bissell destroys robert kaplan

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3quarks pal Tom Bissell tears Robert Kaplan a new one at the Virginia quarterly Review.

Kaplan is worse than a bad writer or thinker. He is a dangerous writer made ever more dangerous by the fact that he is taken seriously. Even his most hostile reviews have treated him as though his arguments are still within the pale. His worldview is, in many ways, that of the current administration, and shared by many Americans. These are people for whom the wider world means only acrimony to be dismissed and obstacles to be knocked over. People who care not for “exquisite subtleties” when it comes to matters of force and occupation. People who do not think in human terms, except insofar as those terms reflect their own beliefs, which are supremely correct. People, in short, who had no use for people, except as cannon fodder—lives whose passing they dutifully mourn on their side and gleefully celebrate on the others. “Kaplan is America’s Kipling,” reads one of Imperial Grunts’s blurbs. This is to slander Kipling, who nevertheless did write one Kaplanesque sentence: “All the people like us are We, / And every one else is They.”

more here.

Cult of impersonality

From The Boston Globe:Beckett_2

FAME IS FLEETING, but to Samuel Beckett’s taste, not fleeting enough. If most writers feel themselves condemned to obscurity, for Beckett the opposite was the case. He was, in his own words, “damned to fame.” Indeed, the durability of his fame is on striking display these days. In celebration of Beckett’s centennial, his plays are being produced in hundreds of theaters around the world; conferences and colloquia are taking place everywhere from Dublin to Oxford, Paris to Tokyo, Ankara to Odense; and a splendid new edition of his works, edited by Paul Auster (and with introductions by Colm Toibin, Salman Rushdie, Edward Albee, and J.M. Coetzee), has just been published by Grove Press.

Beckett, who died in 1989, lived to see the full flowering of his fame, and the retiring Irishman was forced into a spotlight he had no desire to stand in. But what were the chances that this spotlight would shine on him in the first place? He was an obscure writer writing in a foreign language about obscure figures living in a very foreign world. When one considers the strangeness of the works that sealed his fame, the plays “Waiting for Godot” and “Endgame,” both written in the 1950s, not only is it remarkable that they were successes, it is remarkable that they were produced-and that the first audiences were patient enough to await their seemingly endless endings. But wait they did. And to his limitless consternation, Samuel Beckett became an international literary celebrity.

More here.

Battle in the bedroom

From The Guardian:

Pumpkine372_1 Fellini’s great friend, the screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, once said: “Cinema is a collaboration where everyone tries to erase everyone else’s work.” Certainly the popular convention is to insist that films are made principally by directors; some directors certainly appear to think so. And a second axiom, peddled by the lost generation at Time Out magazine, is that British cinema is weak because it is overly dependent on British theatre.

Both propositions seem to me faulty. A good script is, if not the sine qua non of a good film, at least its most heartening omen. The first gift a playwright has is to write for actors. The better the playwright, the better the roles. This is as true of film as it is of theatre. Harold Pinter regularly offers actors what will become the opportunities of a lifetime: to Meryl Streep, obviously, in The French Lieutenant’s Woman; to Peter Finch and Anne Bancroft in one of the most overlooked of all British films, The Pumpkin Eater; and, unforgettably, to Dirk Bogarde, both in Accident and The Servant. Pinter offers the stuff actors want and with which they can do magic – surface vitality, of course, but also an undertow of narrative and implied feeling which deepens the simplest remark. In the spare, complicated screenwriting of Pinter, “yes”, “no” and “maybe” become words which do a hundred jobs.

More here.

Are Human Rights Human?

Paola Cavalieri in Logos:

Cavalieri400x305pxThe history of what we call moral progress can for the most part be seen as the history of the substitution of hierarchical visions with presumptions in favor of equality. The recent irruption into the social scene of the animal question is part of this ongoing process–a process that is usually characterized by a direct challenge to the cultural status quo. In fact, in the last few decades, nonhuman animals have been the center of a lively philosophical debate, and many voices have been raised against our current treatment of the members of species other than our own. We routinely use nonhuman animals as mere commodities–we kill them for food, we use them in work and entertainment, we employ them as tools for research of all kinds. In short, we treat them in ways in which we would deem it profoundly unethical to treat human beings. Is this position morally defensible? And, if so, on which grounds? Since behind the present divergence in standards lies a deep-rooted philosophical tradition aiming at the exclusion of nonhuman beings from the protected sphere of ethics, it may be worth considering briefly how we got where we are.

More here.

Tuesday, July 4, 2006

It’s coming. It’ll be great. You’ll hate it.

Paul Boutin in Slate:

060701_tech_youosexFor a sneak peek at the future of computing, go to YouOS and click “Try a Demo.” Your browser window turns into a desktop of its own, with sub-windows for e-mail, chat, and Web browsing. There are also links on the YouOS desktop for a sticky-notes program and a rich-text editor. But these programs aren’t on your hard drive—they’re running somewhere in the vast unknown Internet.

YouOS is the fledgling startup of four recent college grads with a bit of angel funding. Its simplicity makes it a great demo. Anyone who logs on can instantly spot the big idea: You don’t need Windows! You don’t even need a PC! You can login and work from anywhere using any gadget with a screen and a keyboard.

More here.

Lighting the key to energy saving

Richard Black at the BBC:

_41575458_bulb_bbc_203lA global switch to efficient lighting systems would trim the world’s electricity bill by nearly one-tenth.

That is the conclusion of a study from the International Energy Agency (IEA), which it says is the first global survey of lighting uses and costs.

The carbon dioxide emissions saved by such a switch would, it concludes, dwarf cuts so far achieved by adopting wind and solar power.

More here.

Livecoding

Robert Andrews in Wired News:

MacleanandwardSome DJs spin vinyl or twiddle fader knobs. Others write subroutines in C++.

A new brand of music maestro is turning programming into performance, eschewing turntables for a compiler and a mind for syntax structure. “Livecoding” practitioners improvise using Perl or homemade programming architectures to build compositions from the ground up, replacing instruments and samples with raw code authoring before a live audience.

Alex Maclean, a U.K. livecoder and art student, said he traded in his guitar when he found he could be more creative with code than with strings. He touch-types using Perl at raves and dance clubs, creating a unique visual and musical experience. Sessions with drummers, MCs and other livecoders can be reminiscent of traditional free-jazz improvisation.

More here.

Sense of superiority

Marek Kohn reviews Broken Genius: the rise and fall of William Shockley, creator of the electronic age by Joel N Shurkin, in the New Statesman:

William20shockleyWilliam Shockley left two extraordinary legacies to posterity. One is the transistor, which is to the electronic world what cells are to the living one. The other is an archive based on the principle that nothing may be thrown away and everything must be filed. In the course of his investigations – which involved the cracking of two safes – Joel Shurkin found a note to General Foods about a Jello recipe, a wooden splinter that had destroyed one of the boy Shockley’s dimples, and a suicide note. He did not, however, find any redeeming features. We can now be confident that William Shockley really was as detestable as he always appeared.

Shockley snatched opprobrium from the jaws of glory. In 1956 he shared the Nobel Prize for Physics for his role in the development of the transistor; in subsequent decades he became notorious for promoting the idea that black people were innately less intelligent than whites. He attempted to capitalise on his scientific success by launching an electronics company, but alienated his senior staff to the extent that they mutinied, dispersing to find fortunes under other banners. Although he thus has a claim to be the founder of Silicon Valley, it’s a legacy that mocks him.

More here.

Stem cells bring hope for brain disorder

From Nature:Mice_4

A company set to begin clinical trials of a stem-cell treatment for a fatal brain disease has announced that the treatment boosts survival in a mouse model. The company, StemCells of Palo Alto, California, received approval from the US Food and Drug Administration in October 2005 to use human neural stem cells to treat infants with neuronal ceroid lipofuscinosis, or Batten disease. Infants with this hereditary disorder lack enzymes to break down a chemical called lipofuscin. In those affected, the chemical kills brain cells, and eventually proves fatal.

StemCells plans to give newborns neural stem cells that make enzymes to break down lipofuscin. The neural stem cells, made from cells harvested from human fetuses, are more developed than embryonic stem cells, which can give rise to all the cell types of the body, but more flexible than adult brain cells. On 1 July, Nobuko Uchida, a scientist with StemCells, presented data on tests in mice at the meeting of International Society for Stem Cell Research in Toronto, Canada.

More here.

The path of Khan

From The Observer:

Imran It is not easy to get to Imran Khan. I meet his political agent at the 1970s government buildings in Islamabad where he has an airless basement office. We hail a cab and point it in the direction of the hills outside the city, the lowest foothills of the distant Himalayas. The tarmac soon ends and the gradient gets much steeper. There is a bridge over a dried-up gorge, where the river has been dammed further upstream. Young men and boys are laying water pipes beside the rough dirt road in the hundred-degree late afternoon heat. The road gets more precipitous still and our driver gets out to pour a bottle of mineral water over his engine. Eventually at the ridge of a hill with a view across the city with its minarets and half-finished housing projects we reach a set of unlikely electronic gates.

Imran bought these 35 acres four years ago and has built his house in the middle of them. The original plan was to move in here with his family – wife Jemima and their two boys – but as it has turned out he lives up here alone. He waves me through a cool courtyard and into a simply furnished sitting room, with big wooden doors open to the hills. He then sits on a sofa, wearing his sunglasses, and sends texts on three mobile phones, struggling for a signal. He does not speak for five or 10 minutes.

More here. (Thanks to Bibi).

russian anne frank

Nina

When this diary was published in Russia two years ago, it was immediately, and inevitably, compared with the diary of Anne Frank. It is a very articulate record by an adolescent girl, living in an ever more threatening totalitarian environment, of her fears and frustrations, and it mingles the emotional pains of a girl going through puberty with the anguish of a trapped animal feeling the hunters getting nearer. For a girl of thirteen years old, in a society where there was no information but official propaganda and market rumour, Nina was remarkably well informed and perspicacious: she reports the famine and cannibalism that took the lives of millions of peasants in 1933, when not just the Moscow press but Moscow’s inhabitants were genuinely unaware of the disaster happening five hundred miles to the south. Andrew Bromfield speculates that she may have had access to underground Menshevik or Social Revolutionary literature, but this seems unlikely in the 1930s when all dissidence had been suppressed. Nina’s perspicacity is one of the most mysterious elements in her diary.

more from Literary Review here.

mali story

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As journalist Robert Kaplan flew into Bamako, Mali, in 1993, he saw tin roofs appear through thick dust blowing off the presumably advancing desert. He used this image of a “dying region” to conclude his Atlantic Monthly article “The Coming Anarchy,” in which he drew a connection between environmental degradation and growing disorder in the Third World, a hypothesis that certainly seemed to fit not only Mali but most of West Africa. When the article was published in February 1994, it made a considerable splash in Washington policy circles.

But even as Kaplan predicted doom, the situation on the ground in Mali did not quite fit his thesis. Yes, life was hard in this impoverished West African nation of 12 million people, and remains so. The 2005 United Nations Human Development Index, based on a combination of economic, demographic, and educational data, lists Mali as fourth from the bottom among 177 countries. Only Burkina Faso, Niger, and Sierra Leone rank lower. But despite persistent poverty and ongoing turmoil in neighboring states, in a single decade Mali has launched one of the most successful democracies in Africa. Its political record includes three democratic elections and two peaceful transitions of power, a transformation that seems nothing short of amazing.

more from The Wilson Quarterly here.

Obama’s Speech on Religion in American Public Life

For this 4th of July: Barak Obama’s speech on how and why liberals must engage religion has captured the attention of many in the left-liberal side of the blogosphere and pushed the discussion of the role of religion in public life. (Audio here.)

Our failure as progressives to tap into the moral underpinnings of the nation is not just rhetorical, though. Our fear of getting “preachy” may also lead us to discount the role that values and culture play in some of our most urgent social problems.

After all, the problems of poverty and racism, the uninsured and the unemployed, are not simply technical problems in search of the perfect ten point plan. They are rooted in both societal indifference and individual callousness – in the imperfections of man.

Solving these problems will require changes in government policy, but it will also require changes in hearts and a change in minds.

Amy Sullivan on the speech in Slate.

Millions and millions of faithful, including many evangelicals, have this sort of complicated relationship with their God. One of the enduring mysteries of faith is that it’s not easy to determine divine will. Most of us who consider ourselves religious are engaged in a constant struggle to discern God’s will for us, and we’re always aware of just how far we fall short of meeting that standard. Obama received one of his loudest ovations when he admitted: “The questions I had didn’t magically disappear.”

This humbler version of faith has been in the shadows for the past few years, derided as moral relativism or even a lack of true belief. Obama stepped up not to defend this approach to religion, but to insist on the rightness of it. That should be comforting to anyone who has been deeply discomfited by Bush’s version of Christianity. A questioning faith is a much better fit for a society like ours than one that allows for no challenge or reflection. It also acts as a check against liberals who would appropriate God for their own purposes, declaring Jesus to be the original Democrat and trotting out New Testament verses to justify their own policy programs. Liberals don’t have the answer key to divining God’s will any more than conservatives do.

hockney

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There’s something quintessentially Angeleno about David Hockney. In spite of the fact that he was born, raised and received his art training in England and spends only a fraction of his globetrotting year in his adopted hometown, his hypersaturated palette, crackpot scholarship and unapologetic hedonism are somehow able to encapsulate L.A. more succinctly than any number of homegrown painters are. One key facet of this serendipitous mesh is a climate that encourages endless socializing. In London or New York, artists can blame the weather for their antisocial binges of studio sequestering. In L.A., where it is beautiful all the time, you have to entertain.

Hockney is a master entertainer, and “David Hockney Portraits” — organized by London’s National Portrait Gallery and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in collaboration with (and currently on view at) LACMA — stands as testimony to the artist’s stubbornly idiosyncratic formalism as a tool in a kind of social sculpture.

more from the LA Weekly here.

Monday, July 3, 2006

In Lieu of a Monday Musing, 3QD’s World Cup Analysts on the Quarterfinals

From: Alex Cooley and Mark Blyth

To: All Brazil Jockers

Memo: HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

Wow – what a couple of days. Big teams playing each other in the World Cup usually produce, well, big games. Certainly, the two “clash of the titans” in 2006 delivered. I was also given an amazing lesson in the contrasting psychology of taking penalties across footballing cultures.

The penalty shootout remains perhaps the most tension-filled and cruelest way to settle a football match and two of this year’s quarterfinals (Germany-Argentina and Portugal-England) demonstrated just how differently winning and losing teams approach the spot kicks. Now, anyone who spouts this junk that the shootout is a “lottery” has obviously lost more than their fair share. And growing up in England, I always just assumed that settling a match on penalties was necessarily a torturous and depressing affair for all fans. How wrong I’ve been!

The Germany-Argentina game was instantly an epic encounter – gone was Germany’s earlier flamboyant attack play; the Argentine midfield pressured the German build-up and killed off the tempo of the game through possession football and short passing. When just after half-time Argentine center back Roberto Ayala powerfully headed home a corner the host’s progression in the tournament was put in serious jeopardy. Argentina expertly held on to the ball and wasted time as the Germans looked toothless. Then out of nowhere, with 10 minutes left, Germany’s jack-in-the-box striker Miroslav Klose sprung forward to nod in a flicked on Ballack freekick. 1-1. The packed crowd at my local bar “Schmidt’s” went ballistic and I bear-hugged about 37 random people. As extra-time drew to a close, everyone seemed more and more upbeat. The Germans had taken an Argentine punch, but had survived and the end of the game was a mere formality.

For the first time in my life I saw a crowd actually cheer the end of extra time as if they had already won. As the shootout progressed everyone rhythmically clapped on every German PK taker. The German kicks were flawless, the Argentine kicks less so and Berlin soon erupted into jubilant celebrations and a cacophony of honking cars, world cup anthems and pretty much everything else that you can imagine. The Argentines were left to brood over a stinging defeat and their manager Pekerman’s questionable substitution pattern, especially his decision to take off playmaker Riquelme and not insert the wunderkind Messi to run at a tiring German defense.

In the evening game the Italians clinically dismantled the overmatched Ukrainians (darn, got close with that one although I still maintain they should have played the Aussies!), setting up a 1982 World Cup final repeat against the Germans in the semis.

The next day I experienced what can only be uncreatively described as the “anti-Germany shootout” with a bunch of England fans. Cooley had predicted a Germany-England final, mainly because the draw was kind to England and they, for once, actually had some decent players at almost every position…oops. Although England mostly controlled the first half of the game and Portugal looked toothless without their suspended playmaker Deco, the match followed an all-too-familiar script for the English. In the second half England’s lone striker hothead Wayne Rooney, just like David Beckham against Argentina in 1998, was red carded for stomping all over a Portuguese defender’s private parts. Afterwards, down a man, England elevated their game as the unfairly maligned Owen Hargreaves heroically ran everywhere, but in the end neither team would have scored even if they had played on for another week.

So, just 24 hours later after the German PK party, the inevitable happened – final whistle and groans from all the En-gur-land fans at our large outdoor beach bar screen and lots of grown men half-staring at the screen through gaps in their hands. Even as Portugal missed two PKs and gave England a golden opportunity to claim their spot in the semifinals, England’s supposedly world class midfield duo bottled their penalties. Rubbish kicks from Lampard and Gerrard as well as a retaken miss by Carragher meant that England scored just 1 penalty in 4 – pathetic. English fan began to sob, as did defender John Terry into David Beckham’s arms. There’s no sugar-coating this one – England lost to a relatively poor side that even gifted them two penalty misses. Absolutely not good enough for a team that aspired to win the tournament.

We had no time to drown our sorrows (..well maybe we squeezed in a bit of drowning) as the main course of the quarterfinals was shortly kicking off – France vs. Team NikeFIFASamba in a repeat of that memorable Paris 1998 final. So we settled into our seats and tuned into the pre-match show.

The rest of the evening was simply delicious. It started with Pele waltzing into the ZDF pre-game show in front of a packed studio of blue and gold jockers clashing their approved thundersticks, and then lip-synching his new loungy “hit” single. After the musical promo he and the ZDF analysts patted each other on the back, reviewed tapes of various Brazilian goals and backheels and predicted a comfortable 2-0 or 2-1 Brazil victory. Everyone agreed that now that the important matches were starting we would see what Ronaldo and his buddies could really do. Back on planet earth, however, once the game kicked off it was obvious that only one team was in control.

The magnificent French just outclassed TeamNikeFIFASamba. Zidane was majestic in midfield, orchestrating passes as if in his prime, cleverly creating spaces and flicking telling balls everywhere, while Ribery terrorized Roberto Carlos down the right side. Carlos was also responsible for marking Henry on a free kick but obviously had more important matters to attend to – in the 57th mintue Henry found himself alone at the far post and thumped in Zidane’s sweetly struck ball and the French had their deserved goal. Although ZZ was singled out as the top player on the pitch, the defensive midfield duo of Viera and Makele produced outstanding performances as they built a wall around the French defense and effortlessly cut off all Brazilian passing lanes. In the end TeamNikeFIFASamba went out with a whimper and was reduced to lobbing in aimless balls into the box as Ronaldo and Ronaldhino whined about the refereeing and flung themselves to the turf in search of free kicks. Not only was this over-hyped bunch of millionaires dispatched in style, we were also mercifully spared a future Berlin fashion trend of Ronaldhino-style headbands with a big “R” on them.

Some seem a bit down on the quality of the tournament, but I thought these Q-finals lived up to the hype – lots of tension, drama and high-quality football. I think its a bit unfair to simply compare the number of goals scored at World Cups across different eras as the defenses and tactics these days are just stifling and the fitness of players so much better than in the past. As with most Q-finals, you win some and lose some, and so I am now officially out of the prediction business even though, of course, I do have a dream final in mind. I will be out of Germany for the semis, but will be back in Berlin under the Brandenburg gate for the final. Best to all and remember to practice those PKs!!

Old Bev: For the Cockroaches of New York (Unpictured)

Cockroaches of New York,

I’m sorry.

I’ll understand if you decline to read this letter; that’s why I’ve put what’s important up top.  I’ve said some mean things about you.  I find your little eyes revolting, and your little knot-sized heart makes me panic, and I hate the little click your adult body makes when you fall from the countertop to the floor.  It was horrible of you to move into my microwave last summer, and the time you somehow got into my mother’s bra during a college information session is really unforgivable.  She had to fish you out in a room full of people.  You’ve made me such a paranoid; each time my roommate S. cuts her eyes to the ceiling or a wall I think she’s seen you.  But I’m willing, right now – just now, so I’d take the opportunity if I were you – to extend the beginnings of a truce.

BeetlebraceletYou might have guessed that this letter has something to do with our encounter yesterday (are you smart?  I don’t know.).  You’re correct.  But for this to make sense, you’ve got to get to know me a bit – at least the bit pertinent to this gesture.  It’s important to know that I’m a punctilious traveler, always early, fingering my ticket.  The size or significance of the journey has no impact on my behavior. I suffer pangs of remorse if I’m not on the subway car nearest to my next exit or transfer. On the way home, I root around for my house keys a block before I reach my apartment.  I’m at the airport an hour and a half before departure, always.  I tell you this because I think you might relate (you time your trips across my kitchen wall particularly well).

Being somewhat of a lazy person, this monstrous dedication to punctuality is tremendously helpful.  If I don’t have a schedule, I’m happy to stay in bed until I get too hungry or think a bath sounds nice.  I can see an elevated train and airplanes from my bedroom window; their cycles lend a pleasant rhythm to my inaction.  It’s only the thought of a place to be and a time to be there that prods me out of bed – I look at that train and those planes as if through the face of a clock, and the sweeping hands interrupt their spell.  The tendency has its drawbacks as well: I fight frustration that my boyfriend H. “walks too slow.”  I am overly resentful of latecomers, but I hate being the first to arrive. 

Yesterday morning (you remember), I flew JetBlue from JFK to San Jose.  The flight was scheduled to depart at 7:05 and the weather was clear on both coasts.  I had set the alarm for 4:45, and when it chirped I gave a morning speech to H. about how I would miss him, and then hopped right out of bed and headed for the shower.  There are only a few things short of flood, fire, and family emergency that could derail my travel agenda.  You’re one, and you stood in the curve of the tub.

I really thought I was hallucinating.  You were big that day, as big as my thumb, and so still.  I’d been  waiting for this moment since the heat set in.  I knew you would crawl up some drain, but I didn’t know when.  And you were so unbelievably still.  I must have made some noise, a strangled scream, because H. said my name.  I didn’t see him as I sprinted back to the bed.  My face felt funny; I gave myself a headache from screwing it up so tight.  H. gallantly made his way into the bathroom with a paper towel, and returned to tell me you’d gone down the drain.  Did you look up at me while I took the shower?  Do you have a sense of humor?  I was in limbo position, feet as far from the drain as possible.  I thought you might have gotten behind my shampoo, or in the soap dish, or on the ceiling.  It was the dirtiest I’ve felt while clean. 

I left fifteen minutes later, fifteen minutes late.  Any other day, I’d have been running a countdown to takeoff in my mind.  Yet: I didn’t even look at the clock.  I didn’t ask my cab driver if he had heard me properly (JFK, not LaGuardia).  I didn’t count the cash I’d just gotten from the ATM.

I got to the airport a bit after 6.  I didn’t take out the money for the cab fare until we were stopped in front of the JetBlue terminal.  I took my time at the check-in kiosk, though I had arrived well into my usual grace period.  And I stood in line to check my duffel bag, one that would probably have fit in the overhead compartment.  Hungry and on a roll, I got in another line to buy breakfast.  My flight, 169, began boarding while I was in line.  I knew this because of the giant screen above cashier, which flashed, “FLIGHT 169 – BOARDING.” But panic-free, I stayed in line. I bought my berries and cheese, and walked up to the gate and right onto the plane.  I sat in my seat, buckled my belt, and we took off 15 minutes later. 

You spent me.  I had nothing left.  An immutable struggle, me and clock, dissipated unremarkably in your wake.  Do I have a certain increment of anxiety to expend each day?  Did you sap it in less than a second?  Or could my day just not get worse?  Maybe I was in shock, just numb to the clock and the plane.  Perhaps you just did quickly what you do regularly – distract me.  In any case, look – I got on the plane on time.  I did it without being a human stopwatch.  And I want to say thank you. 

This is going to be a long road for us.  I’ve never had a positive thought, even a neutral one, about you before.  And please don’t misinterpret this letter: you are fundamentally unwelcome in my home.  But, cockroaches of New York, I’m ready to think about our relationship.

Sincerely,

Jane (Apt 2R)


[Pictured above: Beetle bracelet purchased to ward off cockroaches.]

Random Walks: Casino Royale

Casino_2 While most of the world has been fixated on the ongoing FIFA World Cup tournament, a Hollywood film crew has been gallivanting around the globe shooting the next  installment of the hugely successful James Bond movie franchise: Casino Royale, a remake of the 1967 classic spy spoof, based on Ian Fleming’s very first Bond move. The film marks the debut of British actor Daniel Craig as the tres suave 007.

The original, of course, is considered one of the very first satirical send-ups of espionage thrillers, well before the debut 30 years later of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. And it’s every bit as deliciously silly. The incomparable David Niven plays an aging Sir James Bond, who returns from retirement to rejoin Her Majesty’s Secret Service, specifically to head an operation bent on destroying an evil criminal organization called SMERSH.

Naturally, this involves fending off a bevy of nubile beauties desperate for a chip off the old (literally!) Bond block; a double-crossing fellow agent named Vesper Lynd (Ursula Andress); a Bond impersonator, portrayed by the always-hilarious Peter Sellers; and a crooked casino owner named Le Chiffre (Orson Welles), who supports SMERSH financially with his winnings at the baccarat tables. All Bond has to do is beat Le Chiffre at baccarat, apparently, to topple a global criminal enterprise bent on bringing about the imminent collapse of civilization. (It is a spoof, people. Work with me, here.) If that weren’t enough to deal with, Bond must also grapple with family troubles, in the form of his neurotic nephew, Jimmy Bond (Woody Allen) and an illegitimate daughter, the product of a brief liaison with the late Mata Hari.

In the Bond Universe of 1967, the fictional fate of the civilized world rested on baccarat. No doubt it’s still 007’s favored game, being the cosmopolitan super-sleuth that he is. But these days, the rarefied game of baccarat has been eclipsed by the huge mainstream popularity of that gambling workhorse, poker, especially the Texas Hold ‘Em variety. Some people attribute this in part to the introduction of online poker and the invention of a camera that can show a player’s “hold cards” to a TV audience, thereby turning tournaments into spectator sports. Not only can we tune in for live coverage of World Series Poker and the World Poker Tour, but now we can combine our love of poker with our celebrity gawking fixation by watching Celebrity Poker Showdown.

I hope nobody thinks the less of me when I confess that I’m a diehard fan of the latter series. It’s not just because of the celebrities, although the comedians who participate in particular provide endless entertainment. Nor is it for the pleasure of rattling off the cool-sounding jargon: you can “up the ante,” “see the flop,” “raise the blinds,” and if you’re really unfortunate, you might get “sucked out on the river.” (That’s what happens when you have the best hand until the very last card is dealt, losing the pot in one fell swoop.) Ultimately, the appeal is the game itself. Watching the hands and rounds of betting unfold is oddly addictive, plus there’s the play-by-play commentary by an in-house poker expert (although I mourn the departure of original commentator, Phil Gordon, who has been replaced by the far doughier — albeit knowledgable — “Captain Sideburns,” a.k.a., Phil Hellmuth).

Devoted fans of baccarat might sniff dismissively at my fondness for this rather crass, bourgeois upstart, but poker is has an equally long history, although not entirely illustrious. There’s some debate as to its specific origins, but it most likely evolved out of early games that all relied on betting against ranked card or domino combinations — not to mention the practice of “bluffing” to bamboozle one’s opponents. For instance, around 969 A.D., the Chinese emperor Mu-tsung reportedly played “domino cards” with his wife on New Year’s eve. In the 12th and 13th centuries, Egyptians used playing cards, as did the Persians in the 16th century. In fact, there’s a Persian game called  As Nas — played with 25 cards in five different suits — that could be considered one of poker’s forebears. Poker derives its name from 17th and 18th century French and German games, called poque and pochen, respectively. Those in turn evolved from a 16th century Spanish game called primero, widely believed to be the game most directly related to modern poker. Poker_1

That should convince the most hardened skeptics that poker is every bit as international in scope as the ongoing FIFA World Cup. Alas, much of its history in the rough-and-tumble atmosphere of the New World isn’t quite so civilized. We can blame the spread on the French: poker mania began in Canada with the immigration of French colonials, who brought their national card game, poque, to the New World with them. Those French settlers then drifted south to found New Orleans in the early 18th century. From there the game spread West via Mississippi riverboats, growing ever more popular, until it reached the Western frontier, finding a home in the proliferation of saloons that popped up in response to the California Gold Rush.

The riverboats functioned as lowbrow casinos, and back then, poker was largely the province of cheats and outlaws. A Time-Life book on the history of poker, called The Gamblers, relates the story of a night in 1832, when three professional card sharks aboard a Mississippi steamboat attempted to cheat a young man from Natchez out of his money via a rigged poker game. They succeeded, and the financially ruined young man was on the verge of hurling himself into the river in despair, when a mysterious observer came to his aid. That observer, one James Bowie, took on the three gamblers himself, catching one of them in the very act of cheating. He redeemed the lost money at knife-point on the young man’s behalf — although it must be said, he kept $20,000 of the $70,000 pot for himself as a reward. So he wasn’t entirely altruistic.

There were some “gentlemen gamblers,”  like Bowie, who viewed the game merely as a form of entertainment, to be practiced in moderation, and who abhorred the practice of cheating. But this period also saw the emergence of professional gamblers whose sole aim was to fleece unsuspecting players out of their hard-earned cash. In fact, it was the professionals who are responsible for the evolution of the game’s rules, to enhance their profitability, most notably via the addition of “draw cards” and a second round of betting. In the original version of the game, players received five cards face down, with no chance to improve their hands with draw cards. (Random bit of trivia: the Joker was introduced to the deck as a wild card in 1875.)

Modern tournaments didn’t really start to flourish until the 1970s, when the World Series of Poker debuted, prompting the publication of several books about poker strategies to fuel the growing public interest. And now people are flocking to casinos all over the country, hosting games of Texas Hold ‘Em in their homes, and frittering away untold hours playing in online tournaments. Local bars have even started hosting weekly “poker nights.”

Nonetheless, I managed to resist poker’s irresistible lure for quite some time, despite my fascination with Celebrity Poker Showdown. Still, I suppose it was inevitable that I would purchase that first computer game on CD and begin my descent down the slippery slope to moral depravity. Even now, I primarily play against the computer, and eschew the online tournaments. But then I went to Las Vegas in June for the first-ever YearlyKos conference, and, well, my downfall was complete when I summoned the courage to venture into the MGM Grand casino and join a low-stakes 2/4 table.

It was admittedly a bit intimidating at first, forking over $100 in exchange for a rack of chips and sitting down to a table filled with utter strangers intent on taking my chips away from me. Even though I was familiar with the rules of play and a bit of strategy — thanks to My Main Man, Phil Gordon — it took me a few hands to catch the rhythm of the game. I bided my time, playing tight, folding most of my hands before the flop, finally catching a pair of 8s (dubbed “snowmen”). And with trembling hands, I called the blinds. There’s something to be said for beginner’s luck: I picked up an extra 8 on the flop, and played my “trips” out to victory. Then I relaxed and lost myself in the game for the next few hours. In all honesty, I was prepared to lose that first $100, and I did get sucked out on the river a few times. Those are the breaks. But I made up the losses with a few well-timed wins, and ultimately walked away $90 richer, feeling quite chuffed at my modest fledgling success.

Skeptics would say that’s how they suck you in, much like drug dealers provide the first “hit” for free. Undoubtedly some people have been ruined by an addiction to gambling. But for me, the true allure of poker is not the gambling: the stakes are just a sidelight. Poker, at its heart, is an intricate, complex game, steeped in statistical probabilities, which might explain why it holds so much fascination for the mathematically inclined.

I am not so inclined. In fact, I don’t even pretend to understand the underlying statistics, although I’m slowly developing a deeper appreciation for that aspect of the game. For me, the play is made that much more interesting by the unpredictability of the “human factor”: people tend to follow their hunches, even when the conventional strategy tells them to do otherwise. So every hand unfolds just a bit differently, every round.

Poker experts often bemoan those sorts of people, because such players throw off all their carefully calculated odds with their infernally illogical unpredictability. The best players don’t always win,even on Celebrity Poker Showdown. But even the poker experts might admit, when pressed, that it makes a weird kind of sense. You can’t adhere strictly to the rules all the time, after all; every now and then, you have to take a gamble, although I prefer to think of it as a calculated risk. Sometimes it pays off. Sometimes it doesn’t. Poker is a lot like life, that way. Perhaps even James Bond would agree.

When not taking random walks at 3 Quarks Daily, Jennifer Ouellette muses about physics and culture on her own blog, Cocktail Party Physics.

Dispatches: Women in Whites

Do women deserve the same prize money at Wimbledon as men?  I’ll get back to that – first, a meandering introduction.  Feminism, since at least Mary Wollestonecraft, has always maintained a productive tension between agitating for gender equality and elaborating gender difference.  The very fact that equal rights for women as subjects and citizens is the legacy of feminist thought opens the ground for a philosophical argument about gender difference itself: what is its “nature,” what are its features, and how do these features affect a political program?  These issues, largely irresolvable products of the collision of activism and philosophy, play out as conflicts within feminist thinking between schools, generations, nations, etc.  In the academy, for instance, a theoretical split was seen to develop between French feminists such as Cixous and Irigaray, who argued for the intrinsic difference of women and their language, and those who argued, with Butler, that gender difference is always inessential and ideologically produced.

In more mainstream U.S. terms, in what I think of as “magazine feminism,” a similar argument has been understood as one between two generations, the “Second Wave” of the 1960’s and 70’s and the “Third Wave” of the 80’s and 90’s.  (Incidentally, the “First Wave” mostly concerns the suffrage movement: 1919, remember?)  Here’s the generational conflict in a nutshell: venerable figures such as Gloria Steinem were seen to derogate femininity in order to make the case for women’s equal abilities – their idea being that traditionally feminine traits were imposed upon women as a form of domination.  It’s all a bit unfair to the Second Wavers, since of course the Third Wave rehabilitation of femininity was made possible by the argument over capabilities having been won already.  All the same, by a dialectical movement, we find ourselves in a moment where femininity, having been cast aside in the fight for Title IX and other equal rights, and then diagnosed by high theory as nothing but a social construct anyway, is now being championed again.  (I know, I know, I’m oversimplifying and begging many questions in this little peanut of a summary.)

Let me try and illustrate these shifts using fashion.  Think about it: during the Eighties, while the Second Wave was still dominant in the mass, we had Amazons, tall, striking, intimidating women like Elle MacPherson or Grace Jones.  Just physically they were much larger than the models of other eras, and with the angular shoulder pads of their double-breasted jackets their sillouettes emphasized a masculine strength.  In the movies, overly jocky men were often rejected, while when little geeks like Corey Haim in Weird Science tried to invent the perfect woman, what happened?  Kelly LeBrock showed up and scared the crap out of him: this is the model system for a female identity concerned with appropriating equal power.

By the nineties, with Judith Butler on every sophomore’s dorm desktop, gender was fictive and boys and girls differed only in their ideological software.  What did fashion give us?  Androgyny, duh.  CK One was a unisex scent.  Read that again; is that even imaginable, let alone saleable, today?  Grunge-era Kate Moss and Jenny Shimizu dressed in white tees, combat boots and jeans, while guys dressed in…  the same.  Non-tomboy femininity, where it existed, had to do with ironic appropriations of extreme girlhood: Hello Kitty, little backpacks, Japanese animé.  The one place where extreme femininity was accepted was on men, in drag culture, which by its nature points up the mutability of gender.  The idea of young actresses glamming it up in makeup, heels and dresses every night, a la Jessica Simpson, would have seemed totally anachronistic, premodern. 

Except, of course, that’s exactly where mainstream taste did go, back towards female sexuality considered as power/agency rather than a concession to the male gaze.  First, fashion just dipped a toe in, with the mid-Nineties fetish for artisanal Italian shoes, pace Manolo Blahnik, and then gradually the entire female body was resexualized, through an alliance of endless red carpet shows, lad magazines, and “sex-positive” feminists.  Katha Pollit recently recalled Steinem comparing women who liked pornography to Jews who liked Mein Kampf; nowadays that view is less likely than a young feminist having made some of her own.  Being comfortable as the object of a sexual gaze, anathema to an earlier generation, have become the potential sign of an embrace of femininity, especially for younger women.

And here we stand.  It’s hard at the moment to tell feminism from its backlash, or maybe I should say that which is which depends on who you ask.  Anyway, recently the issue I started with came up in the popular press that brings a lot of this stuff into relief.  In case you forgot: do you think women deserve as much prize money as men at Wimbledon?  No, seriously, it’s a real question and I want your opinion on it.  Cause to be honest, it seemed like a no-brainer to me for a long time: of course they do!!!  But discussing it, several female tennis-fan friends made the case to me that they don’t, and the whole thing started to seem like an object lesson in the philosophical transformations of feminism.  But let me give you the facts first.

Wimbledon, conserver of tennis tradition and requirer of tennis whites, is the last of the four major tennis tournaments (the Grand Slams) to award different amounts to the male and female winners.  This year Roger Federer (whoops, I mean whoever the winner is) will get 655,000 pounds, while the female winner will get 625,000, for a paltry difference of 30,000 pounds, or less than five percent.  The U.S. Open has paid equally for decades (hey! something to be proud of this July 4th, damn it!), Roland Garros (the French Open) began just this year.  But the All-England Lawn Tennis Club hangs on to their petty disparity, infuriating lots of female players and much of British society, and contributing generally to worldwide distrust of old red-faced white men having clubs.  American Venus Williams is the leader of the player’s movement for equal pay, Tony Blair and John McEnroe have come out in support of it, and the Times of London (hardly a bastion of leftism) had this to say: “And by its mean-spirited defence of an anachronism well beyond its sell-by date, the All England Club has forfeited any vestige of quaintness.”  So what’s the problem?

Well, pointed out my interlocutors, for starters, women only play best of three set matches, not best of five as the men do: this means the men are already being paid less per game played (a set is up to six games) than the women.  Secondly, the women’s field is clearly less competitive than the men’s leading to a great number of easy matches in the early rounds.  (And, ugly irrelevant truth though it is, the respective levels of play are not close.)  Now, you might say (and I did say) that tennis is a sport, and sports are entertainment, and we don’t pay entertainers based on how long the album or movie or play is (if so, Andy Warhol might be the richest filmmaker of all time).  You might say that the competitiveness of the respective tours is irrelevant; they are evolving differently, and the principle of equality doesn’t change based on that evolution.  You might say, as Venus Williams did: “It has nothing to do with our campaign for equality. The time spent on court or the sets played is a moot topic. We are not arguing about that. It’s about being treated equal as human beings.”

You might also realize that this is a cosmetic issue that’s easy for politicians to look good decrying (new maxim: the cosmetic is the political?).  Women are underpaid relative to men in all the smaller tournaments, earning about 66% of their counterparts (even though both sexes play best-of-three sets in those), just as they earn less in every other industry (except modeling!).  They even get less as a per diem at many tournaments, which is despicable.  Yet the symbolism of Grand Slam prize money overrides all this: tennis is the most visible womens sport in the world.  And the U.S. Open’s equality on this has rightly and for a long while been a great source of pride: here in the nation of Billie Jean King, Second Waver extraordinaire, we do symbolic equal rights right. 

Yet here’s another difference between Billie Jean and her modern descendants: the sexual marketing of female tennis players (males too, for that matter) has accelerated considerably.  And just as in the world of fashion, modern women tennis players quite consciously trade on their appearance for major endorsements.  The tennis/fashion crossover means that Stella McCartney makes outfits for Maria Kirilenko, and Serena Williams designs clothes with Kimora Lee Simmons.  Of course, the queens of the scene still tend to be not so much beautiful as possessing all the signifiers of commercial beauty: blond hair and long limbs.  (Meanwhile, the truly gorgeous female tennis players, such as Ana Ivanovic, are ignored by the marketers in favor of the Sharapovas and Kournikovas.)  Does this sexualization constitute new-style feminism, or a backlash?  And how does this affect the drive for equality of paychecks?

The several people (all women) who argued with me that women don’t deserve equal money argued that to take the same pay for (shorter, easier) labor is unfair to men, and an unnecessary politics of gesture.  Perhaps this is the sign of truly consolidated strength, a confidence in one’s power and security that means one doesn’t have to accept merely symbolic gifts.  Okay, but the equal-pay movement going on right now is possible because the women’s game is nearly as popular (and occasionally more, in the ratings) as the men’s game now.  And in part, this is because of the women knowingly playing up to tennis’ image as an sanctioned arena in which to watch beautiful female athletes.  If sports are profit-seeking entertainment, and sex helps sell tickets and commercials (“Make every shot… a PowerShot”), then shouldn’t women demand an equal share of the pie, even if it’s for unequal on-court labor?  Or does that demean the principle of equality that women have fought for, as my opponents argued?  Which is capitulation, and which steadfast determination?  It’s a conundrum.  My gut is still heavily with equality, but what do you think?

Here’s the rest of dispatches.

Below the Fold: When Doody Calls, Cheap US Labor and the Degradation of Work

At first, I thought it was an item from that old underground favorite, Tales of the Weird. But no, it was from the Boston Globe, under an April 18 byline by Globe staffer Carolyn Johnson:

“First came the nannies, the dog walkers, the housecleaners, and landscapers. Now crews are handling another outsourced home task: removing a dog’s leftovers from lawns.”

Three hundred “pet waste removal” companies are reported to be operating nationwide. They have formed their own trade association, have annual meetings, and an annual “Golden Shovel” award. Poop-scooping has even been franchised by an outfit named “Doody Calls.”

A Boston-based poop-scooper cleans a backyard once a week for $10-15. Business, as he puts it, picks up in the springtime as people put their dogs out in the yard, and “the aroma starts hitting the open window.” Apparently friendly client-provider relationships are formed: 90% of this scooper’s clients come out and talk with him while he scoops their dogs’ poop.

You can chalk it all up, this pooper-scooper story, to another instance of how markets work to satisfy the needs of both buyers and sellers. Yes, it is about dog shit. But poop-scoopers wouldn’t offer the service if they didn’t want to, would they? And, after all, think of how many people make their living, and a good one, off of shit, from the plumber to the sewer worker to the sanitation works supervisor. You might reply that they worry about human, not dog shit. But let’s not forget where all of that Tidy Cat stuff goes…. As someone’s father always says, it is a free country. If people want to scoop up dog shit for a living, well, Godspeed. Or as the Godfather says, as long as their interests don’t conflict with mine, good luck.

Let me switch the context a bit. You are an untouchable in rural India, and your job is to clean the shit out of upper caste people’s outhouses. Lacking baggies, you use your hands. The horror, the outrage your plight ignites in western readers. How can Indian society tolerate your humiliation, your degradation?

Of course, it could be the species shift. Perhaps dog shit is cleaner than human shit. Of course, I forgot salvation by baggie. When picking up my dog’s shit, I myself prefer the blue New York Times wrappers to the Globe transparent plastic wrappers: it places a micro-thin membrane between me and the shit.

However, I don’t know whether the average Westerner would feel that much better if somehow Shiva would shower baggies on the rural untouchables, or even New York Times wrappers for that matter. The degradation is done, not by contract, but by caste.

The contract, that great leveler of social difference, stands between buyer and seller of doody scooper-power in the USA. It saves the seller from degradation and the stigma of being a poop-scooper and the buyer from the responsibility of having degraded the scooper. As long as the doody-scooper scoops up some cash, most moral doubts are resolved. A cancer cure it’s not but not everyone can have interesting, life-affirming work. And if everyone is happy, far be it from me…..

Their mutual consent to a contract prevents us from asking: why is there a market for poop-scooping anyway? Here I would argue that Blim’s Law of Degrading Labor applies: the cheaper labor becomes, the more degrading it becomes. Look, poop-scooping is never going to become my favorite job or yours. When I get the short straw at home, my partner puts the Globe bags in my hand (no blue Times bags are left, the cost of having cancelled our subscription on account of the Iraq War), and hustles me out the door with the injunction: “Let’s be careful out there. It’s a minefield.” Of course, I wish he had drawn the short straw. Does any young child wake up in the morning with the fantasy that she is going to grow up to be a poop-scooper?

Of course not. Two conditions transform my weekend nightmare – and perhaps yours – into a world where mine or your dog’s shit can be picked up for a fee. First, to avoid picking up your own dog shit, you need to have some money. If I had some money, poop-scooping services would not be high on my list, but if a person has a lot of money, my preference-ordering, and my scruples for that matter, become irrelevant. Let us suppose for a minute that everyone would hire a poop-scooper, if they could. The second condition then becomes the key. The cheaper poop-scooping is, the more likely a person would be to hire a scooper.

But what determines the cost of poop-scooping? The supply of poop? The number of scoops(ers)? Only in part. The fact that America has more rich and well off persons as a proportion of its population now than even in the Gilded Age over a century ago counts for something. There are a certain number of people, not just the Buffetts and the Gateses mind you, that have the cash. Examine your own bank accounts, and at least to thine own self be true.

The general cost of labor also weighs in. Poop-scooping labor is cheap. If you can get your yard done for $10 a week (my dog does it 2-3 times a day, so let’s call it 15 poops at 67 cents a scoop), eyeball it. That’s cheap. Economists would say it’s cheap too because people are able to replace the $10 they spend on a poop-scooper in less time that it takes the poop-scooper to scoop up the dog shit. If poop-scoopers charged as much per hour as their clients made per hour, you can bet there would be more people out in their back yards with those Times or worse Globe bags scooping up dog shit.

Don’t believe me. A recent analysis of the Swedish economy by the McKinsey Global Institute, meant to be the business guide to economic policy in social democratic Sweden, laments that high wages protected by government unemployment and welfare policies means that fewer people avail themselves of personal services and fewer frequent restaurants than any other rich society. Why? Because the services and restaurants cost so much, labor being, ahem, much more expensive than in other societies that people end up doing things for themselves. A Stockholm lawyer must reflect on whether she wants to spend $400 dollars on a meal for two at a restaurant, roughly twice her after-tax hourly wage, or stay home and cook it herself. Or per chance, pick up her dog’s shit herself. When labor is more expensive, people degrade workers less. Or it must cost them significantly to do it.

As Blim’s Law of Degrading Labor would predict, as the cost of labor in America slips, more workers do degrading labor.

With July Fourth, summer vacations really begin. If you travel abroad and find yourself in a poor country, notice how so many people do so many things, often embarrassing and degrading things, for a pittance. Or travel in America for that matter, and ask why that hotel room is a bargain, and the maid is so friendly. In both cases, you have entered lands where labor is cheap, Blim’s law applies, and cleaning someone else’s shit, and the degradation it implies, is cheap too.