Saturday, February 28, 2004

A worthy cause in NYC -  

McSweeney's (the creation and ongoing project of Dave Eggers of A Heart Breaking Work of Staggering Genius fame) is many things. It's a publisher of books (I picked up Nick Hornby's SongBook from them before it went main stream - still a purchase well worth making but I digress), a quarterly literary magazine, runs an excellent website and a nonprofit tutoring arm in San Fransisco (called 826 Valencia). Hot on the heels of all this they are opening up a similar tutoring arm in New York (called 826 NYC - no web site yet) for which they are holding a benefit at Symphony Space in New York on March 2nd.

Just to give you some idea of how McSweeney's approaches the tutoring arm, 826 Valencia is apparently (in addition to being a great asset for the community) the only independent (not sure exactly what this means in this context) purveyor of pirate garb in San Fransisco. How did that come about? Simple,

In San Francisco, our landlord required us to maintain a retail space. We hadn't thought of maintaining a retail space, and scrambled to come up with an appropriate theme. We knew there were no other independent pirate supply stores in San Francisco, and thus we had no choice.

So what will the retail arm of the 826 NYC do...

In Brooklyn, the storefront will sell superhero supplies.

In any case, this is a worthy cause and these guys are nothing if not clever. Stop by Symphony Space if you're in NYC on March 2nd and surely think about volunteering.

The root of electability -  

Geoffrey offered his (and for much the same reasons our) endorsement for John Edwards in the Democratic primary weeks ago. Imagine my (and I assume his) chagrin as Kerry's electability seems to win him more and more primaries. I'm frustrated by this on all sorts of levels; I think political campaigns would be much better (and political journalism much more interesting) if they could somehow focus on policy positions rather than political process. Another source of frustration is with the very idea of electability. I mean what is it? What does being thought of as electable actually mean? Where does this nebulous sense that a candidate is electable come from?

Since we know electability deals, more than any single other candidate attribute I can think of, with political process we can, perhaps, gain some insight into these questions by moving into the realm of the sociologist. Duncan Watts (sociologist/physicist at Columbia) argues that the pheomenon of electability is much like any other social fad. Therefore, it follows, that elecability might be understood like any other fad, as springing from the difficulty that individuals have in making good decisions (and hence our tendency to defer decision making to our perception of the collective will).

So now we know (or at least have some insight into the process). Unfortunately, I find this does little to make me much happier about candidate Kerry.

Friday, February 27, 2004

The Real Corruption in Sports -  

Those who care about sports out there have heard it, more or less, all before: Jamal Lewis attempting to buy cocaine, Gary Barnett running some sort of brothel/street gang at the University of Colorado, star baseball players jacked out of their minds with muscle enhancing drugs. For sheer strike at the heart of the game, nothing, it is now clear goes as far as the corruption in college flag football.

Flag football has a noble tradition of academic disloyalty. Take the squad that calls itself "Widespread Panic." In 2001, the team played for the University of New Orleans. In 2003, Widespread Panic made the tourney final as students at Nunez Community College.

These days, Nunez reigns as flag's all-powerful overlord. The 2000-student Chalmette, La., school has won three championships in five years under the stewardship of Andrew Sercovich, a 38-year-old former player who now teaches a one-credit athletic conditioning course at the school...

...In last year's flag championship game, the Nunez Pelicans and their 30-year-old quarterback David "Duke" Rousse scored a 26-7 victory over … the Nunez Widespread Panic. That's right: When flag football's most prestigious title was on the line, Nunez played Nunez for all the marbles. Even so, Sercovich bristles at the charge that he's running a flag football factory. He's particularly galled by accusations that his 28 players qualify by registering for a single course—Sercovich's own athletic conditioning class, which includes heavy doses of flag football theory and technique.

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Iverson watch? St. Joe's! 

A painful thought for some: but are we watching the last days of Iverson's tenure with the Sixers? I don't have cable -- so I'm not actually one of the "we" who are watching. But I am, I suppose, one of the "we" who is wondering.

Also not watching, though wishing I were, St. Joe's still undefeated and now #2 in the country in college ball. For sentimental reasons, I always pick whichever Jesuit schools make the tournament to go far -- though last year I think I picked St. Joe's in the final four instead of Marquette's entertaining run. Maybe I was a year too soon with the Hawks??

For those that might like to use my own unorthodox picking methodology, the Jesuit schools that seem to make, or have made, the tournament are: St. Joe's, Marquette, Creighton, Georgetown, Boston College, Loyola Marymount, Gonzaga, St. Louis U., Santa Clara U. Have I missed any? I think Bill Russell may have won several championships while attending University of San Francisco, but that's a while ago.

Why Women Disparage Each Other's Looks -  

It's a setting I'm sure we're all somewhat familiar with (or at least have seen happen on movies or TV). The group of women in the bathroom at a club or restaurant who are disparaging the looks of some other woman who is usually still outside (of course in the movies I watch the one still outside ends up overhearing the comments but overcomes this peer adversity and eventually gets the guy -- I know I'm a bit of a sap). It turns out that this impulse to disparage the looks of other women may be an evolutionarily selected trait.

In a study recently released in the Royal Society's Biology Letters Maryanne Fisher reports an experiement in which one group of women were asked to evaluate the attractiveness of a group of photographs of other women. Fisher found that women tend to find other women least attractive at times during their menstrual cycle that correlate with greatest fertility. She speculates that this disparaging might help increase the odds that a given woman would be most likely to reproduce.

Men showed no such cyclicity in their evaluation of the looks of other women.

Brooks Smack Down -  

In an entirely nonquantitative, purely subjective way I haven't been that impressed with David Brooks' tenure on the Op-Ed page at the New York Times. To me about 1/2 of the stuff he writes seems to make sense, 1/3 of it is wrong and the remainder seems (at best) delusional.

His latest effort is a nice representative of the just wrong class. As David Adesnik points out over at OxBlog the article seems to over estimate the moral content of Reagenite foreign policy (good democracy promotion, lousy human rights) and just misconstrue the Carter legacy (Brooks argues, basically, that Carter employed a lot of mush about root causes without a cogent plan).

To me the Carter error seems much more egregious (Reagen comes out OK in the assessment after all). As David points out, Carter, more than any other president in the last 35 years, injected morality into foreign policy. More than anything else, this moral dimension was at the core of what he did as President and of the life he's lived since. I miss it.

Apologies for Light Posting -  

I've been busy the last week or so taking my comprehensive exam (the last exam ever unless, you know, this whole science thing doesn't work out and I end up being a lawyer). In any case, more normal posting should be back now.

Sunday, February 08, 2004

I still believe in miracles... 

It was always unlikely that a kid growing up in New York City was going to be a bobsledder or a ski jumper (which of course didn't stop me from wanting them). But it's still possible to dream big...

If you used to imagine yourself hitting the World Series winning home run, or skiing the fastest downhill or nailing the dismount in gymnastics, or even if you had some entirely different dream, the movie Miracle is great. If you think you used to do these things but just don't remember, see the movie and you'll start to remember a little bit of what it felt like and maybe dream again.

Friday, February 06, 2004

Bolivia in trouble 

The situation in Bolivia, where I spend six months in 2001, deteriorated badly over 2003. This culminated in the resignation of President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (Goni), after a well-publicized, violent uprising in La Paz and the adjacent ghetto-city El Alto sparked by a plan to export natural gas to the U.S. through a proposed pipeling running through neighboring Chile. The most dramatic (possibly apocryphal) moment within these events was when a military officer executed on the spot one of his servicemen who refused to fire on the protesting civilians. In total, an estimated 70 people died.

One of the key figures in Bolivian politics is Evo Morales, the indigenous leader of the coca growers trying to form a coalition of the long-disenfranchised indigenous. Among other things, cocaleros constitute the poorest of the poor in Bolivia. Their profession has been targeted by US efforts at staunching narco-terrorism. This has included US military and DEA presence, aid to the ongoing Bolivian militarization of coca-growing regions, and alternative development funds for farmers to plant crops such as bananas, pineapple and the like. By and large, farmers are still impoverished, with many having lost access to the only cash crop -- coca -- that sustained them. As Slate reports, they have found the market for alternative crops saturated, meaning prices have fallen, and no rich countries have stepped up to create the requisite favorable export conditions that could make these crops economically viable. This deterioration in standard of living has added to the country's instability.

Compounding the situation are austerity measures that the current government must enact to remain solvent, service international debt and attract the foreign investment that could eventually spur a recovery. Any additional taxes or cuts in domestic spending that impact the poor are likely to kindle further rounds of violence and protest within this disastrous country.

All of which is a complete and total shame, because Bolivia is one of the most precious places on Earth, and the people are the kindest and most open I've encountered in my travels. It is a country of 8.5 million now, with perhaps another 4 million Bolivians in the diaspora.

Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Running through Death Valley 

The doc. film Running on the Sun is about an annual 135-mile race beginning 282 feet below sea level at Badwater in Death Valley National Park and ending 8,360 feet up Mt. Whitney. In the book To the Edge, a NY Times report named Kirk Johnson wrote his account of training for and completing the event. If you complete the thing in 48 hours, you get a belt buckle. The men's record is a little over 25 hours, just under 28 hours for the women. In 2002 and 2003, the overall event was won by Pam Reed, the women's record holder.

Among many other observations, watching this film (and to a less visual extent, reading the book) gives one a distinct appreciation for foot care. I've never seen such large blisters.

Apropos plants detecting land mines, that would have come in handy for Badwater finisher Chris Moon, who lost most of his right leg and arm while working for an NGO clearing landmines in Mozambique. He was running to raise money for a charity working with mine survivors.

For the Cod Lovers Out There... 

I'm desperately trying to acquire a taste for salted cod (its a long story). It would appear that my plight is common for Americans.

Monday, February 02, 2004

Retractable endorsement: Edwards 

I've now been on and off a few bandwagons. And I've jumped onto John Edwards' within the last few days.

Within my lifetime, Republicanism has generally proffered a negative domestic message: that the government is not "us" and that less of it is better because it is in our way, takes what is rightfully ours, etc. (Reagan, W) Democrats have surmounted this stigma, however, when they have sold the inspiring qualities of social investment and social equity that good policy can yield. (Clinton, Kennedy).

In that light, Democrats might consider worrying less about finding a candidate with a heroic military record than about finding a candidate able to communicate well with constituents, especially around invoking a positive vision for social development and a robust sense of fairness.

Republicans were aided politically by 9/11, because they controlled the executive, but I would imagine that some of this will be mitigated by the struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan, the persistance of terror threats, bin Laden at large, and the fact of a diminished American standing in the world (all the worse squandered after 9/11's goodwill-fest). A savvy Democrat could point to all of those and respectfully wonder if we can afford any more of this kind of "success". It's not who could have protected the country that is the fundamental issue (yet-to-be-released 9/11 report notwithstanding, an open society cannot evade these risks); it's what has been done in the interim.

Any election for Democrats will come down to convincing people that we really deserve better from (an ostensibly democratic) government by, for, and of the people. Implicit is the case that we have been hoodwinked into thinking that this was as good as we could hope it to be, that it has therefore become as bad as we allowed (at least, on the view of the Paul Krugman's of the world to which, truthfully, I'm not immune). The question is who delivers that message best and motivates people to tune in and maybe turn out.

A hint: it's not Kerry, Clark, Lieberman, or Dean. Reserving the right to retract, of course, I think it's Edwards.....

Sunday, February 01, 2004

Plants Detecting Land Mines (yes really!) -  

One of the relics of conflicts long stopped are land mines. Even long after the fighting has stopped some places are unlivable because cleaning up land mines is slow, dangerous and expensive. Researchers at the Danish company Aresa have have devised a new, and potentially inexpensive way of accomplishing this difficult task. The new method hinges on the observation that landmines give off nitrogen dioxide. Nitrogen dioxde is converted to molecular nitrogen in the roots of some plants. The difficulty is that this conversion usually leaves no visible change in the plant. The Aresa researchers, then, took a naturally existing form of thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) and genetically engineered it so that the biochemical machinery which causes the leaves to turn red (typically happening in the fall) would instead happen when the roots are exposed to nitrogen dioxide. The idea is that fields could be seeded with Arabidopsis thaliana and then left. Returning in several months, land mine disposal technicians could then go right to the areas where red Arabidopsis had grown and remove the land mines.

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