Saheli*: Musings and Observations
Saturday, December 31, 2005
 
SpeedBlogging

Wow. Never has my blog been so fascinatingly informative to me, and never have I had so little time to read it.

PHOTOS AT FLICKR. Sorry, no time to organize or add captions. This is a long post and I don't want to knock all the great guest blogging off the front, so click on the timestamp/permalink for the whole thing. HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYONE!

Time for some hit and run blogging, drafted offline while I wait to go to the internet cafe. (Actually, I'm posting this at my cousin's flat. The internet cafe was closed for NYE) My niece is dictating directions to some obscure drawing game ("Now I will show you how to draw a true star!") so if this prose seems a little distracted, remember that I'm contemplating the proper geometry of pentagrammic stars, and confirming spellings for astronomical bodies.(How is it that a five-year-old who mostly speaks Bengali reads and writes in English? Every now and then when I can't understand her, her brother helpfully translates into a more firmly enunciated English. They both go to English medium schools, and it's not clear when they'll learn how to read and write in Bengali.)
After I blogged on Tuesday evening (Indian time), we ventured into the old city to visit a monastery (Math) there. After listening to the sermon and singing,we met a few of the monastery's cows who had been put inside the goshala off the courtyard for the evening; unfortunately it was too dark to photograph them. They're some of the only cows I've seen so far on this trip. Hyderabad is relatively unencumbered by cattle. As is traditional, we sat in a row on the floor of the monastery's dining hall, and the monks served us dinner on plates sewn together from leaves. In Bengal these plates are made from the leaves of a shal tree, but my cousin brother didn't think these plates were made from shal. The old city's shops were still thickly crowded even after 9 o'clock at night.
The next day I had breakfast twice--once at my uncle and aunt's flat, and once at my cousin brother and sister-in-law's flat, home of the oft-mentioned neice and nephew. My sister-in-law had gone through the trouble of finding rasa-kadamba, one of my favorite Bengali sweets, seeing as how I won't get to Bengal proper for a couple weeks. She also made chow mein (!) and peas kachoris--fried flat bread stuffed with mashed green peas. Mmm. Then we went to the Salar Jung Museum.

Click the Timestamp to read the rest of the post.

It sits on the bank of the river Musi, which looks like it must have once been huge, but is now practically only a stream. The Salar Jungs were the prime ministers of Hyderabad when it was ruled by Nizams, and they traced their roots through the Moguls to an early Muslim from Medina on one side, and Persian royalty on the other. Salar Jung III. who founded the museum and collected the bulk of the art work, died a bachelor in 1949. I found the curation slightly lacking, and annoyingly weaker in the Indian parts than in the western parts, but I was still impressed with antique statuary, Mogul weaponry and brocade, and especially the collection of Indian miniatures. In the middle of the museum is one of those clocks with a figuring that comes out and hits the bell on the hour. A crowd of at least a couple hundred gathered around to see it at three pm, and some tech company has sponsored a video camera and two plasma screens so people can better see the figurines. I was kind of amazed that people would get so excited over a mere mechanical clock assembled in Calcutta of British parts, and felt rather ridiculous waiting in the crowd for the clock to strike. My Dad started singing, "One! Two! Three!" perhaps for my nephew's benefit. I started shushing my dad when suddenly, behind us, I heard a teenage boy's voice, "Four!" My dad:"Five!" Unseen boy:"Six!" And the two of them kept singing through the numbers, like a pair of sesame street muppets, till they hit 30 and the figurine came out. As the pressure of the crowd eased, I turned around to try and find the boy, but he had dissolved back into the crowd of strangers.
In the evening my aunt took us shopping at the alarmingly named, "Wedding Mall." The last time I came to India I didn't really wear saris, so it was fun to actually shop for saris myself--there's a wide counter, with chairs on one side for us, and the salesmen and shelves stacked with saris on the other side. Man, though, the salesmen are pushy. What's intimidating is how carelessly they'll take a two-foot stack of perfectly ironed and folded saris and throw them all open in front of you, until you're facing a mountain of fabric. I feel bad thinking how much work it will be to fold all those saris and put them away--which I suppose is part of the sales trick.

The next morning The Hindu arrived at our hotel with the headlines of the shootings at the Indian Institute of Science in the city of Bangalore, which happens to be next on our itinerary. It was maddening not to be able to get online and read all the news, but perhaps instructive--both The Hindu and the Deccan Chronicle headlined the incidents, and had a couple sidebars on it, but that was about it. Maybe I got a better sense of the proportion of the sad event--or lack thereof--by absorbing it throught the same medium of daily paper that my relatives do, and not through the filter of Google News. My relatives were fairly nonchalant about it. I've heard it observed many times that societies which actually deal with terrorism on a regular basis are in some ways less perturbed by it than the United States is, and this seems to confirm that. Still, it was a bit unnerving to read that the CIA had warned the Indian Intelligence that militant groups would be targetting the software parks of the south, since that's where were headed on Thursday. Also disconcerting to read that the current suspicions lie mainly on Hyderbadis. Oh well, that's life.

The road from Hyderabad proper to HiTec City has many interesting new houses being built off its sides. It's also being widended, providing a dramatic example of eminent domain, Indian style--all over Hyderabad, but especially on that road, you'll see buildings--still occupied--that have had their fronts broken off, the walls exposed, like a doll's house or a diaroma exhibition on interior architecture. The roads are lined with workers finishing the widening and also putting new fronts and facades on these houses, mostly with their bare hands. All over Hyderabad there is construction and roadwork. (In fact, last night we fled our hotel and slept at my Uncle's flat because they start the pounding and drilling all around us at 2 AM!) The scaffolding still gives me the willies---rough polls tied together with ropes. In HiTec City I saw some workers wearing yellow hardhats, but most of the time workers were wandering around in just shorts or lungis---or tied up saris! A lot of the workers are women. I saw many women digging at the ground, filling up a basket with building materials, and then carrying it somewhere on their heads.

After we went to HiTec City we stopped at the Shilparam crafts village, which was having a major fair and vendors from all of India hawking emblematic regional goods. I would pick out what I wanted and then go get my aunt to do the bargaining. It was easy to get carried away and do all my shopping right there, but my Dad reminded us that we have to carry all this stuff all over India for the rest of our trip.

Yesterday I had a more basic, boring Indian adventure--waking up in the middle night with a churning stomach and retching throughout the morning. So I spent yesterday lying in bed with a bottle of oral hydration salt treated water, remembering brimful and her viral musings. I also rewatched Parineeta, which I watched on the plane. (It's pretty good! Better than Devdas, I thought, though I might have been overly entertained by costumes matching my parents' teenage pictures.)

Tonight I'm feeling a little better. On the way here the crowds were INTENSE. Running around Hyderabad in a rented SUV (!!!--but it's a super skinny Qualis, and apparently the only car the hotel had which would fit all of us) that's so full we've got kids on our lap (!!!) without seatbelts (!!!), oftentimes rushing headlong into traffic, I just have to go with the flow and pretend like I'm used to it. Even so, tonight has been nuts. Traffic, air and noise pollution are easily the top three most overwhelming things. When me and my Dad crossed the main road the first time here, we started laughing hysterically when we made it to the other side. I feel like all bicyclists here should be given a Bharat Ratna medal. A couple things I saw on the way--a little Chinese restaurant--a small concrete shack, really--with Guernica--yes, Guernica, by Picasso--elaborately muralled on the side. And on a scooter, two ladies clutching a man--one in full on black purdah, the other made up in a salwar kameez, with flashy gold earrings and her hair fully exposed.

Because I was sick, and because we're travelling during holidays, things are particularly hectic. Probably won't blog until we get to Delhi several days from now. Right now I'm sort of wishing we hadn't put so many cities on the itinerary--my desire to play tourist has rather evaporated now that I'm here with my family. 8 years is a long time not to see relatives, and in the case of my uncle and aunt this is the first quality time (really good quality time) I've ever had with them. There's a phrase in Bengali--mon kamon korche--literally, "how the heart is doing!" or "the heart is yearning"--that seems to already apply. Haven't seen that much of Hyderabad, but I will definitely miss it.




Some notes from the journey that I didn't have time to organize last time: Travelling on Christmas day is a bit depressing, since I feel bad for all the people who would obviously rather be home than working. I tried to tip baristas and the like generously, and wished everyone a very grateful Merry Christmas, but I think I will think twice before arranging my own travel plans on Christmas again. Then again, it's a perpetual economic question--does not purchasing an uncomfortable good or service really help the people providing it? Always hard to tell for sure.

Secondly, I was really amused by how many uncles in the LAX Air India line sent their grown children off to check out the prices on the duty free Johnny Walker. At least four. Thirdly--If you're at the LAX international terminal, eat before you go through security. I totally misunderstood where the restaurants were with respect to security. I saw a sign on the floor above us for Sushi, and was greatly anticipating have a few rolls of avacado sushi on the way to the gate. Turns out, there was no actual food between security and the gate---and of course, it may very well be a month before I get me some avacado sushi.Fourthly--dude, if you're going let your toddler sleep on your shoulder during a flight, for the love of God, do not sit in an aisle seat. This two-year old fell off her sleeping father's shoulder and onto my Dad's leg. Good thing she did fall onto my Dad's leg--it might have been my worse if he hadn't broken her fall. Finally--Air India was late leaving LAX, apparently because of immense congestion in the security line--though not as late as I was afraid they might be--and so our flight from Mumbai to Hyderabad was held up, waiting for us. Amazingly enough, for once I had made it through security in the United States without getting excessively searched. So guess where they decide to go through my baggage? Mumbai. My mother: "Wow, maybe you really do just look suspicious. Perhaps wearing a black tracksuit like a cat burglar didn't help." So by the time we run to our gate, the loudspeaker is calling, "Datta family! Datta family!" and we have our own personal escort armed with a walkie-talkie to appraise the captain of our progress. My mother irritatedly points out to this man that it's not our fault, since it was Air India that was late, to which he replies,"It's not our fault ma'am. It's that bloody Bush! He's so obsessed with terrorists, and it's the Indian people who are suffering." I'm not sure if he meant, "It's the Indian people who actually have to deal with terrorists" (see above) or "It's the Indian people who have to deal with Bush's terror obsession." But even I didn't agree that this was GWB's fault.

HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYONE!!!!
 
 
One Bright Moment

The headline of this article is "Thousands flee deadly monsoon", but yet, the photograph in it is so hopeful. Go take a look.

Done?

Okay, so doesn't that guy have the greatest expression on his face? It's like, "My house is submerged, and I'm neck-deep in muddy water, but at least I've got my goose!" (I'm pretty sure that's a goose and not a duck, like the caption says. :P)

I found that picture via this Cellar Image of the Day entry, where you can also find a bigger version of the picture and some amusing comments.
 
Friday, December 30, 2005
 

Cuttlefish and Identity


Kudos to Robert S. for his blogging of Science Friday and Oliver Sachs. It seems we have a personal hero in common in the latter, making it all the more shocking, (shocking!), that Robert didn't mention the stunning cuttlefish fact that Sachs so casually tossed off in the course of the interview.

Sachs' claim, for which I've found no outside verification as of yet, is this. Under typical circumstances, when the cuttlefish is just hanging out, each eye is positioned well to the side, allowing for good panoramic vision. However, when the cuttlefish is on the prowl, preparing for a high-speed struggle with its prey, its eyes actually migrate to the center, thus lending the considerable power of stereoscopic vision to its hunt. I mean, wow! Stereoscopy on demand? My inordinate esteem for cuttlefish has been validated yet again.

Which brings me, inexorably, to critical theory and the construction of identity -- something of a theme for the holidays, I'm afraid. Our gracious hostess Saheli started it a few weeks ago, mentioning a quiz which declared that she "positively live[s] for theory." Sure enough, on taking the quiz myself, I too was rated a "theory slut".

Really? I haven't thought about critical theory since college, when it surrounded me rather inescapably, like a sucking bog. (My brightest remaining college association with the subject remains my roommate's unbeatable imitation of the "Deconstructionist Blonde": "I just ADORE Derrida, don't you?" she would squeal, flipping her newly-bleached hair coquettishly). Then just recently, I had lunch with an old family friend completing her Master's thesis in Design. She had somehow missed any cauterizing exposure to deconstructionism as an undergrad, but was now well within its throes, and seemed both anguished and elated by its possibilities as we discussed, oh... self-imposed identities, socially-constructed identities, the disintegration of identities... the ability to riffle through a whole rack of identities and put one on appropriate to company and occasion.

So huzzah to the cuttlefish, which molds both its form and its very vision to fit circumstance! Can we presume it does so without angst? Or do cuttlefish slump on seabed couches, morally adrift, undecided as to which view of the world is the real one, or whether the the front-eyed or side-eyed model best represents their true cephalopodan selves? Come to think of it, I do tend to be uncomfortable writing for a public audience, (and much more so in journal writing or diary-keeping), largely because I feel I will inevitably misrepresent myself, mislead the reader, and generally face all sorts of peril. Thanks, SSR, for giving me the chance to guest-blog, and hence to overcome such unseemly inhibition through the emulation of two much-admired creatures: yourself and the noble cuttlefish.

 
 
The Price of Gas

None other than Willie Nelson is getting into the biodiesel game. Behold BioWillie!

I was thinking.. Part of the biodiesel/ethanol movement is about "reducing our dependence on foreign oil". But is that necessarily a good thing? I mean, it sounds to me like, "If we don't use their oil, then we can just happily ignore them and all will be well." The Middle East is screwed up enough as it is... Now imagine if we take away their primary source of income. Yes, that might mean less money for state-funded terrorism, etc., but I'm sure there's at least some trickle-down effect, and so won't the people there get even poorer? And then what?

It reminds me of the part in Syriana where Will Hunting complains that oil countries waste away all their money on luxuries instead of improving their infrastructure, and Dr. Bashir retorts that, every time someone does try to improve infrastructure there, the US actively tries to disrupt it, presumably because weaker countries are easier to control. (Ha!) Anyway, I find the idea of reducing dependence on foreign oil scary in its own way.

In related news (from a few months ago), here's a list of gas prices in other countries. I think this list was published when prices in the Bay Area were just under $3. (They're back down to just over $2 now.) At the top of the list is Amsterdam, at $6.48/gal. London was $5.79/gal. The cheapest? Venezuela at 12 cents/gal. (!)

And now for your postly image. Low-income housing in Ixtapaluca, Mexico:

The pictures are originally from this helicopter pilot's page.
 
 
Science: Still Not Getting Any Respect

Listening to NPR's Science Friday and I heard a story I meant to blog because I know Saheli loves science, too.

Did you know that an exhibit on Charles Darwin at the American Museum of Natural History hasn't been able find a corporate sponsor? London's Daily Telegraph suggests its “because American companies are anxious not to take sides in the heated debate between scientists and fundamentalist Christians over the theory of evolution.” Come on Microsoft, step up to the plate here! Without sponsorship, the museum will have to depend on the sale of Darwin-related paraphernalia, including, I kid you not, Darwin finger puppets (too late for my Christmas wish list!).

You might want to check out the podcast (not a direct link unfortunately). They also interviewed one of my personal heroes this afternoon: Oliver Sacks.

Speaking of NPR and science, I'm looking forward to this coming Monday's installment of "This I Believe," which I always find engaging. This time round we'll here from Alan Lightman, author of Einstein's Dreams and Good Benito. If you'll indulge me a moment, I'll share a story about why the former book is so special to me.

In May of 1995, I graduated with a Master's degree from Bob Jones University (yes, that BJU), a school known for its fundamentalist Christian bent. Evolution was not taught in the science classes there, except briefly to dismiss it and to endorse the Biblical seven-day creation. However, by the time I graduated, I had effectively parted ways with the university intellectually (how that happened and why I stayed there is a story best told over a few beers), and I have little in common with the institution any more. Well, on the day of graduation, I slipped a copy of Lightman's Einstein's Dreams up the sleeve of my gown and took it through the entire ceremony with me. I believe I even had it in my hand when I went up the stage in front of several thousand people, took my diploma and shook Dr. Bob Jones III's hand. I took the book for a couple of reasons: one, to entertain myself should the proceedings grow a little dull, and two, as a metaphor (known only to myself) for the new intellectual path I'd be taking upon leaving the institution (something by Bertrand Russell would've been, um, harsh).

So I look forward to hearing what Lightman has to say on Monday morning. It'll be a welcome reminder of a conscious path I took just over a decade ago.

A couple of meaningful related quotes:
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. - Charles Darwin

I maintain there is much more wonder in science than in pseudoscience. And in addition, to whatever measure this term has any meaning, science has the additional virtue, and it is not an inconsiderable one, of being true. - Carl Sagan
Happy adventuring Saheli!
 
Thursday, December 29, 2005
 
Fruit of the Gods

I can't link to this -- it's from the non-digital world.[1] But I wanted to share.

Every year, a woman I know[2] has a holiday ritual. From Thanksgiving until Christmas, if any homeless person asks her for something and looks her in the eye, she offers to buy them food. No cash, just food. This can lead to some unexpectedly awkward moral dilemmas, such as the one-legged man at a highway offramp, blocks away from any food source. But it seems that she perseveres, which is in both her own nature and the nature of these rituals.

So, in these circumstances, she offers to buy them food, which leads rapidly to the question: "What do you want to eat?" Speaking for myself, I have made such an offer only three times, which led to two refusals and guy who opted, uninspiringly, for donuts. But Ana-Marie's sample size (~25) speaks a bit better for the meaningfulness of her results, which I post here for you today.

1) Nobody has yet turned down this offer.
2) The homeless people she's spoken to[3] have a paucity of teeth, leading to requests for soft foods.
3) The number one most-requested drink in response to her offer -- an offer with no explicit restrictions[4] -- turns out to be orange juice[5].

Just in case you wondered what people really value.

Sadly, prices are sky-high after disease, hurricanes, which is all the more reason to increase imports from Brazil by lowering the tariffs. Or perhaps to raise those tariffs and help our own poor orange farmers[6]. I can't keep that stuff straight.

---

[1] The one with the dirt and stuff. Literal dirt, that is, not gossip.
[2] Ana-Marie Jones.
[3] Primarily in San Francisco.
[4] She won't buy anyone alcohol, but she doesn't lead off by pointing that out, either.
[5] Now with fiber for the Boomers! A drink-technology first. It's good to be so advanced.
[6] Such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
 
 
Speaking of Sexy Geeks...

In her post below, echan mentions Wired's Sexiest Geeks of 2005. In a nice crossover, this week Sepia Mutiny alerts us to the fact that a geek has made People Magazine's Sexiest Men Alive list this year. His name is Michael Manga, a professor of geophysics at the best university Saheli and I ever went to, UC Berkeley (Go Bears!). According to this rediff article, he is a bit embarassed by all the attention. (The article refers to the UC Berkeley News, which I have never heard of, and Berkeley is spelled wrong in the article, so take it with a grain of salt.) Off of his homepage, he has a link to "what is geophysics" which links to this neat little poem.

On a personal note, it is nice to see us sexy Indian geeks from UC Berkeley finally get our due. (Technically, he is only half Indian, but it is a good start.)

 
 
Outsourcing Saheli to India

This is over a year old, but Conan O'Brien once sent an employee to Hyderabad [12.9 MB WMV]. (I find the gibberish singing bit at the end a little offensive, but the rest of it is hilarious.)

In related old news, Catholic priests in the US are outsourcing prayers to India. Choice quote:
The Rev. Paul Thelakkat, a Cochin-based spokesman for the Synod of Bishops of the Syro-Malabar Church, said, "The prayer is heartfelt, and every prayer is treated as the same whether it is paid for in dollars, euros or in rupees."
And now for something completely different: The Flying Mobulas of the Sea of Cortez!



(I think that one kinda looks like SSR.)

(Btw, hi, I'm TK, and I'll only be blogging stuff SSR would deem sufficiently random.)
 
Wednesday, December 28, 2005
 
WWSD?

I've only delayed putting up a post because I've been asking, "What would Saheli do?"

But Scott's brave opening shot gives me this opportunity to put up this addendum to his post:

Mr. Footnote 3, Chris Mooney, has been named one of Wired's Sexiest Geeks of 2005. Kudos to a warrior in the name the science. Next year, I expect to see Saheli's name on that list, as she continues on her quest to save the world, or to at least make it a cooler place.

Oh, and to introduce and identify myself, I'm echan, and I promise future posts shall be in the law/ politics /urban living / tech vein.
 
 
This is Scott: Hello :)

I suspect that the rest of the guest bloggers, like me, are pretty busy around this time of year [1]. Which gives me a chance, before we get to the philosophy[2] and the politics[3], to break the ice with some temporary help picturing Hyderabad until Saheli puts up her own photos. Taking a quick tour of the offerings, I can recommend Jorge Tutor, Trek Lens, and of course Flickr. For those of you who, like me, see a city in its buildings, you might enjoy the 7 Wonders of Hyderabad.

Also, you can get a bird's-eye-view with a tourist's map, or the ever-popular Google Earth.

Not, of course, that we can count on her to stay terribly long in one spot.

----
[1] "Unlike Saheli?", you cleverly and pointedly ask.

[2] If you need a hit: "Grrrr: Slate Forgets Half of Campus"

[3] Again, if you need a hit: "The Republican War on Science"
 
Sunday, December 25, 2005
 
Greetings from Hyderabad! And Guest Bloggers!

I'm in Hyderabad. Yep, travelling again--this time to the ancestral land of India, though right now a bit far from my actual roots. Hyderabad is the centuries-old capital of the ancient state of the Andhras and one of India's high tech boom cities. It's a pretty exciting place for me to land, because I haven't been to India in about 8 years, and Hyderabad is emblematic of a lot of the change that has happened since then.

Quicky observations so far: wow, there are a lot of interesting trees here! Tall ones, with rich pink and yellow blossoms too. There's lots of little contrasts between the Bollywood-style billboards/glitzy malls and the city's Islamic roots--lots of women walking around with hijabs and even complete black burqas. I was wearing a black tracksuit on the overly long plane ride, which stopped in Mumbai. In LAX I noted that 90% of the women on the plane wearing "traditional" clothing were either white-haired or Air India's famous air hostesses--and the same in Mumbai--but waiting for my uncle outside the airport, I only spotted one other woman in western dress and felt severely underdressed, so I changed into a Salwar Kameez quickly. While I was waiting I was also struck by the variety of Indian-made cars--the days of Ambassadors and Marutis lording over the roads are totally over. The haze is a bit depressing. In Mumbai I sleepily noted that "it's as foggy here as in SF" and another passenger burst out laughing at me. "That's not fog!" and she just kept laughing. But it's still way cleaner than I remember Kolkata being. Speaking of Kolkata--I was amused to see red Hammer and Sickle flags decking the trees outside my hotel. When I asked my cousin about it, in my flight-clogged deafness I kept thinking he was saying, "Sepia M," and was surprised that a) he knew about the Mutiny and b) he was associating the Mutiny with communism. Not something Abhi and Manish would condone, let alone Vinod or Anna! Ah, but when I yawned to clear my ears I realized he was saying , CPI(M)--Communist Party of India, Marxist-Leninist. Their offices are on our pretty street. Turns out my cousin had heard of Question-Gate, but hadn't heard of the Mutiny---so much for riding their coattails to glory in India. Finally, some more personal observation--wow, I am so utterly incapable of resisting the insistent charms of my niece and nephew, who did not exist the last time I was here. They chatter at me in three languages, drag me around by the hand, and can't get enough of my camera. Also, I really felt like I was back in India when my aunt served up cooked banana flowers, poppy seeds stewed with potatoes and jinghe squash, potol squash and potatoes, and kheer with curd. Oh, so tasty!

This is going to be a long and wacky trip, and while I hope to keep y'all posted with as much travelblogging and photography as possible, I've decided to enlist some aid in keeping up the Musings and Observations. That's right--guest bloggers! They are:
Rishi, Scott, Emily, Echan (of Geeky Chic 2.0), Nick (of Radiation Persuasion), Robert (of hitched to everything), and ToastyKen of the Subjunctive Klog. Please be nice to them and enjoy their fantasticness! Happy Holidays!
 
 
Merry Christmas

Whatever it means to you, I hope you enjoy it, and that it finds you and yours safe and well.
 
 
Under Pressure

Live 105 was doing a countdown of their favorite artists today, and David Bowie clocked in with Under Pressure. The lyrics brought to mind the activist thread we've got going:
It’s the terror of knowing
What this world is about
Watching some good friends
Screaming let me out!
. . .
Turned away from it all
Like a blind man
Sat on a fence but it don’t work
Keep coming up with love
But it’s so slashed and torn
Why why why?
Love love love love

Insanity laughs under pressure we’re cracking
Can’t we give ourselves one more chance?
Why can’t we give love that one more chance?
Why can’t we give love give love give love?
Give love give love give love give love give love?
Cause love’s such an old fashioned word
And love dares you to care
For people on the edge of the night
And love dares you to change our way
Of caring about ourselves
This is our last dance . .
Classic song, of course, and more soothing to my sense of Holiday than any of the carols and oldies on the other stations. It reminded me of a conclusion we reached in my high school Russian History class. We were wondering if people would eventually give up on trying to fix poverty, and we decided the answer was no--just as some people would always exploit the weak and steal and be greedy, other people would always be moved to jump down off the fence, so to speak, and share and comfort. They might try to close their eyes but love would eventually pull them into the fray--even when confronted with a world so frequently terrible that people scream to be let out.

I guess my rough, working philosophy of activism is that you gotta do what you gotta do for the world--and do it well, do it diligently, do it earnestly--but at the end of the day you have to be a little neutral about both success and failure, and grounded in your own beliefs. That way the ends doesn't justify the means too much, you don't beat yourself up about circumstances out of your control, you don't believe the bad press with the good press, and you don't waste your whole lifetime on something that's not, after all, you. The problem, of course, is figuring out what it is that you gotta do.

I appreciate the way the thread on activism is going because it has provided me with a lot of ideas and thoughts about activism to sift through--but I always want more.

Acknowledging that activism can range from legal to illegal, and from as indirect as persuading voters to as direct as breaking things, we pondered notions of connotation and framing, as well as of efficacy. Some of the negative connotations I was originally riffing on seem to be planted by the establishment--demonizing by the powers that be, as Jym said, or an usurpment by the current administration, as Echan said. Other negative connotations seem to be blowback from a a range of negatively perceived associations---nobody wants to accidentally endorse a view one doesn't have--- and pereceived actions: PETA throwing paint on furs, AIDS activists vomitting in a fancy restaurant, or simply preaching to the converted too much. That seems to boil down to efficacy. How do we judge it? This is the analytical heart of the matter. If we can judge efficacy, we can empirically measure various kinds of possible political action, and calculate which to political actions to perform for optimum results.

It sounds kinda dry that way, doesn't it? An engineering problem. I once told TK I'd like there to be a field called Political Action Engineering or somesuch. Like good engineering though, it can't be done all in one's head and on paper. It requires a little bit of trying, even when there's no gain in sight. I suppose that kind of unwarranted leap of faith is made much easier by love. Pressure alone won't get us going. Even in darkest winter, we have to give hope and love one more chance.
 
Thursday, December 22, 2005
 
Um, Wow

I heard from Echan that she recently got a super wacky present: critters from the the plush microbe collection. Make sure you look at the additional images. Even as a former microbiology student who used to coo to her petri dishes in hopes that they would thrive, I'm amazed anyone thought of this.
 
Wednesday, December 21, 2005
 
Snow

Robert Stribley has some interesting ponderings about love and doubt over at hitched to everything:
As adults, we encounter a lot of cynicism about love and we even learn to speak about it with a degree of embarrassment; but the older I get, the more I'm convinced of the importance of not growing cynical about love, but of better understanding it.
His post collided in my brain with an email from a friend who has been frolicking in the snow beneath the mountains in my birth country--the soft, powdery snow of Colorado that glitters beneath a clear sky showering starlight and moonbeams. The collision brought to mind one of my favorite passages in literature, from Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, the chapter entitled Snow--a dream poem that sits like a raw, glowing gem at the crest of the most elaborate and well-mannered novel. My copy is a bit hard to get to, but Amazon search inside helped me find the passage:
Man is the master of contradictions, they occur through him, and so he is more noble than they. More noble than death, too noble for it--that is the freedom of his mind. More noble than life, too noble for it--that is the devotion of his heart. There, I have rhymed it all together, dreamed a poem of humankind. I will remember it. I will be good. I will grant death no dominion over my thoughts. For in that is found goodness and brotherly love, and in that alone. Death is a great power. You take off your hat and tiptoe past his presence, rocking your way forward. He wears the ceremonial ruff of what has been, and you put on austere black in his honor. Reason stands foolish before him, for reason is only virtue, but death is freedom and kicking over the traces, chaos, and lust. Lust, my dream says, not love. Death and love--there is no rhyming them, that is a preposterous rhyme, a false rhyme. Love stands opposed to death--it alone, and not reason, is stronger than death. Only love, and not reason, yields kind thoughts. And form, too, comes only from love and goodness: form and the cultivated manners of man's fair state, of a reasonable, genial community--out of silent regard for the bloody banquet. Oh, what a clear dream I've dreamed, how well I've 'played king'! I will remember it. I will keep faith with death in my heart, but I will clearly remember that if faithfulness to death and to what is past rules our thoughts and deeds, that leads only to wickedness, dark lust and the hatred of humankind. For the sake of goodness and love, man shall grant death no dominion over his thoughts. And with that I shall awaken. For with that I have dreamed my dream to its end, to its goal.
I highly recommend this novel, if you are interested in such things. Get the John Woods translation. Sometimes I despair of getting "the better understanding", as Robert exhorts us too, or of trying to, anyway---how can trying help? Understanding either comes or it does not. It sometimes seems like even the most balanced diet of great art and literature and conversation and even friendship and raw experience cannot advance understanding in any measurable or dependable way. But when it does come--whether from the hum of a resonant novel or the flash of happy teeth from across the room--it makes all the fitful starts and stops worth it.
 
Monday, December 19, 2005
 
Activism and Protests

I've been thinking a bit about what it means to be a political activist. The word is really strange, if you think about it. Activist--one who engages in political activism.

First my impression of the word without looking it up: taking the time and making the commitment to exert pressure--through petitioning, campaigning, communicating, filing of comments and briefs, demonstrating, protesting, obstructing, and sometimes even destroying--on a political system, in order to influence or reverse political decisions. Anything beyond voting really, though "political activist" implies the time commitment and focus of major hobby or actual occupation, rather than the occasional forwarding of an email. Of all these possible actions, I see only the last two as potentially illegal or possibly problematic. In some sense, I simply take the phrase literally--being active in the polis. So really, any concerned citizen should be an activist. It's a basic lesson in elementary school civics that voting is the most minimal performance of duty.

Now let us look at Dictionary.com:
The use of direct, often confrontational action, such as a demonstration or strike, in opposition to or support of a cause. (Source: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition)
and
a policy of taking direct and militant action to achieve a political or social goal. Source: WordNet , Princeton University.
That seems a little strong. There is a large spectrum of action between voting and demonstrating that's not in the definition. Confrontational implies physical--it does not include filing amica curiae briefs, going to meetings and making comments on policy decisions, or writing letters to the editor. The second definition is even more narrow--direct and militant action. What the hell does militant even mean anymore?
  1. Fighting or warring.
  2. Having a combative character; aggressive, especially in the service of a cause: a militant political activist.
The connotation seems to be that activists have to be hostile and combative.

No wonder most people don't want to be political activists. But if they do want to do all the other things I listed--petitioning, campaigning, communicating, filing of comments and briefs, demonstrating, protesting--there is no good word for just that. The word I would use, anyway, is activism. So might they. And then they do it. They describe themselves as political and social activists. And in San Francisco they are admired and respected. But in other places--even, say, other places right around here--and in other ecologies of language, they've just labeled themselves as combative, aggressive, confrontational and warring. Not simply concerned citizens doing their duty.

Take a look at the GoogleNewsforProtests: Korean farmers protesting at the WTO meeting in Hong Kong; in Delhi the protest of the forced demolition of thousands of illegal structures; in the UK protests over newly minted gay marriages; In Iraq demonstrations over the high price of gas; in Russia rallies against anti-immigrant Nationalism, in Scotland protests over whether the airport was used to refuel the CIA "torture flights," and in the United States a church group protests Wal-Mart's wishing us Happy Holidays.

One of these things is not like the others. Narrowing for the source to be in the United States doesn't change much, because American papers cover foreign protests, but sifting through rhetorical uses of the word protest, I find an animal rights protest of a KFC, and opposition to the light-skinned depiction of King Tut.

No mention of war, post-Katrina repairs or lack thereof, or the huge appropriations and defense bills going down.

What do you think activism means?
 
Friday, December 16, 2005
 
Coming Home From War Too Soon

Somebody remind me why we started this . . . . TIME magazine has poignant photoessay by Todd Heisler of the Rocky Mountain News, about the job of notifying a family that their loved one has died in Iraq, and helping them to receive and bury the body. Picture #5, of 24-year old Jim Cathey's pregnant widow Katherine the night before his funeral, has to be one of the most sadly beautiful photos I've seen in a long, long time. From TK.
 
Thursday, December 15, 2005
 
Nathan Finds the Methanogenic Ice Life!

I really love it when a friend of mine forwards me a news item about a science story and I can immediately tell, "Hey! I know one of the scientists who worked on that!" In this case TK forwarded me an arstechnica article on a Berkeley probe in Greenland, trying to find if archaea microbes are the cause of deep pockets of concentrated methane. (This has implications for analyzing methane concentrations--and searching for life--on Mars.) I saw the name Price--as in Buford Price, who was the Dean of physical sciences while I was a student--and realized this must be the experiment that my friend Nathan Bramall was working on. Sure enough, this New Scientist write-up helped me find the actual article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and Nathan is a co-author. From NewScientist:
Live microbes making methane were found in a glacial ice core sample retrieved from three kilometres under Greenland by researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, US. It is the first time such archaea have been found at that depth, says Buford Price, one of the research team . . .
Go Nathan! Related: My blogpost on seeing the 3D IMAX movie Aliens of the Deep; Methane Ice Worms on Earth, via Rhinocrisy; Abhi Tripathi won a prize for his poster about his research (looking for ancient bacteria in rocks) and recently blogged about the Tsunami epicenter's oceanic deadzone on Sepia Mutiny; and last but definitely not least--Nathan's letter to his mom from Greenland, in Issue 5 of the Berkeley Science Review.
 
Monday, December 12, 2005
 
Pharmaceuticals

Nori sent me the specs on Panexa, which reminded me of Tiny Revolution's mention of the Consumer's Union The Drugs I Need Song, and which inspired Scott to send this Steve Martin piece. It also reminded me of a piece Andru Ziwasimon blogged about his "being conservative" at ToTheTeeth last week, and some of Brimful's musings about Merck and the Vioxx scandal:
I suppose this news really has been bothering me very much because I have a good many friends that have an association with the company. These friends are not evildoers. Were they presented with the ethical quandary, they very likely would have acted opposite. A lot of them really believe in what they do. And when someone at the top makes a mistake like this, it sullies their reputation and their sense of purpose. (emphasis mine)
Sense of purpose is a concept that doesn't get bandied about enough in discussions of the medical and pharmaceutical industry.
 
Thursday, December 08, 2005
 
Shade Keeps Things Wet

My friend Vrnda Normand has an article in the San Jose Metro News aboout Los Gatos Canyon residents fighting the San Jose Water Company's plan to log trees in the watershed behind their houses. The Water Company claims that the logging will improve the area's fire-safety, but the residents contend that it will actually render their homes much more vulnerable to fire damage. Vrnda spells out the reasons behind an intuitive "huh?" I've always had about fire-safety plans that centered on severely thinning out forests:
Threatening the forest canopy: This is the most direct and obvious impact to the environment, resident opponents say, because San Jose Water, in contract with Davenport-based Big Creek Lumber, aims to cut the largest and most valuable trees. This includes redwoods and Douglas firs at least 1 foot in diameter, some as thick as 4 feet. Steve Staub, a forestry consultant in the Santa Cruz Mountains, estimates that redwoods in this size range could yield $40 to $2,000 each in timber.
These trees, many over 300 feet tall, form a high layer over the rest, shading it from sunlight so the underbrush doesn't dry out and become more fire-prone. Breaks in the canopy's shade also feed invasive plants like brush, which are the most likely to burn. Added to this fuel factor could be up to 30 inches of "slash" or branches and needles left over after the tree trunks are removed. Furthermore, redwoods are known to be fire-resistant—a thick grove of them can help curb a wild blaze.
Even if you have no ties to the area, which is very beautiful because of these trees, it's an interesting look at the intersection of land management, public utilities, and neighborhood activism. Check it out.
 
 
Firefox Tabbing

I use the Windows XP Firefox browser, but I'm hardly a Fox maverick. I'll usually start out a browsing session with a couple specific projects in mind, and try to keep the tabs in each given window of Firefox relevant to one project, with another window for my sort of daily hits (Gmail, etc..) Invariably this gets mixed up, a window will have too many tabs, I'll open a new window, and then somehow a few days later I'll find myself with 19 Firefox windows with an average of 15 tabs each, and I have no idea where half of the links open came from. A lot of times I'll click on a link, realize I don't want to read it, and not read it. But neither will I close it, out of a sense of link hording---so an hour later, if I'm completely mystified as to where the link came from, I can end up reading it just to figure out what it is. I think if there was an easy way to view a list of ALL the tabs you have open at the same time, that would greatly organize my browsing. Maybe there's a Firefox extension that does this? Tell me if you can recommend a good one. In the mean time, I thought I would give you a very random selection of the links I've clicked on for the last few days, before I shut down and start the system afresh.

I'd be interested in seeing what other people who practice freestyle tabbed browsing come up with. It's really only interesting if you do it without planning on doing it ahead of time, so I'm not going to send it out as meme quite yet. I guess this isn't too surprising a list--two newspaper articles, one magazine article, two photoblogs, the ACLU, an Iraq blog, a blog competition, a cute kid and a cute dog. I left out a bunch of scholar.google hits on various science papers, things having to do with work and school, and the usual suspects of daily blogs. A typical few days in Saheli-land? The only mysterious thing is I have no idea whatsoever where the Saluki hounds came from.
 
Tuesday, December 06, 2005
 
"...He argued in favor of letting states give police the power to shoot to kill at their discretion whenever a suspect flees, whether or not he poses a threat."

That's a quote from a must read Slate article by Emily Bazelon about a memo Supreme court nominee Samuel Alito wrote as counsel in the Solicitor general's article 20 years ago. Heads up from Geeky Chic 2.0, who noted the issue before the article came out and provided a few pointers.

From the Slate article:
In the process, the court struck down a Tennessee statute based on an 18th-century common-law "fleeing felon" rule, which allowed police to use deadly force against a felony suspect who was trying to elude arrest. In the Garner case, the 6th Circuit said that before shooting a suspect, a police offer must have probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a danger.
A couple of points here: 1) Deadly force is something that doesn't allow for a lot of misunderstandings. When a cop is pointing a gun and deciding whether or not to shoot based on the training and instructions and cultural taboos (or lack thereof) he or she's been given by his or her department, there is no functional difference between "trying to elude arrest," or appearing to be trying to elude arrest. All citizens who shrug and think that this entire discussion doesn't affect them or their loved ones, because they're good old law-abiding citizens, should keep that in mind--especially friends of the deaf. 2) It's not that hard to be a felony suspect. First of all, felonies are a very broad category--everything from murder to posession of certain drugs to welfare fraud. In many states, a lot of nonviolent crimes are considered felonies. A theft turns from a misdemeanor to a felony depending on the dollar amount stolen, for example. Secondly, the act of being a suspect is entirely passive--it is the police who decide you are a suspect, not the other way around. Back to the Slate article:
To Alito, the case came down to this: If Officer Hymon shot, "there was the chance that he would kill a person guilty only of a simple breaking and entering; that is essentially what occurred. If he didn't shoot, there was a chance that a murderer or rapist would escape and possibly strike again." Hymon had no reason to think that Garner had done anything violent. Still, Alito concluded, "I do not think the Constitution provides an answer to the officer's dilemma."
It's often said that an ideal of American law is that it is better to let 10 guilty people go than to unjustly imprison one innocent person. That some disagree enough to assert that it is better to jail an innocent person than to let a guilty person go--referring to decisions made in the controlled, careful environs of the court system--is shocking enough. But Alito turns this on its head--it's better to shoot innocent people rather than let one possibly guilty person go.

It's impossible to ignore the race problems studiously ignored by Alito.
Alito's memo is also striking for what it doesn't say. In Memphis and across the country, cops were shooting black suspects at a far higher rate than white ones. (The evidence, beginning with studies dating from the 1960s, is collected in a 2004 article in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science by Northwestern political science professor Wesley G. Skogan and University of Chicago law professor Tracey L. Meares.) Laws like Tennessee's made it easier for the police to shoot unarmed black people, as Edward Garner's father argued in his suit. Alito, however, ignored the racial undertones of the case.
Geeky Chic wrote:
Also, I remember the discussion of Garner in my Crim law class. Professor Randall Kennedy asked, "If you're a Black man in America, and you haven't done anything wrong, and you see a cop, isn't running away a pretty logical response?"
Emily Bazelon makes a particularly good point forestalling possible defenses of Alito: he wrote this article in the Justice Department, trying to convince the Justice department to take his view--not merely reciting the views of his bosses. In fact, the Justice department didn't listen to him, and stayed out of the case. Dahlia Litwick has another must read article in today's Slate about Alito's overall extreme stance on matters of civil liberties, and how the Roe v. Wade debate may be overlooking Bush's real reason for wanting Alito on the court. She wrote, "It's hard to conceive of someone who loves police powers more than the police. But that someone may be our next Supreme Court justice."
 
Sunday, December 04, 2005
 
Inane Thought Of The Hour

Like Matt Yglesias, I'm kind of too depressed to say anything serious or deeply insightful about this Washington Post article about Khaled Masri, a German-born German-citizen of Arab descent who was kidnapped from Albania by CIA agents and held in an Afghan prison for five months because of a case of mistaken identity. Apparently that's how long it took for the head of counterterrorism to realize he wasn't who she thought he was and for the CIA to figure out that his passport was real. So instead I leave you with this. (Note: The Rendition Group are the CIA agents who kidnap suspects.)
Members of the Rendition Group follow a simple but standard procedure: Dressed head to toe in black, including masks, they blindfold and cut the clothes off their new captives, then administer an enema and sleeping drugs. They outfit detainees in a diaper and jumpsuit for what can be a day-long trip.
Head to toe in black, huh? Because white socks would compromise national security, clearly. Glad to know they've got their priorities.
 
Friday, December 02, 2005
 
Lingering and Loitering

My blogpost about the use of high-pitched noises to repel "loitering" youth from the front of shops seems to have touched a slight nerve. It's an interesting follow up to the post before that about city-planning.

The City, the illustrated guide to building a generic Roman town, makes it clear that Romans valued public spaces. Last night on the Colbert Report, Colbert was making fun of the Italians for designing Tourino 2006's medals to look like large metalic lifesavers--supposedly evocative of the round piazzas, a symbol of Italy. We may joke about their fora and piazzas, but we're sorely missing them. In New York City, you may think that there's copious public space across the street from Madison Square Garden--but it's actually private space, replete with private security guards, who will happily kick someone off, say, if they don't like the fact she's taking pictures of the building. (Why they didn't like me when busloads of tourists were snapping away is part of the question--regardless of their intentions, part of public life is that it can't be arbitrarily picky. Policies should be justified and fair.) When City architects hand out permits for commercial buildings, they're often supposed to extract promises from the builders to create public spaces. If citizens aren't vigilant enough to oversee those permits, the promises can be weak commitments at best. How many of the famous public spaces of New York are really public? Rockefeller Plaza is owned by someone. Just because they usually let people hang out doesn't mean they have to.

Because so many of our seemingly public spaces are actually private, I think we've lost some intuition about what rules can apply where, and so we are easily bullied. Who owns a sidewalk outside a shop? If it's a regular shop and a regular sidewalk, the city does. But if it's one of those outdoor malls or Disneyland, the landlord (and by extension, through contract, the shopkeeper) probably does. So the question of marketing and property rights hinges on knowing what the boundaries are, and how they were assigned. Which is why citizens should pay attention to planning commission meetings.

Then there's the matter of loitering, so ill-defined. Hedgehog finds it an offensive term, Echan reluctantly insists that belligerent loitering is a real problem. I find it offensive in its imprecision and application as a catch-all. Like the infamous no-dancing-without-a-permit law in New York, loitering is too often an excuse to throw people you don't like in jail or shut down their establishment whenever they bother you. Instead of making precise, justifiable rules about crowd safety and fire code and noise pollution, the City--which was then really more concerned about preventing white people and black people dancing together--made a vague, inconsistently enforced rule about dancing. If four well-dressed, serious-faced young people stood outside the shopkeepers door and spoke seriously about, say, school, I find it hard to believe that he would have tried to repel them. But should wearing scruffy clothes and talking loudly about illsounding subjects be a crime that gets you kicked off the public sidewalks of your own city? I don't think so. Particularly when notions of dress and conversational topic are so subjective--and subject to prejudice. Laws should be about behavior, and then they should be fairly applied to everyone.

On the other hand, I also have to agree with Echan. There is such a thing as "belligerent loitering." Maybe it needs a new word (neology team?) or maybe the compound phrase needs to be used exclusively, and defined carefully. I've been--fairly rarely--tripped, shoved, spat on, and loudly yelled at on streets, and I certainly feel like such behavior impinges on my right to walk down the street or go shopping. It's the behavior that matters, though, not the clothing or the age or the interests of the people bothering me. Have I experienced such behavior more from street punks than from suits? Sure. Does that mean I think all street punks should be kicked of the streets? No, not really. There was a time when a lot of those street punks, in Berkeley, anyway, were my friends and former schoolmates, and knowing them helped me discern that very few of them were actually bothering me. The fact that an even a smaller proportion of the suits have been likely to trip me doesn't mean any guy in a suit has more right to the sidewalk than someone sporting a bihawk has. However, I don't want to have to call the cops and press charges every time someone shoves me just to prevent that behavior. I may just not show up anymore. And that's also bad for a city.

It's hard work to legislate what behavior is and is not acceptable in what public spaces, and to justify that legislation in terms of constitutional rights and safety issues. It's much easier to put something vague on the books and let the cops apply it where they see fit. If I was sure that the cops would not resort to applying it to whom they saw fit, rather than to what behavior they saw fit, I might be content with that. As it is, I'm pretty bothered by the language of loitering. I'm also bothered by the notion of elderly people not being able to get their groceries without feeling threatened. It's sticky. While we wait for better cops and better laws, I suppose the one thing we can do is be better street companions. If an easily threatened, vulnerable person feels that they're surrounded by hostile people, they're much more likely to make somewhat unreasonable demands on the system. If we all walk along with sharp-eyes, looking around, and smiling, we send a signal to the threatened that we'll help them if they need help, and to the threatening to keep to themselves. Other than that, I'm not sure what the solution is.
 
 
Whoa

Whoa. Scott Eric Kaufmann shares "My Morning: A Play In One Uncomfortable Act."Sometimes you just gotta click. From Examined Life.
 
Thursday, December 01, 2005
 
Bits and Pieces

Nick has a picture up at Radiation persuasion of a crab sculpture, I believe from the Baltimore airport. For some reason I find it awesome. Go check it out. Remember if you click on the picture you can see the larger version.

Scott sent me this wacky New York Times article about a shopkeeper testing a prototype that generates high-pitched noises outside his store to keep away "surly teenagers." Apparently older people can't hear these noise but younger people can, and the shopkeeper doesn't want the younger people loitering in front of his store. The inventor insists that medium-aged people whom the shopkeeper wants as shoppers don't loiter enough in front to be bothered. Since the shop in question is a convenience store, it's possible that medium-aged people won't care. But if it was a shop that depended on curb appeal, I certainly wouldn't walk in.
 
Saheli Datta started this when she was a journalism student at Columbia in New York. Now she lives in the Bay Area. *Old people call me R. New people, call me Saheli. Thanks! My homepage. Specifically, my links. Email me: Saheli [AT] Gmail [dot] Com

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Blogs I Read (Or Try To)
113th Street
american footprints(Nadezhda & Praktike)
ANNA's Diary
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Steprous (Bear)
Robert Stribley
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To The Teeth
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Vinod's Blog
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Matthew Yglesias:Old
Yglesias:Tpmcafe
Zoo Station:Reuben Abraham
Ethan Zuckerman
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