day before this article was published, Alex and I were in Barcelona noting the ingeniusness of its city-wide bike-renting program and contemplating the feasibility of starting up such a program in, of all places, DC. Since that brilliant idea has been taken, I guess I will have to settle for franchising a Maoz, the vegetarian do-it-yourself falafel bar that adds suprising tastiness to the otherwise bland (and frequently soggy) nastiness that is the falafel.

Now we're in Madrid, where I am eating and drinking chocolate for breakfast every day and wondering why exactly Americans prefer their hot chocolate made from powder instead of pure, nearly solid chocolate:

Friday, April 25, 2008

Travel is so daunting. I got out of bed this morning ready to go, but then I thought, "No, too far," and I got back in again. Having watched John Adams, I understand that technology has made great strides in "shrinking distances, such that it's no longer necessary for your family to act as though you were dying when you leave to go abroad, but still. The actual distance between places remains the same. I remain daunted.

So, to Spain and Italy until next Monday. Blogging will be about as infrequent as when I'm at home.

In the meantime, Cheryl has an article in the WSJ about surrogate mothers.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Burn your advice manuals and listen to me instead

Julia is worried that her desire to attend grad school is rendered less pure because it may be based on nostalgia for college. This is a big finger-waving point with people who make their living telling you both not to apply to grad school and how to get in when you ignore their warnings and apply anyway: "Don't apply to grad school because you're looking for an extension of college." (Followed by: "naughty, naughty.")

Having firmly decided last year to stop listening to these people no matter what they say, I think Julia need not be concerned. I interpret these warnings to be largely directed to those whose college careers were profiled in the socially provocative and generation-defining documentary, Animal House. These people, like Julia (and me), enjoyed college. But unlike Julia (and me), they may find it difficult to re-establish their college patterns of time allocation in grad school. As a result, they will run up against possibly insurmountable difficulties replicating their college experiences, and they will be sad that they didn't take the finger-wavers' advice.

Julia, on the other hand, spent a lot of time with me in college. As a result, much of her social life consisted of studying (sometimes less diligently than might be desired), preparing to study, and recapping previous studies. My first real experience of how the other half colleged probably came that night a week before graduation, when I ended what was likely an exciting evening in the cold embrace of Yana's toilet. I can also attest to the infrequency of Julia's lapses into regrettable forms of sociality, which can be quantified by tallying the number of times she came home and announced, "Omigod, I love you guys soooo much." If this had happened a lot, there would have been violence. Since there wasn't, you can be assured that it was rare.

Alex shares other aspects of Julia's college experience:
...monthly trips to Jewel where we buy half the store and then immediately eat a whole tub of spinach dip upon arrival at the apartment. And multiple half-functional hookahs, a mouse family missing a Chester, a sagging denim sofa, brunch at Salonica (!), and a black cat who hangs upside down from chairs and buries your pens so you can't do any work.
None of this strikes me as particularly likely to detract from effective graduate school performance. Every good student must eat, and smoke, and enlist the services of a crazed feline to catch the mice in her apartment. These are domestic staples, not academic distractions.

And for the record, all my hookahs work just fine.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Some thoughts on deadlines

I hate writing.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Decaffeination

This is kind of old news, but Seb and I were at Eastern Market last month and we walked past Murky Coffee to discover it empty and covered with ominous signs that read "Seized." Since neither of us are great fans of Murky, especially the Capitol Hill location, which was not only overpriced, but also staffed by snobby authenticist baristas and perennially overcrowded, we were not so sad to see it go. Recently, I came across this WashPost account of its closure, and discovered that it was "seized" because, apparently, the owner neglected to pay both his taxes and his rent.

Despite this seemingly glaring omission (at least our coffee was good, he pleads), people reflexively insist that Murky is morally purer than chain coffee shops.
Bill Day, a 10th-grade math teacher at Cesar Chavez Charter School who enjoyed $1 teacher coffees, called the closing of Murky Coffee "a terrible thing," adding, "The coffee was good, and you feel better about buying it here than at Dunkin' Donuts or Starbucks."
At least Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts aren't squatting in your neighborhood. Also, if you're not paying rent or taxes, how can you justify charging $4.50 for a chai (cash only)?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Miss Self-Important predicts the future

Prediction: This girl is going to have a deservedly difficult life.

UPDATE: This story has grown increasingly complex, so I will refer you to UD for further coverage and commentary. I would, however, add that thus far, this important discourse-sparking work of art has only inspired conversations about such topics as how quickly an embryo implants and one recovers from "herbal" abortions, and how many days one might have to sit in a shower if one was hoping to collect enough menstrual blood to fill a cup? These are indeed critical discursive practices.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Tardy April Fool's?

After a minor protest last year at Chicago after the UCDems got $26,000 from one of Student Government's gazillion funding bodies to bring James Carville to campus, the funders decided this year to spread the money out more reasonably among more diverse groups, including apparently:
The Zombie Readiness Task Force was granted $5,540 to bring Max Brooks, the author of The Zombie Survival Guide, to campus to deliver a speech on how to survive zombie attacks. Because the group was denied RSO status last spring, the Task Force is not eligible for SG funding this year. Second-year Justin Hartmann, co-founder of the Task Force, said receiving UnCommon funding was crucial to the group’s development and growth.
I know I promised to stop blogging about the Maroon, but in my defense, this is awesome.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Rehabilitating suburbia

Since I'm on the topic of rescuing things commonly pooh-poohed, let's talk about suburbia. I got a copy of the catalog for this exhibit in my office the other day, and it includes an interview with Robert Venturi, of Miss Self-Important Fails Architecture Class fame. (Who knew that class would be so useful? Certainly not I, or I would have done more of the reading.) The interview is about Venturi's study of Levittown, which, we are told, shocked the planning and architectural establishments that had previously refused to take such suburbs seriously. But Venturi and his colleagues pointed out how Levittown homes were adapted and customized by their owners to express more than the drab conformism and visual monotony typically associated with suburbia. See guys, suburbia's not so bad! But then, when asked his views of newer suburbs, Venturi admits he's a "snob" about them and hates "McMansions." Whither your sympathy for tacky populism, Mr. Venturi?

Allow me to invent a baseless theory here. The widespread distaste for suburbia among the sophisticated classes is basically a (reasonable, well-founded) conservative reaction to the novel and unknown.Suburbia is the twentieth century's version of the American frontier. Many of the same criticisms about the monotony of sights and the alienation of life in suburbia could be leveled against homesteaders on the Great Plains into the early twentieth century. The unrelenting Northwest Ordinance land grid, the sod houses, the tree-less plains, the isolation--American Beauty could be an updated Giants in the Earth, where everyone goes crazy from sheer loneliness and monotony. Even where environments were more hospitable, the first phases of frontier settlement were hardly models of variety and stimulation. But a century later, is anyone questioning the authenticity of frontier life? The clapboard houses of Midwestern small towns are now charming, the towns themselves targets for nostalgia about old-time "community."

So, too, our evaluation of suburbs grows more generous as they age. Pre-war suburbs like Evanston and Wilmette are all, "Look at our New Urbanism. We have art galleries and coffee shops and gourmet burrito joints. Aren't you tempted?" Postwar Skokies are suffering a little, but since they're now home to what seem like entire regions transferred intact from India and Korea and Poland, they claim a folksy, immigrant charm. Like the West, once they're lived-in and incorporated into our mental geography, suburbs lose their ominous, soul-consuming edge. When I imagine a map of Chicago, it spans from Wilmette to Hyde Park, the lake to Naperville. (I know Chicago doesn't end w/ Hyde Park, but between Hyde Park and Pullman lies a vast stretch of territory I haven't explored and so can't place on a mental map, just like Highland Park is a foreign land as far as I'm concerned.) And what began as woeful visual monotony can also become charming and desirable once its been lived-in long enough--Chicago bungalows, for example, or Brooklyn brownstones.

So how are the exurbs any different? They might, like the Great Plains homesteads, turn out to be unsustainable, especially given our current energy dilemma. But that wouldn't necessarily be because they're too creepy or too alienating for human habitation. People bent on making a living and protecting their families can adjust to many untested and seemingly unbearable conditions, even living in developments named Fair Oaks on the Heath. None of this is to say that there aren't better and worse ways to arrange the built environment and design residences, or that suburbs are necessarily the optimal combination. I only want to point out that a lack of visual excitement or even identifiable elements of high culture hardly damns a place. Just give it half a century. In the meantime, watch the gourmet burrito joint open up shop in the downtown of a city near you.

UPDATE: Like Withywindle, I am doomed to reinvent wheels.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Self-fashioning

Following up on my previous complaint that no one in Second Life is fat, I have re-fashioned my avatar to more effectively subvert SL aesthetics. Check me out:


UPDATE: I can't believe no one believes me when I say fat:

Rehabilitating Puritanism

Since it is quite likely that the Puritans were the last direct descendants of Rome, I am always annoyed by the nearsightedness of people who deride Puritan "moralism" and think they're scoring some great political victory, as though there could be any politics at all in the absence of judgment. I plan to someday revive Calvinism as a viable way of life (none of this watered-down mainline Congregationalism) after demonstrating that it offered the most effective framework for livable liberalism, but that, of course, is for the future. (No need to point out now that Calvinism already dissolved into commercial individualism once before. I am aware. I will fix it.)

In the meantime, I will defend the Puritans against such attacks. These things often boil down to the very juvenile demand, "Don't judge me!", which, if obeyed, would make it impossible to draw distinctions from which we make decisions, and that would make life pretty much unlivable. Much of this kind of argument rests on the tricky public/private distinction whose precise articulation continues to elude liberalism, but is explained here as follows: ok, maybe we can judge people sometimes, but only on their public actions, since private life should be outside the purview of morality. And, even then, we should be flexible. But it turns out that the two spheres are not really so separate--private morality grows almost entirely out of public standards (in this case, widespread media portrayals of people behaving badly has caused more people to behave badly, so who can blame them?). Solution: throwing out the category of "bad behavior" altogether because the corrupt are victims of public pressure to be corrupt. Except when the corrupt steal our money, or are members of the opposite political party; then they should still be accountable for failing to stand up to public pressure. Does this argument seem to be going in circles yet?

And does this concession to private corruption apply to private people or public people? Unclear. Even more unclear is who is public and who is private: "There are large numbers of readers whose lives seem driven by the need to utter sweeping condemnations of total strangers. But the savagery of their judgments is directly proportional to the degree to which the offending writer, almost always a private individual, goes into intimate, confessional detail about his or her transgressions." Actually, publishing your writing in Salon is not private. Published writing exists to be judged, and not merely for its technique. If it weren't, no writing would be more valuable than any other writing (certainly not opinion writing), and Mr. Kamiya would be out of a job.

See, maybe the Puritans had a point with the stocks.