Wednesday, February 27, 2008


Not Recommend
A quality idea for a book but you don't need to read it. A summary is as effective. Tough to say since the writing is articulate but the authors didn't give me enough credit.

Is Steven Levitt impersonating Bill Gates or vice versa? Do smart people get together and agree what to look like?

The book has an aggressive opening that is packed with interesting ideas. Unfortunately it's the attention-grabbing introduction and the rest of the book repeats itself. It's about the "genius" economist Stephen Levitt. The guy is great. He has an interest in crime and an economist's reliance on numbers to tell the story.

It connects Roe vs. Wade, the landmark American case about the right to have an abortion, with the decline in crime rate in the United States. The authors claim the connection caused a lot of controversy because economists don't care about politics only what the data tells them. The argument is that most reported criminal behaviour, especially drug trafficking, robbery, and murder, is from people in poverty. Since poor people were having less babies (read: more abortions) there was less of a population base for criminals to appear.

There. I summed up the idea almost as nicely as they do at the start of the book. Unfortunately, the book continues and they take 100 pages to say the same thing again. That might have been interesting but the data and analysis are given in such a watered-down, user-friendly way that it was boring.

The rest of the book tries to be a highlight reel of social economic theories. That is, using data and an understanding of incentives to explain cheating in sumo wrestling as opposed to interest rates. They coin the phrase "freakonomics" to create a theme for the book: turning an economist's eye to untraditional problems. They might as well have called it "thinking". The only topics covered in the book are: how the funding model in the US encourages teachers to cheat for their students on standardized test. Why sumo wrestlers occasionally let each other win. Abortion's effect on crime. And how rich people set the trends in first names.

I'm glad I read this book since I trust the intelligence of the friend who recommended it to me so, bare minimum, I get to hear what he liked about it.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Pictures of Your Favourite Celebrity

The phenomenon of "celebrity gossip" reminds me of the lives of Greek Gods. (Zeus, Hera, Aphrodite, Hades, Athena, Apollo, Ares, Poseidon and more!). The Greek Gods were in a constant state of scandal -lying, backstabbing, posing as wildlife to have affairs,

You didn't hear? Zeus appeared as a bull and impregnated a mortal. I know. Now there's another wacky demi-god. Better than that swan sh*t he pulled on Leda.

Greek Gods would have meltdowns, rebel against their parents, and fight it out. This all made for quality storytelling and, for scholars, explained Earth's topography.

I can think of thousands of reasons to ridicule celebrity gossipers. Personally, I think it's sort of a sad, candy religion nestled between the tragic acts of stalking and living vicariously through one's children. My Great Great Grand, I do not claim that celebrity worship was invented in my lifetime but I do believe I have seen the rise of celebrity concentrated media. There is a section in every major newspaper that updates what popular entertainers are doing in their daily lives. Minor legal offenses are always reported, relationship status is a close second. Amazingly, if nothing of note has happened, wild speculation is used as news. It is common for these reports to be accompanied by pictures of female performers in provocative clothing.

I think confronting people for participating in these mass-stalking campaigns leaves them confused and defensive, particularly because those who enjoy celebrity gossip perceive it as a simple, moderately shameful, indulgence -like the tasty, unhealthy cuisine of consumer culture. Yet fancy arguments and condescending glares do not undo the truth: people who track celebrities enjoy it. Their pleasure is real. Encouraging people to feel guilt or angry resistance is not insight. It's more interesting to ask everyone to consider the history of our fascination with the lives of others. What's going on in our minds. Why do humans crave gossip?

1. Celebrities as shields. We live in fear of our own insecurities being revealed. We fear judgment so we are quick to judge. We wear celebrities as masks to disguise our inner thoughts. If I ridicule a celebrity's clothing with some friends we can establish what is fashionable with minimal risk to our ourselves.

2. Celebrities as sacrificial lambs. Our mistakes, our humiliations can only be covered up by someone else's greater embarrassment. In the playground of life we will be bullied for the tear in the crotch of our pants unless we point out that the other kid peed himself. The Germans have a word, schadenfreude, pleasure from the misfortune of others.

3. Celebrities as nirvana. People desire fame. It is as infectious as the spirit that caused generations to sign up to fight in the Great European wars. Celebrities offer a fantasy world for people to vaguely work toward. Those who have touched fame have a quasi-spiritual aura. I find people are more bold about their fantasies now. They casually offer which celebrities would be their friends, where they would live, what a day would be like. This is the waking afterlife. Visions of future paradise that break down under scrutiny.

As a child on a swing in my backyard I would pretend I was being interviewed by David Letterman. He is a man who makes jokes while he talks to celebrities.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Political Compass

That red dot is me on the "Political Compass" questionnaire.

ECONOMIC (Left/Right): -4.12

SOCIAL (Liber./Auth.): -3.08

Fill it out. Send me the results. I really want to plot all of my friends on this grid. That would be more interesting to me than Tchaikovsky and Wagner's social and economic perspectives.

This is the only quality political opinion test on the internet and nostalgia brings me back every couple of years. The compass gives more information than the traditional "left vs. right" spectrum often used to discuss politics. It uses an axis for economic perspective and an axis for social perspective. Basically, all of the questions gauge what degree of control you feel is appropriate for a government to have.

You should fill it out. The statements will force you to think and take a stance because you're not allowed a neutral answer. After you take the test you can compare yourself to historical figures like Gandhi, Mandela, Thatcher, Hitler, Stalin, etc.

Strongly Agree? Agree? Disagree? Strongly Disagree?
The statements that I liked:
-people are ultimately divided more by class than by nationality.
-good parents sometimes have to spank their children.
-it's natural for children to keep some secrets from their parents.
-the businessperson and the manufacturer are more important than the writer and the artist.
-making peace with the establishment is an important aspect of maturity.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


for Raquel Zepeda (as I wrote this I pictured you enjoying it)

"The rich man put a million dollars into the box. One million dollars. Then he went home where he had more millions of dollars. Then a poor child came to the donations box. His clothes were torn. His face and hands were dirty with soot-"
"What's soot?" asked Olivia.
"It's dirt."
"It's from ashes." Riley corrected.
"It's a type of dirt from ashes." said the priest. "But the point is the child only had one quarter. That's it. And the poor child donated that quarter to the church. And, in the eyes of God, it was a greater donation than the one million dollars that the rich man gave."
"Yeah, why?"
"Did God see that it was a special old quarter that was worth a lot?"
"No children, it was a regular quarter. But, you see, the rich man has more millions at home but the child gave everything that he had."
"What are his fiscal responsibilities?"
"It means: what does the child need to spend his money on?"
"I know that. I'm sorry, you're Riley aren't you?"
"Consider that the child's quarter is one hundred percent expendable income because his parents provide food and shelter-"
"The child has no parents," the priest snapped, immediately feeling guilty, "he lived on the streets, alone."
"Where did he get the soot?" Olivia inquired.
"From the dirty streets." the priest collected himself.
"Was there a fire on the street?"
"Where did his clothes come from?"
"Children, let us not lose the meaning of this story. It is about sacrifice-"
"How's he going to eat?" Meredith said. Her crew audibly agreed.
"The rich man should have given the kid the money. Forget the donations box." Justin's suggestion caught the attention of Judith. He was smart and good in arts and crafts. Perhaps they could get married at recess.
"Now wait, children-"
"What if he kept the quarter and put his clothes in the box? Then God would love him and he could eat, right?" said thoughtful Claire.
"After he put the money in, God would make sure he could eat." Heavy Charles stated definitively.
"No," said Riley. "God is not a vending machine."
"That's right, Riley." said the priest.
"But Father, if given a choice between the rich man's million and the child's quarter, which would you choose to accept? You could do more good through the church with the million. A quarter wouldn't even buy a new bulb for the overhead projector." Father Eddie looked at the church's old pathetic projector. What he wouldn't give for one of those new LED jobs they had over at St. Anne's. The childen's questions brought him back to the service. Always the questions.
"Would God be mad if he stole the quarter?"
"Yes. We talked about that last session." Father Eddie pointed to the Commandment count on the wall. They were up to seven.
"I was sick." Kyla then mimed throwing up, much to the dismay of Petra.
"Father," big-eyed Dewey Dawson said in his quiet voice, "is it stealing if the child found the quarter on the ground but didn't yell: did anyone drop a quarter?" all the children leaned in for the answer. Father Eddie felt tired.
"If you found five dollars do you have to call the police?"
"Yeah, how much can you find and be allowed to keep?"
"Is there a correlation between atheism and wealth?" that had caught Father Eddie off guard. He was asked that, years ago, during his studies.
"Excuse me?"
"Correlation. It means a relationship-"
"I know what it means," this Riley child knew many words past her grade, "what made you think to ask?"
"Well, Charles raised a good point, the child might think donating the quarter will bring him food; in which case his faith in God is false. Thus, only rich people can truly believe in God because they're not preoccupied with the struggle to survive. But then I thought, perhaps rich people were less likely to have faith in God because they focus on buying temporary things and forget their eternal souls." The class stared at the Father Eddie. They rarely understood Riley but they could feel the tension in the atmosphere.
"Which do you think, Riley?"
"I think of myself as that child and I want to give everything that I have. But I also want to use my money to care for others on Earth and buy them gifts and food. I love my mom and I hope God knows that I'm trying to show my love for him by loving my mom. I bought her paint for Christmas because I know she likes to paint but she has no time and now my money-" She paused and began to choke up. No one knew Riley's mom but they knew that she started crying whenever she talked about her. The class continued to safely stare at her because her gaze was pinned to the eyes of Father Eddie. "I want to surrender myself to God and study to be a priest but I don't know. Sometimes I don't know if the church is the best way to serve God." Riley's voice held as tracks of tears ran down her cheeks. Her words had traveled far into the priest's memory and recalled a faint echo. Father Eddie's eyes were glazed in quiet crying. Suddenly, he didn't want to be here teaching kids about sacrifice and giving quarters. He wanted to be robbing banks. Robbing banks and donating the money to the church. The world was crazy, bankers collected massive profits while his church couldn't even project the words to "Silent Night" for the Christmas service. He pictured himself with a bag of money, shooting his gun in the air and riding on the sidebar of a car from the 1920s. But modern banking and theft were digital and he was hopelessly lost in the labyrinthine computer world. St. Anne's was still mad at him for playing with their LED projector and changing the default resolution or some such nonsense. He looked at the children's faces. They had been sitting there silently, waiting for him, for guidance.
"Wait," said Justin. "Riley, you can't be a priest, you're a girl." The class burst into laughter like a fully trained choir. Sometimes, Justin said the right thing at the right time. Some tears rolled down the priest's face. Perhaps it was seeing an adult cry or perhaps Justin's comment had been that funny but all of the children began to cry as they laughed themselves to an exhausting, sniffling aftermath.
"Riley," Father Eddie said, disguising the tremble in his voice, "with people like you, I never worry about God's love on Earth." Riley smiled and the bell rang.
The entire class of Ms. Pemberton's Grade Twos would reach adulthood. Most would say that they "believed in God" but their reasoning varied. Some would argue that the human eye was so complex it meant it had been designed. Others believed there was something out there but unsure if they called it 'God'. Still others, would point to a flower, a tiger, or a natural disaster as their proof.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Race, Lord of the Rings, and You

1. We make generalizations. If we didn't create categories we would be perpetual newborns in an incomprehensible world, trying to eat anything in our tiny hands. As we grow up we reduce reality and learn to make assumptions. We lose our innocence but we gain rules for how to act and what to eat. These teachings keep us safe.

2. We define ourselves by what we're not. There are lots of social bonds that keep us together but we also become ourselves in relation to an "other".

These two features of humanity give us discrimination. We make assumptions about people that we group into "other" categories. Historically, race is the most recent way to discriminate against an "other". But it hasn't always been around. Race was invented in the last five hundred years (mostly in the last two hundred); it rose with modern science. Scientists work to discover how phenomena can become predictable and replace our assumptions with facts. They divided the world into categories and made conclusions about each race's limitations. They weren't "bad" people, they worked in the spirit of understanding the world and making it a better place. In retrospect it seems that whenever humans study other humans they cannot put their political and economic biases aside. European scientists eventually ended up "proving" their superiority in a racial hierarchy -conveniently 'discovering" that other races were designed to serve them. The racist worldview was created, that is, the idea that you could make useful conclusions about someone simply by knowing what racial category they were from. Later, these categories and the rest of race science was shown to be bullshit. For a superior experience learn this by visiting the Ontario Science Center's exhibit "The Question of Truth". Also, go to the section where they measure how well you can jump and land like a cat.

Before race the widely accepted worldview in Europe was that there was royalty (and aristocracy) and beneath it was the peasantry (it's hard for us to imagine previous ways of creating the "other" because we cannot relate. Have you ever really felt inferior because you're not of royal blood?). We live in the rise and fall of race. After the Holocaust, the "science" of race collapsed but the perspective still lingers. We will live our entire lives in the echo of the racist worldview.

Thus, we are all racist. Want me to prove it to you?

First off, we're not all racist in the sense that we think "only Negroes should vote" or "Caucasians are the highest jumpers" or "Mongoloids are the most likely to be geniuses". Those old tyme assumptions that science failed to turn into facts are reserved for only the most dedicated racists in our culture. We are all racist because the racist worldview makes sense to us. We talk about people as if black, white, Chinese, Indian, Latino, etc. are useful categories -maybe they are if we accept that they are not rigid but that is another discussion. My point is that focusing on obvious acts of racial hatred allows us to overlook it's consistent subtle presence in our lives.

You know you're racist when you could comfortably watch Lord of the Rings. Think about it, race is central to Lord of the Rings (published in the 1950s) we've got: Elves, Hobbits, Humans, Goblins, Orcs, Trolls and those Beastface dudes that were always so angry and pumped up. Interestingly enough, after each battle the Humans and Elves never take any prisoners. They make a point to slaughter every last Goblin. Because they believe that no one can transcend their race. Essentially, the heroes in LOTR are on a genocidal campaign. Now this is all set up quite well by Tolkien. There's no suggestion that the reader should sympathize with the forces of evil.

LOTR is essentially a text with a racist worldview. Once again, not because it tells us obvious racist slogans like "black people are good at sports" or "white people cannot dance" but because it sees the world in categories of race. That's not something we're born doing. That's something we train for. The racist worldview is encoded all around us; that's why I don't hesitate to say that we're all racist. Not because we're bad people but because we live in history.

note: you can go through historic fiction, back to the Ancient Greeks, and see how it is tainted with the aristocratic/peasantry worldview. Their stories are full of things like a royal-blooded baby is separated from the court (like Oedipus Rex) and they live with the peasantry. Yet, as they grow up, everyone notices some sort of innate greatness about them.

note note: The Princess and the Pea is a great example of this old royalty/peasantry worldview. So she's a Princess and that means she's inherited some super spine sensitivity WTF?

Thursday, February 7, 2008


I didn't like Ernest Hemingway because I knew he liked bullfighting. I didn't like bullfighting because they spear the bull's back to jam its spine and tire it. If a guy wants to fight a bull, I'm all for that (like these wonderful Portuguese fools proving manhood by madness). But attacking with a horse riding gang and killing the bull even if it wins is unfair.

Hemingway. I thought Old Man and the Sea was boring. I read The Sun Also Rises because my friend's brother and sister recommended it during a spontaneous session of listing good books. I like the lot of them.

It's about expatriates living in Paris who take a trip into Spain for a fiesta. All of the men are in love with the promiscuous, attractive, short-haired Brett. Conflict ensues in a long series of repressed conversations and drunken accusations.

I enjoyed the language, particularly the many conversations of natural and brief dialogue. I left the book thinking in quips. I didn't care for the plot because I don't look to fiction to recreate reality and this story was semi-autobiographical. Fortunately, it offered some interest as a historical text. Later, via wikipedia, I would discover that this book created awareness of the famous 'running of the bulls' in Pamplona. The events, particularly the bullfighting, provided tasteful, subtle metaphors for the character's lives. There's plenty for my inner high school student to overlook and discover years later on a chance second reading. This is the quintessential book of 'the Lost Generation', those living in the disillusioned wake of the Great European War. I feel that most great literature is rooted in a severe personal journey. The struggle for the writer to admit. I don't feel the direct heat of Hemingway's battle with his own demons but the traces left behind are truthful. There are so many peculiar details in the book that it has the feel of a documentary.

That's the approach I would have taken to making it into a movie. There's no way that this overproduced Hollywood version could be any good. It lacks grit. As director, my actors would have to be able to handle their booze because I'd make sure they were drunk for most of the film. Or, as they say in the book, "tight".

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Race to the internet: Tyreeality

Superbowl ends.
Seconds later:
Brother and I talk about David Tyree's spectacular catch near end of game.
Seconds later:
Brother proves "the internet already knows" by showing me this update to Tyree's wikipedia article:

"Tyree's spectacular catch on the Giants final drive of Super Bowl XLII helped propel his team to the 17-14 win over the Patriots."

Seconds later:
I blog about it.
Seconds later:
I coin a phrase to describe how the internet is updating closer to realtime: Tyreeality.