Sunday, September 30, 2007

A Round-Up of Blogs I Like

The Daily Blog Blog
Watch as this young blogger creates a new blog a day for a year! At last count he's hit number 245 - the SausageAppreciator - and my personal favorites include the Edited Journal of Stuff I Lost In The Laundry and Guerrilla Lawn Decorator. I'm certain that you'll find your own favorites in a couple minutes. He updates each blog maybe once or twice a week, which is a pretty amazing feat, if you realize that this means he's making about 1,200 posts a month!

Supermarket Undercover
Susan N. is just one of thousands young graduates who leave college in May to become cub cashiers, working long hours for little pay in hopes of hitting it big in the highly competitive field of Supermarket Sales. Susan dishes all the dirt: how she gives out one customer a wrong amount of change and hides it; how she notices some famous cashiers showing up to work late; and of course there are the daily reports of office gossip from the break room. (Last Tuesday they had cake!) She even has some run-ins with cashier luminaries like Brad, Nancy and Faye! I'm usually not into celebrity gossip, but I've always found the high-wire world of the Supermarket really entrancing. And you will, too - when you read this blog.

I Didn't Know That You Could Eat That!
Well, now you do.

23 Squids Do!
This is one of my favorite squid websites ever! Updated by a zoologist at the Center for Cephelopod Studies in Snarksburg, Virginia, 23 Squids Do! is the official eye into the Center's famous Squid Pen. In an effort to map squid social life, researchers put 23 representatives of different squid species into a communal aquarium to figure out what happens when squid stop being polite... and start getting real. The daily updates about the squids' lives are incredibly illuminating. Everybody ends up having their favorite squid. A friend of mine likes Porky, the diminutive Piglet Squid, whose kind heart means he gets picked on by the other squids. My personal favorite is Lester, whose developing relationship with the trainer Valerie is heartwarming, to say the least. (Last week it was Valerie's birthday, and Lester remembered! He made her a hat out of kelp!) Check it out, and find more about our aquatic neighbors, the squid!

Monday, September 24, 2007

A Pick-Me-Up

A post about caffeine to read - over your morning coffee, preferably.

If you don't drink coffee, we probably don't have enough in common, me and you.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Oops... We Did It Again!

Now, I'm scared of Bush like the next liberal, but sometimes it all goes too far. Like a supervisor of mine who I overheard educating some hapless cashier - in the staccato squeal of the profoundly over-caffinated and under-informed - that she thought that September the 11th was an American version of the burning of the Reichstag. Say what you will about American education, but I don't think that a supermarket check-out line is the most appropriate place for a lecture on the history of the Second World War. And then, on Boing Boing today I saw a post about Naomi Wolf's The End of America: A Warning Letter to a Young Patriot, which has this list of ten 'warning signs' that shows oops! we're living in a fascist society. They are:

1. Invoke a terrifying internal and external enemy

2. Create a gulag

3. Develop a thug caste

4. Set up an internal surveillance system

5. Harass citizens' groups

6. Engage in arbitrary detention and release

7. Target key individuals

8. Control the press

9. Dissent equals treason

10. Suspend the rule of law

Now we, as blog-reading, well-informed, Bush-hating Americans are meant to look at this list and gasp and say to ourselves Oh no! Bush is in the middle of creating a fascist state. And then we get to sit back in our easy-chairs, feel doomed and indignant, and maybe make a tut-tut-tut sound before going back to whatever it was we were doing before we realized we were living under the iron fist of Darth Bush.

Now there are a couple things wrong with this checklist. The first is that it's pretty thin, information-wise. You could apply these ten points to the administration of that greatly beloved tyrant, Abraham Lincoln. Now, I think that the worst thing Lincoln did was to use hard Presidential power to secure his goals - it set a dangerous precedent for American dictatorship. Go through the list and ask yourself: did Lincoln do that? I think that the only thing he really didn't do was equate dissent with treason.

You've gotta remember, too that before Lincoln came around America was less a nation and more a loose confederation of states. Secession seemed a bit extreme, sure, but well within the logic of people's conception of American nationality. This was a time of unstable borders, where American expansionism drew up new territories by the decade, the term United States used to be plural (these United States), and regional and sectional differences were incredibly profound so that it might seem a different country in New York and South Carolina.

The second thing wrong is that I don't think that America could even host a fascist state. While Lincoln certainly forged a nation with a unified, if shaky national identity, I think that the monolith of our shared language, national politics, and national media hide a divided nation. The difference in culture and practice from Idaho to California to New York is so great that imposing the order and discipline of fascism over America's four (plus!) time zones would be a logistical nightmare about a billion times harder than, say, imposing universal healthcare on our unsuspecting nation. We've had a hard enough time imposing a working national education system on Americans. How the hell do we think we can impose a well-run fascist state? Try imagining the dystopic government Wolf intimates in her checklist actually being able to quash the deep stream of dissent of our American culture. The greatness of America is the same as our weakness: we're who we are, and not much can change us, and who were are is a group of contrarian, individualistic, materialistic assholes. And those don't mix well with genuine fascism.

The third thing is that the idea that the Bush administration is somehow on par with Hitler or Mussolini both diminishes the horror of true fascist regimes and elevates the efficacy of the Bush administration. The Nazis, the Soviets, the fascists - they were a organized wave of unspeakable horror and repression. The Bush administration is a bumbling enclave of kids who were bullied too much in high school and have some hard-on for hard-power. They're so incompetent that they'd be utterly laughable if, say, they were the leaders of a country the size of Turkmenistan or owned the coffee shop down the road. They might be messing a lot of things up, but the America that exists today, after six years of Bush, is not some predetermined step on the course to tyranny; it is, rather, the result of large-scale failures of leadership.

That's not to say that if the Bush administration had effectively pursued its policies, we'd be much better off. But I think that the real lesson we'll get from this administration is one of incompetence and arrogance, not malfeasance and Machiavellian politics. To paint Bush otherwise, as some sort of Darth Vader character, is to give him far too much credit.

If you like this, check out Damned Interesting's post on a failed coup set up by wealthy industrialists in the 1930s....

Paul Krugman on Healthcare

I've just finished reading Krugman's latest column and -


Celebration is at hand.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

A Fact About The Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein # 7

"No I won't! No I won't! I will never!" Wittgenstein screamed at a fashionable New Year's Eve party in Berlin, ushering in 1921. The next day found him on a train to Sweden, where he got himself a small room in a boardinghouse. For the next six months, Wittgenstein refused to speak a single word. He communicated in a series of grunts and gestures, spending his days hunched over a desk, writing furiously, tearing out his hair, ripping up pages and pages of manuscripts. Often at dinners, Wittgenstein would frustrate his fellow boarders by trying to participate in their lively conversations about Swedish politics and art - but without words. The great philosopher would get angery that nobody could understand him, often throwing plates against the wall and shaking intractable interlocutors. When summer came, he built a large bonfire in the countryside and burnt all of his past six months' of work. He wrote a postcard to his sister soon after that said, simply "Life is for reading great works. And writing them. There is nothing else."

Wittgenstein scholars have long fantasized about those lost pages. What new insights could they give to Wittgenstein's sometimes obscure oeuvre? In 1998 their questions were answered when the landlord of the Swedish boarding house was cleaning up the disused attic, and found a manila folder, with Ludwig Wittgenstein's signature on the cover, one edge half-burnt. He looked inside and found the only surviving pages of that 1921 manuscript. But Wittgenstein hadn't written a word. He'd filled the reams of paper with nothing more than thousands of drawings of differently sized squares.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Oh my love it's a funny little thing.

Photo by Flickr user Andrew Ciscel

Mornings like this one, I wake up with a sense of inevitable dread. I’m afraid that all of my hopes will float by me unfulfilled, and then, what will happen to me? Will I curl up into a little ball? Will I become one of those bitter old men who walk the streets with loneliness like lead weights? And I lay in the warmth of my sheets, and think of how my day’s going to go once I cast off the duvet and throw on clothes, and from there I think of the next day month and week, and there’s something meaningless to it all, something flat and without pay-off. I'd rather just lay in bed for another fifteen minutes and sink into the shallow-oblivion of half sleep.

And I’m not suffering from some universal existential angst here. I’m not doubting that there’s any meaning to be had from life. What I’m doubting is that there’s any meaning left for me.

At the same time as I worry this, I also think: I’m being so clichéd, every other twenty-three year old with a touch of ambition feels as hopeless as I do. It will pass, or I'll get used to it, or I'll wake up tomorrow and bam everything will be okay.

Maybe that's worse, though. That everyone feels this way.


I’m living in a strange city. I don’t know which bars to go to, I don't know which cafes to go to - and when I do go somewhere, I'm alone - and shy. So I read a lot. I've been watching far too much of the HBO Original Series The Wire. And don’t get me wrong – I’ve met a lot of very nice people here. But there’s something missing in the day-to-day concourse of my life. My great friends – those people who know me well enough for me to be wholly open with them, who probably like me enough to read this blog on a semi-regular basis – they’re all far away from me. I hear their voices on the phone, I send them e-mails. But after a while, those long-distance calls make my present loneliness just seem a bit starker. I can remember a time when I knew everyone, when I could feel popular and successful, where I was a senior in a small college and I knew what to do.

So I feel caught adrift on something. Placeless.

And where do I go from here? My ambition leads me somewhere. But where? I know I want to write. But there’s a whole underground economy of wannabe writers, garnishing their egos with short stories and blog posts, who have just as much ambition and just as much talent as I do. I'd like to be able to sell some Alternative Weekly my squid facts for one-hundred dollars a pop. But the things I find interesting seem to bore other people. I feel foreign to a big bulk ot people. And there are plenty of people who have found themselves friendless in a big city. There are plenty of people who wake up and get scared that the next warm summer day they step out into they'll be twenty-four and not be allowed to have fun.

You’d hope that your dread, your angst, your deepest fears, weren’t so goddamned normal that they were terribly clichéd. I wish I could be feeling something horribly shocking and new. I want groundbreaking angst.

But at the same time as I dismiss this, it's there, and it's real, and it's hard to shake it. I wake up and don't have joy, only hunger. I work and what I do is desperate - like a person at the beach trying to scratch their name in the sand quickly before the next wave comes to wash it all away.

I want to run away to a new life. One where I can go into a cafe and everyone says hi and wants to talk about books. One where I can go read my short stories out loud at open mic nights. One where I can call my friends - and see them, in flesh, in real life - and talk with them in silly voices. And the hard part is that the life I imagine seems about as possible as me making friends with Mark Twain; which I want to do, by the way.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Dispossession - A Draft

I began this essay a week or two ago. As it grew longer, I found it harder and harder to strain sense out of my sentences. I would write in furious bursts, in great metaphors, and then look over what I wrote to edit, and while I'd cut some sentences and re-write others, I found myself unable to come closer to any sort of
point. My reasoning suddenly seemed cumbersome, my arguments stale when I thought them fresh, the ideas confused, when I thought them clear.

That being said, I think I'm onto something here. And while I'll be setting aside this topic for a while, I'm going to post this stump of an essay for you readers. Treat it as what it is: something raw, a bit of a beginning, a bit of a curiosity.

If you think I'm onto something, by all means - tell me. I'd like to know what it is.


This generation faces an uncharted wilderness of the mind. New technology has afforded us a terrible opportunity: the spoils may be rich, but the failures desperate. Will we be representatives of some new golden age? or citizens of a broken Diaspora?

All that’s certain is that we are a people without maps. We are lost. We have nowhere to go. We will find our way - but only in time.


It’s a tired fact, but true, that the same wealth of opportunity that makes our lives easier –cel phones, the internet, our relative ease – can make our lives feel impoverished. We have all wasted nights and days buffeted from website to website like a piece of trash caught in the wind until we notice that it’s three in the morning and our eyes hurt; we have all searched in the desert of cable TV for some El Dorado of satisfaction and in vain; we have all found our attention scattered between the conversation on the cel phone, the five open tabs on our internet browser, and the actual physical world that sits a couple feet in front of our computer screens. We have wealth, sure, and wealth which would have been unimaginable to our forbearers. But we find ourselves overwhelmed. We hide in our beds and never want to get up. We go to the gym. We feel stranded in a desert of the soul. We don’t know how to be the people we think we need to be.

Our wealth is hollow. It doesn’t give us happiness. That truth is an empty one, a sign that doesn’t point anywhere. But we don’t know what will make us happy. And so we continue deeper into the desert.


Our patience runs short. In a couple clicks we can land on another argument, another game, another song; so we have trouble devoting our attentions to any single thing. This is not a bad thing, within reason. In a way it makes us informational omnivores, with wide interests. Look at the epicurean vitality of websites like, modern day wonder-closets, collections of curiosities for the truly curious. But there is a point when this distraction, rather than feeding our creativity, shatters our attention, cracking the surface of our deeper thought. The people who do not learn to channel this distraction will find themselves living in an archipelago made up of tiny flat islands of understanding, surrounded by a dark unnavigable sea.

Plus it’s addicting. There is something immediately satisfying about the internet, but this makes it dangerous, because it’s so easy to access that satisfaction and much of it is hollow. We can foster the illusion that if we go to the next page of porn, something deeply rewarding will happen to us. That if we gain another level on WoW, we will possess some greater meaning to our lives. But when we are done, we find ourselves none the richer, just a little bit more tired, more distracted, sinking deeper into our computer screens.


In Japan there are young men called hikikomori . These young men hole themselves up in their rooms and don’t ever come out. The struggle of the outside world has become too much for them, perhaps, and so they creep back to the comfort of depression, of mediated experience. Filling their lives with comic books, computer games, and magazines, they are safe. And the are safe even if they cannot escape the familiar prison of their rooms nor their dramas the plotted fantasies of books and TVs. They can experience, but it will not hurt. They will feel, but they will not give up their control. They do not try – but neither do they fail. How do they get like this?


We spend our lives listening to songs other people sing, watching TV shows dealing with people we will have no commerce with, and reading stories that take place in far-away places we can neither effect nor change. We tend, as a generation, to critique more than we create, to watch more than we do. And this means that we suffer from an overactive critical sense, but an active life that is benumbed and abstract. What’s the big deal, though? The big deal is that we live a life surrounded by artificial lives, that no longer reflect the real struggles people tend to go through.

TV’s a great comfort. But while TV can comfort, more often than not it just numbs, putting our problems on hold by pausing our life. It makes our life a little bit more lonely. First, TV is too easy a comfort. We can press a single button, turn on the TV, and be safe. It’s far easier than, say, going to a café and trying to talk with someone you don’t know. But most friendships, most of the rewarding things in life, require us to put ourselves out there in some way, run a risk of looking stupid. We might be too shy, and stay at home watching TV.

The temptation to loose ourselves in this fantasy land are really great. Especially since, the more we slip into this comforting box of stories, the more impossible it seems to get back out. Because TV, in its non-stop interest, spins tales of people who are well-adjusted, active, funny, and engaging. If you’ve been sitting at home for the past month or two, ekeing out a life on the edges of society, then you can’t relate to the people you see on TV. You can’t relate to Ross and Monica, Rachel and Chandler. But the problem is – they’re become your good friends. That’s how you think people are meant to act like. And even though we all know that TV is fake, we lack the stories of people who are messed up, lazy, conflicted – television’s inability to communicate stories about loneliness and ennui trap some of us into a deeper cycle of loneliness and ennui, where we fail to recognize the sensibility of our problem.


OK – I’m going to outline this point:
Loneiness can be soothed with TV
But it makes you more lonely
- why? Because you don’t do anything with other people, it is easy to watch it (the initial costs are low)
the illusion of TV: it makes a world in which people do a lot
- but also, because of the temporal shortening (all the boring stuff is necessarily edited out to fit in the thirty to sixty minute window of time we have) we see no boredom
-- so we can escape into a world in which everything happens, but not to us. We think that we shouldn’t be bored.
The utter inability of TV to communicate a struggle against meaninglessness and eunnui in a meaningful way leads to us trapped in a cycle of meaninglessness and ennui because we fail to see that the problem actually exists.

The second problem is that TV spins an illusory world in which people are well-adjusted and active. Most of the human beings I meet are not like the people on TV. But the active, healthy people on TV are bad role models for the ranks of unhappy, broken people who find their solace and comfort of the television. A person might come home from a life alienated and unsatisfying, and watch an episode of the sit-com Friends. Let’s say they watch an hour of it a day. But that life on the screen is so very different . People on TV have friends, and they see their friends, and they work, and they are necessarily unbothered by the crippling existential angst that might lead a young person to withdraw from the world and watch the pleasant stories of people who do not withdraw from the world. We, who as a nation consume, consume stories about people who are far more active than anybody we ever see in our real flesh-and blood existences.

Where are the miscreants? The insomniacs? The alcoholics? The people in credit card debt? The idiots who hate their friends? Who have no friends? The compulsive masturbators? The guys who lie to get pretty girls in bed? The pretentious? The lonely? – we are all lonely. The people so bored they don’t know what to do? These marginal stories are now surrounded by a constant drone of normalcy. An exceptional normalcy – a life of event, carefully poltted and portioned in half an hour to hour dollops.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

A Fact About Our Nautical Friend, The Squid # 2

There arose a peculiar belief about squids among seafarers, that touching a squid would cause severe, almost instantaneous baldness. I've found evidence for this belief in English, Portuguese and Spanish writings (the French are curiously silent, but that might just be a shortcoming of my research). The belief even led to the popular (if mystifying) nautical exclamation: "He's so bald he must've shaken hands with a squid!"

Here's a section of the diary of Robert Snarksman, an officer of the Royal Navy who served from 1798-1820:

We were out afishing in the earlie day when we caught a monstre: a squid, aboute the size of a large dogge; we tried to fling it back overboard, but in the fighte a tentacle touched poore Pipkin, and he woke next morn his pate wholly bald.

This belief has also inspired the sea shanties, Squidtop, and She Served Him Squid For Dinner.

In the journals of Lorenzo Snarkaretti, an Italian explorer who visited China in the middle of the eighteenth century, we find evidence for how far this belief spread:

The Chinese, in their brothels, will have numerous squid living in their baths, as if the baths indeed were large aquariums. The women, when they bathe in these, will be approached and often fondled by the creatures and their many tentacles. This practice renders the women entirely hairless, which is the preference of the Chinese nobleman. The women wear the most elaborate wigs, which are sewn from the hair of peasant women by armies of slaves. The wigs can often be worth more than whole households, and tower over the diminutive women! Though we have never seen these baths, them being in the women's quarters and viewable only by concubines and eunuchs, they are so widely reported, they must not be doubted to exist.

My state of mind:

I've checked my mailbox three or four times today.

It's Sunday.