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March 8, 2007

Filed under: culture»america»usa

The Ambitious Culture

Had an Ugly American Moment the other day.

You know what I'm talking about. One of those experiences where you find yourself fitting the American stereotype, that of the insensitive boor. My favorite example comes from a visit to Mexico when I was in high school. I was on a bus in Cancun with my girlfriend of the time, trying to be unobtrusive, when a southern couple got on the bus and rode for a few blocks. They were loud and obnoxious. Soon enough, they had to get off, and pushed the button by the door to signal the driver, at which point he (like every other bus driver anywhere in the world) took note but did not immediately screech to a halt.

"Push it agin," the woman said to her husband, at a volume that carried through the entire bus. "I don' think tha little guy heard you tha first time." That was my cue to try to look as not-American as possible. Which for me is a range that starts at Kentucky and ends at about Ohio, if we're generous, so I wasn't very successful.

I don't want my international readers to think they are getting off easy here. Other countries certainly have their own Ugly Stereotype moments. I'm just most conscious of the American variety. Surprisingly, considering the breadth of its workers, we have relatively few incidents at the World Bank, I think. Everyone is generally aware that A) at least one person in a given conversation does not natively speak English, B) it is much easier to extend the benefit of a doubt rather than take offense, and C) no-one wants to be that guy.

My transgression wasn't anything offensive, really. We were working on some documents for the conference in Belgium, including the commitment cards. See, one of the really cool things about this conference will be cards passed out to the participants, on which they'll write personal commitments to anti-corruption, ranging from the personal ("I will not buy gas from companies known to use bribery in their operations") to the organizational ("My company will not use bribery in our operations"). This is a brave move, all things considered, since we'll be collecting the cards and publishing selected commitments on the web site (that's part of my job there).

But the language that explains this was somewhat controversial--for example, the word "ambitious" was thought to have heavy overtones, and was cut. So while we're discussing the text, my manager commented on how this is really a way of making the political personal, as the saying goes. I suggested that we actually write that on the front. I think I said something along the lines of "We can get participants to realize how important this could be."

"Oh, that's very American," said another (American) colleague. "To the Europeans, it's going to sound like we're moralizing, and they'll just toss them." There were nods from a couple of people around the table.

I'm not going to say that I was hurt, really, but I guess I was surprised. While I know that Americans are considered "blunt" by many people, I had never really thought of this kind of assertiveness as being American. Or more precisely, it would have never occurred to me that such language was particularly assertive or self-righteous. I think for Americans, that kind of rhetoric is just considered a way to get the topic out for debate. In a way, maybe we automatically go for the hard sell. I had a similar experience with B-SPAN promotional cards that we placed in the cafeteria, one of which read (in reference to our mailing list): "18,000 NEW FRIENDS."

"But I won't actually get 18,000 new friends from B-SPAN," said one person.

"No," I admitted. "I guess you won't."

After we finished the conference card meeting, I mentioned this to a friend--the one with the interesting folk sayings. She compared my choice of language to her university professors in France. "They were very distant," she said. "We would never call them by their first name, or go to have a drink with them, the way that I can here. Americans were much more informal, and I kind of respected that. But it has its down sides, also."

Then the conversation turned to Walter Reed, and I guess we got off topic. The point for me is that, when we discussed this back in my college Communication classes, I had never really bought the idea that (interpersonally speaking) there are communal and individualistic cultures, but this event brought the lesson home for me. When I think about it, most of the writers and role models that I try to emulate share this kind of aggressive, almost hyperbolic use of words--and there's a real implication of individualism implicit in that. This is a new way to think about how I write professionally (or even casually).

Of course, being an American, I tend to agree with my coworker that I find these tendencies to be admirable. After all, isn't the problem with corruption too often that people tiptoe around it? Shouldn't our rhetoric be a little more aggressive?

Probably not, if it dissuades others from joining us. And in this case, that's what really counts.

February 1, 2007

Filed under: culture»america»usa

Ask an Englishman

Warren Ellis tells Newsarama why his novel is set in America (emphasis mine):

Why set it in America? Well, aside from the rich comedy purposes, it can be said that from a certain perspective America is the experimental petri dish of the Western world. America remains an astonishingly good idea -- and those rights held to be self-evident, that had never ever been written down before and which shaped every Western revolutionary society and republic that followed...it's those freedoms that turned the country into both an engine of innovation and an inarguable nuthatch. That's always worth studying.

January 30, 2007

Filed under: culture»internet

Forum Fora

When I first started learning bass, I did what any young geek does during a new challenge: I went online.

My roommate was a bassist, and a pretty good one. Unfortunately, my roommate was also insane and didn't play well with others. I bought a used amp from him, but he wasn't much help for developing my skills. I also picked up a copy of Peter Murray's Essential Bass Technique, which had lots of pictures of how to use my hands--fingerstyle bass can be very technical, and I honestly considered myself too uncoordinated to learn. Beyond questions of physical movement, though, I had a lot of questions about what the bass does in a rock band, what situations I might want to prepare for, and how to properly set up the equipment.

I don't know how I found the Lowdown. I probably just googled a random topic, and one of its threads came up. I wasn't reading Bass Player yet, so I doubt that I realized that the Lowdown and the magazine were linked. But there was a lot of information available, and a lot of really experienced players. I practically read the whole archive, and I lurked on the main page for weeks before I made my first post.

I've been a member of the forum since late 2003--about three and a half years now, I guess. It doesn't seem that long. I don't post very often, and when I do it tends to be gear-related, since I don't usually have much to contribute to the theory or technique threads. But what has amazed me are the ways that I feel like I know those people, even though I've never met them in person. I've gotten help with buying wine (kind of hard when you don't drink it), learned to ask "What would Lemmy do?", and given someone money to buy a Swatch.

A few months ago, one of the oldest board members--a moderator, actually--died of a heart attack. It was very sudden. His name was Dave Brown, and he was a music teacher in Texas. Dave had been one of the calm, helpful members of the forum, and someone who could contribute to discussions of musical theory, which were always valuable even if the rest of us didn't understand all of it. Dave's passing became the forum's first sticky thread, and all the regulars (as well as a number of lurkers) gathered there to dig up our favorite quotes or threads. Bass Player took note, and an obit appeared in the February issue. Dave's family even got in touch with a few people, and posted audio from the funeral online for us to hear.

That an interpersonal connection could be created without face-to-face interaction (for the most part) is not completely new. But the speed of communicating over the Internet makes it easier. The structure of forums themselves--grouping conversations by searchable topics, while still retaining a chronologically fluid linearity instead of the heirarchy of threads that's more common in places like Livejournal--means that discussants can interrupt each other, wander off topic, and all the other noise-to-signal that nevertheless is a part of most human interaction. Over time, a forum develops its own personality, and people who join it have to learn its quirks and customs. I don't like to think of these as a "space," because I think that gives forums credit for more physicality than they deserve. It's more like an echo.

There's an article in Wired this month about MTV's virtual space, built to promote trashy reality show Laguna Beach. MTV's online environment, like Second Life and other massively-multiplayer online games, seems like it's meant to be the next step up from the text forum. Because I think part of my schtick is to be a luddite, I'm honestly a little skeptical. My main criticism is that they're not archived--newcomers can't search through the environment's past for bits of wisdom. Instead, most of what people tend to learn in avatar-based spaces has to do with the space itself--and they may resort to more traditional forums when it comes time to document those lessons.

By Internet time, text forums are old. They date back to BBS systems. I guess I'm just impressed that something so relatively simple can be such a powerful experience, one that seems hard to improve. I don't think adding polygons is the next step, but I'm stumped as to what it could be.

January 19, 2007

Filed under: culture»cooking

Lime Chicken without the Chicken

Belle starts another weekend dogsit tonight, so she won't be having one of our homecooked meals for a few days. I'm sure that she can manage the store-bought pasta that's a staple on our dinner table (and one of the main reasons I keep a membership at Costco), but if she feels more adventurous I thought I'd try to write up one of her favorite dishes. This is a Mexican Lime chicken, but since Belle's a vegetarian obviously we're not going to be using real poultry. You'll need:

  • Fake chicken cutlets - The accepted industry name for this seems to be "chik'n" but I prefer "ficken" myself. I think I used some Quorn Naked Cutlets that Belle bought, and they were very good. The texture was about right, and they picked up good flavor from the spices.
  • Lime juice - Around here, you can go to the Super H or other Asian groceries and get a bag of 10 limes for a dollar. I used to keep a bunch in the fridge just because you never know when they'll come in handy. But when I've made this recipe, I've just used the lime squeeze bottle, and that works as well.
  • Olive oil
  • Kosher salt
  • Fresh ground black pepper - There's really no excuse to not put fresh ground black pepper into almost everything, in my opinion. Even if there's not very much, it'll liven up flavors like chedder cheese, which I also love but which sometimes becomes too greasy and thick. You've probably seen those little spice dispensers that they have now, with the grinder built-in, which is not "straight from the plant fresh" but still has more kick and aroma than just the pre-ground stuff.
  • Cumin - I was raised on Old El Paso "Mexican" dinners. For me, this is the taste of Mexican food, for better or worse. But I also like to substitute adobo powder.
  • Other spices - Red chili powder, used sparingly, can be helpful. Cilantro, like black pepper, is one of those spices that I add to everything--you can get a bundle of it fresh for pretty cheap at Super H, and it's another that I like to pick up just in case. But I think for the most part, the flavor profile (guess who's been watching Top Chef?) of this dish is all about the salt and lime combination, so not a lot of other spices are really necessary.

Start by adding a little bit of olive oil--only about a teaspoon--to the pan. Cooking with fake meats takes getting used to. Real chicken tends to have lots of its own juices, and when I've tried to use oil in the past, using too much just saturates the meat and makes it greasy. But vegetarian meat obviously never had any real juices, since the good stuff is usually some kind of mycoprotein (read: fungus. MMmmm!) so you have to help it out and keep it from burning in the pan or drying out. On top of the oil, squirt in some of your lime juice. With a squeeze bottle, I use two or three squeezes--probably a full lime and a half. Then I actually add a little bit of salt and pepper to the lime and oil mixture, so it'll cook into the bottom of the meat at first. I'm wary about doing an actual "rub" for fake meat, because I think it's less cohesive or durable than the real thing. You don't want it to crumble on you.

Now put the stove on medium to medium-high, enough to get a little sizzle but not enough to flash fry. Remember that the ficken doesn't really need to cook to be done--we're just trying to warm it up and sautee the outside a little. Add the cutlets, and sprinkle more lime juice on each, enough that the spices will stick. Sprinkle the salt, pepper, and other spices on top of the cutlets to taste. Now your job is basically just to babysit the cutlets and make sure that they don't burn--you want the outside to be browned but well away from blackening. There's nothing worse than burnt fungus. Turn each cutlet a few times, and use their position on the stove eye to regulate their cooking. To test, cut a little bit off the end and see if it's hot all the way through, as well as making sure that you don't need more lime or salt. Be careful not to add too much of either, though. It shouldn't be sour.

You can serve this on its own as an entree. I think it'd be good with wild rice and black beans, to offset the saltiness. But when I've served this for Belle, what I actually do is crush tortilla chips to cover the bottom of a shallow bowl, shred a little cheese on top of that, then layer on the cutlets and add a thin line of salsa down the middle of each. It's a colorful meal, quick to make, and pretty filling.

January 7, 2007

Filed under: culture»internet»second_life

Also: Dog May Have Bitten Man

I love the recent revelations in both gaming and mainstream press that Second Life might not actually have more than two million people in its "population." I practically quiver with glee for three reasons:

  1. Because uber-Libertarian symbol Linden Lab claimed to have this many "residents," and people just bought it, pardon my phrase. There's no more evidence of how powerful the myth of the Linden economy is, or how much technology commentators want to believe it, that people just took the company at its word. It didn't seem important to ask if maybe they had anything to gain from inflated numbers, did it?
  2. Because seriously: people are only now starting to ask--of a largely-unrestricted, multi-user virtual environment, and despite many years that these kinds of environments have actually existed, I might add--whether or not individuals in the real world might actually have more than one virtual persona? Or, how many of those people actually logged on repeatedly in the last few months? How many people are actual paying customers with active accounts? Come on, people--what happened to "trust, but verify?" Didn't that seem fishy to anyone?
  3. And finally, let's pretend that you're a tech reporter worth your salt, and you have to do a piece on Second Life. I would hope that you'd log in before actually writing it, since investigation and curiosity are important parts of being a journalist and not a corporate shill or useless overpaid commentator (before I attract nasty comments, let me add that I am a useless underpaid commentator). So you download the client, you create a persona, and you start looking around. There's a lot of empty space, isn't there? I mean, even a fraction of a couple million people, you'd think it would be really full in Second Life. Linden currently states that the size of the land is more than 65,000 acres, or around 100 square miles. That sounds like a lot--but with two million residents that's a population density of 20,000 people per square mile, which (if it were a real country) would rank just above Singapore (3rd most densely populated nation, with 18,645 people per square mile). Even if we give Second Life the benefit of a 200% inflation rate with one million "residents," they'd still squeak in at number six on the worldwide list. You tell me: did it seem like bustling Singapore when you logged in? Or more like Nowheresville, Kansas? I was watching carefully for the Children of the Corn, myself.

Now on that last one, technically I'm picking nits. After all, a population density is nothing more than a vague measurement spread out across all available land, whereas real people congregate. But I'll tell you something: I've seen a fair amount of photos of events in Second Life, like the U2 concert that was held there, or the town hall meeting on copybot, and frankly I've had more people in my apartment.

The simple fact is that for a long time, the population numbers from Linden Lab went unchallenged because reporters and commentators were caught up in the buzz about its markets. They were dazzled by the idea of a bold new Metaverse where smart people make money hand over fist by the mighty power of their frontal lobes. It was the worst kind of capitalist free-market spin-doctoring, and almost without exception they fell for it.

Filed under: culture»religion»evangelical

What We Can Learn From The Creationists

I read Ronald Numbers' history of anti-evolution fundamentalism so you don't have to!

  • The arguments for creationism (more accurately, "flood geology") are very old. They surface in 1905, and seem to be pretty much complete compared to the arguments of modern creationists by the 1930s. This includes the order of geological strata, the dating of the young Earth hypothesis, the appeal to the second law of thermodynamics, and a primitive version of the argument from design. It's no wonder scientists are a little testy about this--they've been answering these same points for the last hundred years.
  • The basic ideas of flood geology are rooted in Seventh Day Adventist prophet Ellen White. They were then adapted by a number of amateur geologists and random evangelicals, spreading across a number of fundamentalist protestant sects, including Mormonism. But it began with the Seventh Day Adventists, who were also an offshoot of the Millerites, one of this country's great apocalyptic cults. Quite a track record.
  • Although organizations meant to promote creationism are, like their arguments, not new at all, if I've read Numbers correctly it is only relatively recently that they began appealing to the general public. For the early history of creationism, the struggle was actually to spread its theories out into the other Protestant faiths. Only once this had been accomplished did leaders attempt to subvert public education and awareness.
  • Crackpots, all of them. Perhaps this is a consequence of the American dream, wherein mediocre people can achieve greatness, or perhaps it's common to many religious movements from the outside, but the history of the creationist movement comes across as terrifically dysfunctional. The men who wrote and promoted it were rarely trained scientists, and in some cases were guilty of entirely false credentials and fake doctorates. They saw a Ph.D. not as a sign of having learned something, but simply as a shortcut to credibility for their uneducated viewpoints. For a long time, this was a struggle for them. Now, of course, with the combination of increasing political support and an alternative Christian educational system, it is much easier to be an accredited creationist.

Numbers' book is not something I would necessarily recommend to other people. It is organized oddly, by time period and region, lending it a slightly fragmented narrative--sometimes persons will appear, take up a few short paragraphs, and then completely vanish by the end of the next page. This seems to be a sign of exhaustive research (almost a third of the volume is citations and endnotes) without much thought to the idea of a strong narrative backbone. Numbers is also very sympathetic to his subjects, having been raised as an Adventist and losing his faith during college biology courses. For many readers, he may be too sympathetic--this book does not aim to discredit the views of the creationists at all, but simply summarizes them in a matter-of-fact way. It does make sense that Numbers has not tried to detail the flaws in each plan, and accounts for the warm reception this book has apparently recieved from both religious and scientific communities, but newcomers to this material should probably pair it with a good primer on evolutionary biology--The Blind Watchmaker, perhaps.

December 18, 2006

Filed under: culture»america»usa

Live from New York

I've been to New York City a few times before, while I was in college. But visiting with Belle is different, because she packs our vacations full. Now, of course, it's all a blur. Good thing there are digital photographs, to preserve all my most embarrassing facial expressions!

Belle is a Sanrio fanatic. Total Hello Kitty overload. And ever since they closed the Potomac Mills store, I think she's been a bit in withdrawal. She claims that she was underwhelmed by the New York Sanrio Outlet, but I think she's just trying to make me feel better about it.

I, on the other hand, was definitely underwhelmed by the Nintendo World store in Times Square. Of course, I don't know what I was expecting: free Gamecubes at the door? Lots of white plastic and blue lights.

I think I'm scarier than the allosaurus, personally. But here's a funny story: neither of us had ever been to the Natural History museum before, and we started with the animals from Asia. We were looking at some kind of Indonesian deer when Belle turned to me and said something about how "lifelike" they were.

Well of course they're lifelike, I said. They used to be alive.

"What? No," said Belle. "You're pulling my leg."

Apparently she'd never really spent any time with taxidermy. We should all be so lucky. I think I like it better her way, though: I imagine teams of highly-trained artists carefully sculpting a life-scale model of incredibly banal wildlife, implanting each hair by hand.

I just liked this phone.

Before heading off to catch Almodovar's Volver (great flick, be sure to see it when it gets a wider release), we stopped off at this dessert restaurant, which we passed on our way to Lombardi's famous pizza. It's called Rice to Riches, and they only sell delicious rice pudding.

A lot of design went into it, obviously. You can't see them from this angle, but there were these elaborate Flash animations running on screens above the pudding bar, and all of the signs are a little sardonic. My favorite slogan hung over the bar was "Eat all you want--you're already fat." But this sign located outside was also a nice touch:

Shallow observation: New York is very different from DC or where I grew up in Lexington, KY. It always strikes me as three or four different cities that just happen to coexist over top of each other. There's the hipster New York where you can buy cupcakes at 11pm and then go eat at Moby's vegan restaurant. There's the grounded neighborhoods around the airport in Queens. And then there's the surreal sections of Manhattan like Times Square, where the city isn't just a hyperactive commercial parody of itself, but has actually become a parody of the parody of New York commercialism. The fact that all of these are only a few miles from each other is pretty amazing, as is the fact that they haven't declared war on each other yet.

December 12, 2006

Filed under: culture»religion»books

The Godyssey

Infamous, crazed comic artist Rob Liefeld writes The Godyssey, a story of Jesus and his mad gong-fu skills against the Greek pantheon.

Suddenly Atwood's Penelopiad looks a lot more respectable.

December 11, 2006

Filed under: culture»internet

And I Feel Fine

I dig this Apokalyptica idea--it seems like a holiday for the rest of us. Here are my contributions to the celebration:

  • Read: my terrible screenplay from college, Apocalypso--or don't, because it is pretty bad. Errors include pushy plotting, no understanding of the 5-act structure, clumsy dialog, and an obligatory "the police will never believe us" speech. I only post this because hating myself is the best love of all. Update: Although I haven't read it, I've heard good things about World War Z.
  • Watch: An Inconvenient Truth, because fictional world-ending disasters have nothing on the real thing.
  • Listen: Absolution, by Muse. With appropriate tracks like "Apocalypse Now" and "Thoughts of a Dying Atheist," this is my favorite Muse album.

December 10, 2006

Filed under: culture»religion»evangelical

All in Order

The theory behind John Dean's Conservatives Without Conscience is that neo-conservatism has its roots in the phenomenon of Right-Wing Authoritarianism. Working from the studies of Robert Altemeyer and a handful of other social scientists, Dean states these authoritarians have taken control of the Republican party, and use appeals to social dominance in order to maintain power.

As I think I've said before, Conservatives without Conscience doesn't do a very good job of selling the research into authoritarianism to someone who's unaware of the social science that backs it up. This is partially because the author does rely so heavily on Altemeyer--my guess is that the book was written quite quickly, and so Dean only occassionally ventures out into other sources, like Adorno and Duckitt. You can get a slightly wider viewpoint from futurist Sara Robinson in her "Cracks in the Wall" posts at Orcinus (parts one, two, and three). She's also written a series of articles on talking to authoritarian followers that she calls "Tunnels and Bridges."

But having spent a few months thinking and reading about the rise of fundamentalism and evangelical Christianity in American politics, especially as part of the rural-urban gap, Dean didn't have to do much to convince me. Even just in the past year, a number of bizarre (at least to city-bound liberals to myself) stories about fundamentalism have popped up, particularly as election pressures became more intense:

  • The Quiverfulls, an extreme pro-birth/pro-pregnancy movement within Christian fundamentalists
  • Mars Hill Church, part of a growing youth fundamentalism
  • Left Behind and similar artifacts of apocalyptic Rapture-mongering
  • An increase in "faith-based" initiatives for both domestic and international policy
  • The growing number of insular megachurch communities, complete with their own sports teams and Starbucks

A common thread of all these movements is their emphasis on submission: the children submit to the parents, the woman submits to the patriarch, the family submits to the church, and ultimately all submit to God. This "submissive" relationship is not just about power, although that is certainly a significant part of its appeal (I note, for example, that in youth evangelical movements the primary function seems to be giving privilege to men without forcing them to give up their... less responsible habits). These are basically movements that are intensely interested in heirarchy: both knowing your own place, and keeping others in theirs.

This explains, frankly, quite a lot.

Take one of the standard objections to evolution by fundamentalists: if Darwin is correct, they say, then we're no better than the animals. To many secular urbanites, this argument might sound genuinely puzzling. It doesn't take a vegan to recognize that yes, human beings have many things in common with animals. A person only has to look at a chimpanzee or a gorilla to see the many similarities. But to someone whose psychological makeup is geared toward negotiating a rigid power structure, the difference between humans and animals is not just an academic question. It's part of a defined relationship where one is dominant and the other is food. Muddling that heirarchy is not just a challenge to the supremacy of humans, but it unseats the fundamentalist's self-positioning. Who are we if we're not plainly better than apes? Although the youngest Karamazov's cries of "without God, all is permitted" are philosophically dubious, they still resonate, and it's not because they speak to atheism. It's because they speak to loneliness: without God to anchor a moral spectrum, all kinds of troubling grey areas begin to appear, and we basically have to solve them for ourselves.

The authoritarian angle also ties into theories I have about why conservative humor isn't funny, but they're probably a bit insulting.

Gay marriage, feminism, progressive taxation (leading to a more mobile class system)--perhaps the arguments over these issues are not really about rights after all. Maybe they're really about eliminating ambiguity. For people like Dean, religious extremists may have hijacked the party, but it seems to me like such reticence is really a part of any ideology calling itself "conservative." Eventually, authoritarians had to take the leadership at their word.

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