Thursday, June 30, 2005

C'est merveilleux, le Tour de France

Le Tour de France, the best sporting event in the world, starts on Saturday and runs - with a couple rest days - until July 24. I can't wait.

This year's Tour is Lance Armstrong's chance to win a seventh consecutive maillot jaune. No one else has ever won so many Tours, much less so many in a row. But it's worth paying attention to the race even without that drama, because the Tour is the simply the most compelling and engrossing sports event around, putting to shame everything and anything we can offer. The Super Bowl can suck it hard.

Part of the appeal for me is the diversity of challenges which the riders face. There are, of course, numerous "easy" or "flat" stages which, at upwards of 200km (ca. 125 miles) long, are grueling endurance events that usually end in a terrifying "field sprint" of 100-plus riders to the line or in a magnificent breakaway by some strong fool who simply outraces everyone else. (Occasionally, heartbreakingly, the two outcomes combine when the peloton gathers up a break just before the line, negating all the escapees' hard work.) Then there are man-against-the-clock time trials in which each rider starts alone and just tries to go as fast as he can. A late TT this year might determine who wins the Tour. But before that point, this year's Tour will go up and down numerous mountain stages on whose climbs, as the cliche goes, "the Tour is won or lost."

And the climbs bring me to the real reason I love the Tour: the language. I love the names of the places, which become shorthand for pain, misery, and triumph: the famous switchbacks of l'Alpe d'Huez, the skull-like finish on Mont Ventoux (a climb so hard it killed a man: Tom Simpson on Friday the 13th of July, 1967) , the brutal ascent of the Col du Galibier, the horror of the Col de la Madeleine.

More than the exoticism of the French names, though, I love the terms used to describe the Tour. As with any sport, there is a lot of jargon. For instance, the worst climbs (like those above) are "HC" or "hors categorie" - in other words, immeasurably hard. In the country where they invented the metric system, that's saying something. There are lots of other Tour words: peloton = main pack; domestique = good-but-not-great rider who makes sure the team leader has water and food; crack = lose the ability to compete, whether from oxygen debt, dehydration, or lack of will.

But finally, I love the Tour's brilliant terms of art, which, voiced in an English accent over jumpy footage of skinny men on narrow Alpine road, always make my hair stand on end. A bad collision might lead to a rider's crashing out of the Tour - you don't just quit, you crash out. A rider can put time into his rivals by accelerating when they can't; the metaphor of penetration makes me always think of Armstrong somehow stabbing his opponent with a blade made of minutes and seconds. Lithe little climbers (goats, as in "mountain goats") like the late Marco Pantani or anyone from Colombia are sometimes described as dancing on the pedals when they rise up out of the saddle and speed away up the worst climb. And then there's being put into difficulty, a phrase that's best exclaimed when a strong rider attacks and his rivals cannot. "Armstrong has put Ullrich into difficulty! The big German has cracked!" It sounds so prosaic - "to be put into difficulty" - and yet also so entrappingly final: he does it to them against their will, and they can't do anything about it. Here's hoping Lance puts a few people into difficulty come Saturday.

(The best place to follow the Tour is the Velonews website, which has great daily articles, stage summaries, and minute-by-minute updates as each stage evolves.)

The 14-E-yuck

Standing on the curb yesterday while I waited for my fellow bus riders to board, I noticed, lying on the bottom step of the vehicle's stairwell, one of those rubber-and-steel hospital-quality finger splints, partially wrapped in medical tape and, best of all, lightly but thoroughly tinted with blood.

If you're injured badly enough that you're bleeding on your splint, maybe you shouldn't take it off, eh?

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Decision Criteria Factors

Ugh. I just got back from a meeting in which the PowerPoint deck included a slide with the title "Decision Criteria Factors" and a bullet point reading, "Is this the only solution or are their other potential solves?"

Heavy drinking is a potential solve to that kind of meeting.

Wednesday Meme

I was tagged by Elise, so here goes…

1. What were three of the stupidest things you have done in your life?
a. In high school, I participated along with some football jocks in a Christian-athletes thingy in front of the whole school. Rather than insisting that I get to do one of the events I would have been good at (believe it or not, the sit-up competition: during my senior year I could do 120 sit-ups in a minute) I agreed to the football relay race. When the ball was handed to me, I fumbled it, then kicked it halfway across the gym. Smoove.
b. Not going abroad when I was at Macalester College, where they practically pay you to go abroad.
c. Not taking any serious math or enough foreign-language courses in college.

Also, I’m beginning to think that grad school was pretty dumb. Or at least nigh-on useless.

2. At the current moment, who has the most influence in your life?
Misters Anheuser and Busch. No, just kidding.

My wife Shannon and my baby Julia are equal influences on my life.

3. If you were given a time machine that functioned, and you were allowed to only pick up to five people to dine with, who would you pick?
Franklin D. Roosevelt – a great dinner guest
Eleanor Roosevelt – because she’d squabble with FDR
Abraham Lincoln – great, sad, gay?
Caesar – what an attitude!
Mary (aka the Virgin) – what was up with that kid of yours, anyhow?

4. If you had three wishes that were not supernatural, what would they be?
Wishes that are not supernatural… I.e., achievable dreams, I guess?
1. A faculty job at a decent school.
2. A comfortable but interesting life.
3. Health for my family and friends.

5. Someone is visiting your hometown/place where you live at the moment. Name two things you regret your city not having, and two things people should avoid.
We need…
1. A better sense of why we ought to preserve the things that made Minnesota a great state: excellent schools, tolerance, bipartisanship, an affordable cost of living, etc.
2. More substantial commercial areas in the neighborhoods, a la Chicago. My ‘hood, for instance, doesn’t have many stores, coffee shops, or restaurants within walking distance, but it could and should.

Please avoid…
1. The exurbs. Yuck.
2. Any restaurant that’s part of a non-local chain.

6. Name one event that has changed your life.
Leaving the Upper Peninsula to go to college.

7. Tag 5 people. (I can only accomplish 60% of this.)

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Bad Month for Norway

I'm preparing a longer post on off-season developments in the cross-country skiing world (stayed tuned for the renewed Norwegian-Swedish rivalry!), but I've gotta post this news about the Norwegian team's bad June. First, on June 3, Jens-Arne Svartedal suffered a broken rib and a punctured lung in a boating accident at his bachelor party. Nobody had been drinking, so this was just incompetence on the part of the boat's driver. Having finished in seventh place in the overall World Cup standings last year (eighth in sprinting, twenty-first in distance), Svartedal is pissed, saying, "Half my season is spoiled. I’m out for a minimum of 4-6 weeks. I hope I can get back in shape and make the Olympic team."

Then, last week, Trond Iversen was injured when he accidentally collided with a little boy who'd climbed onto a sprint track at a race in Norway (where they can still compete on snow in June!). The boy wasn't hurt, but Iversen, who finished third in the sprint World Cup last season, is apparently going to have to take about a month off to recover.

Who says cross-country skiing is a low-impact sport?

False Consciousness, or Fool's Consciousness?

Read this anecdote about a woman seeking social assistance in Minnesota, then tell me and the original poster, "What's the matter with the Land of 10,000 Lakes?"


I wasn't happy last night to hear a horrible grinding sound from the general location of my computer's hard drive, then to seedreaded flashing question mark after I rebooted. Diagnosis: one fried hard drive.

On the other hand, it was good to know that my beloved PowerBook is still covered by Apple Care (= new free hard drive) and that I backed everything up fairly recently (= only losing a few pictures of the baby).

Still, five days without the machine is going to be hard. What do people who don't have PowerBooks and broadband do in the evening after the baby goes to sleep?

Monday, June 27, 2005

How Much for that Prius?

According to scholar Michael Klare - the guy who tried to tally the civilian death toll from American bombing at the beginning of the Iraq war - a new book by banker and oil-industry expert Matthew Simmons convincingly argues that the end of the era of (relatively) cheap petroleum is upon us. In Simmons' words:
The ‘twilight' of Saudi Arabian oil envisioned in this book is not a remote fantasy. Ninety percent of all the oil that Saudi Arabia has ever produced has come from seven giant fields. All have now matured and grown old, but they still continue to provide around 90 percent of current Saudi oil output...High-volume production at these key fields...has been maintained for decades [but soon] steep production declines are almost inevitable.
I think Klare overstates the impact of expensive or unavailable oil on the world economy. If the history of technoscientific innovation in the 20th century showed anything, it's that humans (or, rather, the capitalist institutions we endow with so much social and economic power) are very, very good at coming up with ways to surmount seemingly-insurmountable technical and scientific obstacles. The reliance on petrochemicals in agriculture is one example: fertilizers derived from oil resolved many problems presented by insufficient manure (like its stench, its inefficiency, and its unhealthiness). As oil's availability wanes and its price waxes, it is likely that scientists, engineers, and laypeople will find innumerable ways to survive and prosper without oil.

Still, Cassandra was right, and Klare is probably right, too, about other issues. The U.S. is singularly ill-equipped to deal with increasingly expensive and rare oil, especially since the good-oil boys in the White House have worked hard to ensure that our whole foreign policy is predicated on controlling Middle Eastern oil. Klare quotes the Department of Energy as claiming - in a best-case scenario - that based on current estimates, the U.S. government "would expect conventional oil to peak closer to the middle than to the beginning of the 21st century." That's a thin reed, I think: slicing our century into thirds, we're only about 25 years away from the beginning of the decline. And, yes, technological innovation in alternative energy sources may occur rapidly even before then. But Lord: we're closer to that best-case peak, and the slide on the other side, than we are to birth of civilian nuclear energy after World War II, and about as far from it now as we are from the OPEC oil shocks of the early 1970s. In other words, put your name on the list for a Prius now.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Neither Fish nor Foul

Where's Max Weber when you need him to analyze this conundrum: the "large contingent of Ph.D.'s... who are... pursuing so-called nonacademic careers within academe."

The abundant literature on alternative careers for humanities Ph.D.'s generally poses two paths: academic and nonacademic. Little of the literature deals with those of us who fall in the gray area in between. But there are dozens of us here at my own university, and the same holds true at many other institutions...

All in all, then, there's a lot to like in my quasi-academic life. But therein lies the problem: Quasi academic is not a recognized category at Prestigious U.

Nor is it a category factored into the humanities-career discussion, much of which implies that a humanities Ph.D.'s biggest employment challenge comes at the outset of the transition from faculty work -- in convincing someone to give you a job in the real world. Once you're hired, the logic goes, you quickly prove yourself to be a valuable team member, are welcomed as an equal, and invited to make contributions beyond what you might have expected. By that reasoning, the Ph.D. is a liability at first, but the skills associated with it soon become a plus.

But in a nonacademic job within academe, getting someone to hire you is not so hard. The problems come after you've signed the offer. The main difficulty, it seems, stems from the highly stratified environment of the university, where people are assigned to one of two large and rarely overlapping castes: faculty or staff. The highest status and the most power are conferred upon faculty members or top-level administrators who rose through the faculty ranks.

Staff members are most crucially defined as what we are not: We are not faculty members. Certain behaviors are appropriate for them and other behaviors for us.

Add to that the stigma of failure that is attached -- subtly but unmistakably by people within the professoriate -- to those who earn a Ph.D. and don't get a tenure-track job. So not only are we staff members in the lower category, we may also be assumed to have tried and failed to gain access to the higher one. We may, therefore, be seen as dangerous, because at one point we presumably wanted to be where they are, and may still harbor such irrational designs.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Steamy Architecture

In Finland this week, architects and designers are exhibiting new kinds of saunas, including one seaside villa with four different saunas. At what point, one might wonder, does a structure cease to be a house with a sauna and start being a sauna with a kitchen and bedrooms? Hopefully, one might respond, as soon as possible, especially if the sauna looks like this or has a sink made of birch plywood.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Rorty Ror Ror

Someday I'll make time to read Richard Rorty, who seems like a pretty down-to-earth sorta philosopher and who seems to offer some pretty interesting takes on the big issues - freedom, liberalism, rationality, et cetera. Even without reading, say, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, this 1992 essay, "Trotsky and the Wild Orchids," is a gem. This was especially brilliant, and not only for killing off the idea of "human nature" in 300 words or less:
Most people - even a lot of purportedly liberated postmodernists – still hanker for something like what I wanted when I was 15: a way of holding reality and justice in a single vision. More specifically, they want to unite their sense of moral and political responsibility with a grasp of the ultimate determinants of our fate. They want to see love, power and justice as coming together deep down in the nature of things, or in the human soul, or in the structure of language, or somewhere. They want some sort of guarantee that their intellectual acuity, and those special ecstatic moments which that acuity sometimes affords, are of some relevance to their moral convictions. They still think that virtue and knowledge are somehow linked - that being right about philosophical matters is important for right action. I think this is important only occasionally and incidentally.

I do not, however, want to argue that philosophy is socially useless. Had there been no Plato, the Christians would have had a harder time selling the idea that all God really wanted from us was fraternal love. Had there been no Kant, the nineteenth century would have had a harder time reconciling Christian ethics with Darwin's story about the descent of man. Had there been no Darwin, it would have been harder for Whitman and Dewey to detach the Americans from their belief that they were God's chosen people, to get them to start standing on their own feet. Had there been no Dewey and no Sidney Hook, American intellectual leftists of the 1930S would have been as buffaloed by the Marxists as were their counterparts in France and in Latin America. Ideas do, indeed, have consequences.
Read the rest of the essay to see what Rorty thinks does matter. It's worth fifteen minutes of your time.

Bus a Groove

I love the bus, both in the abstract and in the particular. My favorite bus of all time was the trusty #8 Halsted in Chicago, which I took every day for years. But I think my current bus, the #14 in Minneapolis, is fast replacing the #8, largely on the strength of the sheer wackiness of the goings-on near and on it, such as beatings and beratings.

Today's shining moment of busness was a positive one, though: a Somali woman, who looked to be middle-aged and who was wearing the full headscarf and cloak, sat down just in front of me. Abruptly, at one bus stop, she threw the window open, leaned most of the way out, and used a perfect sidearm throw to pitch a wad of paper into the slot of a garbage can that was easily six feet away from her. It was a tough throw, and she did it with unexpected, marvelous effortlessness and ease.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

The Copper Country to an Indian

My hometown paper has a brief story about the visit to Michigan's Copper Country by four Rotarians from the Kerala-Tamil Nadu region of India. One says, "There are many trees, and not so many people. We feel we are in a ghost town."

That's what I thought, too, ca. 1991. I've since learned that though it's okay to have a high "tree:people" ratio, the Keweenaw's curry is for crap. Nil-nil draw.

(Thanks to Dad for pointing out the story.)

When I Win the Lottery...

A few million will definitely go to the proposed "Favre Era Video Cyclorama," an art installation of many hundreds of television screens, each showing one game of Brett Favre's long, long career. According to Tim Laun, the artist,
The Favre Era Cyclorama on one hand embraces the spectacle of sports, and on the other offers something different: a catalogue of every moment—winning, losing, thrilling, mundane, embarrassing or legendary. In the Cyclorama, each game holds equal weight and serves as a building block, both literally and visually, in Brett Favre's career and a televsion spectacle many fans have experienced.
I especially appreciated the interesting section on cycloramas as art.

Note to Vikings fans: no, I won't donate any putative lottery loot to a four-screen installation showing your losses in Super Bowls IV, VIII, IX, and XI. That would be cruel.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

My Legs Are Sore Already

This sounds like an epic vacation in, say, summer 2020, when Julia is 16: hut-to-hut hiking in the wilderness of southern Norway. I mean, how can it not be fun when you're in a place called "Hardangervidda"?

Wednesday, June 15, 2005


If you have an iPod, you'll want this. And some disinfectant wipes in case you have to, you know, touch your, uh, device.

The Wedesday Meme

Over at After School Snack, Elise has started up the Wednesday Meme, a chance to like you personal top-five choices in a chosen category. This week, Matt's taken over with "Killah Cereals" - "your five favorite cereals* and why?" Go and post!

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Next Stop, Belligerence Ave.

It was a still and steamy June afternoon. A woman stomped onto my bus home, somewhere around 20th Street S. Many of the bus windows were open to admit cooling breezes and diesel fumes. She threw herself down in a seat and immediately yelled, "Bus Driver, turn on the air! It's hot in here!" He responded, "I can't turn on the air till all the windows are closed." She threw up her hands and yelled again, "Turn on the air! It's too damn hot!" "Ma'am," he repeated, "I can't turn on the AC until the windows are closed."

His argument finding purchase, she turned to the bus at large and screeched at us all, "Close your windows so Bus Driver can turn on the air!" Waving her hand in front of her face theatrically, she stage-muttered, "It's so hot on this bus," then turned the amp back to 11 to shriek, "Turn on the damn AC, Bus Driver! Turn it on now! It ain't gonna be cold right away! It gotta warm up!"

"Ma'am," he said, steering us through the traffic at about 23rd Street S, "I can't turn on the air until the windows are all closed. I'm going to ask you to be quiet." She reached her breaking point. "Fuuuuck! It's so fucking hot in this bus! Turn on the damn AC! There's kids and babies on this bus! People are dying!"

"I'm sorry - did you say someone's died?" asked Bus Driver. "I don't think anyone's died." Now she was four blocks from where she'd boarded, and she was pissed. "Ain't nobody really died. It's a figure of speech. Goddamn, learn to speak my language. Speak my language! Goddamn."

In English tinged less by a West African accent than his interlocutor's English was thickened with Minnesoooooda-isms, Bus Driver cautioned the Overheated Mama to pipe down. Instead, now five loud blocks from where she got on the bus, she yanked the pull chain and stormed off the bus, shouting in his ear as she passed, "You better believe I'm calling your supervisor! Too hot!"

I wish my iPod came with a setting for "Drown Out the Idiots."

Monday, June 13, 2005

June 13, 2005

Today's a notable day in history:

First, in 1971 the New York Times began publishing the Pentagon Papers, a secret study by the Pentagon of America's involvement in Southeast Asia. The papers exploded the notion that America was on the verge of winning the war on Vietnam - and cast doubt on the idea that the war in Vietnam had ever been winnable.

Second, in 1966, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Ernesto Miranda, affirming the right of citizens not to incriminate themselves even under police interrogation. The "Miranda Warning" ("You have the right to remain silent...") resulted from this ruling.

Third, and going a bit further back in time, Alexander the Great died in Babylon in 323 B.C. Another great power is currently bogged down in Babylon, of course, but Alexander's conquests and death can be somewhat more directly linked to current political affairs. By extending Greek culture all the way to India, but especially across what's now the Middle East, Alexander created the conditions that, almost a millennium later, allowed the new Islamic societies to adopt and preserve Greek learning. Hellenism, in combination with other characteristics of these societies (including an attractive religious faith and, of course, raw military and political power), became the basis of Islam's golden age - a historical moment which many modern-day Muslims compare to the current weakness of their societies and which many would like to recreate.

And less significantly, it's also Paavo Nurmi's birthday. Hyvää syntymäpäivää, Paavo!

Friday, June 10, 2005

Annals of Business English

Though its usage isn't new at my workplace, lately I've been more and more annoyed by the constant deployment of the noun "piece" in all kinds of contexts where it ought not exist or where far better alternatives already exist. You know, actually descriptive nouns. In brief, "piece" is the new "thing." Viz.,
1. "Exceeding our customer's expectations is a really important piece."
2. "I am needing to know if the piece about the numbers is ready."
3. "We're about to turn the corner on the knowledge piece; we just have to get it out of our silos."
Trying to prevent myself from audibly retching every time someone uses "piece" like this, I've started mentally appending "of ass" to each use of "piece." Try it in the examples above. It's nonsensical, Dadaist fun, like one of those fortune-cookie-improvement games, only you do it silently in a meeting with people you'd prefer not to see again, not aloud with overfed friends at Peking Garden.

Why Apple's So Cool...

Because its products make people think up neat stuff like this.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Get that weak s#!t out of here!

Elise dug up this brilliant long-form version of the old "Terry Tate, Office Linebacker" commercials, and it's worth watching again. And again and again, and then thinking of others who need a good ol' whuppin' from Terry. A couple suggestions, off the top of my head:

1A. People who grab everything off the printer without checking to see if it's all their own.
1B. People who don't return the things they took from the printer that weren't, in fact, their own.
2. People who study what's on your computer screen. Don't worry, Chumpo: I minimized the windows showing my bank account information, porn websites, and al-Qaeda instructional videos.
3. People who print out all of their emails. The "e" in "email" doesn't stand for "environmentally destructive," you e-diot.
4. People who ask me to attend four half-hour meetings in one day.
5. People who think up silly high-schoolish stuff like "Spirit Days" for the office. I have an identity, thank you. I don't need to wear company colors to feel good about myself.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries

The conservative magazine Human Events just published a list of the "Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries." It's quite interesting, if only as a glimpse into the mind of the right. The top five:
Marx & Engels, The Communist Manifesto
Adolph Hitler, My Struggle (Mein Kampf)
Mao Zedong, Quotations from Chairman Mao (The Little Red Book)
Alfred Kinsey, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, a.k.a. The Kinsey Report
John Dewey, Democracy and Education
By all means, go to the website to see the full list, the books that didn't make the top-10 cut, and the sophomoric critiques of the 10 worst, First, though, reflect on the bizarre potpourri of the top quintet: tomes by two of the three greatest killers of the 20th century and a work by the intellectual fathers of communism along with a scientific examination of actual sexual behavior and the argument of a liberal philosopher for broader education? Huh? Well, whaddya expect from a panel that includes such luminaries as Phyllis Schlafly...

Now, since, after all, competition and argument is the sine qua non of the modern right, I thought I ought to offer a counter-list. Trouble is, unlike its counterpart across the aisle, conservatism has an intellectual pedigree as thin as Paris Hilton's moral code. They cite Smith and Burke and Hayek, but c'mon - I like all three of those guys, too, and I don't exactly think Burke would be enamored of W's innovations in the war on terra. But by using my brain, my heart, and whatever gland it is that produces bile, I did manage to come up with a mix-and-match list of the five most harmful books of the American 20th century:
5. Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead (some of the worst writing imaginable put in service of an idiotic and opaque argument for human freedom - or something)
4. Barry Goldwater, Conscience of a Conservative (the touchstone of the contemporary conservative movement)
3. William F. Buckley, God and Man at Yale (a supposed demonstration of the bankruptcy of the liberal academy and the society it fosters)
2. The Old Testament (admittedly the foundation of Western thought, but from Genesis and Exodus to Deuteronomy and Daniel it's also full of the most and worst nonsense ever to be taken seriously for so long)
1. The New Testament (the Gospels are almost heartbreaking in their longing for life after death - a sentiment which has been irretrievably torn from its original soil and reshaped as the pinnacle of utopian thought - but the capstone for me is Revelation, the horrific brutality of which has excused so much violence right up to, say, yesterday)

Do you hate America?

If you don't, you must sign on to the letter by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) asking President Bush to formally and fully respond to the so-called "Downing Street Memo," in which a British government official alleges that by July 2002, the Bush administration had already decided to go to war on Iraq and that "intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." Whether you supported the war or not, and whether you think Bush is a good president or not, you owe it to the United States (and to the 1600-odd American troops who have so far died in Iraq) to sign Rep. Conyers' letter.