Saturday, March 07, 2009

Boom Goes the Dynamite(?)

According to this piece in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, an investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has come up empty-handed in an attempt to explain the mysterious sonic boom that shook windows in Santa Cruz on Wednesday morning.

Fosco vaguely remembers hearing his windows rattling around 9:15 Wednesday morning, but he was in the middle of snoozebar episode at the time and didn't think much of it (except to wonder why his complex's trash dumpster was being emptied on a Wednesday).

Making the story stranger, however, is the fact that residents in Orange County, CA reported a similar sonic boom exactly twelve hours earlier.

As this article notes, most explanations won't hold water:

  • Not an earthquake: "Seismic stations around the Monterey Bay recorded a compression wave at 9:15 a.m. Wednesday, but the wave lacked the up-and-down shear that usually characterizes an earthquake. And, Oppenheimer said, it was moving too slowly to be passing through rock."
  • Not thunder: "Even if lightning had been present, thunder is only heard over a few miles, Blier said. Reports of the shaking came from cities ringing the Monterey Bay, and seismic monitors in Big Sur picked up the event."
  • Not aliens: "The National UFO Reporting Center in Washington state received no calls from the Central Coast Wednesday morning."
  • Not a meteor: "A falling meteor compresses the air below it and creates a vacuum above. That pressure difference could create a sonic boom, but it's more likely to tear the meteor apart in the upper atmosphere. For the sound wave to hit the ground, the meteor would have to be large - and low. 'To have enough energy to create a shock wave to rattle things on the ground, somebody would have had to have seen it,' Giorgini said. 'It probably was not a meteor.'"

Which means that it must have been a jet, right? Well, except that:
"We reviewed all the radar data for flights in the airspace in Northern California around the time that people reported this boom," said Ian Gregor, FAA spokesman for the Western-Pacific Region. "There were several military aircraft operating but they were slow. None of these aircraft were going supersonic."
Which seems to suggest that whatever was flying so fast was not a commercial airplane. Nor did it show up on radar, which seems to suggest that we're talking about something military and secret. Fosco can only imagine! But what kind of secret military aircraft would be flying along the California coast twice in twelve hours (near some of the most populated areas in the United States). And why couldn't this jet couldn't be tested farther from the coast (over the open ocean)? Intriguing, no?

All I can hope is that this is some part of protecting CA from North Korean missiles...

Saturday Story Hour: Elegant Hedgehogs

You can find your weekly dose of contemporary literature at "Saturday Story Hour."

Fosco has been doing more actual work as of late and, consequently, doing less "pleasure" reading (it goes it cycles, you know). But last week, he did manage to read Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog (or charmingly, in the original French, L'élégance du hérisson). He wants to credit Maggie at The Improvisatrice for recommending the novel in this post of awesome things. When Fosco came across the title again a few weeks ago (in this NY Times article about a publisher that is successfully selling translated literary novels from Europe), he knew he must read it. So he made the trip to his local independent bookstore (as promised) and picked up the surprisingly elegant(!) Europa edition.

The book was a bestseller in France and has garnered mainly positive reviews here in the States (although not every critic appreciates "the accessible book that flatters readers with its intellectual veneer"--ouch). Accessible or no, flattering or no, Fosco enjoyed this book a great deal (and one would think that Fosco hardly needs to be flattered with intellectual veneer). Sure, the mini-essays on philosophy occasionally seem a bit forced (although mostly they do not), but what's important in this novel are the characters and the possibilities of their relationships.

And when it comes to the characters and their lives, the novel is extremely moving. In fact, Fosco is willing to admit that the last two chapters of the novel made him cry. A lot. We're not talking about a few sniffles and moist eyes; we're talking tears streaming down his cheeks, wiping his eyes to be able to see the page in front of him. To be honest, Fosco hasn't cried like that over a book in quite a while.

Now before you run out and read it, you should know that the novel is very French. It is engaged with social class in a way that would never occur in most American novels (whether that's because of a real cultural difference or because of a denial of the role of class in the US, well, that is a good question). The novel is built, to a large extent, around the everyday codes of language and politesse that codify (and enervate) social relations in France (or, at least in this fictional stereotype of France). Also, there is much comedy focusing on two of the long-standing obsessions of the French haute bourgeoisie: socialism and psychoanalysis.

The novel is composed of two intertwined narratives: that of a widowed fiftyish concierge for a ritzy apartment building and that of a precocious twelve-year-old living in the same building. The concierge is from the lower class and has no real formal education; yet, she is an amazingly well-read autodidact who reads philosophy for fun. However, as she is worried about appearing to have ambitions above her station, she hides her keen intellect and cultivated taste behind a veneer of stereotypical concierge stupidity. The twelve-year-old also hides her extraordinary intellect--mainly from her family. She is smart enough to see through the pretensions of the adult world and despairs at the prospect of adult life. She intends to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday.

Does hilarity ensue? Not exactly. What happens is sweet, humane, and (eventually) heartbreaking. This is novel that explores the pleasures and the pains of secrecy, the tentative joys of making a new friend, and the purpose of cats. At its heart is the extremely comforting suggestion (to Fosco at least) that there is a secret fellowship of those who love beauty and who spend their lives searching for it. It is the idea of this fellowship that helps make the pain in this novel bearable for Fosco.

And while "Saturday Story Hour" typically focuses on a short story, there is nothing other than this novel that Fosco can discuss this week. And so, instead of a short story, Fosco offers you the first chapter of this remarkable novel. I hope that it leaves you wanting more.

The first chapter of The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, trans. by Alison Anderson.

1. Whosoever Sows Desire

"Marx has completely changed the way I view the world," declared the Pallières boy this morning, although ordinarily he says nary a word to me.

Antoine Pallières, prosperous heir to an old industrial dynasty, is the son of one of my eight employers. There he stood, the most recent eructation of the ruling corporate elite--a class that reproduces itself solely by means of virtuous and proper hiccups--beaming at his discovery, sharing it with me without thinking or ever dreaming for a moment that I might actually understand what he was referring to. How could the laboring classes understand Marx? Reading Marx is an arduous task, his style is lofty, the prose is subtle and the thesis complex.

And that is when I very nearly--foolishly--gave myself away.

"You ought to read The German Ideology," I told him. Little cretin in his conifer green duffle coat.

To understand Marx and understand why he is mistaken, one must read The German Ideology. It is the anthropological cornerstone on which all his exhortations for a new world would be built, and on which a sovereign certainty is established: mankind, doomed to its own ruin through desire, would do better to confine itself to its own needs. In a world where the hubris of desire has been vanquished, a new social organization can emerge, cleansed of struggle, oppression and deleterious hierarchies.

"Whosoever sows desire harvests oppression," I nearly murmured, as if only my cat were listening to me.

But Antoine Pallières, whose repulsive and embryonic whiskers have nothing the least bit feline about them, is staring at me, uncertain of my strange words. As always, I am saved by the inability of living creatures to believe anything that might cause the walls of their little mental assumptions to crumble. Concierges do not read The German Ideology; hence, they would certainly be incapable of quoting the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach. Moreover, a concierge who reads Marx must be contemplating subversion, must have sold her soul to the devil, the trade union. That she might simply be reading Marx to elevate her mind is so incongruous a conceit that no member of the bourgeoisie could ever entertain it.

"Say hello to your mother," I murmur as I close the door in his face, hoping that the complete dissonance between my two sentences will be veiled by the might of millennial prejudice.


If you should desire to purchase this novel from, you can do so by using this link:

A very small percentage will go to Fosco and he will appreciate it...

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Friday, March 06, 2009

Rounding Up Food, Again

"Foodie Friday" continues at Fosco Lives!

Here's a roundup of some very cool foodie things for the week:

  • Fosco has been in love with kolaches for years, ever since Todd's remarkable parents introduced him to them. They buy them every so often at some ethnic bakery (Czech would make the most sense, but I don't think it's actually a Czech bakery) near St. Joseph, Michigan. In Fosco's experience, kolaches are kind of like heavy cookies with fruit filling and thick sugar glaze (like a crust, almost). I think Todd's parents normally get apricot and raspberry--both are good.

    UPDATE: Check the Comments section below for more information on this West Michigan bakery. It turns out that I was almost entirely wrong about everything. (What else is new...)

    Well, in this month's Gourmet, there is a feature article on kolaches! Apparently, the kolache capital of this country is central Texas(!), where the descendants of Czech settlers have created a kolache culture. Both the pictures and descriptions seem slightly different from the Western Michigan kolaches that Fosco is so fond of (these appear to be more like danishes), but they still look (and sound) amazing.

    But the best part? There is a chain of stores called The Kolache Factory (with locations all over the Midwest and Great Plains). Imagine--an entire factory dedicated to making kolaches! I am having "Willy Wonka" visions, yes I am. (Apparently, there is one in Austin. Hint, hint, John Mackey and AEJ.)

  • I've mentioned before that I am now enthralled with Jean-Georges Vongerichten's blog. Well, recently J-G used his blog to announce two new innovations at his flagship restaurant in NYC:
    • the "select menu": a four-course meal of three signature dishes plus your choice of a dessert flight, all for $58. Even though the selected signature dishes are not quite as exciting as his frogs legs or black sea bass, this menu is an absolute steal at this price. This is a wonderful concession to a bad economy--thank you, J-G!
    • half glasses of wine: perfect for people like Fosco who like to taste a little wine, but who rarely want to finish a whole glass. As Jean-Georges notes:
      I noticed that people getting together at the bar would start with a glass of wine, and then be stuck in the awkward position of wanting to stay a little while longer, but not for another full glass. (Think first dates.) In the dining room, customers wanted to pair different wines with different courses, but didn’t want a full glass with each course. And colleagues who came in for lunch celebrations would want to order champagne, but a full glass is a bit much when you need to return to work. (In these times, it’s more important than ever to celebrate professional achievements.) Perhaps most importantly, I wanted diners who drove to my restaurants to drive home safely.
      I think this is brilliant, although I can't help but imagine the disdain the French will feel if they ever hear about it.

  • Speaking of Jean-Georges, Mark Bittman explains a beet-roasting technique he learned from J-G himself. He also has an easy recipe for eating them:
    a dressing of walnuts, garlic and fresh orange juice. Note that all of these have some bitterness or acidity, which counter the sweetness of beets beautifully. To tame the garlic, I cook it quickly, along with the walnuts; toasting always makes nuts nuttier. This makes the purée smoother tasting as well.
    Fosco lurves beets and this sounds like a great preparation.

  • You may know that the French Laundry (the best restaurant in the country) is located in the Napa Valley town of Yountville. Well, it turns out that, as Thomas Keller's restaurant empire grows, so do the ambitions of Yountville. As this article notes, Yountville is positioning itself to become the capital of Napa. As one resident suggests, Yountville is now the one stop that a person needs to make in Napa:
    "It's an experiential village — you can stay, eat, go to all these different restaurants, check out great art, enjoy the wine. It's what makes Times Square, Times Square. Yountville is the rural Times Square."
    Hmmm. An odd comparison, I think. Even so, Fosco is currently scheming a trip to Yountville; he'll keep you updated.

  • Fosco's favorite Queen of Good Living, Jill of Stella's Roar, did some cooking and some mixology recently. Check out her amazing Gumbo YaYa and the filthily-named Black Snake Moan cocktail. I'm a little in awe of her lifestyle.

Liquid Art

Good morning: it's time for good eating (and drinking) on "Foodie Friday."

I think bottled water clearly falls under the purview of "Foodie Friday."

Steven Heller wrote a great piece on the design of water bottles for this Times this week.

Heller writes appealingly that he

was intrigued when Fiji introduced a rectangular water bottle, and Fred Natural Spring Water was packaged in what resembled a whiskey flask. I was seduced by Voss, which comes in a pristine cylindrical container akin to an ultramodern vase — and is priced two times higher than the average bottled water. At least when I finished the Voss, I had a vessel for my long-stemmed roses. Indeed, why shouldn’t water bottles be designed with panache (and multiple uses) for an upscale consumer’s tabletop? These are examples of conspicuous pretension, yet what’s the harm if someone’s willing to pay for it — and if the bottles look good in the bargain?
Fosco is actually a fan of the Fiji bottle, maybe because there is a simple elegance to it. As for the "Fred" water: I love the bottle, but I don't understand the name and the logo. Are they trying to cash in on the success of discount airline Ted? Because, ummm, Ted hasn't really been much of a success...

Then there is the water called Aquadeco (bottle at far left in picture above). Heller gives credit to the impulse behind the Art Deco bottle, but he's disappointed with its execution:
Granted, the water is tasty, but the so-called “complex” package is not as elegant as promised. Compared with Fiji, Fred, and especially Voss, the design of the bottle and typography is ham-fisted. The bottle is less Chanel than Woolworths (in the 1930s, Art Deco package design was quite common in the five-and-dimes), and the logo’s white, customized serif typeface, with a silver outline, gives the impression of a knockoff rather than an original. The difficultly with using pastiche or retro styling for a contemporary product is making sure it doesn’t look preciously passé. This does. What’s more, does anyone really want to drink something that looks like a novelty perfume?
Fosco knows that some of his readers are big fans of Art Deco style (looking at you, BeeMaster), but I think Heller's right here: the bottle just doesn't look like something I want to drink. Or, for that matter, to display.

And because this is "Foodie Friday," we should probably say something about the taste of bottled waters. Fosco does indeed drink bottled water on occasion (although he's trying to cut down for environmental reasons). Evian is a classic and it's great, of course. Dasani is absolutely undrinkable (maybe because it's just tap water?). Cibo Matto's lyrics to "Sci-Fi Wasabi" note that "Yuka Honda knows her water--Pass the Volvic"; I guess that Volvic is fine. But my favorite in indeed Fiji. Fosco is all about the smooth mouth-feel, thanks to those silicates. Not to mention that it makes you look like a model.

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Thursday, March 05, 2009

Omnibus Titbit Post

Some weeks, there's just too much to share with you, the Fosco Lives! reader. That's why you are now reading a "news digest" post, consisting of a bunch of stories that Fosco just can't not comment on.

  • Guess who's back at Stanford! Hint: she's a lesbian war criminal. No, not Rosie O'Donnell, but good guess. Nope, it's Condi, who has returned to her life (and lifepartner!) at Stanford (aka America's anus). Her teaching load is still undetermined, but she eventually hopes to get back into the classroom:
    As a professor, Rice has said, she hopes to lead future courses on international politics, with a focus on decision-making. Specifically, she seeks to teach "decision simulation," where students are pressed to think about real-life questions and choices and not just abstract policy.
    You know, decisions like: "Which war is the right war for you?" or "How many dead Iraqi civilians is too many?". Come to think of it, she's going to fit right in at Stanford.

  • There's more financial mumbo-jumbo to explain why Harvard is in trouble and it appears to have something to do with "dry powder." Fosco isn't quite clear on this concept, but he assumes it has something to do with the gunpowder that Harvard has amassed in the basement of Widener Library for the inevitable apocalyptic war against Yale in the End Times. Yale delenda est!

  • Fosco went to prom in high school, because who doesn't love a little heteronormativity? For his senior prom, Fosco chose a lovely corsage for his date; the day after Fosco ordered said corsage, the date and her stepmother went to the florist and redesigned the whole thing. Guess who still paid (Fosco could afford it, but still!).

    Which brings me to my point: prom would be pretty silly and ridiculous if it weren't so damned expensive (and mainly for the girls). But, as per this article in a recent Santa Cruz Sentinel, things will be easier for girls in Santa Cruz this prom season: Free Prom Dresses! Yes, thanks to a city councilman and a local dry cleaners, a buttload of donated prom dresses (and yes, the appropriate grouping adjective for a collection of prom dresses in indeed "a buttload"--look it up!) has been assembled for girls who cannot afford to purchase their own. Which is actually a pretty good thing, right? I almost think everyone should wear a recycled prom dress. After all, why should you buy a new dress when it's only going to get covered with alcohol/vomit and ripped by an overeager date rapist? Ah, good prom memories...

  • Speaking of prom, did you realize that one in every thirty-one American adults is now in the corrections system? As the brilliant Jonathan Turley goes on to note, Georgia is the leader in this statistic (1 in 13 adults in the corrections system), followed by Idaho and Texas. (Hmmm, is it me or are those all red states?) This is a shocking statistic, no? I don't think anyone believes that this kind of rate is sustainable--the burden on our society is just too great. I don't know what we need to do, but I'm willing to listen to proposals for increasing education spending and decriminalizing marijuana.

  • Speaking of prison, did you see that former football-star Maurice Clarett is blogging from prison? You may remember Maurice Clarett as a star running back at the Ohio State University, who as a freshman, helped to lead that team to a National Championship. Or you may recall that Clarett then sued the NFL to allow him to enter the NFL draft a year early (he lost). Well, a few years later (after getting cut from several NFL teams) Clarett apparently committed an armed robbery and is now serving a seven and a half year sentence.

    Now Fosco has never been a fan of Clarett, but there is a surprise here. (And no, the surprise is not that an Ohio State player ended up in prison...) Fosco was prepared to make some comedic hay from Clarett's blog, but, well, he can't--it's actually pretty good. It turns out that Clarett is using his time in prison for self-improvement, including working on his college degree. He's been reading philosophy(!) and doing a lot of thinking about life. He's been counseling some of the younger prisoners. And you know, he's actually a pretty decent writer. I actually find the whole project to be both serious and positive. I don't want to make fun of someone who is clearly taking his mistakes seriously and thinking about what he can give back to society after his release. I'm a little impressed and, to tell you the truth, I've subscribed to the feed... You can find his blog here.

    (I wonder if the crooked administrators and boosters at Ohio State who took advantage of this kid will ever end up in jail... Yeah, I suppose not.)

  • A Santa Cruz aerial photographer just swept the "2009 Professional Aerial Photographers Association print competition," according to this piece in the Sentinel. You can see one of his winning images at right. The story behind the image itself is actually pretty amazing:
    Back in May, David Sievert flew to the Black Rock Desert of Nevada to preserve for posterity one of the ephemeral creations of Santa Cruz sand artist Jim Denevan.

    Sievert circled for 40 minutes over a dry lake focusing on what Denevan hoped would be the world's largest freehand drawing. He spent a month and a half, using a stick to draw a series of circles, creating a composition three miles wide.
    Crazy! Think of the work involved! And think about all of the ways that the drawing could have been destroyed:
    Then a variety of circumstances could have smashed Denevan's composition, sitting unprotected in the wild.

    A ranger from the Bureau of Land Management drove out, wondering why Denevan had camped there and potentially jeopardizing the drawing.

    "He didn't know what we were doing," said Denevan, who tried to explain. "We told him, Hey, when you leave, would you follow the lines?'"

    Three days before Sievert was scheduled to arrive, a group of 30 machine gun enthusiasts in Hummers and pickups kicked up dust, heading straight toward the drawing.

    Luckily, they turned toward Denevan's camping bus, assuming their leader was inside, thus leaving the drawing intact.

    Even the weather cooperated.

    "It rained like crazy a week later," Denevan said.
    Fosco has always had a soft spot for good "nature art" (like Robert Smithson or Andy Goldsworthy). And while the circles thing is indeed pretty cool in its ambition, I wonder if it could have been a little more interesting. Like what about a giant Oprah head? Oh wait, that's been done...

How Much Does Sarah Palin Like Condoms?

A couple of weeks ago, Fosco waxed enthusiastic about his new favorite Palin, new mom Bristol. In the course of that post, Fosco made some accusations about the beliefs of Bristol's mom, Governor Sarah Palin. An anonymous commenter (who I assume is The BeeMaster, although he forgot to sign the comment) took issue with some of Fosco's facts and asked that Fosco make "corrections." This is a reasonable request--assuming Fosco was wrong. Let's find out, shall we?

Here is the first question raised by the commenter (Fosco's original words are in italics):

And so, on behalf of America, I'd like to apologize to Bristol Palin. Bristol, I'm sorry your mom is a hillbilly idiot who didn't want you to learn about how not to get pregnant.

Untrue. Sarah Palin has never backed abstinence-only sex education. In fact, she supports contraceptive education in public schools:

And from a radio show debate: "...I’m pro-contraception, and I think kids who may not hear about it at home should hear about it in other avenues. So I am not anti-contraception. But, yeah, abstinence is another alternative that should be discussed with kids. I don’t have a problem with that. That doesn’t scare me, so it’s something I would support also.”
The question, then, is: what type of sex education program does Sarah Palin support?

The commenter has found two statements by Palin that suggest she supports sex ed that teaches about contraception. Both of these quotes are referenced in an LA Times article:
“I’m pro-contraception, and I think kids who may not hear about it at home should hear about it in other avenues,” she said during a debate in Juneau.


"I’m pro-contraception, and I think kids who may not hear about it at home should hear about it in other avenues. So I am not anti-contraception. But, yeah, abstinence is another alternative that should be discussed with kids. I don’t have a problem with that. That doesn’t scare me, so it’s something I would support also.”
All of this may seem relatively straightforward, and Fosco is willing to admit that Sarah Palin is not quite the anti-contraception crusader that he has painted her as. However, I think Palin's view is a lot more complicated (or confused) than the commenter would like to admit.

The problem, of course, is Palin's response on a questionnaire by the nutjob Eagle Forum. When she was running for governor, Palin responded to the following question in the following way (you can find the full questionnaire here):
3. Will you support funding for abstinence-until-marriage education instead of for [sic] explicit sex-education programs, school-based clinics, and the distribution of contraceptives in schools?

SP: Yes, the explicit sex-ed programs will not find my support.
Now what are we supposed to make of this answer? On the face of it, it does seem to suggest that Palin supports "abstinence-until-marriage education" instead of "explicit sex-education programs." After all, the question was worded as an "instead of" question and Palin explicitly (teehee!) chose the second alternative.

Of course, the problem here is what the hell the phrase "explicit sex-ed programs" means? Well, it turns out that "explicit sex-ed" is a loaded code phrase used by conservative groups as another, scarier, name for "comprehensive sex-ed." You can read about its deployment in this NY Times article. And while most parents do support the teaching of basic contraception in sex-ed classes, it is not clear whether a scare term like "explicit sex-ed" is intended to include such information (although I'd be willing to bet that unrolling a condom over a banana or cucumber would count as "explicit" for these people).

Palin's own clarification of the term explicit is about as useful as most of her clarifications. Once again, from the LA Times piece referenced earlier:
In August of that year, Palin was asked during a KTOO radio debate if “explicit” programs include those that discuss condoms. Palin said no and called discussions of condoms “relatively benign.”

“Explicit means explicit,” she said.
"Explicit means explicit"? Fine, but what does "explicit" mean to you, Sarah? Because, even from the way their questionnaire is worded, there is good reason to believe that the Eagle Forum understands the word "explicit" differently than you do (and I bet it includes condoms).

So I think we've managed to tease out Sarah Palin's true beliefs about sex ed. I guess she does actually support condom education. However, at the same time, she is also happy to suggest to conservative groups like the Eagle Forum that she is against "explicit sex-ed," even though "explicit sex-ed" is a conservative synonym for "comprehensive sex-ed" and comprehensive sex-ed does indeed include condom education. Whew! I may have been wrong about her position, but I think you can see why.

Which brings me to the better question here: why is it that Fosco had to spend an hour parsing scattered quotes in order to arrive at a barely half-satisfying position statement for a candidate for the second-most-powerful elected office in the country? We knew exactly what kind of sex ed programs the other candidates (Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and John "Walnuts" McCain) supported. Once again, Palin is a completely blank space. And why? Two reasons:
  1. She never talked about any of her beliefs that she didn't want to talk about.
  2. No one in the media had the opportunity (or the balls) to make her talk about those things.
No doubt her support for contraception would have been unpopular with "the base"; luckily, she never had to talk about it during the campaign. Maybe Fosco is old-fashioned, but he tends to think that candidates for public office have to be explicit (teehee!) about their positions, even when those positions may be unpopular. Hey, this would have been a great question for Greta Van Susteren to have asked Sarah Palin during her drop in! Hmmm, I wonder why Van Susteren didn't think of that...

Okay. On to the commenter's second objection:
And I'm sorry that people like your mom were in charge of your education in the state of Alaska, thereby preventing you from receiving meaningful sex ed.

Untrue. Bristol Palin attended Wasilla High, a public school in Alaska which does teach contraceptive use:
Really? What's your source for that? Ah, here it is:

Hmmm. Maybe I'm being a "source snob," but I am not going to accept the third-hand testimony of the daughter of a "buddy" of a conservative Alaskan blogger, even if his name is "Rory."

Hey, here's a better idea. What if we considered the testimony of the Principal of Bristol Palin's Wasilla high school. According to an article in the Boston Herald, WHS Principal Dwight Probasco (pictured at right) stated that his school's sex ed curriculum "pushes abstinence." Whether or not this means that the curriculum is "abstinence-only," I don't know. I also don't know how whatever curriculum the school board and principal have approved gets translated into everyday lessons by the teachers in the school. And we certainly have no way of knowing what specific information Bristol Palin received in her sex ed classes (without, of course, asking her--another missed question by Van Susteren).

All of which means that Fosco cannot guarantee that Bristol Palin didn't learn something about contraception in high school sex ed (although her principal's quote seems to suggest that she did not). However, I think I'm more likely to be right on this than the commentator's pal "Rory." And I think it is clearly not the case that Bristol Palin received comprehensive sex ed, as the commenter asserts:
So, despite receiving "comprehensive" sexual education, Bristol Palin still got pregnant! How can this be? Shall we use draconian terms like "personal responsibility," or shall we chalk up her pregnancy as failure of "comprehensive" sex ed?
Ummm, can I answer "neither"? All sex ed, even comprehensive sex ed, is going to have a failure rate. The question is not whether a program prevents pregnancy altogether, but whether it does better than the alternatives. And, based on that criterion, there is little doubt that comprehensive sex education is effective.

And yes, of course Bristol Palin bears some personal responsibility for her pregnancy. However, we do tend to believe that ignorance lessens responsibility and if Bristol was kept ignorant of basic facts about reproduction and contraception (and we don't know to what extent she was), I think those people who kept that information from her must be held responsible as well.

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A Big Cuddly Hecatomb

From yesterday's Huffington Post, this headline:

Actually, I'm not sure whether this is a headline or a threat--you know: "Give me the briefcase or cute animals will have to die."

Apparently, the linked article is all about how most of the pro-environment behaviors that make the bourgeoisie feel less guilty will be entirely insufficient to prevent bad, bad things from happening (and, in fact, some of those behaviors are actually surprisingly counterproductive). It's the kind of article that someone like The BeeMaster would love, but Fosco is actually more interested in speculating about the deaths of cute animals. Like, for instance, do we get to choose which cute animals die?

I already know that Mere would willingly sacrifice pandas for an ice cream cone. But let's up the stakes a little: which cute animal(s) would be willing to sacrifice in order to stop global warming? Of course, in some sense, there might not be much of a choice: extreme global warming might kill all the cute animals anyway. But, think about it this way: which cute animals won't you miss?

Personally, I think I am willing to give up zebras, lions, raccoons, wolves, and kangaroos. I would be sad about moose and mountain goats, but it wouldn't be the end of the world. I would really miss black bears and the pretty-colored songbirds. And sea otters are entirely non-negotiable.

Oh megafauna, why must you be so charismatic?

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

From the Annals of "Say It With Pictures!"

From the current online front page at SFGate (the web version of the venereal venerable San Francisco Chronicle), an article about a new proposal for SF rent control:

I'm not really interested in the story (except that more rent control in SF is probably a good idea); rather, I'm laughing at the Chronicle's not-so-subtle photographic editorializing on the story. I mean, how seriously are we meant to take Supervisor Daly when he's being molested by a rainbow clown? Or is it a renegade Oompa Loompa?

Seriously: they couldn't find a better photo of this guy?

Dreams of Burpengary

Fosco loves to learn about new places. And so today he inaugurates a new feature called "Where in the world..." As Fosco peruses his site traffic reports, he often comes across visits from strangely-named places all over the world. Consequently, every so often, Fosco will offer a brief report about one of these weird or wonderful places. This feature is his opportunity (and yours) to learn more about our large (and paradoxically small) world.

Today's focus is on Burpengary, Australia, which sounds like nothing so much as an uncreative nickname for some kid with gas. Here's the site report:

Fosco's interwebular researches have revealed that Burpengary is along the East Coast of Australia, within reasonable commuting distance of Brisbane (the third most populous city in Australia). According to the map, Burpengary is located between the towns of Caboolture and Deception Bay--neither of which will ever win any awards for name appeal (although you could probably set a daytime soap in "Deception Bay").

As far as I can tell, there is not much to be proud of in Burpengary (at least judging from its lack of interesting Google results). However, an image search turns up this pretty remarkable garden:

Fosco has no idea what kind of plants we can see in this picture, but he suspects that they eat koalas.

Also, apparently Burpengary is a bit of a destination for lovers of Christmas lights, including both an elaborate display ("Klingner's Khristmas Wonderland"--seriously--although why you need an "h" after the "k" in Khristmas is a mystery to me) and an entire street of lighted houses ("Blackbutt Court"--again, seriously). Judging from this photograph, however, Fosco is unimpressed:

Although, perhaps this is the height of Christmas Khristmas light ambition in a place where December 25 arrives in the middle of summer.

Unlike almost all of his peers, Fosco has never had a desire to visit Australia and, after writing this post, he wants to go even less. But hey, I still salute Burpengary, the inaugural town in "Where in the world..."

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Oooh! Canada!

Another Fosco Lives! shout-out to his canuck friends M+L.

Sure, the people who live there speak some sort of weird moon-man language and eat horrible non-crispy bacon, but Canada is turning out to be the place to live in the midst of the world's financial meltdown.

As this op-ed in the NY Times notes:

America, the capital of capitalism, is pondering nationalizing a handful of banks. Meanwhile, Canada, whose banking system had long been notorious for its stodgy practices and government coddling, is now being celebrated for those very qualities.

The Canadian banking system, which proved resilient in the global economic crisis, is finally getting its day in the sun. A recent World Economic Forum report ranked it the soundest in the world, mostly as the result of its conservative practices. (The United States ranked 40th).
How can this be? Doesn't Canada have any financial brainiacs--you know, like the ones who brought down Wall Street? And with no hotshot banking jagoffs, I can't imagine that Canada has much demand for lapdances and cocaine. Oh, what a joyless land!

Of course, every story is better when there's irony involved. Cue irony:
Most people don’t know that the vision behind Canada’s banking system, made up of a few large, national banks with branches from coast to coast, actually had its beginnings in the United States. Canada’s system is the product of a banking framework inspired by Alexander Hamilton, the first American secretary of the Treasury.
That's right, just like pretty much everything else (except bacon), Canadians learned banking from us and then did it better.

You know, Fosco is starting to find really attractive the Canadian lack of drama. Remember when Canada had that whole parliamentary crisis? Well, as far as Fosco can tell, everyone took a long vacation and then things went back to normal. Now that is a civilized government.

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Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The Real Tragedy of Election '08

Ooooh, this is a good one!

Think back to last summer: a simpler time, when you could torture a suspected terrorist (just for fun!), when you could redecorate your office without getting lots of guff from the Congress, and when America was in love with an affable surrogate grandfather named Walnuts. Remember? And do you remember John McCain's glamorous wife (who, contrary to popular belief is not at all c*nty [not my word--follow the link])? Now think a little harder... Do you remember John McCain's daughter? No, not the brown one they hid during the campaign, but the white one (seen at right, dressed in a full-body turban).

During the campaign, Meghan "Peroxide" McCain reached out to youthful voters via her blog, bringing her father's message of hope to a new generation of capital-gains taxpayers and people who fear Mexicans. But since the election, Meghan has hit the big time, working as a writer for sites like The Daily Beast. Fosco hasn't followed her career too closely, but it's pretty clear that she didn't land these gigs based on her skills as a wordsmith (or, for that matter, her interesting perspective on life).

Which brings us to this article in The Daily Beast, in which Meghan McCain describes how her father's campaign has ruined her sex life. If Fosco believed in God, he's be offering thanks for this comedy gold.

Let's enjoy the best parts together, shall we? The piece starts with a bang:

The election killed my personal life.

OK, maybe killed is a bit of an exaggeration. But it does seem to be on life support. Of all the things people warned would happen post-election, no one ever said anything about how complicated dating would become. Especially if your dad loses the election. There are things that have been difficult, but nothing quite as tough as dating. I fear the election has destroyed my ability and desire to date.
Come to think of it, I'm pretty sure I heard Bristol Palin say something similar recently. But I know what you're thinking: how did the election ruin your dating life, Meggy? She is so glad you asked:
Here's the biggest surprise: I am not only turned off by people who voted for Barack Obama, but I am also turned off by people that voted for my dad—or more so, obsessive supporters of my dad. Recently, over dinner, a guy started explaining his reasons for supporting President Obama during the election (I didn’t ask, I think the poor guy felt guilty) and I immediately found any attraction I had previously had dissipate. But same thing happens if a guy starts talking about all the reasons why my father should be president. I have the ultimate Catch-22 in post-election dating. So where does that leave me, and who exactly am I attracted to? Let’s just say I’m spending a lot of time writing and even more time with my girlfriends.
Wow, that is a dilly of a pickle. It's almost like she can't date anyone who voted! Which means the bitter irony here is that Meghan's ideal man might just have to be a foreigner; too bad Papa Walnuts doesn't want to let any of them into the country. And is it just me, or at the end of that passage did she admit that she has now been driven to lesbianism? I can't imagine what Walnuts and the White Queen would think about that.

But don't worry: she still gets a lot of dates. And why wouldn't she? Check out that photo above. Who wouldn't want to date the star of Flashdance? What a feeling!

Now here's the creepy part: some of the McCainiacs want to play dress-up with Miss Meg...
One extreme fan of my mother’s recently told me I could be “his Cindy.” And then asked me if I ever wore pearls because they probably would look as good on me as they do on my mother. No, I'm not kidding. Any guy that has a fetish for older women in pantsuits and large pearls obviously only finds my last name attractive about me.
Eek! I'm not even going to consider the sexual fantasies that potential suitor must be having. Actually, come to think of it, I would bet that Sarah Palin is also involved in those fantasies.

The fans of Walnuts are not quite as creepy, but, as Meghan notes, they tend to have a very limited sense of humor:
Once I went out with a guy who said the food I had ordered was a “maverick choice” and proceeded to tell me, “Wow, straight talking must run in the family.” It’s like someone taking Lisa Marie Presley out on a date and singing “Hound Dog” in the middle of dinner.
Yes, and we all know how that turned out for poor Lisa Marie. Not to mention all the other John McCain-related lines the guy probably had prepared:
  • "I sure hope you can raise your arms above your head!"
  • "You can call me Joe the Plumber if it gets you off."
  • "I'll never suspend my campaign to win your heart."
  • "Hey, I think I just saw Lindsey Graham watching us from behind that curtain."
There were probably some other good ones [get to work, commenters!].

So what is the ultimate lesson of Meg's little essay?
So to all the fathers out there: If you want your daughters to be single in her 20s, I can say this—run for president.
I don't want to take this suggestion more seriously than it deserves, but, um, this actually didn't work for at least one of the Bush girls.

On the whole, though, I must say that I feel a bit sorry for Meghan. Who could have imagined that the 2008 election would have such momentous consequences? It's almost as if Americans made a decision about who to vote for without taking into account the effects on Meghan's personal life. It's almost as if Americans don't care about Meghan's happiness. Oh Meghan, what's a wealthy and well-connected young woman to do!

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How to Make a Zombie (in One Bloody Step!)

Before he came to UCSC for his PhD in Literature, Fosco did MA coursework at a depressing commuter university somewhere in the snowy Midwest. One of Fosco's professors there was a specialist in the work of prolific contemporary writer Joyce Carol Oates (aren't academic specialties sad sometimes?). This professor once admitted to Fosco that she'd only ever thrown away two books in her lifetime (this is always a fascinating confession for a bibilophile to make; Fosco himself has never thrown away a book--he even has a Book of Mormon floating around somewhere, and you know how Fosco feels about Mormons).

The two books that this book-loving professor discarded were:

  • Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms (which she accused, not incorrectly, of misogyny)
  • A Joyce Carol Oates novella entitled Zombie
Naturally, Fosco took this confession as a challenge; consequently, he immediately signed up to do an in-class presentation on Zombie later in the quarter (Fosco can be kind of a dick when he wants to be). Luckily, the professor was a good sport about this.

But the joke was on Fosco: Zombie is a hella disturbing book. Fosco has mentioned before that JC Oates's fiction tends to be "ripped from the headlines." Well, Zombie is her attempt to get inside the mind of someone like Jeffry Dahmer. That mind, and consequently the entire novella, is absolutely terrifying and disgusting. The protagonist of Zombie kidnaps teenage boys and attempts to turn them into sex zombies by lobotomizing them through the eye socket with an ice pick. And if you think that Joyce Carol Oates left out the graphic parts, well, you'd be wrong. There are even drawings and diagrams in the margins of the text. Fosco gets nauseated just thinking about the book again. (Needless to say, Fosco's class presentation was, um, upsetting).

But because it's not enough that this story exists as a novella, someone had to go and write a stage play based on it. This is the recent brief NYT review of the play "Zombie," which is playing off-Broadway this spring--no doubt before beginning a run at Disney's New Amsterdam Theater in Times Square.

The Times review of "Zombie" is off-the-mark, I think. The author notes that
The banality of evil isn’t a new subject in literature or drama, but fiction rarely reveals this much this clearly.

Mr. Connington commits totally to this haunting characterization and leaves us wondering exactly what kind of people are walking the streets alongside us.
As a description of the novella, I think this is absolutely wrong. Zombie is not about "the banality of evil." Just because you cannot tell by looking at someone that he or she is a mass murderer doesn't mean that his or her evil is banal. There is a difference between the kind of evil that is performed selfishly or unthinkingly by everyday members of society (what we might call "banal" evil) and the evil that is perpetrated by homicidal maniacs like the protagonist of Zombie. The zombie-maker may think that his behavior is rational and that his desires are like those of everyone else, but his delusions of normality don't actually make him normal. This is Grade-A crazy evil in the novella, and I refuse to accept that "Zombie" is intended to teach us some lesson about the secret lives of our neighbors. This isn't American Beauty.

Instead, I see the point of Zombie (to the extent that it has anything as clumsy as a "point") to be an exercise in confronting the absolute otherness of evil. We are not meant to "imagine ourselves into" the mind of the protagonist; we are not meant to recognize ourselves in this novella. Rather, we are presented with a terrifying vision of otherness that we are only too happy to resist assimilating. I think this is an interesting project: a narrative that wants to prevent the identification of the reader. However, I don't know what the political/social consequences of such a project may be--especially in this case.

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Monday, March 02, 2009

Help Support Fosco Lives!

Now Fosco has something to ask you, the dedicated Fosco Lives! reader: the next time you buy books from, would you consider doing so by clicking through the ad banner at the top right? If you do so, your beloved Count Fosco will automatically receive a small percentage from your purchase.

It's easy: just click on the ad to go to the normal Amazon homepage. Any books you buy during that visit will generate a percentage to help support Fosco Lives!.

It's completely anonymous--I won't find out who you are and I won't know what you order (so you can order porn if you like--as if I would judge you negatively for buying porn!).

If you are not an Amazon shopper, that's fine--don't worry about it; but I do know that many Fosco Lives! readers order from Amazon. So, the next time you were planning on buying a book from Amazon anyway, do it through this link and everyone will be much happier! Especially me.

Acting Baby!

In the last few weeks, Fosco has discovered that busy work (cleaning, filing, folding laundry, etc.) can be made less monotonous with "CSI: Miami" on in the background. Actively viewing this show would no doubt lead one to need an intellectual shower; however, passive background viewing allows one to enjoy a reasonable approximation of epistemological satisfaction without having to worry about the cardboard characters, improbable plots, and dreadful dialogue. Also, you rarely need to watch the screen. And you can leave for 5-10 minutes without missing anything very important.

For sheer ridiculousness, the best part of the show is David Caruso. I mentioned this to Todd the other day, and in his web-trawling he came across this remarkably accurate flow chart to represent David Caruso's acting "method":

Fosco watched an episode last night with this diagram in mind; let me assure you that there is no exaggeration.

Just Shut Up, Bono

"Music Monday" seems like an appropriate day for a music review.

On March 3, the new U2 album, No Line On The Horizon, will drop in the US. Rolling Stone has already given it a five-star review. I listened to it a couple of times last week, and my impressions can be distilled into a very brief review:

What the hell is this crap?

That about covers it. On the other hand, the cover art is first-rate (mainly because it's a mashup of a great Hiroshi Sugimoto photograph and the Human Rights Campaign logo).

UPDATE: I'll admit that, after writing this post over the weekend, I was still a bit freaked out by that Rolling Stone review. Five stars? What was I missing about this album? So I decided to give it one more listen...

I guess that maybe I was a little hard on some of the music. The Edge does some appealing guitar work--just much less on this album than on almost any previous album. Even so, I still don't hear a song on this disc that I want to sing--good tunes are missing.

The lyrics are terrible: pretentious and trivial, all about self-understanding and technology and who knows what. I don't care how good the music is, I can't listen to song that has the line:

Restart, reboot yourself.
Um, no thanks. Methinks Bono just got a new laptop.

And what are we to make of a song that describes having an epiphany while at the "punching in the numbers at the ATM Machine [sic]"? This is sloppy writing and it turns me off the song entirely. I don't see why I should pay attention to the deep "metaphysical" insights that Bono is hawking if he can't remember that the acronym ATM already includes the word "machine."

Maybe I'm getting crabby in my old age, but I'm just going to stick with my old U2 CDs.

Fosco's Three Song Playlist

Good morning, music listeners. This is your "Music Monday."

Fosco is a little leery of posting this brief list of songs he's enjoyed of late, mainly because he doesn't always know what the kids are listening to. Or what they listened to in the past. Because all of these songs are a year or two old. And what if they're considered too, well, played out? Or too lame? Or too popular? You can imagine how Fosco's reputation with the youth could suffer.

You would tell Fosco if that were the case, wouldn't you? Please stop me from embarrassing myself in front of people fifteen years younger.

So anyway, some songs I've really been digging lately:

Scanners: "Lowlife." I must say that the whole album Violence Is Golden pretty much rulez, but this song is probably my favorite. It's got a killer hook and sharp, powerful vocals from Sarah Daly. There isn't much interesting about the video, at least after a while; even so, the song should hit your sweet spot.

Brand New: "Jesus." Sure, maybe there's a wee bit of Candlebox in this song; or maybe Fosco is just being paranoid. Either way, brooding poseurs usually find a way appeal to me. I just like this song. Arrest me. But you're going to have to come and arrest Congressman Jindal too.

We Are Scientists: "After Hours." A lovely flashback to the sounds of 80s Britpop. I owe Todd for this one. The video is pretty funny, although I'm sure you and every person under 30 in America has already seen it. If you haven't, please enjoy:

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Would You Take a Job at UCSC?

Fosco has to get up early tomorrow morning to make it to campus for a one-time seminar with a seriously important academic superstar. Said academic superstar is visiting UCSC tomorrow for a job interview in the History of Consciousness department and will be leading a seminar in the morning and giving a job talk in the afternoon. This is kind of exciting, especially since this academic superstar has done pretty important work in Fosco's specialty of queer theory.

And yet, as Fosco preps for this seminar, he can't help wondering: why would this scholar want a job at UCSC? Not that UCSC is Florida State or anything; but this scholar currently holds an endowed chair at the University of Chicago, one of the best universities in the country in one of the best cities in the country. Of course, it's entirely possible that this scholar is not realistically considering a job at UCSC and is hoping for this job offer as a bargaining chip to get a better deal from Chicago (sadly, that's the way the academic game is played). But assuming this scholar is actually interested in a job at UCSC, one might wonder what type of calculus goes into these kinds of decisions.

Just as an exercise in analysis, let's consider the comparisons:

  • Location: Chicago v. Santa Cruz seems like a pretty easy choice; but let's consider that this scholar, like most of the major faculty here, would most likely live in San Francisco. Chicago v. SF is a much tougher call, especially if you take into account the difference in weather.
  • Salary: UCSC will presumably be willing to pony up some cash here. But will University of Chicago be unwilling or unable to match it? I doubt it. In general, private schools (like Chicago) should be able to outspend public schools (like UCSC).
  • Prestige: There is no question that U of C is much more prestigious institution--by a lot. However, this gap closes a little when you consider that the "History of Consciousness" department at UCSC has a pretty sexy academic reputation. Some of the most interesting and innovative contemporary thinkers in academia have been associated with this department over the years. Who wouldn't want to be in the (virtual) company of people like Hayden White, Donna Haraway, and Norman O. Brown?
  • Resources/Facilities: UCSC is a public school in the middle of a major budget crisis. University of Chicago is a private institution with a largish endowment. Things here are pretty bleak financially; things there are, I would think, much better.
  • Students: I don't want to be too harsh on the undergrads and grad students here at UCSC--many of them are first-rate (including people like Mere who any university would be lucky to have). But there is no question that U of C typically attracts higher quality students (on average).
Which means, I would have to think, that a decision to take a job at UCSC must be primarily about San Francisco or its weather (or some combination of the two). Of course, this is all speculation and there could be plenty of idiosyncratic reasons for preferring one job or institution over another. However, this kind of academic job-related decision-making process has always been quite fascinating to Fosco.

Dressing One's Boyfriend: John Galliano

I would love to dress Oz in these John Galliano briefs. Not sure I would go for the bonnet, though.

Not that any of you would get to see...

(Via Fabulon.)

Fosco's Travel Guide for Lutherans

For your Sunday enjoyment, here's a gorgeous church picture. This is the Hallgrímskirkja, a Lutheran church that dominates the skyline of Fosco's beloved Reykjavík, Iceland.

Years ago, Fosco and his college roommate lboom visited this church. Strangely enough, that's a statue of Leifur Eiríksson in front (who you may know from elementary school as Leif Ericson or from your teenage years as Liv Tyler).

Should you ever visit Reykjavík (and I recommend that you do), you should consider staying at the Hótel Vík. As they say, "you must try it."