Friday, December 30, 2005

Ad-hocitecture

Boingboing.net links to a story that Tacoma's wacky St. Irene Office Condominium Complex will be torn down (link to photo set).

At least we still have Brooklyn's Broken Angel building, left (photo by bitnoots).

Broken Angel sits on an L-shaped street in Clinton Hill/Bed Stuy, near a Salvation Army warehouse. The street was the site of Dave Chappelle's summer 2004 block party, filmed by Michel Gondry for an upcoming documentary.

And there's always the East Village public garden tower of found art, right.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Trash talkin' nerd

I got 11 out of 29 on The Guardian's World Book Day 2005 quiz. (Depending on how you look at it, that's either almost half, or barely better than random guessing... though I think one of the Guardian's answers is now wrong.) What'choo got, Alice?

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

New Mexico hurricanes?

Ben tells me that we've made twelve cents or so off the Google ads on the blog. I've added to the pot by clicking on this ad about preparing for New Mexico Hurricanes. The flood risk in Albuquerque is currently unavailable. Thanks, FEMA.

Doorstops

I haven't read Infinite Jest, but I do know a little something about dual-purpose book/doorstops. My Labyrinth bag broke in the middle of the semester because I was carrying three 1000-page books at once: the Major Works of John Milton, Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, and Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver, the Infinite Jest for the Restoration cool kids.

My dad read Infinite Jest while he was on a dig in Portugal this summer. Every week or so I'd get an e-mail about his progress. He was sharing the book with a grad student on the dig, and the two of them apparently became intolerable in their DFW worship. First they were banned from talking about the book at the campfire. Then the ban was extended to daytime hours. My dad's correspondence also included such comments as, "Have you seen Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle? It's awesome! I also liked Old School." Infinite Jest? Old School? I was suspicious: it seemed entirely possible that he had farmed out his father-daughter e-mail correspondence to one of his grad students.

Before I started it, I had figured that reading Richardson's epistolary novel Clarissa would be a supposedly fun thing I'd never do again. The eighteenth-centuryists at Columbia formed a Clarissa reading/support group this fall. Three of us were reading Marshall McLuhan's The Gutenberg Galaxy at the same time, so we spent a lot of time discussing how authors of epistolary novels manipulate the technological gap between the hand-written correspondence that makes up the story and the printed text in which the story appears to the reader. Adela wrote about it here. Anyway, it was fun and I think I'll have to do it again next year for my oral exams.

Graham and I have formed a Quicksilver reading group so that we both might finish the Baroque Cycle. I finished Quicksilver and half of The Confusion this summer, but I'm starting over again because I've become obsessed with the philosophical language projects in the Royal Society during the seventeenth century. If I could understand a little more about programming code in Cryptonomicon (the future version of the Baroque Cycle; the ancestors of the seventeenth-century natural philosophers become twentieth-century Enigma coders and programmers), I'd be all set. Quicksilver is both awesome and frustrating. For example, I don't believe that this sentence ever should have been written: "Word arrived that Fermat had died, leaving behind a theorem or two that still needed proving."
Blogger Jeff'y on Wed Dec 28, 06:09:00 PM:
Being a huge Infinite Jester I have had more or less the same conversation with Alice already: I asked her if she'd ever read, or would consider reading, IJ, she dodged the question by bringing up her dad and then her Baroque project, as if IJ were readable via proxy (it isn't) or Stephenson were a substitute for Foster Wallace (he isn't).

But yeah, IJ is highly recommended. It's a lot more enjoyable if you know other people who have read it as well so that you can share theories about the plot. (My friend Scott called me from his car in Seattle late the other night solely to run a theory about chapter one by me, and this is two years after we both read it.) So it's that kind of book.
 
Anonymous Anonymous on Wed Dec 28, 11:17:00 PM:
my favorite theory, at least from senior year, was that jonathan franzen was really just wallace in disguise. i don't remember the details, but i remain convinced of this.

so yeah, read it already fer chrissakes.

btw, i made a surprising discovery today--did anybody else know that espn has an ombudsman? it does: http://search.espn.go.com/keyword/search?searchString=george_solomon. not sure what he does to keep himself busy.

ross
 

Infinite reluctance

I am grading my students' papers on whether or not The Great Gatsby should be considered a great American novel.

In the course of copying and pasting long sections of every website that mentions Gatsby, several of my more derelict students have turned me on to some interesting (though completely irrelevant to the paper assignment) essays, including this endorsement of Infinite Jest. The last time I was in Georgia, a friend was reading it, and halfway through he could not decide if he regretted ever beginning it.

1079 pages is a deterrent, but my girlfriend Kate just finished Vikram Seth's 1349-page A Suitable Boy (statistically improbable phrases: lipstick girl, bathing day, great pipal tree, brainfever bird), the longest novel written in English since Samuel Richardson's 1748 million-word book Clarissa.

What's this all mean? It's a chance to play my favorite game: try to find books Alice hasn't read!

Alice, have you read Infinite Jest? Should I read it? And have you read Clarissa? Are you still stopped at 2/3 of the way through Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle?
Blogger Jeff'y on Wed Dec 28, 06:10:00 PM:
See my comment in Alice's response.
 

Monday, December 26, 2005

Provost pooh-pooh

The spineless dismissals of Gary Webb's CIA/Crack stories I mentioned in previous posts (1, 2) remind me of another such dismissal: Columbia University provost Alan Brinkley's 1997 trashing in TIME of Seymour Hersh's book The Dark Side of Camelot.

The review is titled "One Historian's View: Shoddy Work", but the shoddiness is hard for Brinkley to explain. In the book, Hersh describes evidence that Kennedy colluded in election fraud, plotted to assassinate foreign leaders, supported anticommunist leaders he knew were cruel tyrants, etc. But this material apparently passes muster, because Brinkley doesn't mention it. Instead, he fixes on a far greater fault: that many of the unsavory facts Hersh collects are substantiated have been reported before!

Finally, he finds an error--sort of. We learn that while Brinkley does not dispute Hersh's description of Kennedy's personal life, he feels Hersh "fails most conspicuously" to support his conclusion that this put the nation at any risk.

Some readers might agree with Hersh that a president occupied with frequent, surreptitious marital cheating, aided by government security staff and mob connections, might create an environment where dishonesty and inattention were encouraged and give criminals influence in American politics. But thanks to Brinkley, who doesn't bother to mention Hersh's explanation, these readers won't read the shoddy book at all and won't have to decide for themselves.

(Not that I think sex is bad for presidents. The Israel-Palestine conflict would probably be in a better place if even more world leaders had oral sex while talking on the phone about the conflict.)

Too bad provost Brinkley didn't have a chance to read Columbia alum Charles Kaiser's brilliant book The Gay Metropolis, in which Kaiser quotes a friend of Kennedy's from the 1950s who talks of a particularly enjoyable three-person yacht ride in the Meditterranean with Jackie and then-senator Jack.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Should NYTimes have helped child pornographer come clean?

Following up on the story of the NY Times journalist getting a child pornographer (of himself and others) to quit his career, get off drugs, use an NYT-connected lawyer, and help prosecute other pornographers he knew:

Slate's editor, Jack Schafer, wrote a story criticizing the NYT and Kurt Eichenwald, the journalist in question; Eichenwald replied, Schaffer countered, and it has turned into a great, heated debate, with replies by Eichenwald, counters by Schafer, and readers weighing in.
Shafer: ...imagine a Times reporter encountering an 18-year-old who had been thrust into the illicit drug business at 13 as a consequence of his neglectful family and unscrupulous dealers? Would he help the young man leave the drug trade and find him a lawyer at a Washington firm who is "a former federal prosecutor," as Eichenwald did Berry? Not likely. Would a Times reporter extend similar assistance to an 18-year-old female prostitute?

Eichenwald: Of course, we could have reported these crimes to the government ourselves—but I thought that crossed a line from reporter to witness. Plus, there were source confidentiality issues in play at that point—how do I reveal this, without revealing the source?

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Elevated hyperbole

Writer Sam Anderson on the NYC MTA strike:
Over the course of the three days of the strike, I walked barefoot through all five boroughs and urinated powerfully in every major waterway in the tri-state area. I crossed the Brooklyn Bridge nine times, often with a German shepherd sitting on my shoulders. At a bus terminal in Maine, where I was waiting for a shuttle back to Times Square, I lost six teeth to a gypsy cab driver in an illicit game of chance. I rode from Staten Island to Queens on a tandem bicycle with a paraplegic homeless man. I watched a group of rats—forced out of the subways by the sudden lack of fresh garbage—pile themselves into a 6-foot mound, put on a police uniform, and direct pedestrians into a manhole.

... Every New Yorker I spoke with, including myself, agreed that our tremendous spirit is a heartwarming beacon of inspiration to humanity. I am only glad that our suffering, like Christ's, could coincide with the holidays.

Free fireworks!

Light bulbs in Georgia explode when they burn out, lighting up the room and showering glass everywhere.

That's useful, because then you know when they need to be replaced.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

When is a story not a story?

When is a story not a story? When the mainstream media does not care to cover it.

My girlfriend Kate points out that I shouldn't assume other people know the historical context of the Gary Webb saga. Nutshell: in 1996, Webb wrote a series of articles connecting the CIA, via the Contras, to crack sales in the 1980s. There was a storm of negative press criticizing Webb for shoddy journalism (which I think was unfair) and saying the story was unsubstantiated (which I think was wrong).

Then came the government denials. From a December 2004 Alexander Cockburn piece about the case:
True to form, after Webb's series raised a storm, particularly on black radio, the CIA issued categorical denials. Then came the solemn pledges of an intense and far-reaching investigation by the CIA's Inspector General, Fred Hitz. On December 18, 1997, stories in the Washington Post by Walter Pincus and in the New York Times by Tim Weiner appeared simultaneously, both saying the same thing: Inspector General Hitz had finished his investigation. He had found "no direct or indirect" links between the CIA and the cocaine traffickers. As both Pincus and Weiner admitted in their stories, neither of the two journalists had actually seen the report.
The classified, 361-page report was later released, censored down to 149 pages. Cockburn again:
The actual report itself, so loudly heralded, received almost no examination. But those who took the time to examine the 149-page document--the first of two volumes--found Inspector General Hitz making one damning admission after another.
Webb wrote in a November 1998 story about these CIA admissions:
Among other things, the declassified cables reveal:

The CIA knew from the very beginning of the war that the men it had hired to run its main contra army were narco-terrorists, but it continued to finance and protect them. In September 1981, just as the CIA was becoming formally involved with the contras, the agency learned that a faction called the Legion of September 15 "had made a decision to engage in drug smuggling to the United States in order to finance its anti-Sandinista operations." ...

A few months after discovering the Legion's involvement with drugs, the CIA put the group's senior commanders in charge of the agency's newly formed contra organization, the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN). "No information has been found to indicate any action to follow up or corroborate the allegations concerning 15th of September Legion drug smuggling into the United States," the CIA report states.

That would prove to be no small oversight. According to the testimony of former LA drug kingpin Danilo Blandon, the contra middleman who sold Norwin Meneses' cocaine to South-Central's crack dealers, it was the Legion's commander in chief, Enrique Bermudez, who recruited him and Meneses in late 1981 to raise money for the contras in California. As part of their fund-raising efforts, they began selling cocaine to the street gangs of South-Central and, in the process, helped touch off the crack-cocaine explosion there....

CIA agent Felipe Vidal, a Cuban the CIA says "served as a logistics coordinator for the contras" in Costa Rica, was a convicted drug dealer and was working for a Miami company that was importing cocaine into the U.S. from Costa Rica. Top CIA officials knew of Vidal's drug-dealing associations... In the midst of the Iran-contra probe, the CIA shut down an internal investigation of Vidal because "narcotics trafficking relative to contra-related activities is exactly the sort of thing that the U.S. attorney's office will be investigating." The CIA's lawyers fretted that any information the internal probe turned up "could be exposed during any future litigation."

How much more of a smoking gun could the CIA possibly release? (Though I would like to see the context of those short, unspecific quotes.)

Between September 1996 and October 1998, the NY Times ran 14 articles that countered Webb's view of the evidence, including one staff editorial, six stories on the Mercury News's retraction and Webb's fall, five stories about agencies exonerating themselves, and one particularly slimy story of 2393 words headlined "Though Evidence Is Thin, Tale of C.I.A. and Drugs Has a Life of Its Own" (October 21, 1996) which compared the popularity of the Webb series among blacks with groundless paranoia such as the belief that AIDS was created to target blacks. Other headlines included "C.I.A. Says It Has Found No Link Between Itself and Crack Trade" and "C.I.A. Report Concludes Agency Knew Nothing of Drug Dealers' Ties to Rebels".

Together, the Times's 14 pieces which maintained a stance critical of Webb or reported the self-proclaimed innocence of government agencies he mentions ran 15,026 words.

When the report was actually released in 1998--heavily redacted and shortened by half, but still filled with shocking revelations the CIA hadn't mentioned the previous December--the Times coverage showed far less gusto than the paper's prior coverage. The headlines were "C.I.A. Says It Used Nicaraguan Rebels Accused of Drug Tie" and "C.I.A. Reportedly Ignored Charges of Contra Drug Dealing in '80's". While these headlines do mention that CIA beneficiaries are being accused of drug ties, and that someone is reporting that the CIA ignored contra drug dealing, they fail to make clear that the group doing this accusing and reporting is the CIA itself.

Combined word count for the CIA mea culpa? 1479 words. That's about 10% of the size of the coverage that had maintained the opposite was true--that the CIA had not ignored Contra drug dealing, and that Webb had been wrong and was disgraced. This time there was no staff editorial. When volume II of the CIA's report was released, the Times didn't even bother to cover it.

Similarly, the LA Times first ran "CIA Probe Absolves Agency on L.A. Crack" on page 1, and then later ran the shorter "CIA Admits to Using Nicaraguan Rebels With Drug Ties" on page 3. Who would view the second story as the less newsworthy of the two?

The NY Times did print an excellent letter in October 1998 from one James Lafferty, who laid it down:

"One need only look back to the C.I.A.'s role in Cuba or Vietnam or Chile or Afghanistan or dozens of other countries over the years to understand how truth is discovered in such matters. At first, the C.I.A. always denies the sordid charges. Then, after the passage of many years, investigations are reopened in the light of 'new evidence.' Finally, the truth comes out and is printed on the back pages of the same newspapers that, when the charges were first denied, carried the denials on their front pages. I would suggest that [Times writer] Adams and the rest of the nation stay tuned."

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

(But you're right, Alice, he is sexy.)

A Johnny Damon memory: my friend Nick's girlfriend Amy, who is half-Thai, was Johnny Damon for Halloween last year. Another 100 memories: his goofy lobs from center field.

What an awful feeling. I feel like watching baseball next season will be like running into an old friend who I heard talk about me my behind my back, and we both know it, and then trying to go about my day like nothing happened. (That actually happened to me in August and it pretty much felt just like this.) It's enough to make me want to just give up altogether on sports, cheering for stuff, believing in stuff, being happy, etc. I predict that the economy of Boston will drop 10% in the next week and never recover.
Anonymous Paul Silin Levenson on Tue Dec 27, 04:41:00 PM:
You were correct about the economic impact of J.D.'s betrayl of the local fans and the great American pastime. But I will bet you do not know why our local economy has plummeted. I will enlighten you, Benalice. After we saw photos on the front page of The Boston Globe of the despised Damon getting his locks shorn for the Yankees most barber shops, hair salons and beauty parlors have been empty. Everyone in Boston has long hair. Even your grandpa in Plantation got a longer rug for his keppie. Yes, local shampoo sles have risen a bit ...but not enough to compensate for the total decline in sales of scissors, hair dryers and .... more later
 

The Turquoise Terror

The University of New Mexico Lobos hosted "Throwback Night" at the Pit on Tuesday night, where they played in throwback jerseys inspired by the team's turquoise uniforms from the late 1970s. I can't decide whether the throwbacks are awesome or hideous or both.

I'm not as obsessed with throwback jerseys as the guys at Society for Sports Uniforms Research, but I do like to read Paul Lukas's Uni Watch (see here for more recent colums from ESPN)

The only UNM throwback jersey enjoying success in any sport is Brian Urlacher's, though this record of a small-town boy's corruption in the big leagues probably fetches more. But look for Danny Grainger to do well on the Pacers this year. He scored a career-high 16 points in last night's game. And he never had to play in a turquoise jersey.

Dirty deeds done less cheap

If the director of The Revenger's Tragedy (see previous post) would like to add any more contemporary references to the play, I suggest a flaying of Johnny Damon for turning traitor and moving to the Yankees. A sexy, sexy flaying.

Dirty deeds done dirt cheap

The other night I went to see a production of The Revenger's Tragedy playing at the Culture Project. I hear it's been extended, so I recommend seeing it. Jacobean drama is already awesome; Jacobean drama done in leather pants, gold thongs, and floor length fur coats is a pretty fantastic Saturday night.

The Revenger's Tragedy is a meta-revenge tragedy that consciously comments on the features of other revenge tragedies and morality plays of the period. The genre of revenge tragedy is already about cramming as much sin and death into one play as possible and makes use of such conventions as: elaborate revenge plots, characters whose names reveal their traits (the revenger is named Vindice; extravagant Lussurioso and saintly Castiza are imports from another play from the period, The Phoenix), characters who take on multiple identities, meta-theatricality and presentations of masques and skits within the play, and a fascination with skulls and severed heads. The author of the play is disputed; Thomas Middleton and Cyril Tourneur are often cited as possibilities. Anyone who saw the play in the early seventeenth century would have recognized elements from Hamlet and Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy. John Webster's The White Devil is my favorite Jacobean play (see Georges de la Tour's painting Magdalen with the Lamp on the cover of the Oxford edition to see the Jacobean fascination with skulls rendered visually). The Revenger's Tragedy takes these features a step further when, say, the multiple identities of characters are paid to kill one another, which requires at the very least exhuming dead bodies of those already killed so that there will be enough bodies to suffer all the carnage. The whole play is meta-theatrical in its delight in transgressing those boundaries that revenge tragedies already transgress.

Consider: Hamlet finds Yorick's skull and soliloquizes.

Vindice dresses his fiancee's skull up as a whore (see it to believe it), spreads a topical poison on the skull's grimace, and forces the man he believes responsible for her death to kiss the poisoned skull. The duke is too drunk to figure it out; Vindice and his partner in crime tease him for using too much tongue when the duke begins to foam at the mouth. Then they stomp on him, make him watch his whore of a wife commit incest with his son from a previous marriage, pluck out his eyeballs, and stab him to death. His body is disinterred for more abuse in the second act.

The director of this production, Jesse Berger, makes the Hamlet-Vindice comparison explicit in his notes; Vindice is what Hamlet would have been if he had acted instead of deliberated. Everything is explicit in this production--there's lots of crotch-grabbing and thrusting--of an already excessive play. The costumes are beautiful takes on punk, 90s club kid, and disco fashion. I half-expected Vindice to be carrying a rattlesnake suitcase under his arm.

Complaining that there's some over-the-top stuff in the production may be beside the point, though I share the Voice reviewer's distaste for a particularly gruesome suicide early in the play. Berger adds in a few lines, notably a paraphrase-in-couplets of Dick Cheney's comments about having to give up some freedoms in an age of terror. That addition in the final lines of the play struck me as obvious. But then the last explicit act of the play occurred--a terrible, terrible surprise but foreseeable given that everyone else is dead, also a Berger innovation--and a sly paraphrase became the least excessive transgression in the performance.

Alex Cockburn can turn a phrase

Two great passages by Cockburn, the "last Stalinist":
Another New York Times reporter, Keith Schneider was asked by In These Times back in 1987 why he had devoted a three-part series in the New York Times to attacks on the Contra hearings chaired by Senator John Kerry. Schneider said such a story could "shatter the Republic. I think it is so damaging, the implications are so extraordinary, that for us to run the story, it had better be based on the most solid evidence we could amass." Kerry did uncover mountains of evidence. So did [Gary] Webb [in his 1996 series on the CIA's connections to the crack trade]. But neither of them got the only thing that would have satisfied Schneider, Pincus and all the other critics: a signed confession of CIA complicity by the DCI himself. Short of that, I'm afraid we're left with "innuendo", "conspiracy mongering" and "old stories".
And:
...the oddest of all reviews of Whiteout [Cockburn and Jeffry St. Clair's very entertaining book about the CIA's relationship with drug traffickers through history] was one in The Nation, a multi-page screed... She flayed us for giving aid and comfort to the war on drugs and not addressing the truly important question, Why do people take drugs. As I said at the time, to get high, stupid!

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

NYC transit: Russia shows a better way

There are several things that the former Soviet countries do better than anyone else--chess, vodka, caviar, ballet--but to my mind their greatest achievement is public transportation.

In New York, which I think has pretty good public transportation, you absolutely must have a map of bus routes, and busses simply don't go between lots of places. No bus, for example, goes from near Times Square to the Upper East Side, or from Park Slope to Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, a fact I lamented often while freezing on the three-mile round trip to my girlfriend's work.

Worse, many NYC busses come only once or twice an hour. Busses stops come every two blocks, far too frequently for a bus that holds 50 people. Add in elderly stair-climbers, the insistence on exiting from the front, and the inevitable red lights that stop the bus the instant it pulls away from a bus stop, and it's no wonder than you can walk faster than some city busses. (The Straphanger's Campaign, which tries to improve the New York MTA, recently awarded the M14 crosstown bus the distinction of moving slower than a chicken walks.)

The answer to all our bussing problems is the "marshrutka" ("minibus"--the "utka" is a diminuitive ending). Found in every post-Soviet city from St. Petersburg to Tashkent, it is the opposite of a city bus in every way. Just a small van, it fills up quickly and does not have to stop for new passengers. It allows you to get off at any moment by crying for the driver to stop. Since it takes fewer people, it comes more frequently. And most amazing of all, if there are enough people who regularly want to travel between two places, a marshrutka will soon materialize to work that route.

All of this is because marshrutkas are almost completely unregulated. A man with a van of vaguely correct size, gas in the tank, and a few hours to kill is a marshrutka driver, no forms to fill out and no stamp to get. If he wants to work an existing route he need only write the route number and its landmarks on a sign. If he wants to invent a route he need only find some little-used number and list the places he goes so that riders will know to flag him down.

There is no doubt that this can work in America, because it's already happening. Dollar vans regularly work many routes in New York, especially in the outer boroughs, where they are a cheaper and faster alternative to the MTA busses. It is a testament to their efficiency that they are profitable and convenient despite the lower price, the lack of identifying markings, and the inconvenience of being ticketed for lacking a license. In fact, during the last transit strike, in Queens, Mayor Bloomberg temporarily legalized dollar vans on their routes, which was such a painless transition that it made people wonder why they would soon go back to paying twice as much for half the service.

Of course, one way that dollar vans and marshrutkas are different from city busses is that city bus drivers are unionized and paid decent wages and benefits, and are not subject to the whims of the market and financial crises whenever their vans or bodies need repair.
(There's also the matter of wheelchair access, which I admit is a tough one.) But how much of the extra dollar you pay the MTA goes into the pocket of the driver, and how much to the required massive bureaucracy, six-figure union executive salaries and wasteful, corrupt transportation directors?

The bottom line is that this is a good place for the market to trump state control. Not everyone who wants to practice medicine or be a schoolteacher should be allowed to just pick up and start;certification processes ensure that to get to do these things, you need to show that even if you're not necessarily competent, at least you've invested time in the career and aren't going to piss it away. Driving isn't like that. If you drive a van around alot, you're probably a decent driver, at least decent enough to pass any driving test. Of course, psycho killers just released from prison should not be encouraged to invite people into their vans, but this is easily solved by a simple medallion system with background checks.

Anyway, this would be a pretty easy experiment to try for a year in one of the NYC boroughs. Open a little office to register drivers, hand out medallions, track route numbers; make standard, large, colorful signs that show the price and route, to avoid haggling and encourage first-time riders; charge $500 a year for the medallion and a few hundred drivers will happily cover the staff salaries and ad campaign. When they register, give them an application for New York's cheap, partially state-subsidized health care plan that working people are eligible for but no one knows about, and offer an independent union like the freelancers' union the list of registrees. If it doesn't work out, scrap it.

The best part is the instant reaction to the public's travel needs. Think about it: when a Yankees game is on, passing vans would pull out their "Yankee Stadium" signs and take the overflow people from the 6 train to the Bronx for a few bucks. If a large number of Cape Verdeans settle in Astoria or Russians settle in Red Hook, vans would crop up to shuttle family and friends to sister neighborhoods in Washington Heights and Brighton Beach.

That's what happens in Tbilisi: you can actually see drivers, surrounded by three other marshrutkas on the same line, shrug and pull up the sign for another route: instant redirection of transportation resources, faster than a $2 chicken walks.
Anonymous Anonymous on Tue Feb 07, 08:32:00 PM:
Yep, public transportation is loathsome in the US. I've noticed what might be the result of Russion influence on the excellent public transportation of Prague and Budapest (though I doubt anyone there would think it was worth the occupation.) But at leasat in NYC your subway cars are faster than walking chicken. Not so here in Boston. No matter what the MBTA says, public transportation isn't taken seriously here.
 
Anonymous klaus on Thu Feb 09, 02:21:00 AM:
Marshrutka's are living proof of the fact that people are perfectly able of organising themselves when a government is not capable to take up its duties.

Nobody needs them, those burocrats.
 

Monday, December 19, 2005

The Unpossessed

I went to Labyrinth Books this weekend for the annual remainder sale. I spend so much time there that I felt like I had picked through everything. I won a Labyrinth mug in the raffle, but I didn't leave with anything else except a reprint of Tess Slesinger's satire of Lefties in the 1930s, The Unpossessed. It's a very funny take on the Mary McCarthy-Bunny Wilson set from founding days of the Partisan Review.

In this selection, we join a lefty seduction in progress. Miles, a self-identified Marxist intellectual ("I thought you were a communist?" his friend asks. "This week," he replies.) has spirited his magazine partner's wife into the kitchen under the auspices of making drinks. He's become so tired of grenadine...

...[Margaret] stood and maintained her balance while he hurled himself against her; stood calm while he withdrew to murmur his curious verbal aphrodisiac.

"Margaret, are we never--" he whispered in her ear; "are you never going to throw away your bourgeois notions, are we always condemned to sin against ourselves and our desire, oh this is evil, you must read my book and see, it's the only evil..." He continued his impassioned speech; punctuated it with kisses oddly lacking in sensual intelligence. It persisted in her mind that this was
fake, that desire had stared from nothing, that she was taking part, however passively, in a drama much beneath her. "This is terrible," he whispered, "this making love in kitchens, it can't go on, this is no age for repressions...." His eyes ran from one of her eyes to the other, asking his hundreds of questions--but he waited for no answer; he whipped himself up to have something to beat, just as he fought for possession of her mouth which offered no resistance.

"Your bourgeois notions," he muttered furiously; "will you never get over them?" She had not answered him directly for something like five years, since the evening when she met him first; he had scarcely expected an answer since. She thought for a moment (she was a novice in these matters; the poignant moment had safely passed, leaving her able to coldly calculate), and then spoke blandly: "Yes, I think I
shall get over them, what you call my bourgeois notions. Now what do you think of that?"

A very funny book. Elizabeth Hardwick wrote the introduction to the reprint.

Journalist convinces child porn star to end career

From the Times's current series about the online child pornography trade, a new journalism piece that describes some pretty intense 'entanglement':
I came across entries about someone named Justin... and discovered a photograph of a boy who appeared to be about 14 years old.

...At The Times, it is standard practice for a reporter to identify himself at the outset, but doing that too soon would mean I might never know the truth. I decided to try to engage this person in conversation and persuade him to meet with me... I mimicked the tone of the members of the Yahoo site, simply identifying myself as a fan... Soon thereafter, I proposed meeting in Los Angeles, and Justin agreed.

...Over the next two days, I interviewed the person I now knew was Justin Berry. By then, I was aware that Justin was addicted to cocaine and marijuana. With no expectation that he would agree, I asked him to stop. I also urged Justin to quit responding to messages from his adult admirers. Justin agreed to both requests.

Loving Jenny Davidson

Alice just added a link to Light Reading, a blog by Jenny Davidson, one of Alice's Columbia literature professors. Curious, I read a bit, and it's fantastic. Snip:
My junior year of high school I spent the month of January (we all got the month off for an independent “junior project”) writing an (incomplete) faux-Jacobean play, inspired partly by my obsession with Webster et al. but also written in the spirit of The Crying of Lot 49 and a lovely remark in the early pages of Gertrude Stein's Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. I don't have the book with me, but the Stein passage goes along the lines of "When Gertrude Stein was eight years old she decided to write an Elizabethan tragedy. She wrote the first stage direction, it said 'Enter courtiers, making witty remarks.' Then she couldn't think of any witty remarks so she went and had supper instead." (My courtiers didn’t make witty remarks either.)
This is the kind of stuff that makes me want to join you in grad school land, Alice...

Link to her Amazon reviews.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Dork Dark Alliance

A Wikipedia editing session (on Katharine Graham, who, I never noticed before, spelled her name like my girlfriend Katharine Cortesi and Katharine Hepburn do) led to my adding info to the Washington Post entry on the Post ombudsman's 1996 response to the Post's handling of the CIA/Crack story.

Which just reminds me what a crazy saga the Gary Webb "Dark Alliance" series kicked off. There was the original series itself, the misleading denunciations in the mainstream press, the CIA's own 2-part internal investigation that it announced (surprise) exonerated itself, the actually quite damning content of the report when released, the Mercury News retracting Webb's pieces and sending him to journalistic Siberia, Webb's slipping into depression.

What I didn't know was that Webb committed suicide last year. He wrote several notes,
mailed them to friends and family, and shot himself in the back of the head (twice--the first bullet grazed him).

The response to his 1996 series from mainstream journalism was shameful. The major papers had ignored or downplayed the story until Webb scooped them. But instead of continuing the story, which indicated that Freedom of Information Act requests were bearing fruit and would reward further investigation, some big names lined up to dismiss him as an unprofessional conspiracy-monger. The facts ended up bearing him out, but by then it was too late. I imagine that most NY Times readers still figure the CIA/Crack accusations were groundless.

That journalistic spinelessness is what draws me to the story. From a September 1998 Esquire article about Webb:
Finally, in early October [1996], The Washington Post ran a story by Roberto Suro and Walter Pincus headlined, THE CIA AND CRACK: EVIDENCE IS LACKING OF ALLEGED PLOT... Perhaps the best summary of the Post's retort to Webb came from the paper's own ombudsman, Geneva Overholser, some weeks later: "The Post... showed more passion for sniffing out the flaws in San Jose's answer than for sniffing out a better answer themselves. They were stronger on how much less money was contributed to the contras by the Mercury News's villains than their series claimed, how much less cocaine was introduced into L.A., than on how significant it is that any of these assertions are true."

In late October, the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times weighed in on consecutive days. The Los Angeles Times had two years before described [Contra-supplied LA drug dealer] Freeway Rick Ross vividly: "If there was an eye to the storm, if there was a criminal mastermind behind crack's decade-long reign, if there was one outlaw capitalist most responsible for flooding Los Angeles's streets with mass-marketed cocaine, his name was Freeway Rick .... While most other dealers toiled at the bottom rungs of the market, his coast-to-coast conglomerate was selling more than five hundred thousand rocks a day, a staggering turnover that put the drug within reach of anyone with a few dollars." In the 1996 response to Webb's series, the Los Angeles Times described Ross as one of many "interchangeable characters" and stated, "How the crack epidemic reached that extreme, on some level, had nothing to do with Ross." Both stories were written by the same reporter, Jesse Katz, and the 1996 story failed to mention his earlier characterization [emphasis added].

A common chord ran through the responses of all three papers: It never really happened, and if it did happen, it was on a small scale, and anyway it was old news, because both the Kerry report and a few wire stories in the eighties had touched on the contra-cocaine connection.
A big part of the problem lay with Webb, who was prone to hyperbole and had what David Corn called "a low threshhold for truth," which made him an easy target for debunkers, despite the core truth of his articles.

His editor Jerry Ceppos, in the Merc's retraction of the "Dark Alliance" series, wrote: "I believe that we fell short at every step of our process--in the writing, editing and production of our work. Several people here share that burden. We have learned from the experience and are changing the way we handle major investigations. But ultimately, the responsibility was, and is, mine." This is a guy who gets accused of selling out Webb, but surely he wanted the series to run and be unimpeachable and regretted failing.

After Webb's suicide, one of his earlier Merc editors wrote, "Part of what made [Webb] great destroyed him. He was an immensely talented reporter, a good writer and a sometimes difficult human being. Once convinced he was right, Webb didn't budge... His lack of doubt demanded a firm editor to challenge him." The series "was as much an institutional failure as it was a personal one. Yet Webb bore the chief consequences."

Thursday, December 15, 2005

<*)) >=<

That's a fish rendered in typographical symbols.

I'm utterly charmed by this explanation of the difference between English and Japanese emoticons. (link from Maud Newton)

I remember discovering proto-emoticons in Lois Lowry's children's book All About Sam, where a toddler gets into his father's typewriter and delights in how the symbols can wink and frown. A highly nostalgic child, I immediately pined for a past time when I could clatter around on a typewriter. Now I'm deeply suspicious of emoticon use, except when it's manga-inspired.

No, that's not even true.

I'll deny it strongly (>_< )( >_<): it's only the typographical fish that charms me.

Pinch Sulzberger = camel, any mistake in NYT = straw!

From today's NYTimes:
Heavy Sunni Turnout Is Reported; No Large-Scale Attacks by Rebels

By DEXTER FILKINS; Published: December 15, 2005

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Dec. 15 - In a day remarkable for the absence of large-scale violence, millions of Iraqi voters, many of them dressed in their best and traveling with other family members, streamed to the polls today to cast ballots in a nationwide election as Iraqi leaders predicted that the vote would split almost evenly between secular and Islamist parties.

After the polls closed this evening, electoral commission officials said that turnout could have been as high as 11 million out of 15.5 million eligible voters, more than in October's referendum, when many Sunnis boycotted the election.

"There has been a wider participation by Sunni Arabs, so we expect the turnout to be higher," Mr. Ayar said.

Awesome! No, really, that's all very good news. Awesome.

... um, who's "Mr. Ayar"?

UPDATE! Article has been totally rewritten. Strange that one version of the article would be completely replaced with another... does the NYTimes now put up a copy of articles as soon as they clear a draft, then later go back and replace them later with the print version?

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Esperanto memo: Race not to swift

I am typing this using the Dvorak keyboard layout, at about ten words per minute. My wrists have been hurting from typing, so I decided to learn Dvorak and use it to write about itself, following the spirit of 1905 Esperanto world congress, which was conducted entirely in Esperanto.

I love constructed alternatives of all types--Esperanto, the Dvorak keyboard, circadian-correcting 25-hour days, and religious humanism (L. L. Zamenhof, creator of Esperanto, also created a humanist religion, Homaranismo in Esperanto, based on the teachings of Hillel).

Esperanto, which means "hope" in Esperanto, relies on just that--the dream that one day there will be a critical mass of speakers and the language will have been worthwhile. But once you start constructing a language to be simple and universal, when do you stop? The genie can't be put back in the bottle.

One group of early esperantists sensed that Esperanto's quirks were not helping its popularity. Some of its unusual diacritic marks (carats and curlicues) occur in no other language, and its vocabulary choices were unfortunate ("lernejo" for school, instead of a variant on "school" which occurs in nearly every European language). They proposed a revised version of the language, called Esperanto II, that solved these problems.

Later others built on this in another direction, returning even more Latin and Indo-European cognates to Esperanto in the beautiful offshoot languageIdo (Esperanto for "descendent"), but at last count the annual international Ido conference attracted only 17 participants (at least it was in beautiful Toulousse). Volapük and
Interlingua aren't doing much better. When Esperanto speakers mock your numbers, you know you are truly irrelevant.

To get a sense of what some of these languages look like, "Give us this day our daily bread" in Esperanto is "Nian panon ĉiutagan donu al ni hodiaŭ", in Ido "Donez a ni cadie l'omnadiala pano", in Interlingua "Da nos hodie nostre pan quotidian" and in Volapük "Bodi obsik vädeliki govolös obes adelo!" (commands carry an exclamation point to avoid ambiguity).

Dvorak is a lot like these constructed languages--unpopular, and a little weird, but better. Thankfully, a keyboard layout doesn't suffer from obscurity the same way a language does, because you can change your layout without having to find others who will change with you. In fact, if you use Windows XP, all you have to do is activate the taskbar's Language bar, and add to it the keyboard layout "United States-Dvorak".

A selling point of Esperanto et. al is the ease of learning. Dvorak fits right in with these; it's coming to me quickly and so far it feels good. (Did learning Qwerty set my brain up not only for that particular layout, but for memorizing finger positions in general? Maybe Steven Johnson is right about video games after all. I swear I can feel my brain stretching and remapping itself.)

This superiority of feel and ease of learning are why Dvorak is trumpeted as a classic example of the inertia of bad standards. The story goes that it's the keyboard layout we would all be using if we weren't all stuck with the inferior Qwerty, which was designed purposely to slow us down.

Not surprisingly, it turns out
the real story is much more mundane. Qwerty wasn't designed to be evil, it was just thrown together. And while Dvorak is faster--by 5-10% for trained typists--most of us don't do enough hardcore typing for that to matter. Dvorak prosletyzers claim it eliminates repetetive pain, but is that just wishful thinking? I admit I'm now shocked to see the letter j, which is tied with x at 8 Scrabble points, on Qwerty's home row, but I don't know if the reach Qwerty requires for r (which by all rights should have j's spot) is really so insufferable.

Plus, like Esperanto, Dvorak has some problems of its own. I use common keyboard shortcuts like Control-s, Control-x, and Control-v, and Dvorak moves these letters to unfamiliar places. Dvorak also rearranges punctuation, brackets and dashes, whose placement now requires memorizing since I've lost the visual cue. And why must Dvorak uproot d, s, and h, all of which are already on Qwerty's home row, only to put them somewhere else on the home row? Why move z, x, v and b at all, when these are already in the bottom row ghetto?

Luckily, since keyboard layouts aren't held back by the inertia of loyalty to existing users, versions branch off more easily than do their utopian cousins, constructed languages. No sooner am I learning Dvorak than I find the Asetion keyboard, which solves most of my problems with Dvorak (and makes the useless Caps Lock button into a second Backspace key, a genius move). Where Dvorak remaps 34 keys, Asetion only moves 16 (asetion.com has a nice visual comparison between each of them and Qwerty). I decide to abandon Dvorak. But like an Esperanto speaker who finds a better universal language, leaving means I've wasted my time, and it means I'm marginalizing myself even further for the sake of a perfection that may never be realized.

I glance at the top of the Asetion website, where it announces that Colemak, its much-improved successor, has been released. Colemak (bad band name, bad baby name, but great keyboard layout name, no?) takes unwanted u off Asetion's home row and puts in righteous r. It also returns m to its Qwerty position, pushing the semicolon over into Qwerty's n spot, which is just weird. Fewer keys are shared with Qwerty, so that they can have more ideal placement, but the efficiency gains hardly seem worth the trouble.

I'll settle for Asetion, the option that keeps the most of what I'm already familiar with. As for which utopian language to endorse, maybe I should follow the same reasoning and choose Basic English, a kind of newspeak with 850 words whose creator claimed can be learned in two months, which was intended not as a replacement for English but as a lingua franca among non-native speakers.

Ecclesiastes 9:11, which George Orwell quotes in Politics and the English Language as being so bold and concise it could never be written by our contemporaries, reads in King James:
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to
them all.
And here it is in the Basic English Bible:
And again I saw under the sun that the reward goes not to him who is quick, or the fruits of war to the strong; and there is no bread for the wise, or wealth for men of learning, or respect for those who have knowledge; but time and chance come to all.
That just took me two minutes to write using Asetion and I barely missed the poetry. I'll take them both.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

A Just Contempt of Learning

I'm finishing seminar papers this week, so my blogging productivity is going to be low for the next couple of days. Unless it's not. Unless this very technology inspires hyper-productivity. My old misogynist friend (and topic of one seminar paper) Jonathan Swift worried in 1704 that the printed word would so saturate eighteenth-century culture that scribblers would be doomed to banality: when authors can print anything they want, they'll be prone to over-production.

"Now, it is not well enough consider'd, to what Accidents and Occasions the World is indebted for the most Part of those noble Writings, which hourly start up to entertain it. If it were not for a rainy Day, a drunken Vigil, a Fit of the Spleen, a Course of Physick, a sleepy Sunday, an ill Run at Dice, a long Taylor's Bill, a Beggar's Purse, a factious Head, a hot Sun, costive Dyet, Want of Books, and a just Contempt of Learning. But for these Events, I say, and some Others too long to recite, (especially a prudent Neglect of taking Brimstone inwardly,) I doubt, the Number of Authors, and of Writings, would dwindle away to a Degree most woful to behold." (A Tale of a Tub, p. 1704, italics original)

I looked around and tried to figure out if anyone had cited this passage in the myriad criticisms of blog culture--easy access to blogging produces only banality--but I haven't seen it.

That said, Ben, if you have an ill run at Dice (I think I've see a draft of a post about a rainy day in Georgia and maybe also a sleepy Sunday in the works), let us all know. I'll write up something else about my Just Contempt of Learning.

Liziko, the badass 4 year-old

Our friend Khatuna's daughter, Liziko (the diminuitive of "Liza"), is this tiny creature who tiptoes around the apartment, peering around corners, then shrieks when spotted and scampers away. But like a true young Georgian woman, she loves to vamp it up, putting on her mother's makeup and dressing up, though she is only 4 years old. This is just one of many ways she completely mystifies her mother and grandparents, who have no idea where she gets her proclivity for showing off.

Nana, our friend and Khatuna's, took Liziko one day to the cafeteria of her graduate institute. The students there are very considerate and ignored her, so as not to make her feel out of place among the teenagers and twenty-somethings. Of course this wouldn't do for Liziko, who marched up to a cluster of people and said "Well, why are you ignoring me? I'm wonderful, my name is Liziko, pay attention to me!"

Everyone quickly got drawn into the show. One group of guys started to tease Nana and Liziko, saying that Liziko is wonderful, but Nana is a very bad, wicked, sinful girl. Liziko leaned over to Nana and said, "I think that these guys like you, but I'm not sure. Wait here and I'll find out." Then she went over and demanded, "So do you guys like Nana, or what? She's too good for you, she is wonderful, you're just some regular guys." They asked her, "Who is Nana to you, anyway? Not your mother, right?" And she said casually, "Oh, Nana's one of my friends, we hang out alot."

Giorgi Margvelashvili, the director of the institute and a well-known figure in Georgian politics and education, came into the cafeteria, and seeing Liziko, he said "Well, Nana, I see you have a young girl, but of course this isn't your daughter?" Nana replied "No, she's a friend's daughter." But Liziko looked up at her with crocodile tears and cried, "Mommy, why are you telling this man I'm not your daughter? Who is this man, who does he think he is?" Then she got into the idea of being Nana's daughter and declared, "It's amazing, a mother with her daughter and both so beautiful!"

At this point the entire school was standing around in the cafeteria watching her, laughing hysterically. "Well," she said, "are you the teachers or what?" Several teachers said, "We are teachers." Liziko said "Well, you must agree with me that Nana is the best, the most beautiful and the number one student!" They all laughed and nodded and repeated obediently, "Nana is the best," etc.

When it was time to leave everyone called for Liziko to come back as soon as possible. Nana and Liziko walked out the door, but Liziko turned at the threshold and sternly commanded all assembled to declare, one last time, that Nana is the best, which they hastened to agree.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Statistically Improbable Phrases

Recently I've become obsessed with the SIPs feature on Amazon.com. SIPs are Statistically Improbable Phrases that the Search Inside function has deemed distinctive in a book. Amazon explains, "If they find a phrase that occurs a large number of times in a particular book relative to all Search Inside! books, that phrase is a SIP in that book. ... SIPs are not necessarily improbable within a particular book, but they are improbable relative to all books in Search Inside!."

Here is today's weirdest SIP, shitty fish, which came up when I looked at Lydia Millett's Everyone's Pretty.The phrase shows up four times in the novel and only once in any other book scanned by Search Inside.

"... Nature is unappealing at the dinner table. -Fish with a shit. It's a shitfish! -Language Barbara! Language! -Fishy shit and shitty fish, fishy shit and shitty fish, sang Babs, and began to hop on one leg, spilling wine on the carpet. Phillip's ..." (68)

"... -Mind of Christ and shitty fish, mind of Christ and shitty fish, continued Babs singsong, and then stopped hopping long enough to empty her goblet. -Come ..." (69)

The SIP also appears in a translation of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich:

"... show them any smaller!" "I tell you what, if they brought that meat to our camp today instead of the shitty fish we get and chucked it in the pot without washing or scraping it, I think we'd . . ." (122)

Amazon.com explains, "For works of fiction, SIPs tend to be distinctive word combinations that often hint at important plot elements." This isn't a useful claim for many of the SIPs that turn up in the searches I've done (and yes, I've done more than a few as it's paper-writing season). Without any other context, I'm guessing that 'shitty fish' is an example of foolish echolalia in Millett's book and a marker of desperation in Solzhenitsyn. The proximity of the words 'shitty' and 'fish' is statistically improbable, but its appearance in two very different books doesn't connect the two texts. I guess I'm most interested when statistical improbabilies appear in multiple texts but have no relevance to one another: delightful examples of the atomization of language. The SIP function takes in complete sentences, paragraphs, chapters, etc. and spits out pairs of statistically improbable words: it atomizes the text, and, far from aiding in determining some "important plot elements," it reduces the words only to what they are, configurations of letters with no meaning attached.

Professor Drinky-drink

I recently began teaching a course at Black Sea University, a small private college (and not a university at all) located on the outskirts of Tbilisi, the capital of the Republic of Georgia.

My first day at work was a classic adventure in Georgian culture. I took a marshrutka (minibus) to get there, the best way to get around in the former Soviet Union (my trip was about 10 kilometers and cost 25 cents). Now, a marshrutka will take you in the general direction of where you want to go, but you may not be on the exact block or field or gas station--that's the price you pay for the good deal. So when the driver declared that we were as close to the university as we were going to get, I stepped out of the marshrutka and found myself next to a giant hole in the ground that just did not give me that "college nearby" feeling. The driver pointed vaguely in the direction of the pit.

As I walked around the edge of the pit (so I chose to interpret his directions), a tiny building resolved into a snack stand, curiously positioned about 50 meters from the highway where it can only serve the many drivers who want to come by and see the pit. I walked up to the low window to ask directions; there were four women of various age sitting behind the tiny window, having a blast, chatting and drinking and laughing loudly. They barely paused to give me a glance as I asked for help in broken Georgian, shrugging at the mention of "Shavis Zghwa Universiteti" and offering me a glass of water, which I politely declined. One woman suggested a long list of options, and from her companions' laughter I took them to have been lewd (and I wished I could understand them!). Finally taking pity, she came out and pointed me around and said "marshrutka, stop, okay?" and she handed me the glass of water and made a drinking motion. Why not, I said, and drank it down, and of course it was vodka, and the women giggled hysterically.

At this point let me mention that on the phone, a dean had told me that I should come in to have a light lunch chat, to find out if I would be a good match for the university, and to discuss what subject I might like to teach. When I arrived, a bit tipsy but in the right place thanks to the help of my drunken friends, he casually mentioned that in twenty minutes I would be giving a two-hour lecture on "the American novel." Holding my hand casually over my mouth and finding excuses to turn my head away from him every time I exhaled, I told him no problem!

The delirious Tbilisi winter

On a recent night here in the Republic of Georgia, Kate and I cooked dinner for our friend Nana, who has lived in Tbilisi for many years. As we ate and drank, she told us several great stories. One of them deals with a timeless Georgian pastime--surviving winters when the heat and electricity go out for days at a time.

One winter Nana sat with her aunt Inga and uncle Peter in their apartment in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, freezing because they had no money to pay the gas bill. They were too cold to go to sleep, so they started burning candles, one at a time to make them last, and while they sat around the flame they agreed to fantasize about being rich: how they would spend their millions, what wasteful extravagances they would enjoy, what exotic places they would travel to and where they would stay when they got there.

Peter suggested flying to Paris, and Nana agreed, saying they had better stay at the Ritz as it was so reasonable--only a few hundred dollars per night. Inga pooh poohed Paris and the Ritz, suggesting instead a palace in Dubai. The conversation went on like this, and finally they drifted off to sleep as the sun came up.

In the morning they left the building, and saw a neighbor on the way out, whose apartment adjoins theirs. How are you, they asked.

Horrible, came the response, and I needn't ask how you are, everything is just roses for you, I'm quite aware.

They were taken aback and couldn't imagine what had prompted the response. What are you talking about? they asked.

The neighbor said, oh, don't play dumb, we heard you bragging and planning your fancy trips!

They looked at each other and buckled over laughing, barely able to explain that this had been their way of not losing their minds in the blistering cold, as they sat in the pitch black apartment and prayed for heat.

Kicking things off!

Alice, I'm getting excited about this! Here we go...