Category Archives: Essays – other people

Two really, really good essays

Here are two absolutely fantastic essays, well worth the time to sit and read and ponder. Days later, I’m still contemplating both in idle moments…

Essay one and (related) essay two.

A couple of quotes to pique your interest:

Since I was a teenager, I’ve found old-school machismo pathetic and somehow irrelevant to the problem of becoming a man. Without even knowing what or why it was, I was heavily influenced by gay culture, which provided me, and many other straight young men, a wide variety of templates for manhood that are at once unmistakably masculine, playfully ironic, aesthetic, emotionally open, and happily sexual. You can be manly and care about shoes!!! I’ll confess that I used to periodically regret my heterosexuality because there seemed to be greater scope for constructing a distinctive and satisfying male identity within gay culture. I think that’s telling.

(from the first).


Any man who reads the newspapers will encounter the phrase “even women and children” a couple times a month, usually about being killed. The literal meaning of this phrase is that men’s lives have less value than other people’s lives. The idea is usually “It’s bad if people are killed, but it’s especially bad if women and children are killed.” And I think most men know that in an emergency, if there are women and children present, he will be expected to lay down his life without argument or complaint so that the others can survive.

Lots and lots of thought-provoking ideas about gender, society, biology and evolution. Read them both, leave comments there or here.

Thoughts on the US and Hong Kong

I raved about Hong Kong previously, but a couple of days ago Thomas Friedman wrote a much better essay on the NYT about returning to the US from Hong Kong:

It actually started well, on Kau Sai Chau, an island off Hong Kong, where I stood on a rocky hilltop overlooking the South China Sea and talked to my wife back in Maryland, static-free, using a friend’s Chinese cellphone. A few hours later, I took off from Hong Kong’s ultramodern airport after riding out there from downtown on a sleek high-speed train — with wireless connectivity that was so good I was able to surf the Web the whole way on my laptop.

Landing at Kennedy Airport from Hong Kong was, as I’ve argued before, like going from the Jetsons to the Flintstones. The ugly, low-ceilinged arrival hall was cramped, and using a luggage cart cost $3. (Couldn’t we at least supply foreign visitors with a free luggage cart, like other major airports in the world?) As I looked around at this dingy room, it reminded of somewhere I had been before. Then I remembered: It was the luggage hall in the old Hong Kong Kai Tak Airport. It closed in 1998.

The next day I went to Penn Station, where the escalators down to the tracks are so narrow that they seem to have been designed before suitcases were invented. The disgusting track-side platforms apparently have not been cleaned since World War II. I took the Acela, America’s sorry excuse for a bullet train, from New York to Washington. Along the way, I tried to use my cellphone to conduct an interview and my conversation was interrupted by three dropped calls within one 15-minute span.

 My quote was much less eloquent:

Yeah, the phone booths have WiFi; the US has become a second-world nation in many ways.

Friedman goes on to inveigle the vast numbers of smart, ambitious people who went to Wall Street and similar where “Bonuses, Not Profits, Were Real” instead of actual productive work such as science or engineering. I can personally attest to the brain drain from the national labs, where really really smart PhDs were recruited to do modeling and prediction. Unmatched pay (I refuse to sully perfectly good English by availing myself of euphemisms like “compensation.”) and working conditions, compared to places like FNAL where we had pest-infested doublewide trailers:

CDF trailers

You’ve not had fun until you have a raccoon die under your trailer and rot there for a few months. Yum.

Anyway, Friedman nails it in how modern HK is compared to the USA, and how we’d best stop wasting our best minds on financial prestidigitation. Go have a read

Lauren nails the crisis

From the Farber IP list today, frequent poster Lauren Weinstein nails IMHO the zeitgeist:

Term limits have nothing to do with Congress’ action today. LIES do.
The American people have been screaming bloody murder at their
representatives that they don’t want the Wall Street bailout (now
called “rescue” to sound less like the charity it is).

Viewed dispassionately, it’s clear that *some* sort of bailout (not
necessarily the one just voted down) is needed. Quickly.

But we’ve been lied to so much that it’s completely understandable
why people feel the way they do. Lied to about the PATRIOT Act.
Lied to about Iraq. Lied to by their mortgage lenders and banks,
and by untold numbers of economic pundits.

And why don’t people see the urgency? One factor is that the workings
of the credit market have been largely invisible to most of us.
But there’s another factor.

Turn on the TV. Turn on the radio. You’ll see and hear the same
array of commericials for investment plans and cheap home loans as
always. It’s as if nothing whatever has changed, like a parallel
universe to the crisis atmosphere we see on the news in between the
advertising spots.

What’s more, I have yet to see a single spot from any bank or
financial institution that says, “We’re suspending our normal ads to
tell you that we’re in crisis. And we need your help. And we
apologize for our greed and misleading actions up to now.”
Fat chance.

Instead, what we see and hear is business as usual. Invest! Buy!
Dream the dream!

No wonder that most people feel that they’re being fed yet another
lie, and are passing along these feelings to their congressmen.

The financial industry is now reaping the whirlwind of greed.
And the rest of us are being sucked into their nightmare.


What is a poet?

I’ve been meaning to type this in and post it for ages. It’s the opening of Either/Or, by Kierkegaard:

What is a poet? An unhappy man who in his heart harbors a deep anguish, but whose lips are so fashioned that the moans and cries which pass over them are transformed into ravishing music. . . And men crowd about the poet and say to him, “Sing for us soon again” — which is as much to say, “May new sufferings torment your sould, but may your lips be fashioned as before; for the cries would only distress us, but the music, the music, is delightful!”

(I have to note that I’ve never read Either/Or, I read the quote in the much more compact Hegel, Kierkegaard, Marx: Three Great Philosophers Whose Ideas Changed the Course of Civilization)

I finally dug out the book and typed it in this morning after reading this review of Anathem by Neil Stephenson. It sounds quite good, I never did read the last two books of the Baroque Cycle but would like to once of these days. Reading fiction has been severely truncated since Anna joined the household!

I’ve often thought of the Kierkegaard quote while reading Richardson and other great poets. As I typed it in, I realized how adolescent-sounding it seems, but let it bounce around your head for a while and see if you don’t agree with him. He had an interesting life; worth reading about.

A post to move you

This is really a post about two things, so bear with me. Cast your mind back a few years to Bush’s heyday and Medicare Part D, the infamous drug benefit. Due to pharma handouts and dishonest accounting now coming to light, they couldn’t afford real coverage and came up with the infamous ‘doughnut’ gap in coverage. From Wikipedia:

The plan requires Medicare beneficiaries whose total drug costs reach $2400 to pay 100% of prescription costs until $3850 is spent out of pocket. (The actual threshold amounts will change year-to-year and plan-by-plan.) 

I have to assume that the soulless bastards who came up with this consciously refused to consider the human stories of suffering and tragedy it would inevitably cause. I consider this a prime example of ‘getting captured by a large system and the rationalizations that ensue.’

Stories like… but I’m getting ahead of myself. The other thing this post is about is ‘Weblogs that I enjoy’. Allow me to introduce you to the self-proclaimed ‘Drugmonkey‘, an anonymous, foul-mouthed, cynical, liberal pill peddler at some large pharmacy chain. He has most excellent stories and I highly recommend him. As with some of my favorite blogs, he gives you a glimpse into another world. The title of his blog is ‘Your Pharmacist May Hate You’, which gives you some idea of the content…

Today, I was clicked through to his site and reading some old stories when I found this one. He used to call himself ‘drugnazi’, and it explains why he changed. Go read it; it’ll simultaneously move you to tears and also to find the asshats of Part D for a serious beatdown.

‘Compassionate conservatism,’ my ass.


A couple of quick blog-worthy items

Penelope Trunk’s blog is sometimes interesting, but with this post she’s hit a home run. Funny but serious, insightful and worth a read: Career Lessons from Elliot Spitzer’s prostitute. Seriously. I won’t even try and summarize it, as its short and excellent.

Secondly, ever what the door to hell looks like?  How about this?

Or maybe this?

Apparently a gas well in Uzbekistan that’s been burning for 35 years. Worth a read and to look at the pictures; quite striking.


Pic from Wikipedia

I’ve been a fan of Leonard Cohen for a while now. He’s kind of an acquired taste, but so are many worthwhile things. On a related note, Chris got into ‘The West Wing’ a while ago, and from that had me buy a copy of Jeff Buckley’s ‘Grace’ album for his cover of ‘Hallelujah.’

I gotta admit, the cover is excellent, and changes the song completely. What I didn’t realize was that Hallelujah has become a complete cliche, and was used dozens of time in various versions, n TV shows and movies.

But wait, it gets better – it was used so often that there’s an excellent paper about the songs, how its used and what it all means. The bad news is that all of the ambiguity, complexity and politics of the original are lost, and it becomes a signifier of loss and sadness. Ahh well.

What they’re singing there, aside from what I believe professionals call “twaddle,” is the chorus of a Leonard Cohen song. This is mildly incredible. Twenty-five years ago, a character on the TV show The Young Ones named Neal–the hippie–said, “I’m beginning to feel like a Leonard Cohen record, cause nobody ever listens to me.” Today, in contrast, one particular Leonard Cohen song is featured prominently in no less than three separate episodes of teen uberdrama The OC, and can be heard in at least twenty-four separate movies and TV episodes, almost always as the soundtrack to a montage of people being sad.

What I hope to show today is how, exactly, that happened to a song called “Hallelujah.”

The author is Michael Barthel and the paper is “It Doesn’t Matter Which You Heard”: the Curious Cultural Journey of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. Well worth a read.

One possible fate of the housing bubble expansion

Picture from flickr

(Picture from this Flickr page)

As a renter in one of the nation’s most overpriced markets, I’ve been reading about real estate since before we moved here. Piggington, Calculated Risk and many others. It doesn’t take too many graphs like this one to make one wary:

(Click for source page)

Anyway, a couple of days ago a thought-provoking essay “The Next Slum?” was posted on The Atlantic positing that the detached-house suburbs would become the new ghettos:

…A structural change is under way in the housing market—a major shift in the way many Americans want to live and work. It has shaped the current downturn, steering some of the worst problems away from the cities and toward the suburban fringes. And its effects will be felt more strongly, and more broadly, as the years pass. Its ultimate impact on the suburbs, and the cities, will be profound.

Arthur C. Nelson, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, has looked carefully at trends in American demographics, construction, house prices, and consumer preferences. In 2006, using recent consumer research, housing supply data, and population growth rates, he modeled future demand for various types of housing. The results were bracing: Nelson forecasts a likely surplus of 22 million large-lot homes (houses built on a sixth of an acre or more) by 2025—that’s roughly 40 percent of the large-lot homes in existence today.

For 60 years, Americans have pushed steadily into the suburbs, transforming the landscape and (until recently) leaving cities behind. But today the pendulum is swinging back toward urban living, and there are many reasons to believe this swing will continue. As it does, many low-density suburbs and McMansion subdivisions, including some that are lovely and affluent today, may become what inner cities became in the 1960s and ’70s—slums characterized by poverty, crime, and decay.

It’s an interesting essay, and I recommend it to you. I debated posting it, but it kept running around my head as I tried out his arguments, so perhaps that’s a good sign. His data seem solid, but the argument he makes about desire to return to urban life is more sketchy. Personally, I couldn’t agree more and often have the same debate with exurb co-workers, but that’s beside the point. Question is, do large masses of people really want to desert the burbs and go urban?

Even if they don’t, will economics force the issue? The article quotes Arthur Nelson of Virginia Tech as projecting a surplus of 22 million suburban homes by 2025; 40% of the volume in existence today. That sort of surplus would crush pricing, and the article also explains the progression from vacant to crime statistics; it rapidly becomes a self-reinforcing rout.

If you read pessimists like JH Kunstler or The Oil Drum, this sort of scenario is old hat. I was quite surprised to see it in the mainstream media, well backed up with statistics and experts. Chaotic times ahead, I fear.

There are still good people out there

Despite the Bush administration and SoCal driving. This, from the excellent ‘Scalpel or Sword’ blog, really made my day. (It also made for some introspection… heroism can do that to you.)

It seemed like a typical overdose. Another teenage girl who took too many pills, more in a cry for help than any real desire to harm herself. So I ordered the mega laboratory panel and gave her some charcoal. Nothing too exciting or dramatic, she drank it without putting up a fight. She had a friend who had driven her to the ER and remained at the bedside the whole time. Three hours, maybe more, I can’t remember. Her friend seemed very compassionate and was obviously concerned about her. It seemed like they were close friends, maybe even sisters.

Eventually, I learned that her friend wasn’t even an acquaintance. She was a stranger who had noticed the patient crying in a parking lot and asked her what was wrong. The patient then admitted that she took a bunch of pills, so this remarkable young woman drove her to the ER and stayed with her until she was safe.

The patient really didn’t have any friends, and her family lived hours away. After she declined admission and promised not to harm herself, the saint even drove her home.

(Link to article)