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Saturday, May 30, 2009

Cheapness studies, cont.

A while ago, Phoebe suggested starting a cheapness studies blog to chronicle ways not to spend money, but until that actually transpires (I'm still totally game, and I'd nominate Belle as a co-cheapster), I'm going to have to post this here.

A couple days ago, my boss directed my attention to this intriguing factoid about Sotomayor:
Sotomayor, an avid Yankees fan, lives modestly, reporting virtually no assets despite her $179,500 yearly salary.

On her financial disclosure report for 2007, she said her only financial holdings were a Citibank checking and savings account, worth $50,000 to $115,000 combined.

During the previous four years, the money in the accounts at some points was listed as low as $30,000.

When asked recently how she managed to file such streamlined reports, Sotomayor, according to a source, replied, "When you don't have money, it's easy. There isn't anything there to report."
(Now, you may be thinking, shouldn't Miss Self-Important be finding these things for her boss instead of the other way around? Yes, but don't worry, incompetence is leaving the job in a couple months.) Greg Mankiw pointed out that having $30K in savings after several decades of earning a nearly $200K salary is not necessarily a sign of "living modestly." (He does point out that she could be stashing vast moneys in her retirement account, but she claims in the WaPo not to have any money, so it's unclear.) Next to that, there was Edmund Andrews's white-collar horror story of rich economics reporters who are apparently both spenders and suckers of a sort, and the ensuing accusations of even more spending and bankruptcy as "strategic debt management." Sotomayor seems not to be in debt, so even if she's not saving, she's at least not, like Andrews, living smugly beyond her means and passing the costs of her spendiness on to everyone else. (As in, "I was actually beginning to feel sorry for Chase. It seemed to be so flooded with defaulting borrowers that it didn’t have time to foreclose on my house.")

There has to be a better way to manage money than these models. On the other hand, as the 5402 concluded a while ago in our discussion of thrift, it's actually really difficult to pin down a compelling reason to save instead of spending (especially when one has no family obligations or debt to repay), particularly a reason that includes an idea of how much saving relative to spending is necessary or desirable. My default is the more, the better, but not so much that I have to give up buying my delicious cup of Southern Pecan coffee from Firehook three time a week. However, not washing my hair to save on shampoo could be good, and I also have on several occasions used Andrews's strategy of waiting 10 minutes on the Metro platform to save 50 cents on an off-peak fare. On the whole, that is a pretty incoherent philosophy.

Friday, May 29, 2009

The adorable language

According to my Russian textbook, the Russian alphabet was created when, "in AD 863, two brothers named Cyril and Methodius were sent by the Byzantine emperor as missionaries to spread the Christian faith to Slavic tribes in what is now the Czech Republic. In connection with this mission, they developed an alphabet and translated parts of the Gospels and the liturgy into the local Slavic dialect." I was wondering about this, because the alphabet seems illogical to me (how can ш and щ be different letters when they sound exactly the same? why does every vowel have a doppelganger that starts with a y-sound?), and it turns out that this might because it was just invented out of thin air (well, with the help of some Greek characters) by two dudes.

Since they didn't do such an awesome job but it still took off, I figure I can probably make an alphabet too. Then, maybe, 1000 years from now, the people whose alphabet I made will become a major (but still barbaric) world power, and my influence will spread far and wide by means of the Miss Self-Importantillic alphabet. So I discussed this with Alex, and we concluded that the best strategy would be to find some obscure tribe in the Amazon basin whose language has yet to be codified, learn it, and make an alphabet for it. But how to avoid the ш/щ problem? Clearly, the answer is cat faces. Our language will consist of characters based on cat faces. Individual phonemes will be represented by cat faces with various modifications--one ear down, other ear down, black nose, white nose, whisker-less cat, many-whiskered cat, grinning cat, angry cat, vampire cat, sleeping cat. It will be called the Adorable Language.

I have considered that my Amazon tribesmem may reject the Adorable Language because it's absurd and unwieldy, but they are isolated and small in number. An alphabet can propel them to regional domination, just like the Russians. So I think, in the end, through cuteness and coercion, the Miss Self-Importantillic alphabet may prevail.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Dear Marilynne Robinson, please lay down the smack harder

I was hoping, indeed planning, to love The Death of Adam because I thought, given essay titles like "Puritans and Prigs," that Marilynne Robinson might share my hunch that Calvinism is an answer to the contradictions of modernity, and believers in that possibility are so few that all (three) of us must, by definition, be friends, even if some of us are left-wing adherents of an impossible and dangerous politics of love which others of us oppose.

So I was hoping Robinson would vanquish all of our mutual enemies who persist in the mistaken view that Calvinism is repressive, narrow, dull, and prudish with the sharp sword of cutting prose, and that I would rejoice at the sight of the slaughter. This is what polemic is for, right? And she does say that she's writing polemic. So this was true for the first essay, which was as sharp and deadly as I'd hoped, except, unfortunately, it was about Darwinism and not Puritans. She's also really bullish on the evangelical Abolitionists of the mid-nineteenth century Midwest. But the essays on Calvin and Puritans are surprisingly dull as far as swords go.

In order to rescue Calvin and Calvinism from unjust popular stereotypes of repressiveness, intolerance, and an undue fondness for moral condemnation and hellfire rhetoric, she transforms him into a marshmallow with no convictions and hardly any theology. Robinson's Calvin is uncannily sympathetic with all (distant) future progressive causes--he's nearly a sex-positive feminist, and he loves the Jews (well, he reads them, at least), he loves democratic egalitarianism, and most importantly, he loves love. There may be some aspects of Calvin's theology that are hard for us to swallow these days--like predestination--but if they make you nervous, don't worry, because we can brush past them with the assurance that "the logical difficulties of [Calvin's] position matter only if the question is understood in terms [he] explicitly rejects." There, doesn't that make you feel better?

Why insist that Robinson needs to make clear and possibly offensive distinctions if she wants people to like Calvin? Isn't subtlety nice too? Well, Robinson does make some really important and useful arguments--that, for example, the doctrine of predestination is not the same thing as fatalism (though what it is is left to our imagination), that Calvinist revolution is the uprising of the "the magistrates of the people"--that is, of parliament. But this isn't an academic consideration of Calvin. He did stand for some things and against others, right? What are they? It's not like the other essays are subtle about what terrible shape the world is in (Jerry Falwell has eclipsed Bach!), so why be delicate in the matter of Calvin's theology? Why not lay the smack down? She demurs in part because she seems to think sin is too ubiquitous for men to judge. But Jonathan Edwards, as she points out several times, laid down the smack in the name of charity and neighborly love. So, as far as I can tell, she has a good model to work from. Where is the reactionary left-wing Protestant hellfire, Marilynne Robinson?

Also, I should point out in the name of full disclosure here that I've never actually read the Institutes, so all my views should be taken with a grain of salt. (But it's on the to-do list!)

Friday, May 22, 2009

Things to miss about DC

Last night, Seb and I and Alex, whom we tore away from her personal trainer for this event, went to the Jefferson Lecture, where we encountered people in black tie attire and felt underdressed having come straight from work. The lecture was fine, but let's talk instead about the reception. It was like a vast sampler platter of Washington conservatism, served with a side of mini-cheeseburger hors d'oeuvres! Those spotted included George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Bill Kristol, the entire staffs of AEI, Hudson, and EPPC, all my internship supervisors from previous years, all the grad students in the Georgetown government department, and almost everyone under 30 I've ever encountered at AFF happy hours, Hudson symposia, and EPPC movie nights. I was surprised, since the tickets were free, that the median age of the audience seemed to hover around 70. Nonetheless, I thought the event was an excellent mix of DC's patricians and plebians, and Alex, who only wanted mini-cheeseburgers and a swift escape. Did I mention the open bar? Also paid for with your tax dollars? That was nice too.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The hair war, part 2

Last week, I was pretty much ready to declare "mission accomplished!" in my hair-washing campaign when the shampoo regime I thought I'd defeated was replaced by an unexpected grease insurgency. Targeting the grease has been tough since I took the shampoo out of action. But this disorder cannot stand.

So I bought baby powder, which will be my new strategy against the insurgency. Thirty minutes later, Belle sent me this rundown of "dry shampoo," which appears mostly to be overpriced, enhanced baby powder. But if the CVS brand baby powder fails, I may have to upgrade to more advanced weapons.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The best book title

The U of C Press catalog arrived in my office last week. Have I mentioned how much I love the U of C Press? In part, this is because I liked working there. But also because it publishes (or, rather, distributes) such titles as Manhood: The Rise and Fall of the Penis.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

First world problems: disease edition

It looks as though, after 24 years of valiant resistance, I have acquired allergies. I take allergies--at least to airborne triggers like pollen and puppies (yes, airborne puppies)--to be the consummate first world disease, the result of too much hand-washing and home-sterilizing--total boo-hoo.

Having observed the prevalence of allergies, I thought I could cleverly avoid such plagues by simply being dirty, which comes rather easily to me anyway. I even had a plan to roll all my hypothetical future children in piles of puppies and kittens during infancy to inoculate them against the tragic pet allergy that everyone seems to have. But I think the mountains of pollen accumulated along the curbs of Arlington this spring have overpowered my resistance, firmly built though it was on years of exposure to dirt, grease, and insects. I got so many prickly flying plant bits in my eye while running last week that my eyes burned all night from them (and I have moved my running indoors until the end of pollen season for whatever beastly plant was emitting these horrible pricklies).

So now what do I do? The air makes my nose run. Trees make me sneeze.

I guess I should clean my house.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Anti-science TV

I've been meaning to blog about Dollhouse since I started watching it regularly for reasons I don't really understand, because it involves so many things I don't care about--sci-fi, Eliza Dushku, cheesy television drama. But it's actually not that bad, or at least, I am still watching it. First Belle beat me to the punch, then Matt Frost pretty much said everything I would've said about why it's good:
One axis along which I (a non-enthusiast) situate polemical science fiction runs between “progressive” works and “reactionary” ones. A progressive work is intended to help us reshape our moral intuitions and judgment to keep up with changing technological circumstances. It encourages us to make room in our hearts for robots with feelings, or prepares us to suck up to wise, benevolent space aliens. Reactionary sci-fi, on the other hand, seeks to shore up our preexisting moral commitments in the face of technologically-induced stress. It braces us for, say, blowing sympathetic humanoid robots out of the fracking airlock.

In the case of Dollhouse, which is a more humane example of reactionary sci-fi, the technological threat is the commercial engineering of consciousness and memory. Given my own inclinations, I was surprised and gratified to see Dollhouse come down so squarely on the reactionary side (I don’t think I’m spoiling anything, but would-be viewer beware from here on). The division of the person into mind and body, even on putatively voluntary terms and for benign results, is rendered as an abomination and a betrayal of the self. The show suggests, rather naively, that the conscience abides in some deep immutable core of the personality. There’s no case made for technology-as-neutral-instrument, either: “pure” scientific curiosity is as culpable as venal corporate self-interest in creating a technology that human moral sensibilities are left utterly unable to reckon with.
This is also the part of the show that I like, that the super hip protagonist of cyberpunk--the genius hacker boy--is just an overgrown bumbling fool here, just like the emotion-less vixen at the head of the Evil Organization conspiring to take over the world. Dollhouse's bioethics seems to be that everyone, no matter how intellectually or socially sophisticated, is just an infant playing heedlessly with knives when he comes into contact with this kind of technology. The real heroes, for now, seem to be the old-fashioned men of law and honor--the slightly renegade but technologically skeptical ex-cops.

The problem though is that everyone is only a hero for now. Frost thinks that the show deals too heavily in paranoia and rests on the now-unpopular assumption that the bad things in the world are the results of super secret machinations of small groups of elite evildoers. I think the problem is that it's not based on this assumption, but insists on playing up paranoia anyway in ways that don't make a lot of sense without it. There have already been many instances of incompetence in the super secret organization of elite evildoers--Alpha's escape, the serum that infects the local college campus, the handler-rapist. The Evil Organization is clearly not such a tight ship, but every episode nonetheless hinges on some revelation of highly complex secret identity that is supposed to lend credence to the Evil Organization's sophistication. We keep discovering out of nowhere that everyone is secretly someone else--either the characters you thought were people are actually dolls, the people against the organization were double-agents, the people in it are against it, and so on. It's very tiring to keep up with, and it undermines the development of any ideas in the story. Sure, Topher is a brilliant tech geek doofus for now, but next week, we'll learn that he's secretly running his own lab of dolls in cahoots with Agent Ballard to take down the Dollhouse underneath the underground lair of the Dollhouse itself. This is no way to do non-paranoia TV.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The archives return

I re-uploaded some of this blog's archives, selected on the basis of least offensiveness and stupidity, starting from my second year in college. Excising all the offensiveness and stupidity though mostly leaves a long trail of paper-writing angst, complaints about dorm life and apartment maintenance, and cat blogging. As a whole, not really that interesting, but my roommates did say funny things sometimes.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

The NEH interview with Leon Kass

It is very good.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Wise words from wise men

During my time in college, I often heard the lament that contemporary university presidents were merely overeducated hand-shakers and fundraisers, chosen more for their ability to mouth amiable pieties to rich people than for their institutional vision or faith in their mission. Well, looks like that was pretty much on-target.

"The simplicity of stating a question can belie its complexity," our fearless leader whose name I always forget in conversation tells us. He had better hope this is true, because his essay is little more than a list of random questions.

But my favorite was the Reed president's, which presents us with the truly baffling claim that, "If you really care about diversity, embrace it. And change." What this means in context, apparently, is that you should enjoy being mugged, and stop trying to impose your oppressive, crime-thwarting ways on people who would apparently prefer to have their purses stolen.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Teaching fail

Today is my last day of tutoring for the year, and forever with this program, since I'm moving this summer. We will be performing the scenes that I had my students write after reading an excerpt of A Raisin in the Sun and discussing how drama is different from prose, and what kind of situations are particularly well-suited to being performed versus described. (This was a very one-sided discussion.)

Then they wrote their own scenes, which were supposed to be about family life. I think the failure of this year of tutoring is pretty handily summarized by a glimpse at the results:

Student: (tired) Good morning brother
Brother: (playfully) Shut up
Student: (angrily) Shut up before I smack you with this milk (kicks brother)
(The boys begin fighting and telling each other to stop. About five minutes later, brother begins to cry.)
Some random person who enters the dialogue at this point: STOP IT NOW!!!!! Why are you all fighting
Student: He told me to shut up and he kept playing
Brother: He hit me
(Random person hits student and brother)

Give the time allotments scripted by the author, it seems that 90 percent of this skit will consist of the actors attempting to punch one another, while I attempt to stop them. Sigh. And this year only required me to fail to teach four kids. What would I do with an entire classroom?

This is why there is teacher education, right?

An example of non-evil lifestyle reporting from the NYT

Isn't this so nice? I guess outside the Styles section, things are just less catty.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Project thrifty coiffure

My mother sent me an email recently claiming that washing my hair every day will dry out my skull or something. While I wasn't too concerned about that particular side effect, I am always on the lookout for fun ways to save money (and all ways of saving money are fun), so this gave me an idea. If I washed my hair every other day, I would use half as much shampoo! (Or, more accurately, each bottle would last twice as long.) That's like $9 for every set of shampoo/conditioner magically doubling in value! Or, better yet, I could wash my hair every three days and save so much money that I could buy expensive Aveda shampoo and still have a surplus. Clearly, Miss Self-Important is a brilliant person (though not brilliant enough to have realized she was washing her hair too often earlier). This plan is even better than Plan Once Annual Haircut, which I adopted after moving to DC and learning that the Russian woman who cut my hair in her basement for $8 in Chicago was not a national franchise.

So now I am trying to acclimate my hair to being washed every three days, starting with an every other day schedule. This is not as easy as I had anticipated. Perhaps it takes longer if your hair is long and straight? I went to class on Saturday and to work today looking pretty greasy, and I'm sure at least a couple people looked askance. But I am confident the grease will subside with time and discipline. Thrift is important, and my hair will just have to learn this lesson like everything else I own and do. If it needs help, it can talk to my eyes, which have recently settled for $20 glasses made from toothpaste in a Chinese sweatshop.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

An open letter to people who purchase pleated garments

Dear people who purchase pleated garments,

Hello! Your coat/jacket/skirt is, like, sooo cute! Or rather, it would be, if you removed the thread holding the pleats together! Perhaps you were not aware, and assumed that the back of your trench coat was supposed to have an inexplicable long slit that was closed at the bottom and made your butt look like a bubble. Or that your entire skirt was supposed to be a bubble, like those hideous dresses with elastic at the hem. After all, it did come like that at the store, where everything else you buy is ready to wear. An honest mistake, but, people who purchase pleated garments, that thread at the bottom is not part of the design and is intended to be removed. I promise. The change will be dramatic in these endlessly rainy times.

It's ok; sometimes even such basic things as getting dressed correctly can be confusing.

Love,
Miss Self-Important

PS: While we're on the subject of threads you forgot to remove, you may want to check your garment's pockets. Are they sewn shut? Are you wondering why you have pockets you can't actually use? Do you see where I'm going with this?

Friday, May 01, 2009

An open letter to Facebook

Dear Facebook,

First of all, hearts! Thanks for all the good times and extremely relevant and urgent personal information about other people with which you've provided me over the years. Joe Blow has added The Notebook to his favorite movies! Stellar! Joe Blow is interested in random play! Fantastic, call me! Now, I don't normally complain or care about your changes and redesigns. The "new facebook," version 5237 is just as good as the "old facebook" version "what is a 'poke'?" as far as I'm concerned, as long as it abides by these two fundamental rules:
1. No one can know whose profiles I look at (and how often)
2. Relationship status changes are prominently (dare I say, centrally) displayed

Let's face it, Facebook, you are not about "keeping in touch" or "networking" or "the social graph." You are about me keeping tabs on who is dating whom (and, recently, who is marrying whom). That's all. Oh, and also their employment status. I don't care about which YouTube videos caught their eye or the addition of new favorite books or interests to their vapid lists. Sometimes photos can be useful, both for personal pleasure and as an indirect means of ascertaining the relationship status of those too shy or wary to make it clear in the appropriate profile category.

So changes to the inessential things--page layouts, comments, links--do not affect me. But the most recent change is a total violation of your basic tenets. Of human decency. Of human rights! No more recently updated notices? How am I supposed to know when people break up with each other now??? What do you want me to do--comb through my entire list of friends every day to check if they are still in relationships? To make sure they're not running for president? I mean, it's not like I'm too good for that or anything. I would do it. Anything would be better than asking directly. But let's get this straight, Facebook, I don't want to.

I don't ask you for a lot, Facebook. I just need you to abet my obsessive internet stalking. We used to be partners, remember? I would sign in, and you would inform me that my high school nemesis had just taken a job at 7-11, and I would rejoice! Or, that my college nemesis was facing the difficult choice between Yale Law and a Rhodes Scholarship, and I would despair! Those were good times we had together, Facebook. Good petty, vindictive, and character-deforming times! How could you take that from me?

No love,
Miss Self-Important