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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Experimentation and inconsistency are hard-wired into our brains...

I've always wondered why I do things slightly differently each time I do them. (It took me twenty years of long, annoying searches to realize it's actually best to put the keys in the same place every day!)

I'd thought maybe it's because I'm never sure I've already come up with the BEST way - maybe some other way would be better.

Extracts from
Brain Wired for Improv, Not Perfection
Study Shows Each Movement Planned From Scratch

By Jennifer Warner for WebMD Medical News

Dec. 20, 2006 -- The brain is wired for inconsistency ... according to new brain-based research that suggests the reason humans have a hard time doing the same task exactly the same way is that the brain starts planning each movement from scratch.

"The main reason you can't move the same way each and every time, such as swinging a golf club, is that your brain can't plan the swing the same way each time," says researcher Krishna Shenoy ... at Stanford University.

The researchers say inconsistencies in how the brain plans for each movement may have an evolutionary reason.

"The nervous system was not designed to do the same thing over and over again," says researcher Mark Churchland ... in the release.

"The nervous system was designed to be flexible," Churchland says. "You typically find yourself doing things you've never done before."

Of course practice can reduce the variation in the mind's and body's ability.

But, researchers say, it can't change the variable way the mind plans motion.

SOURCE: Churchland, M. Neuron, Dec. 21, 2006; vol 52: pp 1085–1096. News release, Stanford University.

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Monday, January 29, 2007

Just what the doctor ordered.

Melina gave me this amaryllis for my birthday. What a great present. Thanks, sweetie!

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Netflix Roundup #2

  • Microcosmos. Bugs, bugs, bugs. Pro: No moron narrator. Con: Not good for watching while on the elliptical trainer because bugs move so, so slowly. Also, I forgot when I put it on my queue -- I'm not very fond of bugs and absolutely loathe caterpillars. So I watched the whole movie in fast forward and closed my eyes at the ikky parts.

  • The Station Agent. A taciturn dwarf, burned by the stupid prejudices of humans, retreats to life in a deserted railway station in rural new Jersey and meets wacky characters who accept him. I liked it a lot - it reminded me of A Man Without a Past, wherein a taciturn Finnish laborer loses his memory in a mugging and goes to live in a community of shipping containers and meets wacky characters. None of my neighbors are as much fun as these people.

  • 3rd Rock from the Sun. Aliens settle outside Chicago. As long as I don't watch too many of these in a row, they make me giggle helplessly. John Lithgow and French Stewart, in particular, are smashing.

  • To Serve Them All My Days. A BBC series. John Duttine, as a shell-shocked WWI veteran come to teach at a boys' school, is incredibly handsome and has a gorgeous speaking voice; the story, the writing, the directing, all spectacular. However, near the end of the disk I just watched, something horrible happened and I've had to give it up. Life is horrible enough. Too bad, this is 5-star tv.

  • Murphy Brown. Candace Bergen as a cocky tv newscaster with 80s big hair. The episodes are alternately funny and annoying. I love her voice and the music is great.

  • Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. Artsy framed riff on the "unfilmable" novel. It's not as much fun as Casanova and the artsy stuff = not as successful as advertised. After enjoying about half of it I started fastforwarding.

  • The Duchess of Duke Street. Girl of humble origins becomes a cook in a fancy house, meets famous people, and becomes a salty eminence. One of my favorite BBC series of all time. Gemma Jones is delightful and reminds me of my favorite aunt. (An aside: I'm soft on costume dramas and these are the best Edwardian outfits every seen on tv.) The quality of the individual storylines waxes and wanes but the show always keeps my attention.

  • Ladies in Lavender. Two fluttery elderly sisters meet a handsome young Polish violinist with amnesia (he washed up on their beach) and fall in love with him and try to keep him from rejoining the world. It's utterly ghastly, worth throwing out the window if dvds made a more satisfying clatter when they hit the ground. What a waste of Judy Dench and Maggie Smith.

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Sunday, January 28, 2007

Melinama does Illustration Friday - "Red"

This is from a photo of my mother, who was a researcher at Time, Life Inc. before I was born and later was a researcher for Barbara Tuchman and later than that, went to library school and became a librarian. She died in 1979 and the thought of her still terrifies me.

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Mike does Illustration Friday - "Red"

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About the Cakewalk and the Golliwog.

Friday night my voice student (and painting friend) Mike was the featured vocalist at an evening of Ragtime music and dance. He was great.

Included in the performance were members of Triangle Vintage Dance. They shared some fascinating information about the dance known as the Cakewalk, telling us that white dancers picked it up around the turn of the century from minstrel show dancers: "If you think it looks kind of ridiculous, that's because our Cakewalk is actually an imitation of slaves who were themselves imitating the ballroom dances and high-society mannerisms of their masters."

As you can read at the Cakewalk History Page, the Cakewalk dance was invented (called the chalk walk) around 1850 by slaves who imitated a solemn processional dance of the Seminole Indians. The site adds: "Many of the special movements of the cake-walk, the bending back of the body, and the dropping of the hands at the wrists, amongst others, were a distinct feature in certain tribes of the African Kaffir dances."

It developed into a parody of the minuets and promenades danced by the upper-class whites in the "Big House." The slave parodists included "dignified walking, flirting, prancing, strutting, bowing low, waving canes, doffing hats, and a high kicking grand promenade."

For entertainment, plantation owners pitted their best "slave walkers" against each other. The prize would be a hoecake wrapped in cabbage leaf (origin of that takes the cake!) ... and the name "Cakewalk" was now set.

Minstrel show dancers in blackface parodied the Cakewalk, which was itself a parody.

"By the 1890's, the Cakewalk was the hottest thing around ... The Cakewalk was the first American dance to cross over from black to white society as well as from the stage (Minstrel shows) to ballroom. The Cakewalk would be the window for other African-American dances to enter white society in the future. Many of the upper class Summer and Seaside hotels would feature a Cakewalk at the end of the season."

The dance's exaggerated nature served perfectly for the physical, hammy humor of the stage shows, the participants generally played as goofy and bumbling as possible.

The cakewalk's original meaning was lost; where it had originally been black slaves attempt to mock their superiors and for a minute live in autonomy, it had come to be the bumbling attempts of poor blacks to mimic the manners of whites. The dancers were no longer joking, but were portrayed as genuinely wanting to be like the superiors. More.

While I was googling around on this subject, the "Golliwog's Cakewalk" by Debussy came up and I was sort of horrified to discover this:

From the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University:

The golliwog image, popular in England and other European countries, is found on a variety of items, including postcards, jam jars, paperweights, brooches, wallets, perfume bottles, wooden puzzles, sheet music, wall paper, pottery, jewelry, greeting cards, clocks, and dolls. For the past four decades Europeans have debated whether the Golliwog is a lovable icon or a racist symbol.

The Golliwog began life in 1895 as a story book character ... the story begins with [two white dolls] encountering "a horrid sight, the blackest gnome." The little black "gnome" wore bright red trousers, a red bow tie on a high collared white shirt, and a blue swallow-tailed coat. He was a caricature of American black faced minstrels -- in effect, the caricature of a caricature. She named him Golliwogg.

Upton's Golliwogg character, like the rag doll which inspired it, was ugly. He was often drawn with paws instead of hands and feet. He had a coal black face, thick lips, wide eyes, and a mass of long unruly hair.4 He was a cross between a dwarf-sized Black minstrel and an animal. The appearance was distorted and frightening.

During the first half of the twentieth century, the Golliwog doll was a favorite children's soft toy in Europe. Only the Teddy Bear exceeded the Golliwog in popularity.

The French composer Claude Debussy was so enthralled by the Golliwogs in his daughter's books that one movement of his Children's Corner Suite is entitled "The Golliwog's Cakewalk."

Here's a picture of Peter Estep, coordinator of this event and pianist, and his tuba player, who was magnificient.

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Friday, January 26, 2007

Two more "trading cards"

I'm sending these out today for the artist trading card project. The only rule about these cards is: they must be 2.5" x 3.5" - it's quite a challenge to work so small.


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We're having fun over at Caray, Caray!

Here are some bits of posts and comments from my blog Caray, Caray! - at which fifteen bloggers are recapping the three telenovelas which air on Univision five nights a week. We have quite a lively discussion going on there (we're averaging almost 600 hits a day). Educational, too, as you shall see. Thanks to all the folks who are contributing tidbits like these:

La vida me ha vuelto muy arisca. Life has made me very surly.
La vida se me ha vuelto muy arisca. Life has become very surly to me.

I still laugh thinking about how in Heridas there was apparently only one priest and church in all of Mexico City, and only one hospital. And how easily they were able to drive across the most populous city in North America just to have a three minute conversation, and nobody ever got stuck in traffic!

What is with Emiliooo not recognizing Alina? Are jeans and teeshirt kind of like Superman's red and blue getup?? ... you put them on and people do not recognize you??? This has never worked for me. ... I'm in my jeans and tee, and yet people remarkably STILL know who I am.

If Martha looks pregnant lately, it's probably because her fat suit doesn't seem to fit properly. Especially when she sits down, the "fat" part rides up, making her look preggers.

I don't know if I can continue to watch this show. It bothers me that they killed off Luisito and David, and I hate to see that poor little guy with the heart problems. Now, they have given sweet JC leukemia. I want suffering for the evil ones and happiness for the good folks, and I am not getting that formula from this novela. ~~~Susanlynn, ready to write her own novela...lots of good pirates and horses and swords

I didn't know that leukemia was the disease of choice in Telenovela World. Kind of like "brain fever" in 19th century English novels.

Rosita, Flor's beautiful friend, is standing by the river. She disrobes and steps into the water. Don Maximo is hiding on the shore drooling and twisting his moustache. After she swims and puts her clothes back on Don Maximo sneaks up behind her and attacks her. He wants her to be his, all his. Rosita screams and struggles. Flor and Tonqui the wonder dog hear her screams and run to her aid. Flor demands that he let her go, Don Max tells her to mind her own business and to shut up the dog or he'll put a bullet hole in him. Tonqui barks viciously and bares his teeth. Rosita pushes Maximo into the water. He swears at them as they run away. I liked this scene a lot, I had to rewind it a couple of times. Tonqui's teeth look very sharp.

plomazo - bullet hole
una aventura - an affair
lana - wool but also slang for money/dough
zafado - nut case

She's a little out of his league: Esas pulgas no brincan en tu petate = Those fleas don't jump in your bedroll.

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Melina: A fun thing for a high school age Jewish kid to do

I got info about this program from my job. I don't know very many high schoolers right now, but I would have loved to do this when I was in high school.

Then again, I was a huge dork.

The Samberg Family History Program

An Academic Summer Fellowship for High School Students
July 2 - 27, 2007

The Samberg Family History Program will engage you in a multi-faceted exploration of Jewish history and your family's past. We draw upon all of the resources at the Center for Jewish History: our world-renowned collections of books, archival documents, photographs, artifacts, paintings, films, sound recordings, and textiles; our expert curators, archivists, and librarians; our technology offerings, knowledgeable historians, and caring educators. Based in the heart of New York City, we also take great advantage of our city's myriad important research institutions and historic sites.

Through the generosity of the Samberg Family Foundation, all students accepted into the Program receive full tuition fellowships and are recognized as Samberg High School Fellows. As a Fellow, you are both a student, learning a subject, and an apprentice, pursuing research into the Jewish past alongside the worldwide community of academics, genealogists, and others who come to use the collections housed at the Center for Jewish History.

The Samberg Family History Program is co-sponsored by the Center for Jewish History's Genealogy Institute and the American Jewish Historical Society and funded by the Samberg Family Foundation.

We invite you to contact us to learn more about the program and about how you can discover your own history.


Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The one-bowl Mongolian restaurant technique

A friend and I were admiring the engineering feats accomplished by diners at the local Mongolian restaurant which charges by the bowl - one bowl is five and a half dollars, no matter how little (or how much) you fit in the bowl.

Here you see a simple stacking technique - others used sticks of zucchini to make palisade retaining walls which could be filled more stably than the system illustrated here. The cook, who looked like he hated his job, was indifferent to the machinations.

Ah, the wonder of cell phone cameras!

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Wherein every singer is above average.

I disagree with Joel Achenbach when he says American Idol is EVERYTHING that's wrong with America - bombastic egocentrics are often harmless - but I do agree the show, the judges, and the contestants are beyond obnoxious. Also, all the singers are trying to emulate the exact same style of singing.

Extracts from
American Idol: Everything That's Wrong With America

The judges and the viewers were tortured by contestants whose delusions of grandeur and hegemonic vanity had led to them to think that they could sing.

Collectively they told the majority of contestants that they were putrid, and that, as Simon put it at one point, their futures would not involve singing.

This came as shocking news to many contestants, who, demonstrating one of the core weaknesses of American culture, had been told again and again that they had a talent that they in fact lacked. What we saw was the self-esteem movement exploding on prime-time television.

We saw young people raised in the Everyone Gets A Trophy culture being told the truth for the first time in their lives. Gosh it was painful to watch, unless, of course, you're a sadist, in which case it was hilarious.

"American Idol" is, on many levels, a catalog of all that is wrong with our country. First you have the pathogen of overkill, which infects all creative ventures these days and manifests itself on this particular program as extremely dramatic singing.

Imagine "Over the Rainbow" sung as though it's the national anthem at the Super Bowl. Everyone wants to sing so loudly and with so many warbles and yah-yahs and pulmonary flourishes that the judges are blown against the back wall by the shock wave.

We saw all these people of ordinary talent declaring that they would become the next American Idol because they were "unique."

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Monday, January 22, 2007

Some climate change links from The Independent

Also from my college listserv, the articles below are from the United Kingdom. I heard the folks on World News waxing indignant (so to speak) the other day about how it's going to cost so much more to go skiing because a tremendous amount of artificial snow is being required due to global warning.

This reminds me of how Gold's brother said it would be so terrible if there were no more water in the world because he wouldn't be able to drink his scotch on the rocks any more.

It's also been pointed out: this past December was the first one without snow in Manhattan for 128 years.

Vast ice shelf collapses in the Arctic

A vast ice shelf in the Canadian Arctic has broken up, a further sign of the astonishing rate at which polar ice is now melting because of global warming.

The Ayles ice shelf, more than 40 square miles in extent - over five times the size of central London - has broken clear from the coast of Ellesmere Island, about 500 miles south of the North Pole in the Canadian Arctic, it emerged yesterday.

Melting glaciers will destroy Alpine resorts within 45 years

The grandchildren of today's skiers are likely to know the white peaks of Switzerland only from the wrappers of chocolate bars. A remarkable report on climate change that will be handed to European governments this week will say that the effect of rising temperatures will mean an end to snow across large areas of the Alps.

Spring in January: Frogs, trees and bees are deceived by winter's unseasonal warmth

St Hilary's day, New Year's Eve on the Julian calendar and, traditionally, the coldest day of the year, passed yesterday as one of the warmest on record.

Temperatures averaged 12C, above the seasonal average by 9C. More record-breaking warmth is expected this month, confusing plants and animals that should now be dormant. Daffodils, normally in bloom in March, are already out in St Mawes in Cornwall.

Climate Change vs Mother Nature: Scientists reveal that bears have
stopped hibernating

Bears have stopped hibernating in the mountains of northern Spain, scientists revealed yesterday, in what may be one of the strongest signals yet of how much climate change is affecting the natural world.

Snowdon will be snow-free in 13 years, scientists warn

Those who originally named the peak spoke as they probably found it, calling it "Snow Dun", from the Saxon for "snow hill". But Snowdon may lose its snow cover within 13 years as a result of climate change, Welsh scientists say.

Disappearing world: Global warming claims tropical island

Rising seas, caused by global warming, have for the first time washed an inhabited island off the face of the Earth. The obliteration of Lohachara island, in India's part of the Sundarbans where the Ganges and the Brahmaputra rivers empty into the Bay of Bengal, marks the moment when one of the most apocalyptic predictions of environmentalists and climate scientists has started coming true.

Lapland can only dream of white Christmas

It should be a winter wonderland; instead, it's just piles of slush. British holidaymakers travelling to Lapland for a pre-Christmas holiday got a shock when they arrived in Santa's traditional home this week: no snow.

Arctic's summer sea ice 'could disappear completely by 2040'

The Arctic could lose virtually all its summer sea ice by the year 2040 - 40 years earlier than previously thought - according to a study by leading climate scientists.

Meet the world's top destroyer of the environment. It is not the car, or
the plane,or even George Bush: it is the cow.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Melina: Thematic Postscript

Have you noticed that one of Melinama's most frequent technorati tags is "Folly"? I would say it's probably one of the main themes of this blog.

In one of Donald Westlake's Dortmunder books, Dortmunder has to steal a painting called "Folly Leads Man Into Ruin." I wish we had a copy of that painting.


This Morning Melina Ran the Half Marathon in 20 degree weather!


1.) get up at 6:30, go to bathroom five times, eat strawberry pop tart. those things are better than energy bars. none of those inconvenient minerals or protein weighing youd own. stare outside. dark and windy. put on 4 layers of clothing: green sleeveless shirt, orange fluorescent turtleneck, red fleece, purple windbreaker. Attach timing device, the "ChampionChip," to shoe.

2.) stumble out of the house, take the subway to west 86th and jog across the park to the start line.

3.) you know it's going to be a long morning when you have to chip the ice out of your water cup. 19 degrees and windy. fingers numb. feet numb. race director tries to instil some spirit into us. he is fairly effective. i take my fingers out of the fingers of the gloves and ball my hands up inside my gloves.

4.) started out at a nice slow pace because i was behind 1000 people. so forced to stay at 9:15 minute/mile pace for the first couple miles. no, literally 1000 people. then gradually started picking it up. and -- hey. how was I at 36:00 for 4 miles? wow, i guess this is going better than I thought. stay easy, stay easy. I get a huge throbbing pain in my right hip, the protestations of an understretched muscle. quiet, muscle. if i tried to stretch you this morning, you would snap. trust me. i stopped at about the 5th mile and stretched out the hip and it quieted down a little bit. all kinds of runners. they keep yelling at everyoen to stay to the left of the cones or theyll be dq'ed, but every 3rd person is runningm to the right of the cones. thus, in the crowd, you cant see ahead of you, and trip over the cones and kick them halfway across the street by accident. kind of dangerous! okay 6 miles around the park and still feeling great. the old cross country instincts kick in and I'm passing a lot of people, particularly when cresting the hills, as my old cross country coach taught us.

5.) let's pick it up a little more. holding steady at around 8:40 miles (the goal had been 9). only start to feel like crap half way through the secondlap, rigth when dad says i'm supposed to be picking it up, according to running "experts." huh. what do they know. crap! okay, I pick it up a *little*. then a little more. okay, now my right foot's crampign a little because my new shoes aren't quite broken in enough, still stiff. oh well, just two more miles.

6.) Finish just under 1:53, the Urban Caballero is there hollering, and holds me up as I stagger back west across the park. I remember to return my microchip from off my shoe. the support staff is really nice, and I'm totally trouncing this course.

7.) go home. take very hot shower. eat gigantic plate of waffles. feel pleased with self. put on race shirt. take nap.


How "Wife Swap" solicits godawful families.

In the show WIFE SWAP, the moms of two families - cartoonishly different families - trade places and get to, uh, "manage" each other's spouses and kids for a week.

I saw it just once - there was a "hillbilly" family, or at least so it was presented by the producers, and then there was a "rich idle" family. Much shrewish yelling, misunderstanding, and door slamming ensued. Everybody was resentful and sullen. Some were sobbing. That's reality tv, I guess.

Did you ever wonder how shows like this and like "Bridezilla" get folks to make fools of themselves on tv -- to let themselves be seen as such selfish harpies?

Well, here's a casting call the local Yale Club forwarded to members. Note how Ms. Teta seeks twisted, arrogant, bossy, snobbish people - but tries rather transparently to make them feel flattered by the solicitation! Heh heh.

Dear Sir or Madam,

I'm a Casting Producer with ABC Television and we're looking for moms and dads who value structure and education for one of our hit documentary-style family shows.

We're looking for those great Ivy League educated parents who work in high profile, demanding careers... parents who encourage their children to follow in mom and dad's footsteps. We're looking for those high achieving families who strive for excellence in all that they do, whether it be inside or outside the office.

We want the structured and disciplined families who could be great role models to our viewers. Do you feel your Ivy League experience has shaped you into who you are today? Do you know of anyone who fits this profile?

We're currently casting these great families for ABC's hit family show, Wife Swap! ... [it] allows families the chance to show others what values and philosophies are most important in their lives.

For the first half of the week each mom gets to experience how another family lives to see what she can learn from their lifestyle. For the second half of the week each mom gets the opportunity to introduce her own rules and philosophies into the new home.

The goal is for everyone to walk away from the experience having learned something positive. In this case we're looking for those education minded families who give their kids every opportunity to succeed in life.

All featured families will receive a $20,000 financial honorarium as a thank you for their ten day filming commitment.

Heather Teta

Melina wrote when I sent her this: "I love Wife Swap. It shows a tremendous amount about how women shape household culture. It's incredibly American. If I were burying a 1000 year time capsule one of the things I would include would be an episode of Wife Swap.

They are probably setting the Yale parents up to be the bad couple on Wife Swap, the compulsive, stressed, achieving ones. If those parents are really so smart they will not accept this offer."

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Saturday, January 20, 2007

What I did after I got my wisdom teeth extracted.

Why do dentists hate wisdom teeth so much? Mine weren't causing me any trouble, I'd been eating on them all my life, but for various reasons (they must have been convincing reasons, or why would I subject myself to this?) I let the dentist take them out. The two on the right last year, the two on the left yesterday.

While I was zoned out on tylenol & codeine afterwards, I worked on my project.

I signed up for an ATC (Artist's Trading Card) exchange. 26 of us are on a list and we're sending a card to each of the other people on the list. I've gotten two in the mail from the other folks already. (There was a name for this kind of thing when I was a kid but I've forgotten it.)

So this is my experiment with abstracts. I took two of my bigger canvases, with pictures I hated and had randomly painted over. I made a little viewfinder, 2-1/2" x 3-1/2", and I cut out bits of the canvases that had colors I liked. Then, while I was trying to ignore the bloody holes in my mouth, I painted over the little cards yet again. It was a fun, low-IQ way to spend the afternoon.



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Friday, January 19, 2007

True then, true now?

From my college listserv, this conversation with Hermann Goering was recorded by Gustave Gilbert, a German-speaking intelligence officer and psychologist who was granted free access by the Allies to all the prisoners held in the Nuremberg jail. Gilbert kept a journal of his observations of the proceedings and his conversations with the prisoners, which he later published in the book Nuremberg Diary.

(From the article: "Goering was one of the highest-ranking Nazis who survived to be captured and put on trial for war crimes in the city of Nuremberg by the Allies after the end of World War II. He was found guilty on charges of 'war crimes,' 'crimes against peace,' and 'crimes against humanity' by the Nuremberg tribunal and sentenced to death by hanging.")
We got around to the subject of war again and I said that, contrary to his attitude, I did not think that the common people are very thankful for leaders who bring them war and destruction.

"Why, of course, the people don't want war," Goering shrugged. "Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece. Naturally, the common people don't want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship."

"There is one difference," I pointed out. "In a democracy the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars."

"Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The folly of bottled water

Extracts from an article by
restaurant reviewer Giles Coren for the Times Online

If I am not offered tap water before mineral water, restaurants will be penalised

Mineral water is a preposterous vanity. It is flown and shipped around the world, from France and Norway at best, from Japan and Fiji at worst. It is bottled in glass that is mostly thrown away and is stupidly heavy to freight, or in plastic which never, ever, decomposes and just goes to landfill or ends up in one of the "plastic patches" the size of Texas currently gyring in our oceans.

Food snobs and restaurant critics make a big song and dance about mineral waters they like and don’t like. New York’s Ritz-Carlton even caters to the whim of abstemious punters with a dedicated water list and sommelier.

The vanity of it! While half the world dies of thirst or puts up with water you wouldn’t piss in, or already have, we have invested years and years, and vast amounts of money, into an ingenious system which cleanses water of all the nasties that most other humans and animals have always had to put up with, and delivers it, dirt-cheap, to our homes and workplaces in pipes, which we can access at a tap.

And yet last year we bought three billion litres of bottled water.

3,000,000,000 litres! I have no idea how much that is. But it seems a lot.

Especially when we were fooled into buying it because of labels that said "pure as an alpine stream", "bottled at the foot of a Mexican volcano" or "cleansed for three million years beneath a Siberian glacier". What morons we are.

We spent £2 billion on the stuff. And then we grumble about water metering and annual domestic bills of a couple of hundred quid for water that is just as good, and whose consumption by us is unlimited. Those two billion pounds could go some way to mending the odd leak, don’t you think? Towards digging the odd reservoir?

From the restaurants’ point of view it is just a clipping system. It’s more free money. The mark-ups are bigger even than they are on wine. You’ll pay four to five pounds in most posh London restaurants for stuff no different, no different at all, from what you brushed your teeth in that morning (not leaving the tap on while doing so, I hope). The result is billions of unnecessary food miles, non-biodegradable waste, millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases, more urban pollution, hell in a handcart.

From now on, if a restaurant does not offer me tap water, politely, unsarcastically, and before they offer mineral water, then they will be penalised.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Bush gets plutoed

From Language Log:

Breaking news from Anaheim, where the American Dialect Society is holding its annual meeting: the winner of the 2006 Word of the Year vote is (drum roll, please)... plutoed.

To pluto, as the ADS press release states, means "to demote or devalue someone or something, as happened to the former planet Pluto when the General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union decided Pluto no longer met its definition of a planet."

A recent Andy Borowitz humor column (which I caught in the January 2007 Funny Times) reports that the Bush presidency has been plutoed:
An international group of scientists who demoted the planet Pluto to dwarf status three months ago met in Oslo, Norway today and reclassified the Bush White House as a dwarf Presidency.

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Monday, January 15, 2007

Melina: This Weekend's Painting

This is my friend Helen in the bathtub.

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Yearning for blank walls and -- silence.

I'm trying so hard to reduce the amount of sensory overload in my life - by not watching tv or listening to the radio or shopping or taking a newspaper - and the advertisers are reaching farther and farther into my life to grab me even when I'm merely walking down a street - or going to a doctor's office...

Extracts from
Anywhere the Eye Can See, It's Likely to See an Ad
by Louise Story for the New York Times, January 15, 2007

Add this to the endangered list: blank spaces. Advertisers seem determined to fill every last one of them. Supermarket eggs have been stamped with the names of CBS television shows. Subway turnstiles bear messages from Geico auto insurance. Chinese food cartons promote Continental Airways. US Airways is selling ads on motion sickness bags. And the trays used in airport security lines have been hawking Rolodexes.

Consumers' viewing and reading habits are so scattershot now that many advertisers say the best way to reach time-pressed consumers is to try to catch their eye at literally every turn.

"We never know where the consumer is going to be at any point in time, so we have to find a way to be everywhere," said [an ad exec]. "Ubiquity is the new exclusivity."

Last summer, Walt Disney advertised its "Little Einsteins" DVDs for preschoolers on the paper liners of examination tables in 2,000 pediatricians' offices.

Yankelovich, a market research firm, estimates that a person living in a city 30 years ago saw up to 2,000 ad messages a day, compared with up to 5,000 today.

More is on the horizon. Old-fashioned billboards are being converted to digital screens, which are considered the next big thing. They allow advertisers to change messages frequently from remote computers, timing their pitches to sales events or the hour of the day. People can expect to see more of them not only along highways, but also in stores, gyms, doctors' offices and on the sides of buildings, marketing executives say.

In some office buildings ... video screens in elevators provide news and information as well as ads. This year video screens will be placed in about 5,000 New York City taxicabs, where passengers will see both advertisements and NBC programs.

At the Amway Arena in Orlando, Fla. an interactive floor display for McDonald's last year showed the head of a teenage boy with small Big Mac burgers flying past; when people stepped on the ad, the burgers bounced away from their feet.

[Quotes from ad folks:]

"No one wants to annoy the consumer ... However, there are many annoying ads that sell products, and it's very difficult to tell what annoys one consumer and what pleases another."

A campaign that reaches people outside their homes is "very good for awareness because it's out there, it's in your face, and you can blanket a marketplace ... It's one of the last mass mediums."

"We're always looking for new mediums and places that have not been used before — it's an effort to get over the clutter. But I guess we end up creating more clutter."

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Sunday, January 14, 2007

In the kitchen with Zed.

My son told me he wanted to go to El Salvador over spring break to do a service project with other kids from Wesleyan. I gave him half the money for the trip, assuming he'd earn the other half. He immediately booked his airline ticket without knowing how he'd come up with the rest of the scratch.

It occurred to me: he could have a "bake sale" at the Pratie Heads concert last night. So he spent a couple days choosing recipes; we bought the ingredients and he set to work. Yesterday he cooked all day, he never even got out of his pajamas. He made:
  • Cheddar Cheese Coins
  • Chocolate Raspberry Bread (it was actually a brownie recipe, but owing to some slight over-cooking we felt a different spin, name-wise, would be prudent)
  • Mocha Brownies with Chocolate Squiggles on Top
  • Chocolate Chip Cookies
  • Rice Krispie Bars
I dropped in and out of the project area all day, washing pots and wiping down the counters, trying to double-check that each required ingredient went into the bowl once and only once.

Zed's a pretty good baker - and still he let me help him! So it was all good.

Finally we packed up the treats and left for the show. How I fretted over the impending bake sale! Of course I always worry about whether people will come to my concerts -- and take it personally if attendance is sketchy. This time, I also had to worry Zed would be stuck with a lot of unsold goodies. And it would be My Fault because my music isn't good enough to attract a crowd. Like I needed more anxiety!

Everything went fine. There were people enough to fill a sufficient number of chairs, they were happy and laughed at our jokes, the number of musical glitches was not intolerable ...

Menticia even came and, though she may have found the show a bit boring (she denied it, but of course I worry), she very much enjoyed helping Zed with sales at intermission.

He came home with way too many leftovers but admitted it was his own fault for baking without moderation.

Luckily, today my singing student/painting buddy came over for a lesson today and left with all the leftover Rice Krispie bars. Then we had Zed's uncle (my ex-brother-in-law) and wife over for dinner and packed some treats into them - and packed more into their hands when they left.

Zed's net: around $60. Not bad for a first bake-sale! Watching him fuss over his pots, pans, and baking sheets was first-class entertainment.

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Saturday, January 13, 2007

Melina: On Undergraduates

I love undergraduates. Lively, friendly people. Out to do good in the world. Generally harmless. But they do not know how to plan. On about 48 hours notice, I am housing three of them so that they can attend Zlatne Uste's Golden Festival in New York City.

I think this will be a right good time. But could they maybe have told me just a little bit sooner?

--Melina, washing sheets and towels


The first thing to make me happy today.

From John Schaefer, here is the packaging from a Chinese-made work-light his brother found in a store in the Ghanaian city of Tamale. Via Language Log, where you will find further discussion of this and similar items.


Friday, January 12, 2007

If you live in the Triangle Area: Celtic Concert Sat. Jan 13 in Durham!

Come to my concert tomorrow night! Fine "More or less traditional music from the British Isles and Beyond." Co-sponsored with the Triangle Folk Music Society. 8 pm at the Durham Friends Meeting House, 404 Alexander Drive, Durham NC. Our new cds (all three of them) will be for sale - as well as delicious baked goods!!! Heh.

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Zed plans a bake sale and his ma helps out.

My son Zed has committed himself to a service trip to El Salvador over spring break - he's going with the Foundation for Self-Sufficiency in Central America. I gave him half the money he needed, which he immediately spent on the airline tickets. I pointed out he then had no money to eat, etc. while he was gone.

Not ordinarily a very entrepreneurial individual, Zed has decided to hold a bake sale during the intermission in my concert tomorrow night. I'm worried only twenty people are going to show up, but what the heck, I like baking too, so here are the recipes for my contributions.

Applesauce muffins

1 scant cup brown sugar
1/2 cup soft butter
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cloves
1 3/4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 cups raisins
1 cup applesauce

Cream butter and sugar; beat in egg, salt, and spices.

Add remaining ingredients and mix swiftly. Cook at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes. Makes one dozen muffins.

Coconut Butterballs

1 cup soft butter
1/4 cup confectioner's sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups flour
1 1/2 cups flaked coconut

Cream butter, sugar, and vanilla; stir in other ingredients. Make balls not quite 1" in diameter and bake at 350 for 15-18 minutes. Makes 40 balls.

By the way, I indulged in a dozen silicone muffin liners at Food Lion and I am utterly ecstatic. The muffins pop right out, no need for greasing and flouring. Utter bliss.

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Area wants to cash in on arts assets.

I was invited to this meeting and attended part of it Tuesday night:

Extracts from
Area wants to cash in on arts assets
'Culture Shock' aims to promote the arts ... to draw tourists

Patrick Winn, Staff Writer

CARRBORO - Artists create here. Novelists write here. Bands rock out here. ... Now community leaders want to market the area as an arts-focused tourist draw.

"Culture Shock" is a push to brand what many already know: the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area is replete with nightlife, music, museums, book readings, performances and all things artistic.

Tourism generates roughly $127 million each year in Orange County, according to the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitor's Bureau. Wilner suspects "Culture Shock" could increase that figure 25 to 50 percent.

"Wilner" is Jon Wilner, director of the Carrboro ArtsCenter. This organization, back in the 1980s, had a funky, welcoming space in a converted mill and was started by Jacques Menache, who deserves a post all to himself. Jacques supported local music and we played there fairly regularly; we also attended some fantastic programs there by bands that nobody else would have booked - I particularly remember a band from Provence staging a fabulous Occitan country wedding!

The current booker at the ArtsCenter is pretty hostile to local music; there was a very fine jazz group that even NAMED themselves after the place, who played there every year, year after year, who got abruptly fired after one of the regime changes. The members were so hurt and insulted at least some of them have sworn they'll never pass through those doors again.

The registration cards for the Culture Shock conference hinted at its sub-text. Under "occupation" there were many, many possible boxes to check. Are you a web developer? An arts professional (i.e., someone who makes a living OFF artists)? Chamber of Commerce? Independent businessperson? I kept looking in vain for a "musician" checkbox. This WAS an arts meeting, wasn't it?

Turns out "we" all - actors, writers, visual artists, musicians etc - were lumped under one breezy category: "Creative Types." Patronizing? Maybe I'm too sensitive.

There were about 100 people in attendance, and after some snacks we sat down to listen to Wilner and his guest facilitator. I can't even duplicate the tone of this facilitating - there was hand-waving, bureaucracy speak, and power point.

Bob and I had to leave to go play on a radio show (the WCOM-FM "Roots Rampage"), but we came back to the meeting a couple hours later. By then the, uh, visioning was mostly complete. However, I can't really tell you what the conclusions were because the bullet points had a teflon quality - my mind kind of slid off them...

Sigh. A bunch of years ago I accepted an invitation to be one of the token artists on an "arts task force;" the heavy-hitting Durham and Raleigh "arts professionals" had decided to, hmm, well, I went to meetings for almost a year and I can't really tell you what they were actually trying to accomplish, but I do believe it similarly had to do with filling restaurants and building new hotels based on the Triangle becoming an "Arts Destination." After about a year all that had been accomplished was:
  • Deciding on a design for letterhead;
  • Getting the by-laws almost completely completed.
By then, most of us "creative types" had fled because by and large we don't have a head for that kind of thing.

Some business and civic organizers evidently think artists might be geese that lay golden eggs, but "on the ground floor" (another phrase from last night) we look kind of scruffy and unpredictable. Not the kind of people they want around... in fact, don't they often zone against us? ...

Remember that picture of Janis Joplin meeting the suits at Columbia Records? They couldn't understand her - or stand her - but they figured there was money to be made so there she was, chaos incarnate.

Possible chaos notwithstanding, if there is profit to be derived from being a "Arts Destination," there's good reason to support neighborhood scruffy artists - they're living off nickels and dimes while they create the content which is theoretically going to enrich the community.

Often artists feel like beggars. Visual artists beg for public walls to hang their paintings on, producers beg for spaces in which to stage their productions, musicians beg for gigs. But wait! Public walls with paintings hanging on them, plays happening, music in restaurants and clubs - isn't that what makes for an Arts Destination?

To be continued.

News flash: My daughter Melina (her recent art is just below) and I have signed up for a painting-at-the-beach weekend with Jane Filer! There's something to look forward to.

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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Melina: recent artworks

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Monday, January 08, 2007

How and where to place your pen on your desktop.

From the BBC:
Tidy tape exercise 'is madness'
Black tape has been put on civil servants' desks to show them where to put their pens.

The pilot exercise at National Insurance offices in Longbenton, North Tyneside, is part of a UK-drive to encourage staff to tidy their desks.

The exercise is part of the Lean programme, brought in by consultants Unipart, which has already seen public sector workers told to clear their desks of personal items.

The customs spokesman said: "Part of the Lean processing is to clear the workplace and only keep essential items to hand. This is in line with the workstation ergonomics training that all our staff receive and complies with the display screen equipment regulations (2002). The markers on desks are used to demonstrate that it is much better to work in a tidy work environment where everything has its place."

A critic said: "The scheme is demoralising and demeaning. Staff know how to order their desks themselves.

"We had a situation in some offices in Scotland where staff were asked 'Is that banana on your desk active or inactive?', meaning were they going to eat it?

"If not, it had to be cleared away."

The scheme is being implemented a month after Tony Blair outlined measures to save £2bn by cutting red tape.

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Sunday, January 07, 2007

No one was visiting her blog.

My dear Melina sent this to me. Hah! It's by Davie Zapanta for the series, "Blank Cards for Empty Lives."

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Friday, January 05, 2007

Hope this scary spore doesn't develop a taste for us.

As bad as any horror movie ever, from Boingboing, this description from Lawrence Weschler's Mr. Wilson's Cabinet Of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology.
Deep in the Cameroonian rain forests of west-central Africa there lives a floor-dwelling ant known as Megaloponera foetens, or more commonly, the stink ant. This large ant -— indeed, one of the very few capable of emitting a cry audible to the human ear -— survives by foraging for food among the fallen leaves and undergrowth of the extraordinarily rich rain-forest floor.

On occasion, while thus foraging, one of these ants will become infected by inhaling the microscopic spore of a fungus from the genus Tomentella, millions of which rain down upon the forest floor from somewhere in the canopy above. Upon being inhaled, the spore lodges itself inside the ant’s tiny brain and immediately begins to grow, quickly fomenting bizarre behavioral changes in its ant host. The creature appears troubled and confused, and presently, for the first time in its life, it leaves the forest floor and begins an arduous climb up the stalks of vines and ferns.

Driven on and on by the still-growing fungus, the ant finally achieves a seemingly prescribed height whereupon, utterly spent, it impales the plant with its mandibles and, thus affixed, waits to die. Ants that have met their doom in this fashion are quite a common sight in certain sections of the rain forest.

The fungus, for its part, lives on. It continues to consume the brain, moving on through the rest of the nervous system and, eventually, through all the soft tissue that remains of the ant. After approximately two weeks, a spikelike protrusion erupts from out of what had once been the ant’s head. Growing to a length of about an inch and a half, the spike features a bright orange tip, heavy-laden with spores, which now begin to rain down onto the forest floor for other unsuspecting ants to inhale.
There is even an utterly creepy video clip SHOWING the crazy ants including the giant spike growing out of the ant's head. UGH.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

How the other half lives.

A tip from Cool Tools:

I rub my nose with my finger and put the tip of my finger in a beer that has too much foam. The oil from my nose does a remarkable job of getting rid of the foam quickly so I can drink sooner. Penley McQueen

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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Aggregator of "Painting A Day" blogs - fantastic!

Check this out!

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Need ideas: best bake sale items for Zed to make

Zed wants to go to El Salvador over spring break with a bunch of kids from Wesleyan and Vassar to do some volunteer work. He said he'd get the money together, and then I gave him half because I'm a doting mother, but he's hundreds of dollars short.

So he wants to do his own bake sale. He's actually able to cook, so this isn't a ludicrous notion. But he needs some bake-sale type recipes that:
  • Aren't too hard - also, not easy to burn
  • Aren't too delicate
  • Don't have very expensive ingredients
  • Will look delectable and irresistable to college kids

If you have some ideas please leave them in the comments! Thanks.

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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Melina: Watching Television in the New Year is Depressing

I had the day off of work yesterday. I celebrated by spending most of the day watching TV with my roommates. We watched about half of a six hour documentary about some guys climbing Mount Everest. The documentary was stressful and awfully long. We'd go away and come back and there they'd be, still climbing Everest. Usually somebody would be in critical condition in the medical tent, and a wise old climber would be standing over him shaking his head disapprovingly. ("James should never have tried to go up Everest with all those metal screws in his knee.")

Anyway, I wanted to point out that television advertisers have made New Year the most depressing holiday in existence. Judging by the ads they ran yesterday, they think all of us are fat, depressed, indebted, and lonely, and that Jan 1 is the one brief day of the year when we might have the willpower to try to get off the couch and change some of these conditions. Or at least buy some products that we think might help:

#1 - weight loss, weight loss, weight loss. I have never seen so many weight loss ads. The most frequent one showed a 3d model of a fat person (they did a man in one version and a woman in the other) and then the fat melting off them. While the 3D model rotated, a warm female voice said, "you don't have to exercise or diet to lose weight! Just eat! Call now and you can get a free week of food!" Other weight loss ads featured men talking - somewhat creepily - about their sex lives, and women saying laughingly "My husband now calls me his trophy wife!" Um, ew.

#2 - Get Out Of Debt Free. A stern lawyer in an austere ad tells you that he can solve your financial problems. Just call. No specifics here. Just call, will you? The stern lawyers will take care of you.

#3 - Take Some Drugs. Depressed? the happy bouncing circle can help.

#4 - eHarmony ads. Now this is really embarrassing, but I have to admit that these ads can make me tear up on occasion. Real happy couples gazing into each other eyes and declaring lifelong loyalty over bouncy pop soundtrack. Have heard rumors that Neil Clark Warren who runs eHarmony is a big right-winger, but his compassionate paternal presence just soothes me. I'm worthy of love, Neil. Tell me who's my soul mate. I want to be in your commercial.

Happy New Year all. Get off the couch.


Happy Birthday to Me!

For the second year in a row I have bought myself an original Jane Filer painting. I justified it by saying that when I'm dead, it wouldn't do for my two children to fight over one painting.

Zed, you get the old one. Melina, you get the new one.


Monday, January 01, 2007

"Not Being In Trouble" - the state to which I aspire

I was wondering this morning why I like being alone so much. The first reason that came into my head: because when I'm alone, I'm not getting in trouble with anybody. There are no apologies to make, no missteps to regret. In March I posted this fine parable, which one of my high school friends published under her picture in our final yearbook:

A king came to a wise man and asked: "What should I do, that I might best help mankind?"

The wise man replied: "Take a nap every day, because at least during those hours you will not be doing any harm."

That's how I see things. And just barely related, this excellent cartoon (click for larger view):

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