Reuben Sportsbar
Cold comfort and warm beer

Wednesday, April 30, 2003  

Fade back to black. I go getting positive for, oh, about three seconds, and then I go to TBOGG and read that:

'The number of black Americans under 18 years old who live in extreme poverty has risen sharply since 2000 and is now at its highest level since the government began collecting such figures in 1980, according to a study by the Children's Defense Fund, a child welfare advocacy group.

In 2001, the last year for which government figures are available, nearly one million black children were living in families with after-tax incomes that were less than half the amount used to define poverty, said the new study, which was based on Census Bureau statistics and is to be released publicly today. The defense fund provided a copy in advance to The New York Times.

The poverty line for a family of three was about $14,100, the study said, so a family of three living in extreme poverty had a disposable income of about $7,060, the study said.

In early 2000, only 686,000 black children were that poor, the study said, indicating that the economic circumstances of the United States' poorest black families deteriorated sharply from 2000 to 2001.'

His conclusion?

'I think it's about time these black children pull themselves up by their bootstraps and become white.'

Somebody get that man a Chair.

posted by JD | 6:29 PM

On the positive side, my friend Hugh just got a whopping big scholarship to the PhD program of his choice, along with a brilliant deal on an honest-to-god log cabin (not one of those Republican ones) in the mountains only ten minutes from his uni. If I had a clue how to post pictures here, I'd put one up and we could all sing She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain. Can't wait to dress up like Grizzly Adams and make the journey over. I wonder if they've got a Lassie-type bear.

posted by JD | 6:25 PM

I always just assumed that culture grew more liberal over time. It doesn't seem to be happening in the US.

I'm trying not to harp on the bad things back in birthworld, but the Supreme Court has just turned away a challenge to a requirement that South Carolina abortion providers allow the medical records of abortion patients to be copied and removed from clinics.

Excuse me? Is this not an open invitation for crackpot anti-choice terrorists to oil up their hunting rifles and start using young women for target practice? Is this the nation we want?

posted by JD | 6:20 PM

Read it and weep for the American press.

I don't agree with every little bit of this guy's screed against pattycake reporting by the NY Times, but how the flying fuck can you do an article on Guantanamo Bay these days and not mention the kids? This is the paper of record?

Not anymore it's not.

This is why Americans are so often shocked by the depth of the rest of the world's anger over the big issues. This stuff is heavily reported in the other free nations of the world, and not because France and Germany and the UK and every other developed nation in the frickin' world has an axe to grind with the US (though that does happen and does sometimes influence coverage) but because issues like the illegal detainment of other nation's children is a major fucking deal. Especially when the detainers are telling the rest of the world 'Follow us, Tontos, we know where you should go!'

How can the NYT excuse this?

posted by JD | 6:12 PM

Tuesday, April 29, 2003  

Averages are bullshit, at least as I understand them.

Sure they work fine when Johhny and little Milt the sodden-shoed bastard are having their course grades computed by Mrs Mumple, but when politicians are talking tax cuts, when they say average we should reach for our sharpened birkenstocks. I don't much about taxes, but it seems that when governement's talk about average tax cuts of $1800, they should instead be talking about the tax cuts that most people will be getting, and not an average skewed by massive cuts to the rich.

(And yes I realise that this is elementary claptrap and a bit tiresome, but I'm just now figuring it out. I blame my lack of basic sense on insufficient discipline in the modern two-bedroom home.)

The trick is that average is arithmetical mean, and one or two very high numbers can skew the results well out of the fiscal bell curve in which most of us live our lives. Let's say we're talking about salary. (This is simpler than taxes, and I need all the help I can get.) If there are nine people in my office (and oh yes my brother there are), and we each earn 20 quid an hour, we're all going to be pretty damn happy. Weekends away, no waiting for the next paycheque to come through, decent lunches out. I might even buy someone a drink.

If all nine of us are bringing in 20 quid an hour, our average wage is (drum roll Milt you soggy fuck) 20 quid an hour. But let's say I decide to jack my wage up by making love to the boss. As anyone who's ever slept with me (Milt?) will recognise, this was not the best possible plan for the best possible world. After radiant seconds of drunken fumbling followed by an embarrassed stain on the table and the shocked stares of everyone else sitting with us at her dinner table, I now found myself on five quid an hour.

Suspicious that they encouraged me in my sad and desperate gropings (both for higher wages and her), my boss has cut the salaries of three of my colleagues to equally low depths. At the same time, she now has some fairly hefty psychotherapy bills, so she's raised her salary to, oh, say 100 quid an hour. Of the other four, she's moved one down to 15, left two at twenty and moved one, who happened to be in the same room at the time and shielded her dog's eyes) to thirty.

Of the nine of us, two are now better off in the wallet, two are treading water (albeit bottled), one has slipped a bit, and four of us are dancing for nickels outside train stations. On sum, things have gotten a lot worse for almost half, much better for one and a little better for another. On the whole, life's a little bit worse. How's our average? It's gone up by almost four pounds an hour. Hell, she could have put eight of us on five pounds an hour, bumped herself up to a magisterial 140 an hour (top psychologist flown in from all over the world, not to mention some plummy interior decorating), and our average would still be at twenty.

The problem is that arithmetical mean (average) is too easily skewed by one very high number. Mode, the most common number, isn't a good representation of reality either. In this case it would be five, indicating that we were an office of abject poverty and future crocodile wrestlers. Median, where you write down every number and select the one in the middle as most representative (in this case it would be 15) is best way of understanding what's going on within the bell curve of the economy where most of us - and the health of the nation, I think - reside.

posted by JD | 10:39 PM

CalPundit on how the middle class have suffered a tax squeeze over the last half century. This first sentence is shocking:

OUR SUFFERING MILLIONAIRES....Max Sawicky notes today that if the standard personal exemption had kept up with inflation since 1948, it would be $12,941 today. In reality, it's only $3,000.

Since 1948, effective tax rates have risen from 5% to 25% for average taxpayers while plummeting from 75% to 26% for the rich.
This change in emphasis in the federal tax code over the past 50 years has been truly stunning, and it doesn't get enough attention. For the middle class, the standard exemption has decreased significantly while payroll taxes have increased. For the rich, the top marginal rate has plummeted, the estate tax has been eliminated, and rates have been halved on capital gains (and soon on dividends as well if Bush has his way). The net result is that an average family paid about 5% of its income in federal taxes in 1948 and today pays about 25%. During the same period, the effective tax rate on millionaires declined from about 75% to 26%.

Despite the fact that the result of all this has been steady declines in both economic growth rates and labor productivity, conservative economists continue to tell us that if we keep at their program just a little while longer things will turn around. Their standard fairy tale is that (a) millionaires are overtaxed and (b) this acts as a drag on growth. In fact, both are false. The rich are taxed quite lightly in the United States, and there is no evidence at all that higher rates on millionaires would do anything except possibly improve the economy.

Economic growth is most robust when money is in the hands of people who spend it: the poor and the middle class. Sometime soon this lesson needs to be relearned.

posted by JD | 9:54 PM

'Aggravation wagons' carried shit from American cesspools out to the countryside to be used as fertiliser. Were they called the same thing here?

posted by JD | 12:52 PM

Monday, April 28, 2003  

NY's High Line. From Beyond Brilliance..., mention of a potential elevated rail to grassy trail project in lower West Manhattan.

posted by JD | 6:15 PM

Typepad sounds like a very promising tool for those of us with three left thumbs when it comes to coding. According to the Guardian's drone, 'with Typepad, SixApart has embraced almost every advance in weblogging over the past year, and wrapped it into a product my dad could use. It raises the bar for the personal publishing world in a way that the Blogger/ Google buyout promised but has yet to deliver.'

posted by JD | 6:00 PM

Back that ask up: CalPundit has a nice idea about how to teach history so that teens actually give a shit:

THE MIRROR OF HISTORY... Yesterday I wrote a post about math education that attracted a lot of interesting comments, including a couple from a Fields Medal winner. (My new motto: "Calpundit — Home of Commentary from Fields Winners!") That was pretty cool, so today I think I'll try another pedagogical category: history.

This is a subject that I talk about frequently with my mother (an actual teacher, mind you), trying to figure out why it's such a disliked subject. After all, we like history, but surveys routinely show that it's the least liked subject, ranking even below obvious suspects like math and spelling.

Why is it so disliked? Who knows, really, but it's probably because it seems so remote from normal life. It's pretty hard, after all, for most teenagers to get very enthused about a long-ago debate over the Missouri Compromise that has only the most tenuous connection to the present day.

So in the true spirit of blogging (especially weekend blogging!), here's my dumb amateur idea about how to teach history: do it backward.

It's hard for kids to get interested in century old debates without knowing all the context around them, but they might very well be interested in current day events. So why not start now and explain the events that got us here? War on terrorism? Sure, let's teach it, and that leads us backward to a discussion of how the current state of affairs is the successor to the bipolar world that came apart in 1989. And that leads back to the Cold War, and that leads back to World War II, etc.

In other words, invert cause and effect. Try to get them wondering about the causes of things they already know about, and then use this curiosity to lead them inexorably backward through history.

This is for teenagers, of course, not grammar school kids, who are probably best off with pilgrims, ancient Egyptians, and other picturesque topics. But it might work in high school and junior high school.

All we need now is to get a brilliant historian together with the guy who directed Memento and we'll have it made. We can call it "The Mirror of History."

UPDATE: Over at Atrios, a commenter makes the point that recent history isn't really even taught at all in high school, let alone as part of a broader history curriculum. As Atrios suggests, this is probably because recent history is so overtly political that it's hard to teach it without offending a lot of parents, but even so, how ridiculous is this? Really, which is more important: understanding the American Revolution or understanding the Cold War? An entire year devoted to understanding the most recent few decades of history would probably be one of the most valuable classes a kid could have.

posted by JD | 5:29 PM

Bitter sweet. As the American sugar industry threatens to break the WHO over its dietary recommendations (see below), the EU and US continue to use the IMF and World Bank to put a hypocritical headlock on LDCs. (See Oxfam's site for reports, including ones on sugar and coffee. I suspect that Pop Tarts will be next.) We demand that they ban import tariffs on our goods, yet place tariffs on theirs, while paying massive subsidies to our own producers.

The sugar industry is merely one case in point. Rigged trading rules ensure that even though Europe’s sugar costs three times as much to produce as it does in tropical LDCs, Europe somehow accounts for 40% of the world’s sugar production. How do France, Germany, the UK et al work such financial magic? Through hidden subsidies and tariffs paid for by you know who.

Even as developed nations are giving a nation such as Mozambique an estimated $150 in aid from 2002-2004, our protectionist agricultural policies are costing it an estimated $106 million in lost sugar exports. Shouldn’t we be encouraging the development of industries that will make these nations more prosperous and stable?

It’s all about satisfying internal political demands – and making the world a worse place in the meantime.

posted by JD | 5:22 PM

Tongue tide. At the start of Annie Proulx’s Accordion Crimes (perhaps there is an entire genre of accordion fiction), a wizened Sicilian woman tells a would-be immigrant that he must put aside Sicilian and learn to speak American. (Words to break the teeth, he thinks, ruefully.)

She has learned some words from her son and his children, and will learn more from her nephews. ‘In America,’ she says, ‘the natural order of the world is reversed and the old learn from children. Prepare yourself.’

The natural order of the world is reversed. This is how it must be for all immigrants. Perhaps it is also how it must be, to a degree, in all immigrant nations. The children grow up understanding more of the world than their parents. What a burden, on both parent and child.

posted by JD | 5:16 PM

Friday, April 25, 2003  

The Guardian's subject specific guide to blogs. This is going to be fun.

I've already found Beyone Brilliance, Beyond Stupidity.

But the Coney Island History site I found on my own. And learned this:

'In 1867 Charles Feltman owned a pie-wagon that delivered his freshly baked pies to the inns and lager-beer saloons that lined Coney Island's beaches. His clients also wanted hot sandwiches to serve to their customers. But his wagon was small and he knew that it would be hard to manage making a variety of sandwiches in a confined space. He thought that perhaps something simple like a hot sausage served on a roll might be the solution.

He presented his problem to Donovan, the wheel-wright on East New York and Howard Street in Brooklyn, who had built his pie-wagon. The man saw no problem in building a tin-lined chest to keep the rolls fresh and rigging a small charcoal stove inside to boil sausages.

When the wheel-wright finished the installation they fired up the stove for a test run. Donovan thought that the sausage sandwich was a strange idea but he was willing to try it as Feltman boiled the succulent pork sausage and placed between a roll. The wheel-wright tasted the it and liked it. Thus the hot-dog was born.

In 1871 Feltman served hot dogs to 3,684 patrons. The hot dog, however, didn't go unchallenged. Rumors abounded that the sausages were made of dog meat and the politicians alleged that they found a rendering plant making sausages for Coney Island out of dead horses. John Y. McKane protested that, "Nobody knows what is inside these sausages." Fortunately for Feltman and others the rumors soon subsided and the food became popular again.'

Life is wonderful.

posted by JD | 5:49 PM

Tuesday, April 22, 2003  

Are we hardwired for religion?

A snippet from this LRB review.

It isn't that religious belief systems are what natural selection has constructed our minds for, but that a side effect of what our minds have been constructed for is a susceptibility to the belief in gods, spirits and ancestors that Boyer describes.

That natural selection has made the human mind (or, if you prefer, brain) into what it is will not be disputed except by avowed creationists. Nor will it be disputed that it has done so by selection for a kind and degree of imagination, and therefore credulity, which, over those many millennia, made those of our ancestors with theory-building minds more likely to pass on the relevant genes to their descendants than those without them.

posted by JD | 6:40 PM

The Observer is shit. It's depressingly empty of gravitas or full ideas or anything I want from a good newspaper. Up til about February I still bought it for the Food Monthly, but now even that has been infected by the Not-so-Big O's puffery and glamour fascination. Articles about 'New York's sexiest restaurants' are all fine and dandy as long as they are an accompaniment to meat and bones articles about food I can make and experience or at least take the tube to myself, but as in the main newspaper, the tinsel has overtaken the tree.

One thing I did love about the OFM was the incandescent rage I always felt for its resident nutritionist. In a regular feature entitled What's in Your Shopping Bag or something like that, some bonehead dietitian or nutritional expert would go through the shopping cart of a famous person, looking at each item in the cart and saying whether or not it was good for JG Ballard or AA Gill or whoever happened to be that month's lucky millionth shopper.

And that was why I hated him. Instead of looking at someone's diet as a whole, the nutbag nutritionist judged each food in isolation. So if the poor B-lister happened to have a jar of double cream in the cart, Dr Spirolina would intone that ye, verily doth double cream block the arteries, and thus musteth be avoided. There was no indication, even the slightest hint, that the individual food in question would be consumed not in isolation but as part of a broader diet. A very un-British approach, all too reminiscint of the strident, anti-pleasure attitudes I'm used to from back in the states. (Speaking of proper British attitudes to diet, JG Ballard's cart, I'm happy to report, was filled with nothing but exotic meats and expensive booze.)

In lieu of spending my part of my Sunday afternoons jumping up and down shouting at pages 33-34 of the OFM - god I enjoyed that - I'm now reduced to trolling the internet for articles on food and politics. What would JG Ballard say if he knew how low I had fallen, and indeed how short the journey was? I can only hope he would greet the news with a silent reproach, followed by a quick poke in the eye with the breastbone of a Peruvian duck.

Here are some snips from an old LRB review of Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health by Marion Nestle.

'...Moreover, certain strands of modern expertise have surely made a tactical mistake in abandoning the language in which common sense and prudence have been embedded for millennia: balance, variety and moderation; have a little bit of everything; the occasional indiscretion isn't going to kill you, but don't make a habit of it. Because expert nutritionists like Nestle want so much to expose the evils of the Big Mac, Coke and roast beef with Yorkshire pud, they have in effect allowed the language of prudential common sense to be hijacked by the food industry.

So Coca-Cola gets to say that soft drinks 'can be part of a balanced diet' and the Cattlemen's Association to say that eating beef is in line with advice to use 'balance, variety and moderation of all foods'. The good professor is left steaming at the mercenary self-servingness of it all, but can bring herself to say neither that steak and chips every now and then is going to give you a heart attack nor that 'balance, variety and moderation' is in itself bad advice. When it comes to everyday eating and drinking, expertise that strips itself of the rhetoric and sentiments of common sense has probably rendered itself impotent.

Preachers of virtue tend traditionally to be less interested in why people sin than in describing and condemning sin, and that is perhaps why Nestle's book is so convincing in documenting the misdeeds of the food industry and so utterly unconvincing in attempting to explain why people eat as they do. The proverbial voice says, 'You are what you eat,' or, more resonantly in German, 'Man ist was er isst.' Nestle and the modern nutritionists construe that dictum almost solely in molecular terms - if you eat too much animal fat it will clog up your arteries - but the relationship between eating and identity is moral as well as molecular. People eat what, when, how, how much and with whom they do for a thousand reasons...

Even if you could be sure of such expertise, Montaigne thought it was servile to bind yourself rigidly to dietary rules. To make a religion of temperance is unsociable and unbecoming. Occasional surfeit was a condition of sociability, and a refusal to eat what your host put in front of you was incivility. If, in the quest for health and longevity, you made a fetish of abstinence, you might secure your object, but only at the cost of making life not worth living. And if these ascetic physicians 'doe no other good, at least they doe this, that they prepare their patients early for death, undermining little by little and cutting off their enjoyment of life'. The relative absence of these sentiments from contemporary culture testifies to the real respect in which all sorts of medical expertise is held. But the inaudibility of Montaigne's sceptical voice is also a useful index to the decline of the social virtues.'

One of the morals (such tasty morsels morals be) is this, and I suspect it holds true in all aspects of politics: Stridency allows the bad guys, the self servers, to claim the middle ground. And that's where fights are won.

The frightening thing about the middle ground, as we're currently seeing in the US, is that once claimed, it can be dragged to the right. (But how far can it be shifted before the rope breaks, and the pendulum comes sweeping back?)

And since we're on the subject, one more line from Mantaigne, following a word of advice from James I:

As James I instructed his son, 'your dyet should bee accommodatte to your affaires, & not your affaires to your diet.'

Montaigne: 'If your Physitian thinke it not good that you sleepe, that you drinke wine, or eate such and such meates: Care not you for that; I will finde you another that shall not be of his opinion.'

posted by JD | 6:13 PM

A Rash for Hackney
Any book with this title will sell millions. Now I need a story.

Has anyone noticed that in the US, 'Hackney' would be a great Sloaney name? Much like 'Sloane'.

posted by JD | 3:14 PM

Monday, April 21, 2003  

Fun facts about pharmacy! The pharmaceutical industry returns a profit on investment of 18% - the highest for any industry in the world. According to the documentary Dying for Drugs, which will screen this Thursday on C4, most of that profit comes from the developing world.

posted by JD | 9:32 AM

In future tales of 'food, history and man' (see the post immediately below), the bullying of the WHO by the sugar industry will be a long and sorry chapter, and lengthy appendices will have to be devoted to the incredible human cost of this industrial (and all too human) greed.

In short, the American sugar industry is threatening to kick in the WHO's teeth. The sugar lobby says it will use its considerable muscle to pull US funding from the organisation unless it scraps its new guidelines on healthy eating, which recommend that sugar be no more than 10% of a healthy diet. The sugar industry says that figure should be upped to 25%. It also says that soft drink consumption plays no role in the global obesity pandemic.

Food, water and drug policy seems to be the modern equivalent of the 19th century robber barons' highjacking and matter-of-fact bribery of government. What we're faced with is a WTO that works as a brutal agent for developed nations' food industry interests, while the WHO is prevented from helping those who get crushed in the stampede for profit.

posted by JD | 9:24 AM

'It is no exaggeration to say that after language, food is the most important carrier of national identity,' writes Ben Rogers, who I've just heard on Radio 4's marvellous Start the Week, discussing his book Beef and Liberty: Beef, Bull and English Patriots.

I like the sound of this 'food nationalism' subset of what could loosely be called the 'food, history and man' genre.

posted by JD | 9:13 AM

The Institute for Public Policy Research is just the sort of thing I'd like to be a part of.

posted by JD | 9:08 AM

Sunday, April 20, 2003  

The Health of Nations
A pathetic pun of a title, but this article from the April 2003 Washington Monthly is full of brilliant titbits about health care, expenditure, expectancy and wellbeing. Here are some samples:

The US spends around $4500 per person per year on health care, far outpacing any other nation. Costa Rica spends $273. The two nations have almost the exact same life expectancy. More walking, less driving, healthier (and tastier, I'll add) food, and less smoking all contribute. There are, I'll guess, massive attitudinal differences regarding the end of life, when most of the US's health care budget is spent.

Over the course of the 20th century, the life expectancy of an American newborn increased by 30 years - around 66%. Public health experts say that all but five of those additional years are the result not of better health care, but of improved living and working conditions.

The elderly count for 12.4% of the American population, yet consume 38% of its healthcare resources.

According to the CDC, medicine has contributed just two of the seven years in added life expectancy since 1950.

Here's a depressing one: Each year nearly two million patients in US hospitals get an infection; about 90,000 die as a result. The largest presentable cause is doctors and nurses with unwashed hands.

More people are killed by adverse reactions to prescription drugs than by pulmonary disease or accidents. Only heart disease, cancer and stroke kill more people than prescription drugs.

According to John Wennber of Dartmouth Med School, elderly people living in regions such as Miami where the use of specialists is high have no greater life expectancy than those living where use of specialists is less common. (In Miami, the average Medicare patient sees 25 specialists int he last six months of life; in Minneapolis, six.)

Because the health care care system as currently constructed doesn't kick in for most people until they are already ill, it is not unlike an ambulance waiting at the bottom of a cliff. How about a little fencing, or a better sense of balance in the populace?

Jamaican seniors outlive American ones. According the the WHO, at 65 the life expectancy for residents of each nation is roughly equal, and at 85 it's longer in Jamaica. Doctors think it's because Jamaicans walk. According to Dr Denise Eldemire of the U of West Indies, 78% of Jamaican elders walk daily. By contrast, only 60% of the entire US population takes any exercise at all. (But what is the percentage for the elderly? The article doesn't say.)

A point that makes health insurance problems look less deadly, at least on a sociological level: Families with full coverage consume 40% more health care dollars than those with high deductibles, but show no measurable increase in health.

The eight leading causes of death in the US are closely linked to living conditions and behaviour. They are: heart disease, cancer, stroke, pulmonary diseases, accidents, pneumonia/influenza, diabetes and suicide.

According the the Insitute of Medicine, social and behavioural factors contribute to approximately half of all deaths in the US.

Social inequality appears to play a major role in national life expectancy. In a 1967 survey of British civil service workers, researchers found that within a given office mortality rates rose, step by step, as one climbed down the organisational ladder. Those at the bottom suffered three times the death rate as those at the top. At this time, in this country, access to healthcare was fairly equal, wasn't it? If so, this points to socioeconomic factors as being much more important than healthcare.

In the US, the healthiest states, such as Iowa, Utah and NH, are also those with the least disparity of income, while states such as Louisiana, Mississippi and NY lead the nation in both poor population health and income inequality. Wealthy nations with low income inequality, such as Sweden and Japan, have higher life expectancy than wealthy countries with greater income inequality, such as the US and the UK.

Only 5% of the $1 trillion the US annually spends on healthcare goes toward promoting healthy behaviour, yet JAMA estimates that 40% of all deaths are caused by behaviour patterns that could be prevented. (But when behavour changes, isn't it inevitable that people will die of other diseases that cause them to seek healthcare? But is this not the key? Is the key not the quest to live forever, but the quest to live well for a long time while using resources wisely?)

An estimated 17% of all hospital admissions amongst those 70 or older result from harmful combinations of prescription drugs.

This is incredible, and yet another indicator that urbanity is under-rated: On a statistical basis, what's most likely to get you killed in the next year: (A) living in Israel during the Intifada; (B) living in crime-ridden, inner-city Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Milwaukee, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Philadelphia, or Pittsburgh; or (C) living in the bucolic outer suburbs of those cities? The answer is overwhelmingly C. A recent study by University of Virginia professor William H. Lucy found that Americans' migration into sprawling outer suburbs is actually a huge cause of premature death. In the suburbs, you're less likely to be killed by a stranger--unless you count strangers driving cars. Residents of inner-city Houston, for example, face about a 1.5 in 10,000 chance of being killed in the coming year by either a murderous stranger or in an automobile accident. But in the Houston suburb of Montgomery County, residents are 50 percent more likely to die from one of those two causes because the incidence of automobile accidents is so much higher.

In 1999, 4,906 pedestrians were killed while attempting to walk in the suburbs, 873 of them children under 14.

Largely because of sprawl, the number of trips people take on foot has dropped by 42 percent in the last 20 years. This is particularly true among children. In 1977, children ages 5 to 15 walked or biked 15.8 percent of the time. By 1995, the rate dropped to only 9.9 percent. Seventy percent of all trips children take today are in the back seats of cars.

This is no small matter. Walking 10 blocks or more per day reduces the chance of heart disease in women by a third. The risks associated with a sedentary lifestyle rival those of hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes, and even smoking. According to the surgeon general, the economic costs of obesity total $117 billion a year, about 9.4 percent of health-care spending. Americans who never exercise cost the health-care system $76.6 billion a year. Sprawl does not fully account for our increasingly sedentary lives, but it is a major factor, and therefore a leading cause of premature death.

Sprawl also leads to high levels of social isolation, which has its own public-health implications. Lonely individuals who are cut off from regular contact with friends and neighbors face highly elevated risks for heart diseases and other disorders. What's cause and effect is not entirely clear, but Robert Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard University, has found that an isolated individual's chances of dying over the next year fall by half if he joins a group, two-thirds if he joins two.

In Greek mythology, the god of medicine, Asclepios, had two daughters. Hygeia was the daughter responsible for prevention, while, Panacea was responsible for cure. Today, to the detriment of our nation's health, we're fixated on the idea that medicine will produce a panacea. It's time to listen to her more powerful sister.

posted by JD | 6:08 PM

Do turtles know how much comedy value they provide when they stack themselves on top of each other to take the sun? Earlier this week I saw a line of five adults crammed tight on one of Clissold's boards, with a baby turtle perched precariously atop the curve of the central turtle's shell. All they need is a stagehook and a cream pie and they're the funniest act in the world.

posted by JD | 5:24 PM

No fakin'
Every now and then, each and every one of us should go to our favourite online newspapers and do a search on "bacon". But we should never find anything like this. Seems that some per-fucking-verse dipshit has snuck into the morgue at a West London hospital and draped strips of bacon over the torso of a dead Muslim woman. I've got little time for religious tomfoolery and its attendant strictures, but for fuck's sake, what is this going to do to that woman's poor family? Whoever did this needs to be arrested soon.

But that brings up an issue. Bacon is tender and yummy, but not a crime.

There is no law against draping foodstuffs over dead bodies - at least that's what local police are saying. There are, however, race hatred laws. In every other circumstance where I've read about their application I've felt that they served the potential forces of oppression far better than the forces of liberality. In this case, I find myself thinking they're not such a bad idea. But one good application doesn't overshadow five bad ones.

And surely there's a law against tampering with a dead body?

posted by JD | 5:00 PM

London Fields isn't merely virtuosic writing, it is cultural analysis that's symphonic in its complexity and synthesis. Every dead-on observation is another note or chord or bar sweeping into and adding to the whole.

But are there too many fucking notes, or do I just not like the conductor's sneer?

The problem I'm having with it, I think, is that I'm a romantic and a rank sentimentalist. Everyone in this brilliant book is poisoned, and most of them are poisoning others. Amis's London is a bitter and ugly place populated with cheats and crushed souls.

I don't mind unhappy stories. We saw Far From Heaven last night and I was rapt. But there can't be tragedy without likeability, and what do we have if the good are clueless and the bad roll inevitably on? Damn good writing, but a very thin gruel.

posted by JD | 4:30 PM

Easter day in Clissold Park, and the white swans are building a nest. The algae streaks their necks green, and families of Hassidic Jews watch them as they work. In the other pond, moorhens wiggle on their eggs - though back in pond number one, four scraggly little chicks chase their mum across the algae. What were the pearl sized white buboles she was feeding one? Friday the park was full of people basking in the 26 degree weather; Kimball, Tim and Laura and I kicked the football while Carol basked in the sun. (She and Tim are leaving next month for a six-month holiday in South America.) Yesterday, J's day off, the temperature fell to a wintry 11. Today it's back up to the middle range, but the park is mostly empty; do no one's parents live in north London?

posted by JD | 3:47 PM

Wednesday, April 16, 2003  

Why won't the middle class cross the road?
They think they're already on the other side. Not at all funny, of course - but then few things about the distribution of American wealth are. One of the big problems as I see it is that the middle class identify not with the poor, or even with themselves, but with what they want to become. And what they want to become is rich.

Very few people in the US will get rich, but since everyone there thinks they will, people look out not for their own best interests but for those of the rich - the people they believe they'll one day become. If I have to guess, I'd say this is one of the key reasons Americans (excluding the rich, of course) don't think in terms of class: because they think they'll soon be in a higher one. The wealthy couldn't have constructed a more self-beneficial system if they'd tried.

If I remember correctly, Jonathan Freedland has something to say about this in his book on America; I think he states that the classes really are quite fluid, at least from a British perspective. That book was very pie in the sky, but even giving him the benefit of the doubt, the American middle class has basically turned itself into the wealthy man's butler, fighting for policies that benefit his lordship but not himself. As CalPundit illustrates in a post on 15 April, while real income for the top 5% of American earners has nearly doubled in my lifetime, real income for the middle class has barely risen. Yet there's all this talk about the untold wealth that's been created ove the last three decades. Untold - and unshared.

Re that word 'unshared': A good conservative will argue that wealth isn't shared, it's created. Remember, just because something's half true doesn't mean it isn't half bollocks as well. Since the '80s, the governement has made it much easier for the rich to get richer, but hasn't made it any easier for the middle class and poor to do the same.

posted by JD | 8:39 AM

Maybe they should get Michelle Pfeiffer to sort it out

From CalPundit, who has quickly become my favourite, some harrowing stuff not only on the seemingly insurmountable difficulties of inner city teaching but on the type of blinkered, self-centred person who tends to get ahead in the world. In this instance, we only learn the truth because there appears to be a truly extraordinary individual as his opposite.

CORPORAL PUNISHMENT....Via Eve Tushnet comes this article in City Journal by Joshua Kaplowitz, who turned down the chance to work on Al Gore's presidential campaign in order to teach at a Washington DC elementary school. Kaplowitz obviously has an axe to grind, but it's a hair-raising story about the realities of teaching in modern urban schools anyway.

UPDATE: A couple of people have written to mention that Kaplowitz's story was also written up in the Washington Post a few days ago. Actually, Eve also linked to the Post story, but I didn't notice it at first. Read 'em both!

UPDATE 2: Brendan Karch sends along this letter that Kaplowitz's fellow teacher, Nick Ehrmann, wrote to City Journal in response to Kaplowitz's article. In the interests of fairness, here it is:

Dear Editor,

You printed in the Winter 2003 issue Josh Kaplowitz’s “How I Joined Teach For America—and Got Sued for $20 Million,” which your readers may recall as the cautionary tale of a Yale graduate whose good intentions fell victim to the hostile culture of an inner-city school. I taught two doors down from Josh that year at Emery Elementary School. Although Josh’s eyewitness account of school failure may be well-intentioned, I feel compelled to offer my personal testimony to reveal the ways in which his story is incomplete, misleading, and ultimately buries children in the wreckage of his pride.

My name is Nick Ehrmann. In the fall of 2000, I began teaching in Room 312 at Emery Elementary School in Washington, D.C., just two doors down from Josh Kaplowitz. I too was a Teach For America corps member. I too was white. I too had just graduated from a prestigious university. But I have a different story to tell.

Four energetic Teach For America teachers began their careers at Emery that fall, including Josh Kaplowitz. We all faced incredible challenges throughout our first year—administrative turnover, lack of school discipline, and the resulting transfer of power to disruptive students who exploited this vacuum of administrative accountability. My classroom was frequently a stage for fistfights and tears. The difficulties that Josh describes were painfully real, and we all experienced them in similar degrees.

And we all responded in different ways. During the first week of school, I made positive connections with parents that now, two years later, continue to blossom into trusting relationships. Instead of taking student insults personally, I learned to recognize them as pleas for attention. Instead of responding to misbehavior with anger, I learned that my most difficult students were the ones most in need of patient, unconditional love. Despite being a rookie teacher, I refused to wallow in what was wrong about Emery. Instead I committed myself to the arduous task of finding a style that would minimize negativity and reinforce what was positive about my students and their difficult lives. And although I didn’t learn these lessons right away, by mid-year Room 312 had genuinely begun to work as a team.

I bear witness that teachers can and do succeed, and thousands across the country have unlocked the keys to teaching under extremely challenging circumstances. While I firmly believe that there needs to be change on a systemic level to improve the education system at large, until that happens it is our responsibility as teachers to work within the constraints of this broken system and do everything we can to ensure that our students have the opportunities they deserve. Two Teach For America teachers at Emery alone were finalists for the Washington D.C. First Year Teacher of the Year Award, in part because they combined personal responsibility with reasoned frustration and channeled their anger into efforts to connect with their students in the midst of chaotic conditions that were beyond their control. So why was Room 308, just two doors down, the scene of almost constant chaos?

I can’t pretend to know what happened inside those four walls. But I did witness moments that Josh does not mention in his article. I did witness Josh argue with and interrupt our principal during one of our first faculty meetings of the year. I did witness Josh berate a lone student in the hallway, his anger clearly uncontrolled. I did witness Josh place his hands upon this student’s shoulders and shove him against the wall while yelling in his face. Good intentions should not be an excuse for bad decisions.

So when you read Josh’s account that the allegations were fabrications, think again. When you read the intimation that Josh’s physical contact was limited to breaking up fights, think again. Did Emery’s school culture combine with the strict interpretation of the corporeal punishment guidelines to empower students and parents with a litigious weapon? Yes. Do these issues weaken the effectiveness of educators and deserve critical attention? Did the teaching conditions at Emery make it extremely difficult to educate our children? Yes.

In these ways, Josh succeeds in highlighting some of the most pressing challenges facing inner-city educators today. As I read his harrowing account, I couldn’t help but applaud him for having the courage to speak out about the institutional breakdown that we all experienced during that year at Emery. Administrative paralysis, reckless student behavior, and social promotion are inexcusable and limit the opportunities for our nation’s most at-risk children. But Josh’s article has more to do with casting blame than providing solutions.

My personal solution to such challenging conditions was to ignore the disorder and focus on building trust and peace in my own classroom. Over time, as I earned the respect of my students and families, I partnered with them to form “I Have A Dream”—Project 312. Now the Executive Director, we have secured substantial funding for a long-term program of academic support, artistic development, cultural enrichment, family outreach and the promise of tuition assistance for higher education. By building trusting relationships, I have been able to focus on long-term goals without allowing chaos to destroy my students’ dreams.

Instead, by courting the media megaphone, Josh claims to be educating the public about “how bad schools can be.” Tragically, this negative response crystallizes the stereotypes that continue to plague inner-city students and families. If Josh was attempting to call attention to the failures of the system and be a constructive critic, why is his article entitled “How I Joined Teach For America—and Got Sued for $20 Million”? Relegated to “uncontrollable” and “wild” status, the subjects of Josh’s pen have tragically become anonymous casualties in a cycle of blame, a cycle that risks weakening our continued commitment to public education by replacing it with hopelessness and fear (or worse, education policy that is misguided).

Knowing that teachers can and do succeed in even the most challenging environments, we should recognize Josh’s article for what it is: a distraction that appeals to the politics of failure rather than building towards a future of achievement. I believe that his frustrations have poisoned his outlook and harmed children in the process. Late in the year, as he was teaching a group of second-graders, I walked into his dimly-lit classroom. The shades were drawn, and his cheery September face was grown over by a tired beard. “How are things going?” I asked, sensing that today he was too exhausted to exhale the usual slew of complaints. He shrugged his shoulders and said nothing. “Why are your shades all down?” I asked, having just been outside in the spring sunshine. He responded with an answer I’ll never forget: “These kids don’t deserve to see daylight.” I looked at the fluorescent lights of his room, turned around, and left, imagining the buried children that remained trapped inside.

Nick Ehrmann

posted by JD | 8:20 AM

Monday, April 14, 2003  

Life and where to live it: thoughts on reading Peter Hall's Cities of Tomorrow
Le Corbusier's cities in the sky were designed by him with the middle and upper classes in mind; the poor bring a barrowload of problems with them, far more than can be wiped off on a doormat or aesthetically hidden behing a row of fruit trees. Discussing St Louis's Pruitt-Igoe housing project, one of the most flamboyant of the ubiquitous tower block failures of the latter half of the 20th century, Hall writes that the superblock (to bolster the architect's superego) were positioned:

'invariably with entry from the grounds, not from the street. This feature, plus the long high-level across decks, created the maximum possible area of what Newman, in a memorable phrase, called indefensible space: the decks, shown by the architect in his 1951 drawing as full of children, toys and (white) mothers, soon became vandalised and feared.'


'The root of the problem, Newman found on deeper analysis, was the failure in architectural education to stress the need to learn how well or badly existing buildings worked, and then to improve the designs.' If they had cared about people half as much as they had cared about buildings, a hell of a lot of misery might have been avoided. It is indicative of the state of architecture (at least in those days; what about now?) that 'the most recognized of architects are often those who turn out the most dramatic failures.'

But design was not the only, and perhaps not the major problem. Remember that Le Corbusier had designed his buildings for the middle classes and up. (Where the working poor were to live was anyone's guess I suppose - though I expect they were to be relegated to the burbs.) 'The worst deterioration occurred only after HUD changed its rules [in 1965] to admit problem families into public housing... Very poor welfare families, many with large numbers of children, with a deep fatalism about the power to influence their environment, could not cope with this kind of building, nor it with them.' As one contemporary sociologist wrote: '"While a middle class family will not perform too differently in one building type versus another, the performance of a welfare family proves to be greatly influenced by physical environment." For them, "the high rise apartment building is to be strictly avoided."' Which raises the question: How should the poor be housed? Or should we even look at it in those passive terms, in which society is shuttling them into a place that will be 'for their own good'?

Are the poor better off at low densities, sacrificing the advantages of urbanity (which might not even be utilised: note a post from earlier today in which John Sutherland says that poverty lobotmises) for the space of suburbia - but without going all the way out into the squalor and/or loneliness of Ruritania?

posted by JD | 10:05 PM

A machine to live in...
Or so Le Corbusier said a home must be. I'm reminded of the phrase 'clockwork orange'.

posted by JD | 9:39 PM

Wonders and blunders isn't in today's Guardian. Let's hope they haven't pulled it. A decent column by Jonathan Glancey on a supermarket that's a cross-eyed Godzilla, and thinks Wallingford is Tokyo.

I need to re-read Shrill Monbiot's book on food in the UK - well, the supermarket chapter anyway.

posted by JD | 9:27 PM

It's easiest to hit the guy standing next to you
I tend to bash lefties because I expect so much more from liberals than conservatives. From most righties I expect nothing but self-serving cant; given that standard, they rarely disappoint. But it's easy to feel let down by those you think almost have it right but fuck it up on the last turn. I've gotta stop doing that. In the US, the right has managed to construct a cultural-political universe in which only those who agree with everything they say are seen as 'mainstream'. It's bollocks, and one of the prime reasons I'm happy to live over here.

It's time to heap the shit on those who most deserve it. (Someone has some good thoughts on this; I'll link to them when I find them.)

posted by JD | 9:17 PM

How being a nice guy liberal will get you spanked in the end
The media ain't liberal no more, and it's time to quit being the only ones playing fair, says Michael Tomasky in The American Prospect.

posted by JD | 9:08 PM

This isn't disheartening.
'The festering sore in American campuses is not the lack of "diversity" about which the supreme court is currently getting its knickers twisted. The real problem in American educaiton is that poor kids simply cannot get there, whatever their pigmentation or ethnic origin. According to an American report released earlier this month, only 3% of the the freshmen at the 146 most selective unis in the US are from families in the bottom quarter of Americans, ranked by income.'

Oh wait - that is disheartening.

I wonder how strongly political power in the US is related to going to one of a very few schools. Here, the two are inextricably linked. Oxbridge seems to be all (though those two unis apparently aren't the exclusve province of the privileged anymore). I suspect that things are so formulaic in the states, but don't know. I also wonder (and think must be discussed if the above is to be fully understood) what percentage of those bottom-25ers go onto and then graduate from American unis.

More from John Sutherland in today's Guardian (who also supplied the above): 'You will never have equitable entry to higher education from all sectors of British and American society until you have effective distribution of wealth. Old socialism, that is. Poverty lobotomises; always has, always will.'

Now that really is disheartening - unless someone can eliminate poverty, of course. Which should be just about as easy as introducing socialism to the US.

Following up on the above point, in countries with less poverty, is their less 'lobotomisation'? If so, does this take into account other factors, such as geography?

posted by JD | 8:53 PM

They look great so you don't have to
One of the reasons for starting this blog was to link to articles that have stuck out over the last year or two. Here's one from Julie Burchill on being fat, being skinny and being content. Women need to quit bitching about models having 'unattainable bodies', she says. After all, 'their job is to be looked at! Instead of carping about them not being like us, we should thank our lucky stars that we don't have to be like them.' And though she doesn't say it, I will: Just because you're not skinny doesn't mean you're fat.

posted by JD | 1:05 PM

Friday, April 11, 2003  

At the British Museum I found a very nice collection of books on London. Spent some time flipping through a book on Stoke Newington and Hackney, trying to ascertain which buildings around here are still standing and which are not.

This neighbourhood wasn't our first choice, but right now I don't think there is anywhere in the developed world I'd be as happy to live. We're right in the middle of one of the world's great swarming and teeming (and I use these words positively) multi-ethnic conurbations, yet not three minutes from my front door is the most beautiful park I've ever been in - or at least the most rewarding. Two ponds and a stream are home to white swans, black swans, squawking moorhens and ducks of all sorts, all in a backdrop of a 19th century church and an even older churchyard full of slanting tombstones.

Last week I saw the newly hatched ducklings out for one of their first paddles. When the mother would get a little too far away, the five or six little ducklings, each of which could dance the Lindy in your palm with room to spare for, would get a bit nervous and begin paddling furiously to catch her up. Their tiny bodies, though, were still so light that when they paddled they rose out of the water and were, for a moment, actually running across its surface. I've named the momma duck Mary.

To be able to walk through this park every day on my way to work is a wonderful thing. There's something about nature within the city - rus in urbe, as it were - that makes it more precious - to me at least. In the countryside I can generally take it or leave it. And I sure as hell got a lot less of it in the suburbs.

We're off to Jayne's sister's wedding near Glastonbury.

A key to writing British English: even educated writers don't seem to abide by the rule that states: 'That defines, which expands.' Is this not a British rule, or is it merely ignored?

posted by JD | 9:00 AM

Thursday, April 10, 2003  

In a discussion of the Thomas McLaughlin story in Little Rock, CalPundit shows how the Democratic Party could take the moral fight to the conservatives, rather than always being on the back foot:

'Here's the latest on Thomas McLaughlin, the Little Rock teenager who was harassed by his teachers and made to read Bible verses after they discovered he was gay. The Pulaski School District has apparently decided to stonewall the case, so the ACLU is suing.

Good for them, and yet another reason why everyone should become a card carrying member of the ACLU.

By the way, this is an example of what I'm talking about when I suggest that the subject of gay rights has some possibilities as a secondary issue in a presidential campaign. Events like this, I think, show liberals in the best possible light — protecting ordinary people against the intolerance of fundamentalist conservatives — and might very well appeal to moderate voters while at the same time causing cracks in the Republican party. If George Bush were miraculously forced to take a stand on this, for example, what choice does he have? Side with the ACLU, in which case he really pisses off his Christian right base, or back the school district, in which case he's exposed as a narrow-minded bigot. That sounds like a corner that it's worth at least trying to back him into.'

Do they have the cajones, or enough faith in the American people? Do the American people deserve this much faith? I'd be curious to see. Please someone do this.

posted by JD | 11:50 AM

Wednesday, April 09, 2003  

If God was a drink, he'd be Judy Garland's martini
Listening to the memoirs of a musical agent and impressario on Radio 4 last night, and heard this:

As a young whippersnapper working at London's Talk of the Town, he had been deputed to ask Judy Garland, if she might just possibly be able to start her shows within three hours of their starting time. In the course of a long and syncophatic speech to her after a show one night (when she had gone on at 12:15), he tried to play on her vanity and good graces by emphasising how much the public obviously loved her. After all, he said, many of them were coming from hundreds of miles away just to see her perform. The only problem, he said, imploringly, was that London's transport system was terrible. After all, it stopped running before she had even started her show that night. Wouldn't it, he asked, be even better for her fans if they could see her perform, then still make it home that night?

Julie was still in her 40s at this point, but looked and behaved, the narrator said, like a wizened old woman.

Putting down her drink and fixing him with a stare, the wizened old woman spoke. 'Young man,' she said, 'people don't pay to see Judy Garland go on on time. At this point, all I've got left is drama.'

posted by JD | 6:19 PM

What if Rummie is right?
A question for me and everyone else on the left: What do you do when your enemies are proved right? (Not to say that they have been yet.)

First, just because your enemy's plan works doesn't mean yours wouldn't have. When a man is drowning, throwing him a rope may be just as effective and twice as sensible as leaping in and grabbing him by the ears, but you shouldn't begrudge the self-deputised lifeguard who leaps in and saves him. What counts is that the man isn't lying dead on that mosaic of Ethel Merman at the bottom of your pool. (What - doesn't everyone have one of these? And who the hell invited Michael Barrymore anyway?)

But it's not that simple, is it? In Baghdad, everything that Rumsfeld predicted has come to pass, and all the anti-war naysayers who shouted that Iraqis wouldn't welcome invading troops with open arms look, at least right now, like they got it very very wrong. In one sense, this is an example of how you should avoid focussing on the components of an issue rather than the issue as a whole. More importantly, two things need to happen right now. One, those who said that the Iraqis would see coalition troops as invaders need to acknowledge that - at least as it appears now - they were wrong. As part of that, they need to avoid niggling about every tiny little negative point they can grab onto - otherwise it sounds as if they're complaining that although we saved the drowning man, we lost his noseplugs. I hope that in the next few days I'm not inundated with cries that it's only because the military is manipulating the media that the Iraqis seem happy. (On this issue, it'll be very interesting to see what al-Jazeera shows over the next few day.)

More significantly, we've got to remember the big picture, which is what happens over the next several years. Frustratingly, this is where the right always 'wins' over the left. The right takes it as given that short term victories can be claimed as ultimate triumphs, and that long term results can be ignored. This is why modern conservatives in the US are so inaptly named: there is nothing 'conservative' about raising spending on prisons while cutting it for education, nor in chasing short term stock dividends at the expense of long term growth. These policies benefit the few, while destabilising the many.

Oh the crosses of the left. Thank god we've got that strapping George Clooney to help us bear them.

Here's the scary bit. What if it turns out that the Iraqis are better off for this invasion? Well, I guess the next question we'll have to ask is what effect it has on the rest of the world. What if that turns out to be better too? What do you do if your enemies succeed? If you've got more character than vanity, you take a deep breath, shake your head gently while humming a few bars of Wonderful World, and go buy someone an ice cream. At least that's what I'm going to do. (Not to imply that I've got any character.)

At the start of this post, I pointedly asked 'What do you do when your enemies are proved right?' - not 'What do you do if they are?' Much as we hate to acknowledge it, there have to be times when at least some of those we disagree with are right. You know how I know? Because sometimes we are wrong. Even, I'm willing to guess, on the big things.

Plenty of other issues, but I'm tired:
Has the left had the chance to succeed?

Did it have the will to anyway?

Wasn't it the sanctions that created this bone-crunching poverty, and probably much of the hatred for Saddam, in the first place?
Were the sanctions yet another example of the neocons strategy of creating a negative situation then solving it to their own benefit?

What if the whole Middle East goes to hell in a handbasket? (My first thoughts are that based on this war I don't think it will - unless the US starts invading other countries.)

What if Rummie is so victory drunk that he invades Iran?

Here's one more thought: Just because this invasion might create a bunch of Li'l Ladens doesn't make it wrong. I'm not saying it isn't wrong, but I am saying that 'Uh oh, I pissed off a bunch of religious fantatics' shouldn't equate to 'Honey, this neighbourhood looks a little rough; maybe we shouldn't be here.' In the US, abortion doctors are getting shot by fundamentalist freaks; should we thus overturn Roe v. Wade?

And finally for now - I'm dying here - what if Cheney and Gang loot Iraq's resources like so many street urchins in front of an electronics shop?

Oops, one more. What if Halliburton and The Prince of Darkness (Perle) and every other nasty piece of work hanging off the White House's cornices get even richer off Iraq's booty, but the Iraqis are still better off?

posted by JD | 5:27 PM

People will surely pick up on the symbolism of the Iraqis trying to topple this statue with their meager and limited tools, failing to do so, then being helped to do the job by American technological might.

It's as if this was scripted to mirror the war: The Iraqis struggle; the Americans come to help (though were they asked or did they just decide to come?); the Americans forget that it's about the Iraqis, not them (Rumsfeld: 'Hey, who left that in the script?'); the Americans make sure no one gets hurt; the Americans pull down the statue (but, in reflection of the fact that no one knows whether Saddam is dead or alive, it stays stuck albeit supine on its pedestal); and then, with a final effort, it comes crashing down to the ground.

Further symbolism: The BBC's correspondent seemed much more swept up in the excitement than did most of the locals; and only a small group was really going crazy with excitement. Are these the excitable and violent young men who are in every society? Why was everyone else not celebrating?

posted by JD | 3:04 PM

A brilliant line from Betjeman on the folly of tower blocks
'Even today architects brought up in a generation whose romance is to be found in a future which does not exist, rather than the past, find it hard to reconcile themselves to the fact, discovered by Sir Leslie Martin that given a sufficiently large area in a city, it is more economical of land (as well as more practical and humane) to house people in squares not exceeding eight storeys high, rather than in point blocks over 20 storeys high.

posted by JD | 2:41 PM

The Iraqis are hacking at the pedestal of that statue of Saddam. If I'm reminded of the Berlin Wall in 1989, you can bet your ass that Republican speechwriters and pundits are too. This image is going to be hard for the left to defeat.

UPDATE: Well, maybe not. The American soldiers who have climbed atop the pedestal to attach a cable to the statue have just covered SH's head with an American flag! Uh, boys, I'm not sure that's the image you want to convey.

It's been difficult as of yet to ascertain the reaction of the Iraqis on the ground, but an Iraqi pundit in the bebb's studio is about to go into apoplexy.

After only about a minute of what seemed to be shocked silence, they've pulled the stars and stripes off. Five minutes later, an Iraqi pulls out an old Iraqi flag and the crowd cheers. Notw a soldier has put it up near SH's neck.

UPDATE: The worldly and cynical Iraqi pundit has been reduced to tears. He is unable to respond. Very moving.

posted by JD | 1:58 PM

According to Betjeman's Pictorial History of English Architect, Richard Norman Shaw's Bedford Park suburb in Chiswick used 'red brick, which had been unfashionable for a century.' So this means that if we see red brick on a Victorian building, it is from the latter half of the period?

posted by JD | 1:56 PM

The PR War
The BBC is braodcasting a feed of Iraqis using rope to try to pull down a giant statue of Hussein. My first thought was that an American tank should wheel over and blast it off its pedestal - to great cheers. But then I came to my senses. It looks so much better to let the natives do it. It shows how much they wanted to be freed of Saddam. And hey - guess who made that wish come true? And guess who is now symbolically letting them get on with things themselves?

All the frames of reference in this war are stacked against the Antis.

posted by JD | 1:44 PM

Street fighting? No man, street party
The Shi'ia are dancing in the streets in Baghdad, and it will be very hard to argue against this being a triumph for the Rumsfeld doctrine. Of course, while Syria would be a walkover, Iran won't be easily toppled. If we try to go there, we'll probably find ourselves reflecting back on those simple, easy days in Vietnam.

The BBC has just shown an image of an Iraqi man holding up a picture of Saddam Hussein and hitting it with his shoe. According to the BBC correspondent, in Arab cultures this is particularly insulting, as are many things to do wtih shoes. Even just showing someone the soles of your shoes, he says, is an demeaning to that person. How does this work during prayer? Or do the shoes come off? Are shoes an outer, tainted skin that by absorbing the dirt of the world allow the inner person to stay pure? This sounds more Christian, with its rejection of the outer world, than Muslim, which seems to strive a bit more to integrate spirituality with day-to-day life. The BBC man also notes that the Monty Python-esque Iraqi information minister said that Iraq would chase the Americans and Brits out with their shoes - an insult we would miss.

posted by JD | 9:18 AM

London gets uglier
At least according to the Guardian's Jonathan Glancey, who writes that the new Paternoster Square 'is an insult to St Paul's'. It is, he says, 'a compromise gone horribly wrong.'

In January, Deyan Sudjic wrote that, 'Negotiating one of these lanes makes you feel as if you are walking between two supertankers moored side by side.'

posted by JD | 8:55 AM

Pioneer of 'tourism with a smaller footprint'
Obituary of Jost Krippendorf, one of the founding fathers of sustainable tourism. He didnät save the world, but he seems to have made it a wiser and more thoughtful place, even if most of us don't have a clue where the culture of gentle tourism came from. As far as tourism goes, I don't think it's just what you accomplish with the converted; green monkey watching or damn building tours in Costa Rica aren't what makes the biggest difference. It's what you slowly coax the travelling masses - and those who provide for them - to do. What I'd really like to see over the course of my lifetime is a mainstream push to make sure that much more of the money generated by tourist areas goes back into those areas, rather than into the stock dividends of the multinationals that currently seem to own most of the hotels and resorts.

posted by JD | 8:45 AM

Tuesday, April 08, 2003  

A beautiful post from Body & Soul
My daughter played at her first piano recital yesterday. She put on her first-day-of-school dress and her black mary janes, and combed every tangle out of her hair. It's been a long time since every tangle was out of her hair. Neatness is not one of her priorities in life. I didn't tell her to get dressed up. It was obviously just important to her. But she's shy, and I prepared myself ahead of time for the fact that she might decide to back out at the last second. When she didn't, when she strode up to the piano and played, "America" and "When the Saints Go Marching In," it was a wonderful surprise. Who knew my little girl, who can barely speak in public sometimes, who blushes all the way down to her toes when an adult she doesn't know says something to her, had so much courage?

Afterwards, because it was a special day, we took her out to lunch at her favorite Japanese restaurant (which has great food, and, for some unfathomable reason, shelves of Elvis memorabilia at the entrance -- although they toned down the shrine to Elvis a bit since the last time we were there, and, to be honest, I kind of miss its strangeness; I like eccentricity.) On the way home, we rented a movie. My daughter said she didn't want a funny movie (she loves the Marx Brothers) or a kid's movie (I think she was feeling rather grown-up), so we rented an old movie that I first saw and loved when I was about her age -- The Miracle Worker. So I spent a couple of hours with my courageous daughter, watching a courageous teacher, crying through half of it (I'm such a sucker for "uplifting" movies), answering questions, and listening to my daughter's running commentary on what was going on (even 8-year-olds need to interpret the stories they see -- at least mine does.)

And when the movie was over, my daughter went out to ride her bike. I turned off the VCR, and CNN came on. I was still thinking about Annie Sullivan yelling at Helen Keller's parents, who were satisfied to have a daughter who dressed herself and ate with utensils instead of her fingers. She said that Helen was only housebroken, and that wasn't enough, that obedience wasn't worth anything without understanding, that their daughter was entitled to language, to a means of understanding, and expressing what she understood. And on the television were pictures of tanks -- it looked like miles of them, rolling up a dirt road. And soldiers shrouded in so much equipment that it called for more imagination than I've got to picture a human being in there. Sort of a masculine burka, giving off an air of invulnerability, instead of creepy inviolability. And to be honest, the image simply scared me. I'll debate the reasons for this war all you like, but that mechanical and monstrous image, so devoid of humanity, so incapable of human emotion, stood for something ugly in my mind. Does this represent my country -- this monster? It may be unfair -- it is unfair, impressions always are -- but the war seemed to me at that moment to be a massive, hard, and ugly creature, rolling mindlessly along, without a human face, too mechanized to feel, or even really experience, anything. And if I were a different person, with a different cast of mind, I might scream at somebody, "Can't you see what this war is? It's all there, in that picture." Instead I turned off the television.

Maybe my reading of the image had something to do with the fact that I saw it after a day of witnessing quiet courage -- not just my daughter's: child after child got up, made mistakes, and kept going -- and I was still wrapped in a old movie's faith in a vulnerable person's courage, in that strangely out-dated belief that full, expressive humanity matters, and obedience is for dogs. If I'd watched it after a football game, or had been immersed in those images all day, or day after day, maybe I would have gotten a different message: We're big, we're bad, we're the best.

That seems to be the meaning most Americans are taking from those images. I'm sorry I can't see that, but I come to those images from a quieter and more vulnerable place.

I can't say whose reading is right. We bring ourselves to the story, and the story won't emerge unscathed. We look at the same images, but we don't all see the same thing.

What she says about the frame of reference we bring to images... it makes a lot sense. I'm reminded of how irritated I get by lefties who shout that the only thing war is about is murder and carnage and horror. That's because that's all they see in images of... murder and carnage and horror. 'War! What is it good for?'

But what a lot of other people see when they look at (some) images of (some) wars are the horrible things that happen when you are fighting for something that will make the world a better place. Obviously not for the ones who have died, but for a lot of people. It's very easy to use words like 'lamentable' when describing these images. Perhaps we should use words that are more preposterous, more indicative of our pretentiousness when we try to show how much we care. 'Ghastly', for instance.

People who say that war is good for absolutely nothing are wrong. Sometimes wars do change things for the better. But it's a damn good thing that people are raising a fuss over the 'ghastliness' of what they see on their tvs. Extremists don't help the leftist cause, but when people a bit closer to the centre raise a hue and cry about the carnage they see, it makes military machines more reluctant to induce such carnage, and hopefully makes war, which I don't suspect is going to go away anytime soon, less dangerous for those not doing the fighting.

Which it sure as hell needs to be. What's the stat? 90% of those who died in 20th century wars were non-combatants? That's the most uncivilised thing I've ever fucking heard.

posted by JD | 4:56 PM

The more battles we win, the harder it'll be to win the war
Somewhere in the last few days I read this: 'Remember, in Vietnam we won every battle but still lost the war. We lost it because our political decisions were wrong.'

I'm worried that this statement is all too germane to Iraq and the Middle East. We've won the war in Iraq, but in truth that was just a battle, and we knew it wouldn't be that hard. In the long haul, the goal is to change the hearts, minds and administrations of the nations of the Middle East. That's going to be a war. And every battle we win - for example by winning a war against Syria - will make that war harder to win.

It's like a tar baby, Br'er Fox.

posted by JD | 4:34 PM

The eyes ain't got it
A short article in the Washington Post about the incredible unreliability of eyewitnesses. It's downright charming how flawed we are. If only more of us could remember it.

Eyewitness testimony plays an important part in many criminal trials, but it's a notoriously tricky and unreliable form of evidence. Among the things that can affect a person's confidence in what and who they saw during a crime are what they're told by police about those recollections.

A team of psychologists led by Gary L. Wells at Iowa State University demonstrated that convincingly in an experiment described in a recent Journal of Experimental Psychology.

The researchers prepared a 60-second videotape purportedly showing a man on a roof dropping what appears to be a bomb down an air shaft. They showed the tape to 253 volunteers, who were then asked to pick out the bomber from six photographs. Unknown to the volunteer witnesses, a picture of the actor playing the bomber was not in the array. Nevertheless, every volunteer picked a suspect.

After making their choice, some were told they made the right choice, some told they made the wrong one, and some were told nothing. They were then asked how well they remembered what they saw in the video.

The people who were told they picked the right suspect had much greater confidence in virtually all aspects of their recollection, and 23 percent said they were at least 90 percent sure of details. Those given no feedback were much less confident, with only 2 percent saying they were at least 90 percent sure.

The researchers said the findings affirm the recommendation that police line-ups be "double-blind," with neither the witness nor the investigator accompanying the witness told whether the right suspect was chosen.

posted by JD | 4:09 PM

Take me out of the country, take me out of the crowd
Baseball season started about 10 days ago and to my horror I didn't even realise it til the next day. This is a great loss for me, baseball. More than any other American sport, it's not one that can be plugged into from afar. Because it's not incredibly exciting day to day - at least until the pennant race and record chase phase of the long slow season kicks in - it's tough to stay attracted to from across an ocean.

My first year in London I was still very involved, and accidentally ran up some Eric Gregg-size phone bills by listening to game after game on the internet for almost two months before realising that my supposed 'all you can bear' internet account was set up so that I was being billed by the minute. I must have payed at least £100 pounds for the privilege of sleeping through the wee innings of dozens of Braves games.

I stayed involved for the last two years, mostly through checking stats and reading stories on and the baseball brain sites, especially baseball prospectus (since gone premium and thus largely untouched by me) and the still fabulous baseball primer.

But this year I can feel it slipping away. It's sad. I've gained football (soccer), but didn't foresee having to lose baseball in return.

Of course, it doesn't help that John Schuerholz wouldn't know a good deal for a hitter if it bit him in his pasty ass.

posted by JD | 2:44 PM

If food be the love of life...
We know where to go if there's a Gallippoli nearby. It has to rate in my top ten of places to stuff my face in London. More:

Cafe Beyti on Green Lanes - the best proper felafel I've ever had - not coincidentally, on the best bread: a massive, puffy football of a loaf, dwarfing the midget emaciated pittas suburban boys like me associate with Turkish food. A little skimpy on the kofte sandwich, though, but at less than six quid for both, it's a dream here in the heart of Rip Off Britain. (That's something to note, as well. Of all the rip off things in rip off britain, restaurant food is the ripoff-y-est. I vaguely recall reading somewhere that Londoners spend a higher percentage of their income on eating and drinking out than do the denizens of any other city. [Note how it sounds funny to say 'citizens' of a city. Lord love that drifting language. {I will not say 'drifting tongue'.}] Not of course that the drinking habits of this great city (and nation) have anything to do with our overdrafts.)

Jeez. You know how the anti-immigrant brigade, or at least the white trash strand of it, seems to believe that there are a limited pool of rights - and a limited number of uses of each right, it would seem - that can be shared amongst the populace? You know: 'They're giving all those Taliban heated swimming pools and holidays in Margate! What about OUR rights?'

Well, let's hope it's not the same way with the family of parentheses - species within that family including bracket, wiggly bracket, and of course good old Mr Parenthesis himself - or I'll have exhausted the lot on that sentence above. The next generation's Shakespeares will have to make do with nothing but commas, semicolons and those fucking smileyfaces that come on our phones.

posted by JD | 11:53 AM

When it's time to start, do we ever know where to go?

posted by JD | 9:23 AM