Monday, January 29, 2007

Temptations and Responsibilities! Cat-Blogging.

This approximately ten-week-old kitten belongs to a red-eyed oldster who seems to have some offical relationship to my local mini-mart. He has offered to sell me this kitten many times; he has offered to give me this kitten, with a month's worth of cat food thrown in, any number of times. I keep saying, "No, I shouldn't take responsibility for an animal right now"--yet I stop by at least four times a week to to play with and shower affection upon this kitty. If the old man continues to suggest I adopt this kitten, I'm going to spend exactly one week pretending that my roommates have allergies. If after that time he continues to urge me to take the kitten, well, I might have to look into whether I could.


Sunday, January 28, 2007

Men And Women's Sexual Experience In Fiction--Plus, Help?

I'm in the middle of reading Norman Mailer's The Castle in the Forest, the first book in what is projected to be a trilogy Bildungroman of Adolf Hitler, and what struck me about, particularly after glancing over J.M. Coetzee's review, is the depiction of Alois Hitler's (Adolf's father) sexuality.

In Mailer's strangely affecting telling, Alois was raised on a farm, got off the farm into the Custom's Service in order to wear a uniform and boss other people around, and slept with every woman he could trick or seduce or bully into bed--including an aunt, half-sisters, and a niece. Not a nice person, not one I particularly identify with--but there's something in the way Mailer describes Alois's sexual drive--and then later, in its dying away--that just surprises me, in the way the adolescent sexuality evoked in Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man did, as completely and utterly different from mine.

These books begin to describe for me what sexual experience feels like from a man's perspective. It's hard for me to specify what, exactly, were the qualities that seemed so different, but, to be crude, a lot of it had to do with the penis. Alois calls his "the Hound" and blames it, loves it for his philandering; he feels separate from it and manages (poorly) his life to accomodate its almost alien needs. I don't have a copy of The Portrait of an Artist right now, but I vividly remember the narrator's sense of wonder at an unexpected erection; like a scene in a movie in which the protagonist approaches an impressive landscape, he grabs at himself and exclaims, "My God, look at that!"

These better descriptions of male sexuality, while they are specific enough to be utterly different from my own experience, are human and vulnerable; they make me aware of frailities and anxieties I wouldn't otherwise understand. Joyce's description of a young man's not being in control of what his penis is doing is so beautiful that it's become almost a false memory, of discussions had or not had with this or that lover.

(And here comes the part where I ask for help.)

I was discussing all of the above with my honey, and he asked me what books I'd recommend for him to understand women's sexuality in this way. And I was stymied. Not only did nothing come to mind, but I wasn't even sure that as a woman I would know what to recommend to a man when I read it. So, I turn to the wisdom of the internet:
What works of imaginative writing communicate best--vividly, sympathetically, phenomenologically--the way women experience sexuality?


Friday, January 26, 2007


Today's "featured article" on Wikipedia is The History of Saffron. Very nicely done!


Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Spy Games: Animal Edition

From secret CIA files declassified in 2001, as written up in the Guardian:
In another snapshot of folly offered by the new files, a memo dated 1967 on "Views of Trained Cats" looks into the possibility of surgically inserting microphones and transmitters into cats and using them as walking bugs. The operation was codenamed "Acoustic Kitty" and was a resounding failure.

Having wired their first trained cat for sound, they released it near a park with strict orders to eavesdrop on two men on a bench, but the poor animal was run over by a taxi before it had taken more than a few steps towards its target.

The CIA researchers came to the conclusion that they could train cats to move short distances, but that "the environmental and security factors in using this technique in a real foreign situation force us to conclude that for our (intelligence) purposes, it would not be practical."
[Hat tip to Nolo in the comments to this sad story about the use, frankly, of pig-torture to train medics shipping out to Iraq.]


State of the Union, 2007

This is the first time I've watched the State of the Union address on television in my memory. I've always paid attention to them, either reading the transcript or listening to them on the radio, but actually sitting down to observe the kabuki rituals of our national politics was a different experience.

It felt much more communitarian, for one thing. I wasn't alone in my room, concentrating on the words emerging from a radio feed; I was sitting in a living room with friends, eating vegetables and dip, drinking beer. I got to see the visual reactions of politicians I admire to the words of a President I loathe. These cuts away made the speech seem more like an event--a melodrama or a sports game--and my friends and I booed or cheered at our cues.

One thing I lost in the switch of medium was my ability to gauge the President's mood and sincerity by his intonation. Listening on the radio, when his voice is the only information, I pay attention to his wandering accent, which tends to be folksiest when he's confident in a simple message, more northeastern and defensive when he's reciting specific details.

The television distracted me from those speech patterns. Instead, I kept looking at Pelosi's nervous mouth, Cheney's apparent leg-discomfort, and Bush's occasional weird half-smile. When the camera cut away to celebrity politicians, I noticed how terrible the men looked without their studio makeup. John McCain looked particularly bad on the CNN feed; somebody should have told him not to wear that awful greenish gold tie with his scoured pink complexion (the video here is slightly more flattering). And instead of listening to the speech and evaluating its words, I was drawn into the game of watching for who clapped for what and for how long and did they stand.

On the substance of the speech, I don't have that much to say. Bush's health insurance proposal is going precisely nowhere (read Ezra Klein for a more in-depth evaluation of it). His declarations of intent towards energy independance aren't very persuasive, given his track record of lovely words and no action. Thanks for saying the words "global climate change," though. There were a fair number of ominous references to Iran, but, well, at least he didn't declare war, which is something.

James Webb's response for the Democratic Party was mostly very good. The opening bit about the founding of Jamestown struck me as unnecessary and just, well, confusing, but since the themes of the speech were tradition and compromise and continuity, I suppose Jamestown fits in there. That concluding line--"If he does not [take the right kind of action], we will be showing him the way"--was great: clear, decisive, and just a little menacing.


Saturday, January 20, 2007

A Musical Offering

In Iran, or so I have learned, one is given a task with the saying "This kisses your hand," as though the object--not the person offering the object--were begging the favor of your attention.

So, earlier this afternoon, a DVD copy of Werner Herzog's documentary on Carlo Gesualdo kissed my hand, begging to be returned to the video store. I told it, and the person offering the DVD, to kiss my ass.

But I returned it anyway.


Friday, January 19, 2007

Where's Ahmed?

As of Novemeber 3, 2006, the dateline of this great in-depth profile by Dexter Filkins, Ahmed Chalabi was still in London, blaming Wolfowitz and "the Americans" for screwing up his beautiful invasion.

He's down for now, but I will never believe that Chalabi is out of the game for good. If the narrative coalesces that the invasion was a decent idea mismanged by an incompetant and venal administration, Chalabi's reputation might even get rehabilitated in the US.


Thursday, January 18, 2007

Virtual-Reality Anti-Fascism

This is wonderful. Apparently, le Front National set up a virtual headquarters in Second Life, one of the best developed and highly trafficked online societies. Other residents did not appreciate their new neighbors:
It's unclear when the shooting started, or who fired the first shot (several witnesses claim FN security forces assaulted them with "push guns", weapons capable of flinging a Resident across the island like a ragdoll), but in the final days of last week, at least, the assault raged from both sides. It's also unclear if the anti-FN protest groups were involved in the escalating violence-- Officers with both antiFn and SLLU haven't replied to my Instant Message-- though by personal observation, at least a few members seemed to be. Since Porcupine is not a damage-enabled area, weapons there have about as much stopping power as pointing one's finger at the computer screen and saying Bang Bang. But get enough projectiles flying, and server lag is bound to ground anyone's use of the area to a halt. (Or in my case, cause the Second Life viewer to crash.)
My favorite part is the pig grenade. Well, I also liked seeing the graphics from the Second Life battlefront, which are very worth seeing indeed. (It really does look the way I imagined the Metaverse in Stephenson's Snow Crash.)

In comments to Au's post, a number of SL residents rehash the battle, wring their hands, and debate free speech, as is standard protocol for all online communities. Plus ça change...


Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Left Blogosphere Awards

The Koufax Awards process is starting! It's an award for lefties, which means that it is open, communitarian, and takes forever. Since this really is a grassroots process, nominations in the various categories will remain open until next week sometime. It's an expensive process, collating and tabulating these nominations and votes. If I had any expendable income, I'd throw some to the volunteers who've run the Koufax awards these last five years. After all, it was by following the links from Josh Marshall, some time back in 2002, that I discovered what people were really up to online.

Also, The Poor Man Institute has begun voting for its second-annual Kippie Awards (named for Kip Winger), for excellence in bombastic, awful, lunatic, right-wing, public argumentation. Some centrist enablers have been included for diversity. It's a fine collection of "they said what?!" moments from the last year, and it's hard to choose between them.


Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Testing the USPS

Following on my earlier post on the beauty and efficacity of the US Postal Service, here's a study by Jeff Van Bueren and the Improbable Research team on the USPS's service. What will they deliver, and how will it arrive?
Will a twenty-dollar bill wrapped in a clear plastic sheath arrive at its destination? (Answer: Yes!)

Will a feather duster, with address attached by wire to the handle, arrive at its destination? (Answer: Yes! although the clerk at the pickup station will remark that such packages should be wrapped.)

Will an unwrapped lemon arrive at its marked destination? (Answer: No.)

Will a rotting, dead fish in a box arrive at its destination? (Answer: Yes! With a stern warning about mail service abuse.)

This is an older article--it dates from 2000, and I think I've seen it before--but it still makes me very happy.

[Via TNH]


Sunday, January 14, 2007

Saving Links

I'm in the process of streamlining my sidebar, and I didn't want to lose this, to me, important link: Teresa Nielsen Hayden's account of how and why she went from Jack to ex Mormon.

Also: if you want to be included in my sidebar, or if you notice any dead links there, please give a pointer in the comments.


Saturday, January 13, 2007

Pause For A Brief Moment Of Covetousness

These Iranian miniatures (gouche on cardboard), illustrating scenes and ideas from Hafez, are really, really beautiful. I admire the way the artist, Farah Ossouli, manages to suspend the pastoral, classical figures within abstract, concealing blocks of color: the people are framed, but also weighed in upon, but the whole composition is balanced anyhow.

Oh, I'm botching this description. Here, look at number 6 in the series, and then number 31 in the series. Whatever it is that those two have in common is what I like a lot here.

[Hat tip to Kriston]


Sunday, January 07, 2007

More Evidence For A Koufax

Some nine months ago, I proposed that the commenting works of one Meister John Thullen should be gathered up for easy reference and posterity. And, in the comments to that post, I received quite a bounty of links for the bibliography.

However, Meister Thullen has continued to produce, and the Thullenskommentenzusammenstellungwerk has lagged behind. He himself is too sane gainfully employed humble to blog; we must follow behind and pick up what we can.

From the Meister's thoughts on the Nov. 2006 elections results and their effect on Congressional ethics reform:
I view the current turnover in the following way: we're merely returning to politics as usual, kind of like the Mafia returning to its previous incarnation as the Black Hand. Corrupt, sure, but in a smaller-scale, more local sort of way. Unlike the contemporary Republican Party, which decided all industry from waste collection to Vegas should be corrupted in one monolithic Mafioso machine, we're going back to one-on-one payola, where the little guy gives up a little baksheesh but gets protected in the meanwhile.
This is very wise and true, but you've got to read the whole thing (and what it's responding to) to experience the full Dadaist explosion.

This comment contains the incomparable line: "Reading Tre/vino is like opening a dictionary and being bitten by a puff adder."

A thread on polar bears and global warming eventually led to a snowbound John Thullen's channelling this misanthropic fantasy: [an excerpt]
I have a feeling we'll be reading of Americans eating each other out of spite, not because we taste good, but because the damned gummint didn't do anything because we din't want the gummint to do anything, because the sobbing lady, and the guy who cut in line, and the grim Santa Claus, and the fat family figured the gummint would just screw things up and steal our money and regulate us and give jobs to pointy-headed liberal scientists who we will eat when we get done dining on Rush Limbaugh, who convinced us of all the above so George Bush could get elected and cut our taxes so we could buy more skim milk at the store, which isn't there in time, the damned unions.
This one is a little hard to describe, but virgin births, reptiles, donuts, and mysterious men in sombreros figure.

Meister Thullen is so well-known for his work in the medium-to-long comment form that we often forget his contributions in the genre of the one-liner: "Tell you what, I'll have a beer with Bush, and will continue to do so for two years to keep him busy."

Collect more in comments!


It Looks Like Winter

The light was right--that grayish, diagonal light that makes water and sky seem equally comfortable--but everything else was strange.

I took this picture on Saturday, January 6, at about 3pm, when the temperature was over seventy degrees. Young women were wandering the streets in miniskirts, young men in T-shirts; older people wore their raincoats (not their winter coats) dashingly open as they loitered on stoops or dined on restaurant terraces.

Most people know, I'd venture, that this one particular weird day isn't directly attributable to global warming. But this one particular weird day, on top of a December without any snow on the East Coast, on top of predictions that this coming year will be the hottest on record, on top of freakishly awful weather in the West--well, I'm starting to hear some rumblings of concern.

This is, by the way, the view from my computer at home. I'm really fond of those water-towers.


Thursday, January 04, 2007


So, last weekend, I caught a Chinatown bus down to Washington DC to go to a bloggers' party. It's the first meet-up I've travelled any significant distance to make. There's something incontrovertible about taking a bus for four hours to see people one knows almost solely from online.

My gracious hosts:
the charming and all-around awesome Becks,
the kind and sexy Catherine,
the pugnacious, flirtacious (and surprisingly musical!) Spencer Ackerman,
the very bearded, bon vivant, and good-people Kriston Capps,
and the prolific, respected, but alas-unmet-by-this reporter Matthew Yslesias.

In Attendance:
The red-headed sign of the end time, the Apostropher,
The often-obscure and oblivious to rhythm Ben Wolfson (of whom I grow more fond),
The well-endowed and, surprising to me (I don't know why), bespectacled Bitch, BhD,
The very gentle and intelligent eb (who's looking for a place to rent in DC, if you can help him out),
The awesome, warm, singin' M. Leblanc,
The very fit and sane libertarian I read everyday, Jim Henley,
The fashionable and formidable Belle Waring,
The famously prolix John Holbo,
The surprisingly young and very nice Scott Eric Kaufman,
The dancin' machine Neil the Ethical Werewolf, who has the signal honor of having exposed his nipples to a Presidential candidate's wife (check the linked thread),
The Kant-nerd, patientest person on the web, and all-around awesome human being hilzoy,
The real-life libertarian and charmer Julian Sanchez,
The GITMO lawyer, eminently sane commenter, and warm and generous person CharleyCarp,
One jack mormon willing to pass along a CATO institute card to humor another, Will Wilkinson,
The very tall, very pseudonymous, very pre-tenured, and very blackmailable, Fontana Labs

There were lots of wonderful people without blogs in attendance:
Arthegall, to whom I apologize for having repeatedly confused with my high school friend (whom I really do see everywhere),
Sommer, who is just lovely,
Stanley, of the amazing Brigham Young beard,
Eekbeat, Stanley's universally acclaimed better half,
Chopper, of the home-cured bacon and 47-minute shaggy-dog jokes,
Sir Kraab, whom I wish I'd talked with more,
M/tch M/lls, who looked so surprisingly upstanding.

And now I'm sure I'm forgetting someone, or neglecting someone's website. That's what comments are for, people!

UPDATE: It appears that I have neglected the very charming, couch-stealing Matt Ficke, and the websites of Sommer and Stanley. Apologies to all!


I Wouldn't Mess With The Mail, If I Were You

I have a deep, abiding, sentimental love for the U.S. Postal Service. As I wrote in an early book review on this site:
The USPS is faster than the French Poste, cheaper than the German Post, and more consistent than any of the private delivery services in the US. The Postmaster [a character in Gregg Hurwitz's mostly mediocre novel The Program] points out that a 37-cent stamp will get you a letter from the Florida to Alaska--a vast continent of service--and a legally enforced contract between the sender and the post office that that letter will be delivered to the addressee. The mere fact that the Post Office bothers to maintain a dead letter office, sorry, Mail Recovery Center, instead of automatically chucking out mail that can't reach either an addressee or a sender, speaks volumes about the seriousness with which it approaches its task.
Did you know that you can send books overseas with the USPS in giant burlap sacks at $20 for 20 pounds? Did you know that you can send presents Priority Mail up to a week before Christmas and have them arrive on time? Did you know that the Post Office has its own investigatory unit dedicated to scammers, spammers, and mail thieves?

I especially love the mail carriers: people who have delivered mail correctly without last names or apartment numbers on the envelopes, people who have warned that my grandma's mailbox is getting pretty full and maybe someone should go around to pick the mail up, people who judge correctly when it is and isn't safe to leave a package with the neighbors. Sometimes I think it would be a fine thing to work for the post office, to go the Anthony Trollope route.

I do not think that the good people at the Post Office will be happy about this news:
President Bush has quietly claimed sweeping new powers to open Americans' mail without a judge's warrant, the [New York] Daily News has learned.

The President asserted his new authority when he signed a postal reform bill into law on Dec. 20. Bush then issued a "signing statement" that declared his right to open people's mail under emergency conditions.

That claim is contrary to existing law and contradicted the bill he had just signed, say experts who have reviewed it.
Everything he touches, he breaks, damages, or just smudges, doesn't he? I can only hope that the Postal Service employees show the kind of fight that the librarians did--and I think they might.


Tuesday, January 02, 2007

MidWest Meets MidEast

Or, Sugar Cookies with Saffron Icing.

Cookie dough:

2 1/2 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon salt

In another bowl, cream together

1 cup (two sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 large egg

Then add in

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract---or, as I've done recently, approximately two teaspoons, minced almonds

Add dry flour mixture into wet mixture, and beat thoroughly. Roll the dough into a long sausage, wrap it in plastic, and chill it for at least an hour---but overnight is much better.

When you're ready to roll out and bake your cookies:
Start infusing your saffron:
Crumble one teaspoon of saffron into one to two tablespoons of hot water. Set aside to soak.
And preheat oven to 350F.

Shaping dough:
This cookie dough tends to be very sticky. It's easiest to work with when it has just barely softened, so I'd advise you cut off one piece of the dough-sausage at a time and leaving the rest to chill.

On a (very!) well-floured surface, roll the dough out to about an eighth-inch thick. Cut into shapes. I usually use a small drinking-glass as a cookie-cutter; this dough is soft enough to make more intricate cutters painful to work with.

Arrange onto non-stick or lightly greased or parchment-papered cookie tins. The cookies don't expand very much, so you can load them fairly closely together.

Bake at 350F for 8-9 minutes. I like them barely golden. In fact, I like them decidedly undercooked. Cool on a rack.

2 cups powdered sugar
1 egg white
1-2 Tablespoons water infused with 1 teaspoon ground saffron
Maybe a drop or two of red food-coloring...
Mix it together thoroughly in a warm environment--over a small flame if your place is cold--and spread over the cooled cookies with a knife.