Friday, November 13, 2009

Every now and again I come across a w...

Every now and again I come across a writer that inspires me with new ideas or with better ways of looking at old problems.  For the most part, they aren't new writers, and sometimes the ideas and frames they present aren't even their own.  Regardless, it's useful to me, and as I appreciate that the experience is uniquely subjective, I don't often seek out the roots of the ideas I come across.  Sometimes I'll read and research further for perspective, but it isn't common for me to want to find the originator of an idea to sing their praises.  I owe more to the person that conveys it in a meaningful way than to the person that thinks it up in the first place, after all.  It's why I'm so grateful to my parents and friends: they're the ones I've learned the majority of stuff from.


That being said, the thought occured to me today that I should share some of the writers and books that have left a strong impression on me.


Arturito el Astuto ("Artie the Smartie" is the English title, though I prefer to translate it as "Little Arthur, the Wise") is the first book I remember.  It's about a little non-conformist fish that gets a kick out of making others laugh, fighting off cruel crabs, tricking mean fishermen and venturing out into the great unknown expanse of the deep blue sea to make a big splash.  My childhood copy was lost long ago, but I was fortunate enough to find a used copy online which I promptly paid good money for.  I feel others can learn a fair amount about me by reading it.  To this day, I aspire to be that fish.


In high school, I found myself able to relate to (unsurprisingly) The Catcher in the Rye, which summed up my 10th grade worldview fairly well: "this is bullshit and everyone is so phoney".  A nervous breakdown and a grade later I then read a book, and discovered an author, that more or less makes up for the rest of the time wasted in English class.  Crime and Punishment remains my favorite novel, Dostoyevsky one of my favorite authors.  Though I haven't made time for The Brothers Karamazov (something to fix before law school), I did finish The Idiot, and found it also to my liking.  Dostoyevsky's appeal is how he's able to delve into the minds of his characters, letting you feel every painful decision that drives the story towards its conclusion.  Not that they're all tragic; The Idiot ends with the hero having gone mad, but Crime and Punishment ends on a hopeful note.  The great part is how you get to see that the source of most of the characters' serious problems is just themselves.


In college, there was a dearth of good reading. Kant was interesting, but I didn't get too much out of him other than a sense of humility.  I've gone back since and made more sense of what he's saying, but I'll never forget how dumb I felt reading through some of his work the first time.  I also did most of my World War I reading (why do we use Roman numerals for that?) in college, which robbed me of the idea of the "good war".  I also read some revisionist history of the causes leading to World War II and became interested in reading The History of the Peloponessian War (which I did recently).  Those last two probably did the most to make me realize that writing history is, in fact, a political act.  Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States confirmed the fact.


So, that's just a few of my favorites.  I'll post again with some of the economists and philosophers that made a difference. 


Monday, October 26, 2009

I just found a use for...

Bourbon! Specifically, Bourbon Chicken. equal parts soy sauce and bourbon, mixed in with garlic, ginger and sugar, yield a marinade which is poured onto some chicken breasts. This mixture sits for several hours and is then placed into an oven and cooked, yielding a tender, sweet and savoury piece of meat and a thick sauce with which to coat it further and, perhaps, the rice you serve it with.

In theory.

In my case, the recipe lied and told me to put the chicken in the oven for an hour longer than necessary. I caught the mistake before the chicken was reduced to leather, but the sugar in the marinade seems to have...caught fire? It formed an unappealing burnt shell towards the edges of the cooking pan. Nonetheless, some scraping and reducing later, a viable sauce was had and added to the meal.

Indeed, its a great meal to whip up with 30 minutes of cooking, if you invest 10 minutes the day before. Other than rice, I imagine it would go well with some sort of sweet potato dish, given its saltiness. For sure, of all the things I make with chicken breast, its one of the most useful, keeping them moist while imparting a ton of flavor. All in all, I deem the experiment a success.

Monday, August 3, 2009

On abortion

A few weeks ago my friend Nick shared an item by Andrew Sullivan examining what the role of men is in the abortion debate. Abortion is often a thorny issue, so it wasn't too surprising to see commentary on the item get a little heated. I refrained from offering my own thoughts, then, realizing that they weren't particularly well-formed. Time and thinking have fixed that some but I'm sure this isn't the last I'll write on the subject.

The problem Mr. Sullivan wants to expand on is that right now, a father's role in the abortion decision isn't well defined. For the most part, he has no legal claim and there don't seem to be any norms emerging regarding whether he knows, is asked about it, is asked to pay for it, etc. Mr. Sullivan worries that if men are cut from the decision entirely then they'll develop an aversion to being saddled with responsibility for the outcome of the decision: the baby.

You might think that is callous. I'll even agree with you! It's also extremely easy to develop that feeling when discussing abortion in our society. I think it stems from the relationship rights and responsibilities enjoy with each other as well as the progress of a woman's rights to her body versus a man's right to his money. I'm sure I'll think of a better way of putting it, someday.

Sara, in response to Nick, shared an article from Jezebel about this topic. It more or less asserted that men have no right to infringe on a woman's autonomy over her own body. This is, as far as I can tell and as far as I'm concerned, the most salient argument in favor of abortion rights. There are, in truth, a variety of factors as to why women are justified in tenaciously safeguarding the right to their body, abortion rights inclusive; historically, they've been deprived of this autonomy.

Earlier I mentioned rights and responsibilities. I got this from my ethics classes in college, but essentially the argument goes that wherever there is a right (or privilege) of some sort, there is also a corresponding responsibility (or duty) of some sort. For example, if I say I have the right to work then someone has the responsibility to make sure I have the opportunity to do so. Or if I have the right to privacy someone has to enforce sanctions against anyone that infringes on that right. In the real world, of course, the institutions and arrangements that would guarantee a right by taking on or assigning the corresponding responsibility don't always work well. Perhaps the responsibility for securing my right to work lands on me. Perhaps the institution safeguarding my privacy has no incentive to do so. Sometimes, though, things change sufficiently where the old institutions and arrangements are no longer valid. I think legal, socially-acceptable abortion is such a case.

The ideal situation, where a married couple raises a number of children that they're able to devote material and emotional support to, likely corresponds best to the way we used to do it before civilization came around (I should and will look into that further). Regardless, we've acknowledged this doesn't always happen and have instituted laws and norms to compensate. Fathers have a financial obligation to support their children (and sometimes the mother of their children) outside of wedlock. This makes sense! The problem is that this makes sense if they're in a position of responsibility over the pregnancy , and nowadays it is becoming clearer that such isn't necessarily the case.

At some point in history, the man was the most responsible party of a pregnancy. It was (and is) highly unlikely that a woman could force a man to impregnate her and certainly is the case that males had the most options for not having children, up to and including avoiding sex altogether. This remains their biggest privilege, the reason we then assign them a corresponding responsibility to their kids.

The thing is that, now, women have a level of control over their pregnancy that we haven't dealt with before. If she's pregnant, that isn't the end of the story until the child is born; she could get an abortion. There's a lot behind such a decision, but we've decided that, really, the father doesn't have an enforceable claim to the outcome of it. And yet, it was decided that he is responsible for the child. That is to say, their earlier privelige has lost its relative value, but their responsibility remains the same. This is where the callousness kicks in and a father will claim that society has no right to force the baby onto him, especially given that he wasn't the last one to decide whether it would be born or not.

If you're angry at this point, I don't blame you. I, for one, can think of several reasons why responsibility can still be assigned to the father or why their autonomy in baby-making retains its value. Here's the rub, though: with the progress of technology and sociel norms, most of those reasons are going to vanish. It won't always be the case that the man can be assigned the overwhelming share of responsibility of a pregnancy. It will eventually be the case that women will enjoy the same autonomy over their bodies men do. After we get there, do we still feel comfortable having him bear the cost of raising a child he didn't want?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

On Vampires

Recently, the conversation amongst some of my friends turned to monsters. A certain comic joked about how monsters just represent exaggerated male archetypes. This is reasonable enough, but it got me to thinking about how monsters are also representative of fears people have. In general, it got me to thinking about how monsters are awesome elements of myth-building.

This usually then leads me to getting frothy-mouthed over seeing a monster utilized completely and utterly wrong.

Yes, yes, no such thing as a "wrong" use for a metaphor, that meaning is built around it in the context of the story, etc. Fuck you. Vampires aren't there to be teen idols.

I like vampire stories. I really do. These are the stories where vampires are vaguely human, but nonetheless monstrous. They feed on people. They prey on their fears and insecurities. They torture and they torment and they kill. They can be animalistic, obviously terrifying their victims, or they can be super-human, stronger, faster, smarter than regular people. Both interpretations work for me.

What doesn't work is when they're used for power fantasies. "Oh, come on," you say, "How is this different from using a mutant?" Because the X-men are there to show us how the future might be different and awesome, whereas vampires are there to show us how fucked up a human being can become. They're a cautionary tale. They're not anti-heroes, people conflicted by what they are. They're not just victims, people with an affliction they're trying to overcome. They're monsters, people that, for some reason or another, aren't people any longer, shouldn't participate in our society, do not deserve our pity and, finally, are trying to use our lives to sustain their own miserable existence.

Perhaps you've noticed I feel strongly about this. You may even suspect that, if they're a cautionary tale to me, it's a lesson I apply to other aspects of my life. You'd be right, too! That this is personal doesn't detract from the point, though. Building up cheap fantasies around the icons that used to represent the worst in us threatens to rob them of their original value. In it's place? At best, just another vessel to practice escapism in. At worst, people looking at the stories with these new monsters will walk away thinking they should become them rather than fight them.

There's a lesson in all this, I'm sure of it.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

On momentum

One of the fun things we learn in physics is that momentum doesn't exist. The thing we call momentum is treated as a form of inertia. This has nothing to do with the rest of this post, except perhaps to remind myself that I'm probably worried about nothing.

Good habits are a bitch to form, especially as an adult. I say this having tried to get into a few new ones, myself. I'm trying to run at least three times a week, and was doing really well back in March and April. I'm trying to get into a morning yoga regimen. That went well for about the same amount of time. We should all be familiar with my attempts to get writing by now. So, what to do about it?

Well, there's a few things. Following this advice, I'm trying to focus on writing. I'm going to scribble in my journal, I'm going to comment on reader, I'm going to write bloggers with ideas and so on. I might even work on this here blog. Keep the factory floor humming and see if I can get the workers and managers to produce something worthwhile.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Taking Stock

I like writing.

I tell myself this, and I tell it to others, and often I believe it. There is a tiny problem, though: I haven't written anything here in months, and my notebooks aren't doing much better. What the hell went wrong?

I'm not sure, of course. Perhaps it's because I felt I should be writing with a purpose, or perhaps my resolution to read more (which I'm following through on) has left me intimidated. What to write? How to write it? So many questions, and I don't have any answers! So, um, yeah, lets forget about answering them.

Cooking is fun, but it can also be frustrating. I roasted a chicken today, and its skin was leathery, somehow. Research indicates that to achieve a crisp skin, I need high enough heat to turn the collagen in the skin into gelatin, and then evaporate the water. Best I can tell, I did neither of these things. Next time: fire up the heat! Also, letting the bird dry out (if it isn't dry already) is supposed to help. I guess it really isn't a weeknight sort of thing.

I've been reading Bullfinch's Mythology. His primary concern was to share the tales of the Classical period so that contemporary readers might better understand the literature of the time. After any given myth, he'll include poetry that relates to it. It makes me want to give a hand at scribbling some verse.

Dogs in the Vineyard is a great game. I look forward to writing more about Brother Nehemiah and his struggle to do right for people he knows he did wrong. A-yup.

So, there we go, a few quick words on nothing and everything. I hope to share more and to share it more often.