Monday, December 30, 2013

More free movies on the internets

My husband and I are once again on the hunt for free streaming movies, this time on Hulu since our Netflix trial lapsed. Hulu has an even worse collection of movies than Netflix Instant, which is to say, it has the worst movies ever made, plus the Criterion Collection, which seems to be 99 percent pretentious nonsense about adultery, and 1 percent tolerable things. We did find two good films so far:

Being Two Isn't Easy - a charming Japanese movie from 1962 which features an extremely cute baby and is a strikingly contemporary depiction of the anxieties of child-rearing. A Tokyo couple has their first baby, and the movie follows what seems to be most of his second year, until he turns two. It's narrated sometimes from the perspective of the baby, who is kind of cutesy and predictable but a nice intervention, and mostly by the parents, who spend a lot of time freaking out over the baby's health and safety, and fighting about how to raise him. Both the parents come from big families but set themselves against all that - they live in an apartment without their parents, and they view children as basically aliens from outer space who require such intensive attention and care that they can have no more than one, and they resent the imposition of even this one on their lives.

As the year goes on and various things about their living situation change, their familial relations become more relaxed and they come to understand the naturalness of children. I don't know anything about Japan in the 1960s (or ever), but the movie comes across here and now as mildly critical of individualism and childlessness, but not in favor of some ideal of traditional familial rusticity either. Even though it centrally features a cute baby, it's not particularly sappy, but depicts the bumpy adjustment to parenthood pretty straightforwardly and then slowly suggests that family life broadly understood (including extended family) is fulfilling even to the modern sensibility.

- Three Colors: White - Hulu has the whole Three Colors trilogy, but we have only liked White so far, though we haven't watched Red yet. A few years ago, a friend introduced me to some of the episodes of Kieslowski's other film cycle, The Decalogue, which is good, but dark and full of symbolic Christian brooding of a dour Eastern European variety. When Kieslowski's aim is comic though, as in Decalogue X or Three Colors: White, he's really good, because dark and resigned humor, though equally dour and Eastern European, makes more sense to me than darkness and resignation taken straight. The movie is about an earnest Polish hairdresser who is divorced by his French wife, goes back to Poland in a suitcase, and builds an entirely new and wholly improbable life with the sole goal of getting revenge. This ends successfully, but, because evidently nothing can ever simply go well for Eastern Europeans, it's a kind of horrifying success that is actually a cosmic moral failure.

Friday, December 27, 2013

FMI: Tangy potato lentil salad recipe

I do not aim high in my cooking, and therefore do not typically chronicle it, but while in Cambridge, I came across an excellent mayonnaise-free potato salad at the Biscuit (whose sagging Yelp ratings do not do the place justice; it is actually the best coffee shop in all of Cambridge, even though it's technically in Somerville and even though no one has ever agreed with my endorsement) for which I could find no recipe online. Concerned that I would never be able to have it again once I left town, I noted all the ingredients listed on the container and then attempted to re-create it back in San Diego. My efforts have not so far issued in the perfect tangy goodness of the original, but I'm working on it. In the meantime, I offer myself, and tangentially also you, a possible recipe, so that I have something better than a list of ingredients to reference for future efforts:

Tangy Potato Lentil Salad with Smoked Paprika Dressing
4 servings

- 2 lbs fingerling potatoes (other kinds of potatoes also ok when in Whole Foods and Trader Joe's desert)
- 1/2 cup French lentils (green lentils also ok when in Whole Foods desert)
- 1/2 a red onion, finely chopped
- 1/2 cup capers
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- Dressing: olive oil, red wine vinegar, Hebrew National mustard (any mustard works), salt, smoked paprika

1. Preheat oven to 450. Toss potatoes in oil and roast on baking pan for 20 minutes. Opening oven at any time during this procedure will set off the smoke alarm in your very poorly ventilated apartment. Be prepared by leaving front door open and keeping an eye on cat's proximity to said door. Remove potatoes and let cool.
2. Simmer lentils in 2 cups water until no longer hard, but not yet mushy.
3. Combine onion, capers, and garlic in bowl. Add drained lentils.
4. When potatoes have cooled, skin, slice into bite-size pieces, and add to bowl.
5. Whisk together dressing ingredients, add dressing to salad. Toss. Result should be reddish, but mine always turns out more orange than red.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Melville, The Confidence-Man*

Here I was, blithely hoping to get an enlightening - with a focus on light - read in before settling down to write something on the topic of impostors, and was instead flattened by the metric-ton (per something cubed) density of this book. Lesser idiots than myself would've perhaps suspected as much and stayed away after having read Moby Dick to absolutely no benefit in high school, and "Bartleby the Scrivener" with only the most meager grasp of its point much later. It's no wonder Paul Cantor was satisfied to give it the most passing of mentions in his own article on impostors, because to dwell on it further would require a doctoral dissertation.

Melville had, it is clear, read a lot of philosophy. This much I gathered. And that he was not a cheerleader for "confidence" in men or markets, romantic naturalism, transcendentalism, or the advance of "geniality":
By the way, talking of geniality, it is much on the increase in these days, ain't it?" 
"It is, and I hail the fact. Nothing better attests the advance of the humanitarian spirit. In former and less humanitarian ages—the ages of amphitheatres and gladiators—geniality was mostly confined to the fireside and table. But in our age—the age of joint-stock companies and free-and-easies—it is with this precious quality as with precious gold in old Peru, which Pizarro found making up the scullion's sauce-pot as the Inca's crown. Yes, we golden boys, the moderns, have geniality everywhere—a bounty broadcast like noonlight." 
"True, true; my sentiments again. Geniality has invaded each department and profession. We have genial senators, genial authors, genial lecturers, genial doctors, genial clergymen, genial surgeons, and the next thing we shall have genial hangmen." 
"As to the last-named sort of person," said the cosmopolitan, "I trust that the advancing spirit of geniality will at last enable us to dispense with him. No murderers—no hangmen. And surely, when the whole world shall have been genialized, it will be as out of place to talk of murderers, as in a Christianized world to talk of sinners." 
"To pursue the thought," said the other, "every blessing is attended with some evil, and——" 
"Stay," said the cosmopolitan, "that may be better let pass for a loose saying, than for hopeful doctrine." 
"Well, assuming the saying's truth, it would apply to the future supremacy of the genial spirit, since then it will fare with the hangman as it did with the weaver when the spinning-jenny whizzed into the ascendant. Thrown out of employment, what could Jack Ketch turn his hand to? Butchering?" 
"That he could turn his hand to it seems probable; but that, under the circumstances, it would be appropriate, might in some minds admit of a question. For one, I am inclined to think—and I trust it will not be held fastidiousness—that it would hardly be suitable to the dignity of our nature, that an individual, once employed in attending the last hours of human unfortunates, should, that office being extinct, transfer himself to the business of attending the last hours of unfortunate cattle. I would suggest that the individual turn valet—a vocation to which he would, perhaps, appear not wholly inadapted by his familiar dexterity about the person. In particular, for giving a finishing tie to a gentleman's cravat, I know few who would, in all likelihood, be, from previous occupation, better fitted than the professional person in question." 
"Are you in earnest?" regarding the serene speaker with unaffected curiosity; "are you really in earnest?" 
"I trust I am never otherwise," was the mildly earnest reply; "but talking of the advance of geniality, I am not without hopes that it will eventually exert its influence even upon so difficult a subject as the misanthrope." 
"A genial misanthrope! I thought I had stretched the rope pretty hard in talking of genial hangmen. A genial misanthrope is no more conceivable than a surly philanthropist." 
"True," lightly depositing in an unbroken little cylinder the ashes of his cigar, "true, the two you name are well opposed." 
"Why, you talk as if there was such a being as a surly philanthropist." 
"I do. My eccentric friend, whom you call Coonskins, is an example. Does he not, as I explained to you, hide under a surly air a philanthropic heart? Now, the genial misanthrope, when, in the process of eras, he shall turn up, will be the converse of this; under an affable air, he will hide a misanthropical heart. In short, the genial misanthrope will be a new kind of monster, but still no small improvement upon the original one, since, instead of making faces and throwing stones at people, like that poor old crazy man, Timon, he will take steps, fiddle in hand, and set the tickled world a'dancing. In a word, as the progress of Christianization mellows those in manner whom it cannot mend in mind, much the same will it prove with the progress of genialization. And so, thanks to geniality, the misanthrope, reclaimed from his boorish address, will take on refinement and softness—to so genial a degree, indeed, that it may possibly fall out that the misanthrope of the coming century will be almost as popular as, I am sincerely sorry to say, some philanthropists of the present time would seem not to be, as witness my eccentric friend named before." 
"Well," cried the other, a little weary, perhaps, of a speculation so abstract, "well, however it may be with the century to come, certainly in the century which is, whatever else one may be, he must be genial or he is nothing. So fill up, fill up, and be genial!"
For the rest, including even the basic question about whether the titular "confidence man" is one person throughout the book or several, I wish I still had access to Harvard's library.

*Shameless blogging style-cribbing from Withywindle hereby admitted. I think he also may have recommended the book in the first place though.

Friday, December 20, 2013

On smark

I finally read the Gawker screed defending snark against smarm, quite ready to rally to the side of snark against the likes of Malcolm Gladwell and Dave Eggers, whom I also find cloying, but came away from it no longer sure what the difference between snark and smarm was. Is it smarm when Joe Lieberman implores us to stop criticizing him and snark when Tom Scocca implores with equal earnestness that we continue to do so? Is it snark to write a windy plea for continued criticism of the powerful that contains no trace of humor and appeals entirely to the indignation of the downtrodden (or those who've styled themselves as such)?

Scocca defines smarm as, "Scolding, couched as an appeal to goodness, in the name of an absent authority...Smarm is a kind of performance—an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance. Smarm is concerned with appropriateness and with tone. Smarm disapproves." All perhaps to some degree true of smarm, but equally true of his own essay. Scocca is goodness incarnate - willing to stand against the powerful and successful for the little man, a humble Gawker editor, a less famous writer than his nemeses, appealing to his own invisible authorities - good taste, but even more than that, great justice. Earnest criticism for great justice is not snark. Maybe, because it's sharp rather than lugubrious like smarm, we can call what Scocca has produced here "smark." But snark is criticism with style, wit, and no heartfelt commitment to a Good Cause beyond good writing. And this thing is not that thing.

Here is Scocca smarking at Eggers:
It is no accident that he is addressing undergraduates here...He is explicitly performing, for an audience of his inferiors...It is also no accident that Eggers is full of shit. He is so passionate, and his passion has such rhetorical momentum, that it is almost possible to overlook the fact that the literal proposition he's putting forward, in the name of large-heartedness and honesty, is bogus and insulting.
"It is also no accident that Eggers is full of shit" - that line is the sum of the wit contained in the entire essay. The rest is precisely passion with rhetorical momentum in defense of a bogus and insulting proposition - that it is our moral duty to fight the power! By using our words! To attack everything and everyone more powerful, famous, or highly-praised than ourselves because they're probably up to no good! Goodness is in obscurity, until that's exposed to fame, and then it immediately goes sour. Well, how far down can that proposition go? Look at this, Tom Scocca, here I am, a two-bit blogger who cowers in the shadow of the internet empire you run, and I am sticking it to you! I expect an appreciation ASAP (in the form of some publicity, preferably).

One more thing, on smark and authority. Scocca makes a big stink about the "collapse of traditional authority," that much longed for specter of order which has always existed only in this exact state of subsequently-lamented collapse. As if there was ever any "traditional authority" that put to rest quarrels over whether A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is worth reading or the tweets of politicians are to be taken seriously.
Smarm hopes to fill the cultural or political or religious void left by the collapse of authority, undermined by modernity and postmodernity...What currently fills the space left by the waning or absence of traditional authority, for the most part, is the ideology and logic of the market.
Really. I am waiting for some diligent medievalist to uncover a palimpsest of some diocesan priest's observations about the discourse of the day - "Oy, ever since Pope Gregory riled up the monarchs of Europe, all authority has collapsed! We are bereft! Left to decide for ourselves whether the passing minstrel show is any good and what to name our children. Some among us have styled themselves "critics," purveyors of taste without credentials, and they have attacked the previous such purveyors for their suspect ties to the neighborhood gentry, and now the whole place is up in arms, the simple people knowing not whom to believe about minstrels and the best names for their children."

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Theory and practice: applications of modern philosophy

In "What is Authority?", Arendt says something uncharacteristically feminine about how one might use the heel of one's shoe as a hammer, but doing so does not make a shoe a hammer. I was reminded of this when, recently, I acquired a pair of boots that were uncomfortably tight in the calves (you come across this lament in boot reviews all the time - "I have athletic calves" - but Miss Self-Important's calves are quite averse to athletics and she has never before had this difficulty). I couldn't think how to stretch them out a little, until I hit upon the following solution:

This is frankly more use than either of these volumes are likely to see in a good long while.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Serving suggestions: pomegranate

Here is a too-long PSA about how to de-seed a pomegranate pretty effectively without digging through its labyrinthine membranes with your fingers. I can attest to its relative effectiveness if you whack the fruit hard enough, though you still have to detach the remaining few seeds by hand unless you're willing to allow their precious, delicious juiciness to go to waste, which would be a sin, just so you know.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Goodbye weenies

With the conclusion of a very pleasant fall term, Cambridge has decided to send me back to my Southern Californian exile amid collegiate drama, with some aptly-timed finals week bomb threats. When campus was declared bomb-free, I received the following mass email from one of the deans:
We understand most students are expressing eagerness to take the exams for which they have prepared. However, if for any reason a student does not feel able to take an exam – including anxiety, loss of study time, lack of access to material and belongings left in one of the affected buildings, or travel schedule -- he or she should be in touch immediately with his or her resident dean. Any such student will have the option of being graded on their coursework to date, excluding the exam. Those students will have the option of requesting to be graded Pass/Fail for the course without incurring any penalty in their progress toward degree.
If the vague threat of bombs made you too anxious to take an exam, then you don't have to, weenie.

And with that, back to San Diego.

UPDATE: While I totally assumed the bomb threat was made by an undergrad with an exam to evade, I am nonetheless sincerely surprised to have been correct. How could this guy not know that email is traceable, that he'd be caught, and that the consequences of making bomb threats are far greater than the consequences of failing a final exam? This is all obvious. To everyone. There are probably a million ways to get out of an exam at Harvard, and this guy managed to select the worst possible one.

UPDATE II: All that to avoid the Politics of American Education final?!? Is you kidding? What a joke.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

A for Admission

It should come as no surprise that I am a terrible liar, and although I promised to give the Crimson a rest, I couldn't help following the grade inflation story whither it went, which happened to be to Conor Friedersdorf, who can always be relied on to strain with the greatest earnestness and doe-eyed good intention towards the wrong view of everything. So with grade inflation. But that's useful in this case, because it saves me the embarrassment of railing against the Crimson's insipid editorial on this topic or its frothing website commenters, who say pretty much the same thing in defense of grade inflation, but without Conor's relative sense of proportion. Thus sayeth Conor:
Ivy League educational institutions attract a disproportionate share of grade-obsessed overachievers. These young people are extremely driven, aren't in need of external motivators to learn, but often react to the grading system by gaming it: that is to say, they engage in cut-throat competition with classmates rather than helping one another learn; they manipulate teachers; and they choose earning a higher grade rather than learning more when there is a tension between the two...
The question is whether "the system" of traditional collegiate grading has enough value left to make it worth conserving. At highly selective institutions filled with people who've all already demonstrated that they're perfectly capable of earning As in difficult academic classes, a strong case can be made that grades no longer have much value. Jacobs doesn't necessarily disagree. "To be sure, in one sense the system deserves to be gamed—it’s fundamentally broken—and what Davidson is doing is only slightly more extreme than what most professors, enablers of grade inflation, do every day," he wrote. "But the system needs to be faced and critiqued more straightforwardly, more honestly."
This is a very flattering view of The Ivy League Student in a state of academic nature, but it is precisely wrong. Grading is not the enemy of learning. "These young people" are indeed very driven, but they are not uniformly driven to learn, except perhaps in the broadest Platonic sense that everyone prefers the truth to falsehood. This, however, does not mean that they aren't "in need of external motivators" to learn those things which universities are organized to teach. If that were true, there would be no need of required courses, because all students would take the full range of the curriculum of their own accord. There would additionally be no need of papers and exams, because students would do the requisite reading and thinking of their own accord. Finally, there would be no need of courses themselves, because these students would pursue their drives to learn independently. So, in sum, there would be no need of universities for the sorts of students that attend the best ones.

And that's also true in the same airy sense that the view that learning is self-motivated is true. Strictly speaking, you don't need a university to learn astronomy or metaphysics - Galileo didn't have one! Plato didn't either! - but that's completely beside the point. In the Edenic state of academic nature that Conor envisions, there need be no coercion or competition because all students are already perfectly virtuous, and coercion and competition only sully their pure natures. But with very few exceptions, learning doesn't work that way, even for smart people. In our fallen state, grades go hand-in-hand with all the other forms of institutional coercion like required courses and course requirements to externally motivate students to learn the things that they need to know, but don't know that they need to know because they haven't learned them yet. I have a decent amount of internal motivation to learn things, as well as decent aptitude for it, but there is no way I would ever have opted to learn calculus in college had that not been required. I like learning political theory even more than learning things in general, but it would never have occurred to me to even try it unless it was assigned in (required) courses. And I like learning things I'm good at, but it would've been hard to discern what I'm good at, or even whether I was actually learning anything and not simply experiencing a series of interesting delusions, had there not been any evaluation of my work in those courses. The mere fact that I was a decent high school student with decent test scores that qualified me for admission to a (at the time not very) selective university was no guarantee that I would learn anything at that university. All it meant was that I probably had the capacity to do so, if sufficiently provoked. And grades and requirements were essential provocations to the activation of otherwise passive capacities.