29 abril 2005

Esta gente é tontinha, really:

13 Reasons For List Lust

Have you stood in front of a newsstand lately? 400 Star-laden Pages. 115 Things To Do With Cheese. The 27 Faces Of Infidelity. Numbers and lists dominate the mediascape. Why? Is it a brutish apotheosis of private property—thoughts as things, and the more the better? Is it the end of civilization? In a word (actually, over 1,500 of them!), yes.

I don't want to be curmudgeonly about our modern lust for lists. Culture and language sometimes evolve in slatternly ways, and today's guilty pleasure can become tomorrow's fresh new aesthetic. I understand the lure of lists. I recently found myself sitting in my parked car, unable to turn off Jian Ghomeshi's cbc radio show 50 Tracks—a public debate about who belongs on a list of the fifty most important Canadian songs ever. And although critics scorned The Greatest Canadian, I thought the show at least nudged our celebrity worship in the direction of history and public figures whose accomplishments go beyond putting their hands up the vaginas of cows (an event I regret catching on The Simple Life).

So I'm curious about what our trust in lists means—from the New York Times' "100 Notable Books of the Year" and the Fortune 500, to the endless gush of long and short lists for book prizes. Why are we such suckers for numbers? To me, numbers flaunt a kind of bogus, unearned power, like border officials, or the doormen of trendy clubs. They are tiny tyrants who don't have to earn their authority: Hey man, I'm a seven. I come after six. Who are you? I think our childish investment in numbers and ranking reflects a cultural anxiety—a mistrust of ambiguity, real debate, and complexity. To the American public, for instance, John Kerry was both too wordy, and too much like a word—too open to interpretation, fluid, unfixable. But George Bush, with a blunt self-confidence unfettered by knowledge, comes across blank and solid, like a good ol' digit. (And he is a digit—George II). Kerry was old-fashioned text; Bush is proudly inarticulate and numerical, a president with a tidy to-do list of imperial chores.

But lists are deeply American, from the itemization of rights in the Declaration of Independence to the annual ranking ritual of the Oscars. The possibility of rising up the list from the bottom of the heap to Number One is what the American Dream is all about. Not that Americans invented the list—it goes back at least to the Ten Commandments and other itemized religious proscriptions. But Letterman's Top Ten list may have given the form its particularly modern, arch, semi-hip tone. Canadians imagine we're above such vulgar competition, and so we've been slow to jump on the bandwagon. But it turns out we absolutely love to judge, rank, and ruthlessly exclude!We jammed the phone lines of Canadian Idol, and formed mean-spirited voting blocks to ensure Don Cherry's place on the short list of The Greatest Canadian. How ironic that the competitive free-for-all of The Greatest Canadian ended up enshrining a socialist likeTommyDouglas! (What's next for the cbc, cock fights?)

Writers tend to hate lists, with their collective, unauthored look. They especially hate the short lists for book prizes. They moan that juries are "political" and they shudder at the concept of ranking books like seeded tennis players—unless they land on a short list themselves, when suddenly the idea of competing with others takes on a noble burnish.

Well, I'm a writer too, fonder of words than numbers. I like a nice indented paragraph. I was looking forward to using long, silky sentences, full of Jamesian subordinate clauses, and "on the other hands" to explore this topic. I wanted to build a swell of curvy, nostalgic dunes of "running text" (as the editors of People magazine sometimes refer to prose) to create an argument against the pandering primacy of numbers.

But...prose is so boring! And you have to figure out what you think about things, and stuff. Better to take advantage of the crisp Armani tailoring of a list. Yes, it flatters your intellectual posture right away, just like a uniform!

So here is a list of thirteen possible reasons why, for better or worse, human beings love to list:

1. A list turns information into technology. We're all too busy to contemplate, for god's sake. We need to prioritize. A list is about the bottom line: Tell me what I need to know, fast.

2. A list conveys authority, hierarchy, and a sense of order. This is comforting in a world of falling towers and bad TV. A list implies that someone is in charge. A list is also post-post-modern. Everything is not relative! But we're busy, so we need an intellectual valet—a list.

3. A numbered list seems scientific, and therefore more credible than the stuttering human voice of prose. A list radiates the calm algebra of objective truth—even though most lists (and especially the short lists for book prizes) are wanton acts of subjectivity.

4. Lists prosper in times when open political debate is considered mildly treasonous. A list has the look of a corporate decision, or a memo. A list has no sense of humour. (Harper's Index is an exception: a list of neutral statistics reorganized in the service of irony and political satire.)

5. TV shows such as American Idol, Canadian Idol, or The Greatest Canadian allow us to weed out the weaklings, an unpleasant human pre-disposition we never seem to outgrow. From the pecking order of the schoolyard to the high-school prom queen competition to rating women in a bar, we love to rank, and be ranked. Maybe it's biological; we have to know where we stand with others, who the alpha males and queen bees are. Or maybe the wound of not being chosen for the dodgeball team is partly healed whenever we vote someone else off the list. When we dump the talented, unslick, slightly plump girl off Canadian Idol.

6. Lists run deep, they are primal. This is the only explanation for the success of the Bo Derek movie 10.

7. In music, the individual iPod playlist has become a form of musical expression in itself. The new version is iPod shuffle, which takes your playlist and randomizes the sequence. This has a modern, biodynamic flair, like the endless possible recombinations of the genetic code. What is the slogan for the iPod shuffle? "Life is random." This pretends to subvert the traditional, hierarchical list—but a list it remains!

8. Numbers look more modern than words. Text messaging uses "2" and "4" because they are shorter than the words. Numbers are tidy, minimal, and lower-case: the equivalent of the neutral, non-narrative geometry of modern interior design. Words are fat. Numbers are thin. Numbers are cool.

9. Lists represent the triumph of personal opinion over evidence or informed debate. Bush didn't need hard evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction; it was his opinion that they existed, and that was enough. Invading Iraq was simply on his list of imperial to-do chores as president.

10. Lists are the spawn of journalism and the media, used to eliminate fine shadings and contradictions. The belief that truth might reside in small, incidental details belongs to the world of fiction. Journalism works on the principle of prioritizing—what belongs on the front page, what news story should lead. This requires a number of subjective decisions that create that simulacrum of objectivity—The News.

11. The indented paragraph begins to have a dated look. Magazine editors now "package" stories, breaking up scary blocks of text with sidebars, boxes, and snappy design elements intended to make print look more like TV. I can always tell the ages of my email correspondents by whether or not they use paragraphs. Punctuation, upper case, salutations—that's for people who don't have a life. Imagine Virginia Woolf ending a letter to Vanessa Bell with an emoticon...Dear Vanessa, I fear one of my headaches is coming on, so I must be brief. Do tell me what you think of my recent scribblings. ;) Virginia.

12. Here is a list of the narrative elements of the novel Mrs. Dalloway: i) Mrs. Dalloway buys flowers for her party; ii) a former boyfriend shows up unexpectedly; iii) a variety of emotions are experienced by the hostess and her guests as the party unfolds.

13. What is the opposite of a list? A personal letter, a poem, a page of a diary, a piece of music—possibly the last bastions of uncommodified, unranked, un-numbered self-expression.

But that's just my opinion—and opinions are what feed our appetite for lists.

From The Walrus Magazine

A rational Quixote

Cervantes is celebrated as the first and greatest of novelists. Less appreciated is Don Quixote's own role as the founding father of the Enlightenment. His delusion is the key to reason.

More from Prospect Magazine :-D

Madredeus en el Palau de la Musica Catalana

28 abril 2005

La prestigiosa revista literaria 'Granta' dedica su número primaveral a Barcelona

La edición española de la revista literaria 'Granta', referente de las letras internacionales, ha dedicado su primer número anual --es una publicación de periodicidad semestral-- a la ciudad de Barcelona. Juan Marsé, Pere Gimferrer y Vila-Matas ofrecen, a través de los cuentos editados en la revista, diversas visiones sobre la ciudad.

En concreto, participan en este número escritores como Colm Tóibín --que aborda en su texto el despertar sexual de la ciudad en 1975--, Jesús Moncada --que habla sobre una nueva especie de hombre catalán--, Tibor Fischer --que narra las peripecias de un turista en Barcelona--, Carlos Ruiz Zafón y Juan Goytisolo, entre otros.

La revista, que incluye diversas instantáneas de la ciudad, es para los escritores catalanes que, gracias a esta iniciativa pueden participar en ella, "un referente en toda regla", según indicó Vila-Matas. En ello coincidieron los autores presentes, que consideraron "un honor" su colaboración.

Para el concejal de Cultura del Ayuntamiento de Barcelona, Ferran Mascarell, "es una magnífica aportación a la ciudad como espacio literario", puesto que "todas las ciudades tienen muchas miradas posibles, pero la de la literatura es quizá la más profunda y enriquecedora".

Esta iniciativa, que se enmarca en el Año del Libro y la Lectura, contribuirá a perfilar el ambiente literario de la ciudad, según afirmó Mascarell, que consideró a la literatura la única capaz de "recoger la complejidad de la ciudad".

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

26 abril 2005

Emails 'pose threat to IQ'

The distractions of constant emails, text and phone messages are a greater threat to IQ and concentration than taking cannabis, according to a survey of befuddled volunteers.

Doziness, lethargy and an increasing inability to focus reached "startling" levels in the trials by 1,100 people, who also demonstrated that emails in particular have an addictive, drug-like grip.

Respondents' minds were all over the place as they faced new questions and challenges every time an email dropped into their inbox. Productivity at work was damaged and the effect on staff who could not resist trying to juggle new messages with existing work was the equivalent, over a day, to the loss of a night's sleep.

"This is a very real and widespread phenomenon," said Glenn Wilson, a psychiatrist from King's College, London University, who carried out 80 clinical trials for TNS research, commissioned by the IT firm Hewlett Packard. The average IQ loss was measured at 10 points, more than double the four point mean fall found in studies of cannabis users.

The most damage was done, according to the survey, by the almost complete lack of discipline in handling emails. Dr Wilson and his colleagues found a compulsion to reply to each new message, leading to constant changes of direction which inevitably tired and slowed down the brain.

Manners are also going by the board, with one in five of the respondents breaking off from meals or social engagements to receive and deal with messages. Although nine out of 10 agreed that answering messages during face-to-face meetings or office conferences was rude, a third nonetheless felt that this had become "acceptable and seen as a sign of diligence and efficiency".

In fact, it is a recipe for muddled thinking and poor performance, said Dr Wilson, who also called for restraint by the two-thirds of people who check work emails out of office hours and even on holiday. He said: "Companies should encourage a more balanced and appropriate way of working."

from The Guardian

22 abril 2005

José Saramago estará en Barcelona firmando libros y celebrando Sant Jordi (libros + rosas) de las doce a una en Casa del Libro (cerca de la oficina). Casa del Libro regala el libro de recetas de El Quijote:

También: Pilar Bardém, el gallego Suso de Toro, Javier Cercás, el vasco Bernardo Atxaga, Amin Maalouf, Jorge Edwards, Paul Preston, José Luís Sampedro...

21 abril 2005

The Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez has printed one million copies of Don Quixote to mark the 400th anniversary of the publication of Cervantes' novel. This week they are being handed out free in public squares for the improvement of his citizens, while at the same time our (Great Britain] politicians are also on the streets distributing material of infinitely less literary merit (campaigning]. So, for making this wonderful novel freely available to Venezuelans, hats off to Hugo

[read on at the Guardian website]

18 abril 2005

Manual Del Perfecto Escapista: Regla Número 1

Siempre existe -al menos- una salida.

Kraus Kislyakov, 1924

"ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE is scrawled in blood red lettering on the side of the Chemical Bank near the corner of Eleventh and First and is in print large enough to be seen from the backseat of the cab as it lurches forward in the traffic leaving Wall Street..."

"and above the doors covered by red velvet drapes in Harry's is a sign and on the sign in letters that match the drapes' color are the words THIS IS NOT AN EXIT."

[Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho]

On Work (II)

We work to eat to get the strength to work to eat to get the strength to work to eat to get the strength to work to eat to get the strength to work.

John Dos Passos, 1896–1970

14 abril 2005

"[...]a strange thing has happened in the American arts during the past quarter century. While income rose to unforeseen levels, college attendance ballooned, and access to information increased enormously, the interest young Americans showed in the arts -- and especially literature -- actually diminished."

Why literature matters

13 abril 2005

El mito del Tanuki
Dentro del folklore japonés hay mil historias sobre el Tanuki. Según la mitología el Tanuki es capaz de transformarse y adoptar cualquier forma.

Hoy en día en la entrada de muchos restaurantes japoneses suele haber una estatua de un Tanuki. En la mano izquierda lleva una botella de sake, la bebida preferida del Tanuki, y en la mano izquierda un libreto de contabilidad. Dicen que la figura del Tanuki trae buena fortuna y beneficios.


Otra caracterísitica de las estatuas de Tanuki es el gran tamaño de los testículos. Si os fijáis en la foto, la base de la estatua no son pies, sino literalmente Kin-tama (Huevos de oro). Estos grandes testículos son símbolo de suerte y en muchos cuentos sobre el Tanuki se hace uso de la piel del escroto para tocar el tambor o incluso como paracaídas. Lo de usar los “Huevos de oro” como tambor (ouch!) se puede ver en la película de Ghibli Heisei tanuki gassen pompoko. Se trata de un ejemplo típico de humor al más puro estilo japonés.

[Robado descaradamente de Kirai]
[Listening to When Our Wings Are Cut, Can We Still Fly? (Performed By The Kronos Quartet) from the 21 Grams OST]

El colombiano Fernando Botero retrata el horror de Abu Ghraib

12 abril 2005

05 abril 2005

Also from the Washington Monthly,

Which USA President told the biggest whoppers?

from Reagan's killer trees to Clinton's «that woman» (and both Bushes, of course).

Seven Mistakes Superheroines Make

Why the latest action-babe flicks flopped

Four years ago, just as beefy, formerly bankable action stars like Steven Seagal, Sylvester Stallone, and Arnold Schwarzenegger were getting a little grayer, a little slower, and a whole lot less popular at the Cineplex, Hollywood rediscovered women. After years of casting actresses as perky love interests and weepy crime victims, movie studios finally realized that women can kick butt. Literally. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Charlie's Angels, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon all vaulted, jabbed, and roundhouse-kicked their way well past the $100-million benchmark of a cinema blockbuster. Male audiences, it turned out, didn't mind seeing the ladies on top, watching kick-boxing action babes such as Cameron Diaz and Angelina Jolie whirl their way through fight scenes (studio estimates show Charlie's Angels's audience was 45 percent male; Tomb Raider's was 55 percent); the fact that the heroines were also visually knockouts—and occasionally danced around in their underwear—didn't hurt. And women not only watched the films, they also cranked up the soundtracks, stormed cardio-kickboxing classes at the gym, and hoped that the next Star Wars film would star Queen Amidala wielding a wicked uppercut.

Then, as so often happens, Hollywood overreached. Studios didn't pause to figure out why audiences loved action heroines. Instead, they rolled out a formula that pandered to all of the wrong instincts: Trot out hot bodies in tight costumes, choreograph some fight scenes, and wait for the profits to roll in. The result has been a string of box-office bloopers, sequels that upped the titillation factor but lost audiences. Charlie's Angels 2 didn't rouse ticket sales by sending the girls to wrestle a bikini-clad villainess. Tomb Raider 2 added a sex scene and an intentional wardrobe malfunction (see-through silver scuba suit), yet grossed barely half what the original movie had made. The stars of last year's Catwoman and Elektra both donned Victoria's Secret-inspired costumes, but ticket sales went kersplat even before the Barbie-doll spin-offs hit the shelves. Catwoman earned barely $40 million; Elektra, which fell out of the top 10 in its third week, is unlikely even to hit that mark.

What Hollywood didn't seem to realize is that the first crop of warrior women won a following because they were strong, smart, and successful in addition to being sexy. Men wanted them, and women wanted to be them. Lara Croft may have originated as pure male fantasy—a buxom video game character with impossible proportions—but on the big screen, she became erudite, well-traveled, a working photojournalist, and went home at night to a house worthy of Architectural Digest. On the other hand, Elektra, another comic-book adaptation, might turn heads in her tight-laced scarlet bustier, but her personal magnetism doesn't measure up: She's a gloomy assassin who suffers from nightmares, insomnia, and OCD. Plus she hates her job but can't—or won't—figure out what else to do with her life. You're not likely going to see a bunch of little girls arguing about who gets to play her.

Female action stars have always had it harder than the guys. A few win mass appeal and become icons of female aspiration—Wonder Woman first graced the cover of Ms. magazine in 1972—but most flounder for fans beyond adolescent male comic-book readers. It might seem that tightrope-walking between Amazonian strength and femme-fatale status does requires a golden lasso and invisible plane.

But the good news for Hollywood—and audiences—is that there is an enduring formula that works. Superheroines since the 1970s—from Wonder Woman to Princess Leia, Charlie's Angels to Lara Croft, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" to "Alias's" Sydney Bristow—have all followed a few simple rules to find success on the big and little screen. And every would-be action babe who has flopped has broken at least one of them. So what's the secret?

1. Do fight demons. Don't fight only inner demons.
2. Do play well with others. Don't shun human society.
3. Do exhibit self-control. Don't exhibit mental disorders.
4. Do wear trendy clothes. Don't wear fetish clothes.
5. Do embrace girl power. Don't cling to man hatred.
6. Do help hapless men. Don't try to kill your boyfriend.
7. Do toss off witty remarks. Don't look perpetually sullen.

In other words, it might be wise to sidestep Catwoman's decision to latch onto a female mentor who lives alone with three dozen cats and complains, “I was a professor for 20 years, until I was denied tenure—male academia.” Or to follow her lead in shrinking from society, telling your beau, “You're a good man, Tom, but you live in a world that has no place for someone like me.”

Look, everyone understands that the life of a supernaturally-gifted screen idol is tough. Spiderman, Harry Potter, Batman, Lara Croft, Charlie's Angels' Dylan all lost parents. But for Elektra, the loss of her mother seems to have left her irrevocably troubled, full of undirected rage, and popping insomnia pills. She's not dark in the same way as was Bruce Wayne or Lara Croft, slightly aloof billionaires who fight crime as a way to work through their grief. Instead Elektra spends as much screen time running as fighting, worrying that “I have nowhere to go” and inspiring the teenage girl who looks up to her with such wisdom as, “Everybody lies, Abby, nobody tells the truth about themselves,” and “I don't want you to be like me.”

Compare that to the first scene in Charlie's Angels, which ends with the three women riding in a motorboat, their arms linked, wind blowing through their hair, grinning at how brilliantly they just foiled a plane hijacking. They're friends, they're beautiful, they have great jobs, and even if they weren't part of an elite crime-fighting squad backed by an anonymous billionaire, there are plenty of other things they could do for a living. The woman-searching-for-herself trope might work in other genres, but it's a bad fit with superheroes. For female fans, the superheroine saga is a fantasy about being in control. Successful heroines defy everyday restraints: They cheat gravity, physically overpower men, and reflect bullets with silver bracelets. The last thing women want to see is Supergirl whining about her boss, suffering through a mid-life career crisis, and being served divorce papers by Superman.

From the Washington Monthly (do check the archives, laden with goodies, for free :-)

04 abril 2005

How Do They Do It?

Garden snails, and many other related species of snails, are hermaphrodites, equipped both with a penis that can deliver sperm to other males and with eggs that can be fertilized by the sperm of others. Two hermaphroditic snails can fertilize each other, or just play the role of male or female. Snail mating is a slow, languorous process, but it also involves some heavy weaponry. Before delivering their sperm, many species (including garden snails) fire nasty-looking darts made of calcium carbonate into the flesh of their mate. In the 1970s, scientists sugested that this was a gift to help the recipient raise its fertilized eggs. But it turns out that snails don't incorporate the calcium in the dart into their bodies. Instead, love darts turn out to deliver hormones that manipulate a snail's reproductive organs.

Evolutionary biologists have hypothesized that this love dart evolved due to a sexual arms race. When a snail receives some sperm, it can gain some evolutionary advantage if it can choose whether to use it or not. By choosing the best sperm, a snail can produce the best offspring. But it might be in the evolutionary interest of sperm-delivering snails to rob their mates of their ability to choose. And love darts appear to do just that. Their hormones prevent a snail from destroying sperm with digestive enzymes, so that firing a love dart leads to more eggs being fertilized.

Recently Joris Koene of Vrije University in the Netherlands Hinrich Schulenberg of Tuebingen University in Germany set out to see how this evolutionary arms race has played out over millions of years. They analyzed DNA from 51 different snail species that produce love darts, which allowed them to work out how the snails are related to one another. They then compared the darts produced by each species, along with other aspects of their reproduction, such as how fast the sperm could swim and the shape of the pocket that receives the sperm.

Koene and Schulenberg found that love darts are indeed part of a grand sexual arms race. Love darts have evolved many times, initially as simple cones but then turning into elaborate harpoons in some lineages. (The picture at the end of this post shows eight love darts, in side view and cross section.) In the same species in which these ornate weapons have evolved, snails have also evolved more powerful tactics for delivering their sperm, including increasingly complex glands where the darts and hormones are produced. These aggressive tactics have evolved, it seems, in response to the evolution of female choice. Species with elaborate love darts also have spermatophore-receving organs that have long, maze-like tunnels through which the sperm have to travel. By forcing sperm to travel further, the snails can cut down the increased survival of the sperm thanks to the dart-delivered hormones.

Sexual conflict has been proposed as a driving force in the evolution of many species, and this new research (which is published free online today at BMC Evolutionary Biology) supports the idea that hermaphrodites are not immune to it. What's particularly cool about the paper is that all these attacks and counter-attacks co-vary. That is, species with more blades on their love darts tend to have longer rerpoductive tracts and more elaborate hormone-producing glands and so on. Only by comparing dozens of species were they able to find this sort of a relationship.

To check on the love darts, go to Carl Zimmer's webpage :-)
«The Hunt of the Unicorn» tapestries and computer science,
from The New Yorker

Did the Vikings make a telescope?

The Vikings could have been using a telescope hundreds of years before Dutch spectacle makers supposedly invented the device in the late 16th century.

This remarkable possibility has emerged from a study of sophisticated lenses just recognised from a Viking site on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea. They were initially thought to be merely ornaments.

"It seems that the elliptical lens design was invented much earlier that we thought and then the knowledge was lost," says Dr Olaf Schmidt, of Aalen University in Germany.

The late Dr Karl-Heinz Wilms first heard of the so-called "Visby" lens in 1990 when he was searching for exhibits for a Munich museum. It was named after the major town on Gotland. Dr Wilms found a picture of the lens in a book and planned to examine the original.

But it was not until 1997 that a team of three scientists went to Gotland to take a close look at what were actually 10 lenses locked away in the storeroom of a local museum.

Perfect shape

One of the team, Dr Olaf Schmidt, told BBC News Online: "I was excited, of course. The polish of some of the lenses was almost perfect. The second thing that caught our eye was that their imaging was very good."

When the lenses were put through their paces, the team was amazed. The lenses passed a series of tests almost as well as modern optics.

Made from rock-crystal, the lenses have an accurate shape that betrays the work of a master craftsman. The best example of the lenses measures 50 mm (2 inches) in diameter and 30 mm (1 inch) thick at its centre.

"The surface of some of the lenses have an almost perfect elliptical shape," Dr Schmidt said. "They were obviously made on a turning lathe."

The lenses have a flattened central area that makes them excellent magnifiers.

"They could have been used as magnifiers, allowing fine carving to be carried out, or they could have been used to start fires or to burn wounds and cuts so that they did not get infected."

What intrigues the researchers is that the lenses are of such high quality that they could have been used to make a telescope some 500 years before the first known crude telescopes were constructed in Europe in the last few years of the 16th century.

Lost knowledge

The Gotland crystals provide the first evidence that sophisticated lens-making techniques were being used by craftsmen over a 1,000 years ago.

At that time, scientists had only just started to explore the laws of light refraction.

According to the researchers, it is clear that the craftsmen who figured the lenses knew more about applied optics than did the scientists of the time. They must have worked by trial and error because the mathematics to calculate the best shape for a lens did not become available for several hundred years.

The researchers speculate that the knowledge to make such an accurate lens was known to only a few craftsmen, perhaps only one person.

But it seems clear that the Vikings did not make the lenses themselves. "There are hints that the lenses may have been manufactured in [the ancient empire of] Byzantium or in the region of Eastern Europe," Dr Schmidt said.

Some of the lenses can be seen at Gotland's Fornsal, the historical museum in Visby. Some are in the Swedish National Museum in Stockholm. Others have been lost.

From BBC Sci/Tech News

The European Model for Falling in Love with Your Hometown

James Howard Kunstler, the author of The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape, insists that there is an even deeper way we pay for this folly of poor urban planning. “It matters that our cities are primarily auto storage depots,” he says. “It matters that our junior high schools look like insecticide factories. It matters that our libraries look like beverage distribution warehouses.”

When so much of what you see on a typical day is so drab, it’s hard to care about what happens to these places. I have fallen in love with Paris, Stockholm, Oxford, Florence and Gouda, Netherlands, as well as New York, New Orleans and even Madison, Wisconsin, because they stir something in my soul. It’s more than scenic charm; it’s a feeling they inspire as I walk around them with my family or soak up their atmosphere just sitting at a café table or on a public bench.

It’s been 15 years since I began roaming European cities in search of ideas that we could take advantage of here in America, and I am happy to report that I’m not alone. Many people, it seems, have returned from Barcelona, Sydney, Buenos Aires, Toronto or Portland, Oregon fired up by what they’ve seen and wanting to do something like it at home. Historic preservation and sidewalk cafés, tapas bars and Irish pubs, bicycle lanes and farmers’ markets all owe some of their popularity to inspiration from abroad.

More from The Environmental Magazine online version

Daylight Saving Time, whyyy?

From The Boston Globe

01 abril 2005

Another curio, from BookForum as well:

In these days of the War on Terror (or on Tyranny, depending which rationale for war the White House is using this week), immigration is discussed largely in the context of national security. If we give driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants, will we unwittingly aid and abet terrorists in the sequel to 9/11? That Mexican day laborer on the street corner—is he an al Qaeda sleeper in disguise? Traditional prejudice against immigrants has become conflated with homeland defense—immigration as invasion; immigration as terrorism (indeed, the office of US Custom and Border Protection now falls under the Department
of Homeland Defense). Nevertheless, with or without licenses, triple border walls
be damned, immigrants from south of the United States continue to arrive. Regardless of the Beltway's reductionist rhetoric and mainstream journalism's yellow streak, argues Héctor Tobar, a new multilingual, multiracial America is being born, a "mestizo" land that will render "English only" laws (and one day even the border itself) a quaint anachronism.

Tobar's Translation Nation will certainly rile nativists, whose once-fringe discourse is, in the post–9/11 world, in the main (just tune in to Lou Dobbs Tonight, on CNN, which features a regular segment on immigration that is positively soaked in virulently xenophobic rhetoric.) Tobar ponders what we've lost sight of in the paranoid fog of war, which is only the latest chapter in that greatest of American tales, the negotiation between immigrant and "native" that constructs, deconstructs, and reconstructs our identity as a nation. By all accounts, the current infusion of immigrants to the United States is one of historic proportions, on a par with the great influxes of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The total Hispanic population of the United States now stands at thirty-five million, a nearly 60 percent increase over the past decade alone, and most of it is due to immigration. As these millions of migrants cross and recross the United States' southern border, they rapidly lay waste to any notion of "secure borders" in the demographic—and especially the cultural—sense.

Tobar, a longtime reporter for the Los Angeles Times, here takes to the road, traveling from the major cities of both coasts to the tiniest of heartland towns in a quest to document the awesome sweep of Latin American immigration in the United States. He tracks the migrant presence from Alabama poultry plants (where he takes participatory journalism seriously, disguising himself and actually slicing up chickens) to a number of suddenly "browned" school districts in Georgia. The book's best moments capture the awkward encounter between migrants and "natives," and the radically altered geographies that often result—for instance, a white DJ in Idaho who dramatically alters his playlist when his town is overrun by newcomers with a taste for "narcocorridos," the gangsta rap of the US-Mexican borderlands.

But the same ambition that fosters the book's exuberant tone is also a weakness. At times, Translation Nation reads like a reporter's greatest hits, an effort to connect disparate scenes and characters to fit a pithy "billboard" paragraph. What does the devastation wrought by heroin addiction among Hispanos in northern New Mexico have to do with aging Cuban exiles in Miami? Latin Americans refer to themselves in Spanish as la raza, but of course Latinos are not a race at all, and are more divided by class than they could ever be united by mythical bloodlines. Still, Tobar's heartfelt paean is a worthy contribution to the growing literature on a rapidly growing population: the newest Americans who will, like generations of immigrants before them, reshape everything from the language we speak to the way we experience culture, politics, and the very space of the streets we live on.
Curio (or much more :-):

When Marc Estrin, in the preface to his second novel, poses the question of what an education in post–World War II America would be like "for someone whose second name was Hitler," the project sounds curiously academic. Happily, the novel that follows is no theoretical exercise but a lively, sure-footed tale of a young man's struggle with language and what lies beneath it.

The lone connection between the Führer and the novel's protagonist, Arnold, is
a name, signifying nothing. As Arnold's mother says when she marries his father, it's clear "who was Hitler and who was only 'Hitler.'" And for much of Arnold's childhood, this distinction holds. He grows up in a small town in Texas during the era of reluctant integration; no one raises an eyebrow at his last name because there are far more incendiary words in circulation. Arnold's earliest memory, for example, centers on learning the word nigger, then learning not to say it aloud. This, along with other semiotic misadventures (such as conflating Saint Nick and Old Nick), leads Arnold to an interest in linguistics that, intriguingly, foreshadows, rather than emerges from, the challenges his last name will later come to pose. In high school, blessed with native intelligence, striking good looks, and a role as star quarterback on the football team, Arnold is a Renaissance man; he also happens to be a really nice guy. One wonders whether, having saddled his hero with such an impossible surname, Estrin felt obliged to give him every other conceivable social advantage. If so, it's hard to hold it against him.

It is only on entering the world of supposed adult sophistication (read: Harvard) that Arnold discovers how easily people are cowed—or worse, seduced—by his last name. When his name starts putting off college roommates and potential love interests, and attracting would-be fascists, Arnold responds with an earnest logic shaped by his childhood experience with the language of discrimination and further informed by the slippery political rhetoric surrounding the nation's crisis over the war in Vietnam. He is not afraid to ask for advice, and his consultation with a brusque, albeit sympathetic, Noam Chomsky is one of the high points of the book. Arnold's problem, the linguistics professor explains, is a case study in the power of figurative language: Names like Miller and Baker may be dead metaphors, but Hitler is "very much alive. And maybe he should be."

Chomsky is one of several of the era's key players with whom Arnold's life intersects, Forrest Gump–like (as a middle-school student on the grassy knoll that fateful day in Dallas, Arnold hears shots come from behind, pace the Warren Commission). But the novel's ruminations on linguistic expression are perhaps best served by Estrin's deft touch of magic realism: Arnold communicates with his maternal grandfather in Italy by speaking to him through his left knee, like a sort of two-way radio. Their connection, at once telepathic and corporeal, offers the integrity of a shared heritage to counter the rhetorical sway of Arnold's unfortunate last name. When the path of Arnold's education leads him to determine not only what he will be called but who he will be, it is the words that come from within him that prove most decisive.

From BookForum