Sunday, October 31, 2004

Fog Facts

"In the information age there is so much information that sorting and focus and giving the appropriate weight to anything have become incredibly difficult. Then some fact, or event, or factoid mysteriously captures the world's attention and there's a media frenzy. Like Clinton and Lewinsky. Like O. J. Simpson. And everybody in the world knows everything about it. On the flip side are the Fog Facts, important things that nobody seems able to focus on any more than they can focus on a single droplet in the mist. They are known, but not known."

--from THE LIBRARIAN by Larry Beinhart

Can we blame the media for this? Yes. They're led by a gang of creeps. Can we do anything about it? Yes, throw them out. And while you're at it, throw your TV out the window too.

P.S. Helpful Tip #47: If TV is too heavy to lift, just unplug the cable in the back and cover it with a lovely cloth.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

My Happy Ending

Friday evening as I walked down the hill with my 2 PhD students, we chatted about cars going by too fast. Taiwanese drivers are notoriously careless about pedestrians. Here you drive offensively and walk defensively. I told them a bit about that incident a few weeks ago where I deliberately "allowed" my bag to hit a car that zoomed in front of me, missing me only because I slowed my next step. The same incident where the driver then backed up, stopped and got out to argue with me. He told me, "If you don't like the way we live in Taiwan, then don't live here." I answered that according to Taiwanese law, the pedestrian has the right of way in the striped crosswalk--or "zebra" or "zipper"-- especially when the driver was supposed to stop at his red light. Then I recited his license plate number. That calmed him down. And after I asked if I had in fact damaged his car, I warned him to be more careful the next time he saw me crossing. He backed down but was visibly upset. He thought that I hit his car "just for fun". I told him that no I wasn't having any fun!
Well, coincidentally, as if by some destiny, that same Friday evening that I related this story to my two students, I went a few minutes later to eat some spicy noodles at a restaurant right next to my apartment. As I walk into the restaurant, the big burly guy at the counter leans over on his elbows and glares at me, clearly expecting some kind of response, the gleam of a challenge in his eyes.
I glance at him and recognize him before I actually remembered how I knew him. Some uncanny familiarity, yet why is he glaring at me with anticipation? My face shows surprise when a second later it all comes back to me-- the aggressive driver!
I say, "Oh, hello, would you like me to leave or to stay?"
He seems happy that I remember him from our confrontation about three weeks ago, but on the other hand he hesitates a moment before resigning himself to the idea of seating me in the restaurant. Still, he insists that I have a seat. So I decide to be forgiving also, and chat with him while I order some Yuan-nan noodles.
"Yuan-nan noodles!? Not too spicy for you?" he asks.
"Not really. I like spicy -- 'Hao-lah!'" I reply. Then I raise our bone of contention: "Hey, I haven't hit any cars recently. Amazing!" He smiles at my attempt to joke about our tension, an irritated smile, riled by the unpleasant memory of our testosteroned confrontation, but a smile nonetheless.
"So . . . you work here!?"
"Not always, I'm just helping my sister for a few days."
"Oh, your sister owns this place."
"Well, she and my other sister-in-law and . . ."
"I see, the family business?"
"Yeah. So I just have to help here for now when I get off from my own job."
No wonder he's in a hurry, I think. "I live right next door, so I come here sometimes."
"Oh. Well my sister will be back here in a few days."

So I sit down and eat my noodles, reading for tomorrow's lecture on Milton's _Paradise Lost_: Desire, punishment, guilt, revenge, pride, etc. As I leave and present myself at the counter to pay the bill, the burly driver refuses to charge me.
"No, but I owe you for the noodles!" I try to hand him the money.
"Not at all. It's on me."
"But . .. well..."
"I feel sorry," he says looking away apologetically.
"Oh, that's OK. I feel sorry too."
He gestures toward the exit: "So, it's free tonight."
"Hey, thank you very much," I say in Chinese.
He seems embarrassed and impatient for me to leave, so I say goodbye, and he waves me off happily.

The world at night -- see this global photo for a perspective on humanity's transformation of the world

Monday, October 18, 2004

W. E. B. Du Bois on America's imperial decadence

Reading from _The Autobiography of W.E.B. Du Bois_ today for my transatlantic seminar. Sad to see that his description of America in a great jeremiad is not much diffent from an honest description of America today, some 35 years later. Du Bois wrote:

"I see a land which is degenerating and faces decadence unless it has the sense enough to turn about and start back. It is no sin to fail. It is the habit of men. It is disaster to go on when you know you are going wrong. I judge this land not merely by statistics or reading lies agreed upon by historians. I judge by what I have seen, heard, and lived through for near a century. [he lived for 95 years]
"There was a day when the world rightly called Americans honest even if crude; earning their living by hard work; telling the truth no matter whom it hurt; and going to war only in what they believed a just cause after nothing else seemed possible. Today we are lying, stealing, and killing. We call all this by finer names: Advertising, Free Enterprise, and National Defense. But names in the end deceive no one; today we use science to help us deceive our fellows; we take wealth that we never earned and we are devoting all our energies to kill, maim and drive insane, men, women, and children who dare refuse to do what we want done. No nation threatens us. We threaten the world.
. . . . "And they know why we fail, these military masters of men: 'we haven't taught our children mathematics and physics'. No, it is because we have not taught our children to read and write or to behave like human beings and not like hoodlums. Every child on my street in whooping it up with toy guns and big boys with real pistols. . . . The highest ambition of an American boy today is to be a millionaire. The highest ambition of an American girl is to be a movie star. Of the ethical actions which lie back of these ideals, little is said or learned. What are we doing about it? Half the Christian churches of New York are trying to ruin the free public schools in order to install religious dogma in them; and the other half are too interested in Venezuelan oil to prevent the [closing of] the best center in Brooklyn fighting youthful delinquency . . . . Which of the hundreds of churches sitting half empty protests about this? They hire Billy Graham to replace the circus in Madison Square Garden." (415-416).

Apparently things haven't changed much since 1968 when this was published. If anything, they've gotten considerably worse. Have a nice day!

Friday, October 15, 2004

What was "Derrida"?

Another of that great generation of (post)structuralists out of Paris (Lacan, Althusser, Barthes, Lyotard, Deleuze, Foucault, et al) has died: Derrida's death was on the front page of many newspapers. I'm starting to feel like an orphan. No more intellectual parents left, except for Baudrillard, and even he complains of having to write "posthumously" nowadays, knowing full well that he has nothing new to say. It seems the end of an era. I don't know any of my peers who can live up to this legacy. Derrida seemed to know this too, as his later work treated "mourning" and mortality.
While the Derrida obituaries made the front page, the news reports struggled to come up with any inkling of _why_ he was famous. Some decided that it's because he is infamous. Everyone mentioned the term "deconstruction" and flailed around at a definition. Some quoted soundbites from experts, the content of which is usually: "No soundbite can convey the meaning of deconstruction" or: "Derrida's importance in the history of philosophy is because . . . ." followed by more flailing around. Most mentioned that the Cambridge faculty was so confused that they almost voted against inviting Derrida for an honorary degree. But such are the biographies of every great thinker -- while the typical academic will die in deserved obscurity on the back page where they belong.
From my study, it is clear that so long as people are still reading Plato and Kant (which might not be much longer given the regress of civilization) then they will still be reading Derrida. His place in the canon is secure because he made it necessary for that place to exist in the history of thought. If you want to know why, you have to do the math. Start reading, but expect to read for about 5 years before this all makes sense. Anything less is just wasting your time.
Meanwhile, if you want to get a better soundbite on Derrida, follow the link above to a philosopher writing in the New York Times about this. Or see this longer review of Derrida's work from The Guardian,3858,5035951-110500,00.html And bring on the wake.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Jocks vs. Geeks

"There are two types of high school students: the sunny kids whose eyes light up at the announcement of a pep rally, who race to the gymnasium to shout the fight song, and the sullen black T-shirt-wearing hordes who let out disgusted sighs while hunting for a hiding place to smoke cheap cigarettes. Conformists versus contrarians, extroverts versus introverts, fans of Top 40 music versus fans of obscure, critically-acclaimed bands, people who believe those in authority versus those who don't. Athletes grow up to vote Republican, dorks Democratic. The great divide was chronicled by the John Hughes films of the 1980s--aggressive, bland privilege meets victimized, appealing alienation and wins--and it lives on in a classic right-wing Internet reposte to leftist posters: "You got beat up in school a lot, didn't you?" Members of the in crowd can marry those of the out crowd, work together and even be friends, but they will never share basic assumptions about the way the world works."

The ever outspoken and ballsy Ted Rall goes on to show what this "two-types-of-Americans" split means for the Empire today. Follow the link if you don't get it yet.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

From left: Andy the retired professor of poetry from the midwest, Sho-ching the retired Montessori teacher from Taiwan, and Roselle the new Montessori teacher from the Philippines. Summer of 2004 in Portland's Chinese Garden. We were eventually thrown out of their tea house for staying too long. Seems none of us knew how to politely end the conversation, so we just kept talking.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Magnatune: "We're a record label. But we're not evil."

Magnatune: MP3 files and music licensing (royalty free music and license music).
Listen for free. Buy at discount if you like to burn your own. The musician gets 50%, unlike other record labels. If you're tired of listening to Radio Paradise, check out Magnatune's baroque, jazz, world, etc...

The Scary Little Man

"George W. Bush, still smarting from his embarrassing performance in the Florida debate, decided on Friday night in St. Louis that volume was a good substitute for strength, that yelling would be mistaken for gravitas. The result was an ugly, disturbing, genuinely frightening show. . . ."

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Letters from Soldiers to Michael Moore