Sunday, December 28, 2008

Resolution evaluation and propagation

Ok, let's begin by recalling last year's resolutions. Except for one outstanding grad school application due in January, it seems I have once again managed to attain my desired ends. This is predictably what happens when you aim low.

Now, for the upcoming year:
1. Get into grad school.
2. Move to a decent place in autumn, if necessary.
3. Write things.
4. Go places.
5. Be not unhappy a year from now.
Optional 6. Read War and Peace.

What is the point of an optional resolution, you ask? Mostly just for the appearance of change over time, probably.

That felt good. Maybe I should start posting more to-do lists and things here for the catharsis.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Thanks to the land of not-Christmas for shipping us your extra people

The only problem with Christmas, as I've said before, is that it actually happens. The part I like is the lead-up, when everything is bright and warm and festive. Christmas Day though is cold and empty and closed. Everyone is suddenly pre-occupied, the TV and radio are taken hostage, and there is nowhere to pick up emergency eggs and baking powder. But at least in Lincolnwood/Skokie, there are enough immigrants from the land of not-Christmas to keep a few straggly places open.

So, last night, I made black and white cookies with Beckus, and they failed a little, and then we went out for Chinese food at Great Beijing, which is the best Chinese restaurant ever if you're from Lincolnwood because it's the only Chinese restaurant in Lincolnwood, and therefore the formative experience in Chinese food for everyone who grows up here (as the positive bias of all the Yelp commenters from Lincolnwood attests).*

This morning, I went to the Greek grocery, because the Greeks also don't celebrate Christmas today, and I tried to make the same black and white cookies with my mother. They failed magnificently because we don't have any cookie sheets, only a broiling pan, which doesn't, as you can see, work as well at circulating heat and flattening dough blobs into cookies:

Also, chocolate ganache fail. On the other hand, I finally learned what it means to "troll the ancient yuletide carol," and that it doesn't relate to underground monsters. At this rate of discovery, I should have all of Christianity pretty well figured out within the next 100 years.

In the future, maybe the Pakistanis will open up more businesses and give the Chinese and Greeks some Christmas competition. But maybe I should've just spent Christmas on Devon, where that has probably already happened. For the rest of you however, Merry Christmas.

*In theory, there is also Kow-Kow of the eternally empty parking lot, but I lived less than a mile from it for 15 years and never ate there, so as far as I'm concerned, it doesn't actually exist.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Application exhaustion

What if I just never write this supplementary essay and don't apply to this last school? Will it ever matter?

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Christmas Jews

Every year during this time, I feel compelled to re-profess my love for Christmas. I know it gets repetitive, but it has to be said. Julia and Phoebe hate Christmas, but I cannot agree. I love Christmas. It used to be the second best holiday ever, but ever since I found myself trying to satisfy the shocking greed of small children from the candy-dispensing side of Halloween last year, my estimation of Christmas has increased.

There are other benefits of Christmas that tend to remain under-appreciated by children, but have become more evident to me with time. It is, for one thing, the only time of year when everyone gets a vacation and can go home to Chicago, and I can see them. In many cases, it is the only time when people get a vacation, period. Things are on sale, and I can buy them for people. Coffee tastes better. Winter has not been around long enough to breed impatience yet. Basically, perfect holiday for adults.

This is all obviously of little significance to a child, whose entire life is a vacation, and Christmas is only that part of the vacation during which all of your friends are too pre-occupied with their families to pay you any attention. You have no money, so you have little interest in sales, and you are the grabbing child of Halloween trick-or-treating mentioned above, so you are not interested in giving gifts. And my particular family never celebrated Christmas or used everyone else's celebration as an excuse to go to the Bahamas for a week. (Vacations can only be taken during off-peak seasons which require missing tons of school, like mid-February.)

I also used to resent Christmas music because I thought it marginalized Hanukkah music. I realized that there wasn't all that much Hanukkah music to marginalize in the first place, but I assumed that this was because no one had applied sufficient effort to the matter. However, in middle school, our choir teacher tried to seize on this market disparity by composing a Hanukkah song for our holiday concerts, and it went something like this:
let your heart feel the memory of joyous scenes
shooting star
as it glides through the night and into your dreams
only one light could last many a night
so the story is told
oh hannukah
(these lyrics are from an old IM conversation with Beckus--ask her for the rest)
Basically, this song disabused me of the idea that the world needed more Hanukkah songs, and I came to appreciate Christmas songs for what they were. Later, I also appreciated the remarkable cultural standardization of Christmas music--the way that, for three or so weeks before December 25, everyone in America listens to and loves the same five or six hymns and five or six pop Christmas standards, and that even the market imperative to innovate has largely failed to replace these songs (except, "Last Christmas I Gave You My Heart"--HOW did that edge its way into the national playlist???) and even the preferred versions of the songs (Bing Crosby always sings White Christmas, right?). In fact, this is largely true of national Christmas traditions in general, which is another, possibly totalitarian reason I love Christmas.

I realize that, coming after my anti-Holocaust Jew post, this might make me sound not so Jewish, especially by Phoebe's definition, but that's not really the point. I think Christmas in America is American (note the differences in celebration even in countries not so different from ours), and despite its fundamentally Christian premise, time, national circumstance, and commercialization have ensured, for better or worse, that it's no longer exclusive of anyone except those, like Phoebe (and my mother), who want to exclude themselves. (Also, about the Jews with trees - maybe they were Russian Jews?) Even to the extent that religious observance is still part of it, I don't see any reason to be threatened by it. (Are there reasons to be?) Probably my political sympathies and academic interests both lend themselves to a view of America as a "Christian country" whose Christianity still imprints itself on everyone who comes here, and not necessarily in any nefarious, crush-your-indigenous-culture way, but as a vast protestantizing force towards reform and redemption.

Not that this protestantization has much to do with American Christmas (except maybe insofar as people give to charity then and make New Year's Resolutions--probably not the strongest connection). I think the only point I set out to make is that Christmas is, in addition to being clearly evolutionarily adaptive, well-suited to adulthood, especially adulthood pre-parenthood. Also, I am listening to "Home for the Holidays" as I type (24-hour Christmas music channel!), and I will be home for the holidays tomorrow (assuming the weather cooperates). How can I hate Christmas when it brings me to Chicago?

Friday, December 19, 2008

Falling consumer prices

Can that explain why a suit costs less right now at Benetton than across the street at H&M? Or why everything on M Street is on sale? Or is that just Christmas?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The week of audacious scams

Miss Self-Important loves hearing about audacious scams. I think a lot of people love audacious scams who also love rules, just like a lot of people love murder mysteries who do not actually murder people. Rule-followers (and non-murderers, to continue the analogy) are committed to their paths for various reasons--principles, restraint, fear of punishment--but I assume that everyone wonders from time to time what it would take to break that commitment, and if they did, how would they do it?

Now, I doubt that anyone, myself included, is that impressed by a fraud whose modus operandi or whose marks are not sophisticated. Those emails asking for money to be sent to Nigeria that always fool old people? Anyone can send an email asking strangers for money. It has to be more spectacular than that, like maybe a middle-aged homeless drifter with a prison record posing as a boy genius track star and getting into Princeton. Or like one of the three biggest hedge funds in the world turning out to be a lie.

Maybe the idea is that the fascinating scam must fool the elite, whose position would seem to make them otherwise most immune to such frauds of identity, or who should know better? After all, what interest does a small town cop who bought his diploma online really hold? Revoke his promotion and his raise and call it a day. It's the permutations of Jay Gatsby that captivate Miss Self-Important (and, I assume, you too)--the way that the really audacious scams play on the hubris of people who already believe themselves to be magical, and so express no surprise when more magic comes their way.

Poor people buy lotto tickets and lose a buck hoping for a million percent return. The middle class is content with a 4 percent return on its no-risk 12-month CDs. But only the elite few are allowed into Bernie Madoff's exclusive operation to undermine the very game they practically invented. They know it can't be real, but the universe makes exceptions for the exceptionally blessed, right?

I don't think my interest is schadenfreude, since I am neither happy that all these people lost their money, nor do I think I would've been wiser in their situation. All that was preventing me from joining in their idiocy was circumstance--I have neither the financial nor social capital to be considered a worthwhile mark for this kind of fraud. It's just ongoing fascination with the structural pitfalls of social mobility.

Also, is this not the best scam of all--not only a fake company, but also a fake PhD:
Earlier this year, she began to question Mr. Bagger about boasts that he had a Ph.D. from San Francisco Technical University. She asked how that was possible when no such university exists. Mr. Bagger came up with an elaborate plan.

On the pretext of developing talking points for college employees to answer phone queries about academic records, he hired Vicki Lang, an American artist and actress living in Copenhagen, to play the role of an official at San Francisco State University, an institution that does exist. "If I'd thought about it, I might have said: 'Oh, this sounds strange,' but I was just happy to have a job," recalls Ms. Lang.
I guess that's another way scams work--relying on people who do not think.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Child liberation in two easy steps

Step 1: Teach "the youth" to make firebombs.
Step 2: Prevent the police from entering university campuses.

I don't profess to even begin to understand why Greece is always descending into riots, and I know that "the youth" are constantly involved in armed combat with the police there so another one is not big news, but what I don't understand is how it's possible that "a similar shooting incident in 1985 led to a lengthy vendetta between the youths and police, with violence continuing for years." Doesn't "the youth" grow up and get replaced by new youth that wasn't even alive when the original shooting happened? Or is "the youth" a permanent hostile faction, like an immortal Weather Underground, except bigger? And wouldn't that be a strange kind of politics, if everyone were expected to lob firebombs at the police until he turned 20, at which time, he would become the police and his children would lob firebombs at him?

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Department of Bad Ideas: My fifth grade teacher is a university professor

Let me preface this by saying that I think classical schools are a great idea, and I think it's excellent that the Washington Latin School will open next year, if for no other reason than to create endless confusion when it's mistaken for Washington Latin Public Charter School. Since it's my ambition to teach my future hypothetical children Latin as their native language (like Montaigne, except unlike his father, I don't actually know Latin - minor obstacle), a proliferation of Latin schools will ease my way.

Nonetheless, if the job descriptions are any indicator of these things, the people running this particular school are insane. The posting for a 5th-6th grade humanities teacher prefers those with "advanced degrees" in their discipline, and requires "active scholarship in his or her field of studies." Now, ok, an advanced degree might be an academic master's, which is not so uncommon in education, especially at private schools (though I'm not sure I see how it's necessary to teach the fifth grade). But what is "active scholarship"? That sounds to me like Washington Latin's fifth grade teacher is going to not only have a PhD, but also be publishing in the Journal of American History, in which case, not only is this person going to be miserable teaching fifth graders the names of the seven continents, but the fifth graders are going to be miserable trying to grasp the basic chronology of the American Revolution while their teacher is talking about the historiographical move from Marxist to liberal readings of the founding, and the contribution of the republican synthesis to current scholarship.

Maybe there is some profound reasoning here on the part of the school that would justify asking for advanced education as a prerequisite to teach 10-year-olds that the Greeks believed in a pantheon of gods, and Charlotte's Web is a good book. But what is it? The only rationale I can think of is that they can list their faculty's PhDs and publications on their website to collect tuition from ambitious parents who are also deluded into believing that this credential is appropriate for the job because more education automatically equals more qualification, no matter the actual content of the education. This process in reverse--getting a PhD and then deciding to teach school instead--is fine, since it assumes that the PhD is willing to more or less ignore his advanced academic training to teach school (and, also, because I need to justify it to myself). But requiring a PhD to teach school suggests that school heads believe that there is an actual connection between the skills of an excellent fifth grade teacher and the curricular content of an academic PhD program, which is, I think, insane.

Julia and I were recently discussing an offshoot of this credentialing mania recently re: people who seem unable to simply have interests without attaining a credential with which to certify them. Such people are not content to be interested in, say, birds, or to read about and photograph birds, or even to publish essays about birds--they need to get an MA in ornithology (is there even such a thing?). And then if their interest in birds wanes and they conceive an interest in experimental fiction--time for an MFA. And so on. Or hey, how about three PhDs? Because "let's say you do work as a researcher after your first PhD, and then you want to research in some new field... that would require you a PhD right?" Right.

We think we should apply for a grant to study this phenomenon, because just chatting about it is insufficient, but we're concerned that we don't have the requisite education to take it on. Time for a sociology PhD?

Friday, December 05, 2008

The real question

Is why can't I write as well as Caitlin Flanagan, who has now convinced me that I must read some 4,000-page tripe about vampire romance which I was previously utterly unwilling to touch?

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

A list of coffee shops in DC that Miss Self-Important frequents and their respective pros and cons

FLG is doing a series of posts on holiday gift recommendations, so I think I'm allowed to start making random lists too. Here is one of them.

1. Firehook in Farragut Square:
+ Southern Pecan is the best coffee evar, and it's cheaper than S'bux across the street. All espresso drinks also cheaper.
+ Nice seating.
+ 50% off all non-baked goods after 5 pm. I never use this discount, but I like that it exists.
+ Barista guy who is super nice/hits on me.
- No wifi.
- Pumpkin muffins always run out before I get there.

2. Firehook in Dupont, Capitol Hill, and Cleveland Park:
+ Prices, seating, ability to obtain pumpkin muffins.
- No Southern Pecan coffee.

3. Juan Valdez in Farragut Square:
+ Frequent drink punch card.
- All the drinks suck here, and the baristas are completely incompetent even though the same people have worked there for A YEAR. How long does it take to learn to make a latte? When will this place close and be replaced?

4. Starbuck's in Clarendon:
+ Next door to Whole Foods (dinner + work).
+ Free wifi.
+ Nice walk from my house.
+++ Open late.
- Bad coffee, blah espresso.
- Sometimes "home" to raving homeless people.

5. Murky Coffee in Clarendon:
+ Good espresso drinks.
- Extremely expensive espresso drinks.
+ Free wifi.
- Also home to homeless people who snore disruptively.
- Smells like mildew.
- There is nothing else positive about this place. I hope it is replaced, possibly by a coffee shop that buys couches instead of hauling in refuse from alleys and calling it "vintage."

7. Buzz Bakery in Alexandria:
+ zomg, so cute and comfortable.
+ Free wifi.
+ Good music.
++++ Open really late.
+ No homeless peoples.
- Because it is inconveniently located.
- Expensive.

8. Tryst in Adams Morgan:
+ Good food and drinks.
+ Drinks come with animal crackers.
+ Free wifi.
- Wifi doesn't work on weekends.
- Too crowded.
- Too expensive.
- Overplayed.
- Inconveniently located (for me).

9. Greenberry's in Court House:
+ Warm and toasty inside, comfortable chairs.
+ A nice walk from my house.
+ Free wifi.
- Limited pluggage.
- A little expensive.

10. Java Shack in Clarendon/Court House:
+ Seems lively.
- Is cultish.
- No wifi.
- Most of the seating is outdoors, most of the year is cold - bad combination.

11. Politics and Prose in somewhere in DC far away from the Metro:
+ Wifi + foods.

12. Barnes and Noble in Clarendon:
+ "Free" GRE study guides during duration of your stay.
- Sub-arctic.
- No wifi.
- Kind of redundant since it's right next to S'bux.