Wednesday, June 25, 2008

File Under Weird And Cool

I don't spend a lot of time thinking about the past. For better or for worse, I'm more of a future-oriented person. So I'm not usually grabbed by stories about what happened a long, long, time ago.

But I gotta say, the New Yorker story about the cave paintings, well, that created an exception for me.

I knew there were cave paintings, but I didn't know they were so freaking old - like, what, 32,000 years old? That is something crazy. And it sounds dumb, but I didn't know the paintings were so beautiful.

A photo from the Lascaux cave. (According to Wikipedia, this image is in the public domain.)

Judith Thurman wrote the essay, and she made the pictures sound so interesting -- she made them sound, indeed, beautiful.

One of the things she describes is the academic infighting over what the correct interpretation of the paintings is, and over whether there ever could be a correct interpretation of the paintings, given how little we know about the people who made them.

In a way reading about the debates made me feel very powerfully how much the paintings are "art" just in the same way the stuff in the MOMA or the Pompidou is.

You've had this experience? You're in a museum, and you read some curator's description of some artwork, and you feel both grateful for some context, without which the work seems diminished, but simultaneously skeptical, because the context you're being offered seems, itself, immediately diminishing. And you read the interpretation offered, and you think, "Really? The artist meant to question the politics of abstract expressionism? How do you know? And what makes you think it's so simple?"

The two main interpretations of the paintings Thurman talks about are 1) that they are spiritual/religious/tied to rituals and 2) that they are the pre-historic equivalent of graffiti -- created by teenagers looking to make their mark and get laid.

You see what I mean about creating context, but also diminishing the art? Before I encountered these interpretations, I had a lot of fun imagining these early artists, getting all exciting to make their paintings.

'Cause really, doesn't making these things just seem really cool and fun? Lots of the pictures are highly emotive, most of them depict animals and not people, and lots of them show a kind of animated sense of movement. And they're in caves. You'd have had to struggle to get there, and everything would be seen by the light of fire.

If you could take some pigment, and go into some crazy cave with a bunch of other people, and create this utterly singular experience for people -- how cool and weird is that? If you could do that, you would, and it would be awesome.

Thinking that makes me feel very connected to these artists in a way that the interpretations don't.

The other great thing in the Thurman essay is when she's talking about the intended audience, and she points out that part of that audience is us. This is a deliberate attempt on the part of the artists to connect not only with their ancestors, and their contemporaries, but also with their descendants -- to make something we would look at.

That kind of gave me a chill down my spine.

It makes me want to say,

Dear prehistoric cave painters,
We think the paintings are awesome and beautiful. We understand why you left them for us. And we are so grateful that you did.

Thinking of you,
Noko Marie

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Men, Women, Sex, and Opporunity Costs

Maybe you've encountered this line of reasoning before:

1) Men actively pursue casual sex, even though the "opportunity costs" are high. A guy has to go out, find a girl, buy drinks or whatever, strike out several times, yada yada yada.

2) Women don't actively pursue casual sex, even though the "opportunity costs" are low. Basically all the girl has to do is show up at a bar. And most girls don't even bother to do that.

3) You can judge how much someone wants something by what opportunity costs they're willing to spend.


4) Men want casual sex more than women.

There aren't a lot of bits of reasoning that bug me more than this one, and I've been meaning to write about it for some time. But you know how it is when you really care about something: you want to do a good job.

I don't know, I've been distracted. And now I have jet lag from my return to EDT. But I had to write about it today 'cause there's some new evidence that totally proves my point.

My point being that anyone who thinks the opportunity costs for a woman to have casual sex are low is out of their freaking minds.

I'm sure there are ten reasons y'all are smart enough to think of for yourselves. Like guys actually put drugs into women's drinks so they can take them home and rape them. This is the sort of thing I would think beyond belief if I didn't actually read about it happening in the actual news fairly regularly. Often these are guys the women sort of know... they're on a date. It's really just so unbelievable you want to say, "Oh, what are the odds of that?" but you know what? The answer is "Not low enough."

Also obvious is the fact that when you have sex with guys you just met, other people call you a slut. The guy himself, having slept with you, may later decide you are a slut.

Guys, if you're listening: this is truly sucky behavior, and it has to stop. If you want girls to keep having sex with you you have to stop calling them sluts. Period, end of discussion, I don't want to hear any backtalk.

Large as these costs seem to me, they are tiny once you place them next to the main item: Girls get pregnant.

I know people who make this argument know that girls get pregnant, but are they not thinking? Sure, you can use birth control, and sure, you can be careful, and sure you can pay the opportunity costs associated with making absolutely sure the guy is being as careful as he says he is being, condom-wise, and all that, and still, there is still a risk that you're gonna get pregnant.

How is this not the hugest opportunity cost ever? I mean, there you are, you've had a few, you find a reasonable guy who doesn't seem like he'll be raping or drugging you, you don't even know him, and bam, you're carrying his baby??

I know guys risk getting girls pregnant, but I'm sorry this is really not the same. I do sometimes wonder why guys are often not more worried about getting girls pregnant, but that's a post for another day.

Yes, girls can get abortions, or they can give kids up for adoption, or whatever, but seriously, these are huge, huge things in any woman's life.

The kicker, as I see it, comes when you put together the STD risk with the pregnancy risk. You know, when girls get STD's (and they get them more easily from guys than vice-versa as I understand it) it affects their reproductive system. The latest news is that it can cause birth defects. Now we're not talking no "two weeks of antibiotics," we're talking a kid with its parts put together in the wrong way.

As far as I'm concerned, if you're thinking opportunity costs, it's obvious why women sometimes choose to stay home.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Newspapers, Page Views, and Guilty Pleasures

One thing I don't like about reading stuff on the internet is that someone knows what you've been reading. I don't mean I worry that someone knows what particular things I am personally reading, but rather that it is clear what is collectively being read.

Sites count page views; they count them with care and for specific things; and reasonably, they take more clicks to indicate that there is more interest out there for that sort of thing. "More of that sort of thing," they conclude.

It's a little too bad, because it means one's guilty pleasures are never innocuous.

If I buy a newspaper, I enjoy feeling like some days I can study the international news, and other days I can just wallow in the Life section, and since no one knows either way, it makes no direct difference in how my reading is interpreted. I just, you know, bought the paper.

I'm sure more people buy when there's more catering to guilty pleasures, but I'm also sure that lots of people get a special pleasure from the package: it's nice knowing there's an in-depth story on the Ukranian political situation on page 3, or whatever, even if you're not going to read it today. I want those stories to be there, even if, let's admit it, I read them less consistently than I read the comics.

The total package is what I like about the paper.

Online you can't hide. If you click, guiltily, on the Paris Hilton news, you're part of the gazillion page views that the site gets for its Paris Hilton news, and then the site figures, gotta have more Paris Hilton news.

I know these forces exist in "old media" too; I just feel like they're so accelerated and personal now. Like, every time I click, I'm making life worse in the long run. You: hastening the end of civilization as we know it.

I don't know what the answer is but whatever it is I feel it will have something to do with the structure of advertising revenue, which I'm not up to thinking about right now. Maybe later after my mental candy fix of the morning. Ugh.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Travel Is Infantilizing

As I mentioned, I'm in Paris. I speak some French - not a lot, not a little, somewhere in between.

Having been here two weeks, I'm going through that phase now where the French words for certain things come into your mind whether you want them to or not. It's when you start to feel, "With enough time, I could really learn this language."

For me that phase is always when it's just about time to go home, because I don't come for all that long. And honestly, when I'm home I find it almost impossible to do the "oh, just practice a little every day" thing. So I'm sure I'll be back to square one next time I come.

I find it very exhausting, the language thing, and part of the reason is that I feel like more than most people I live inside the language of American English. I love its informality, and playfulness; I love that it's always changing and that even dorky professor types like me can say "Dude," and that there's always some snappy word like "laptop" just when you need one.

The French call it an ordinateur portable.

The French do have this crazy thing Verlan which I've always been curious about. It's like you invert the syllables; it's one of those slangs that started in les banlieues to keep the cops in the dark about what you were saying. It sounds awesome but it also sounds like you'd make an ass of yourself if you used in any but the most appropriate context.

Anyway, the other thing that's wearing me out about French is that when you're just learning a language, you're like a child during every interaction.

I go to order a sandwich, in French. The woman at the counter asks me, in French, if I'd like a drink, and I ask her, in French, for "un Coca Light." She smiles and it all goes fine. I am momentarily pleased as punch. Look! I got a gold star!! Yay!

I go to order a croissant, in French. The guy behind the counter asks me, in French, if that's for here or to go, and I am utterly befuddled. Of course "to go" in French is "emporter" which is not easy if the speaker is mumbling. He says, in English, "For here or to go?" I tell him, "Oh, for here." He gives me my croissant. I am momentarily cast down. Boo.

I feel like a four-year-old.

The worst thing for me is that I over-read the reactions on people's faces to see if I'm doing "a good job" communicating. Did I ask politely? Is the lady smiling?

But you know, in the course of things, often people are crabby for reasons that have nothing to do with you, and at home I would never dream of inferring something about myself from whether the barista at Starbucks smiles or frowns at me. She's got her own life.

Of course, at home I know whether I've been polite without gauging these reactions.

It doesn't help that being polite in France is so much a matter of using the right words. "Bonjour Madame," and you're almost all the way there; a friendly American smile and everyone thinks you're a lunatic. You can see them thinking, "What are you smiling like that at me for? Do we know each other? Who are you?"

Once I internalized the rules of not smiling at strangers right away and always saying "Bonjour" I was like halfway home.

But, dude! It's all really tiring.

Friday, June 13, 2008

A New Kind Of Pain In The Ass

Has anyone noticed this?

You're sitting in a library, in the quiet part. It's quiet. People are working: reading, thinking, writing, typing away . . .

Typing away. After a few minutes you realize there are one or two people who use a simple computer keyboard as if they're wrestling their inner demons out, as if they're typing on a manual, as if it's only the intense, sudden, and striking pressure of their fingertips on the keys that causes the massive changes required to get the information all the way from the keyboard to the processor or whatever.

You can hear them typing a mile away. And it's not a pleasant sound. It has the sound of urgency, of emergency. It sounds like "Yikes! Hey! Pay attention! There's something happening! Over here! Look over here! HEY! What are you. . . HEY!"

It's incredible annoying. It's mostly older guys who do it, though I've seen women do it too; clearly there's a wide range of culprits. Today I happened to look over at someone doing this (OK, I happened to glare at him in frustration, I admit it) and I realized he was typing with only his index fingers. And then I realized the other main offender of the day is also typing with only his index fingers. So you see how it happens: you're using only two fingers, you gotta move them FAST to get any typing speed going at all. So it's POUND POUND POUND.

Listen people, there's no mystery here: just start using all your fingers. You'll get used to it, learn where the keys are, start typing like a normal person. And we'll all be grateful. I promise.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Thinking Of You, Harriet McBryde Johnson

Harriet McBryde Johnson died yesterday. That's a picture of her book above; that's a picture of her, on the cover. She was 50.

HBJ was a disabled activist and lawyer who wrote a fascinating piece in the Times Magazine some years ago about what it's like to be disabled and why everyone should stop being so patronizing, dumb, and basically evil about the way they think about disability.

Link to Times Obit is here; Magazine article by her is here.

Her Times piece had a big effect on me when I read it. Partly the piece describes her response to Peter Singer, who argues in his philosophical writings that if a baby is destined to live a life of great pain and suffering, it is ethical to bring about its death. She and her colleagues say such decisions are never appropriate.

It wasn't so much that she convinced me that there was something fundamental mistaken about Singer's line of thought. It was more that her description of her life, and the way she thought about her life, made me think that we have no clue, whatsoever, about how other people feel and live.

In the essays she describes her life as a lawyer, and the range of very ordinary pleasures she enjoys, like doing her work, walking around town, hanging out with her pals. She makes vivid and clear that even though she's all bent over in a wheelchair, and can't get up to pee, and has to have her food mushed up for her, her life is just a really ordinary and happy one.

It goes to show you, people are really bad at making sense of other people's lives. She explains in her essay how often people would come right out and say things like, "Oh, how can you live like that!" Duh, people.

You can philosophize all you want on either side of the mind-body problem, or what it is to have mental states, or how we know about other people, and then you get this brute fact: a person many people would immediately judge to be feeling awful all the time and terribly depressed is really just, you know, a normal person.

You can philosophize, too, all you want, about where to draw the lines when it comes to making decisions about health, and life, and so on, but this total inability we have to judge the quality of someone's life suggests to me at least one rule: if there's a person can make a decision for themselves about whether, and how, to live, we should trust them, enable them, to do so.

HBJ was an atheist, and certainly a rabble-rouser, so I didn't want to title this post "RIP HMJ." But yeah, I'm thinking of you.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Going Keyless

Now the story can be told.

So anybody who knows me, which is everybody reading this, knows that in periods of mild distress, the first thing to go is my keys. Which is why there was a period in early 2006 when I had a crush on my locksmith.

Friday night I was walking home from work, when I got honked at by some co-workers, and spent a couple hours shooting the shit, being fed, drinking a beer or two. Then I got dropped off at home. The person dropping me off asked if I had my keys. I cheerily said I did. But, in fact, I did not.

Here we come to the part that, for me, seems inextricably linked to living in a smaller town, but probably isn't. In L.A., when I locked myself out the locksmith was my only friend. Here, I had left the window open, which meant that with some surprisingly deft manipulation of the screen, I was in like Flynn.

It was the weekend, and I had left my keys in my office, which is locked on the weekend. I have the key, in theory, but, at that moment, obviously not in the particular.

And so I spent the weekend without my keys, and went in on Monday leaving my apartment unlocked (it can only be locked from the outside, although I can lock it if I'm in it) and then on Monday I forgot, again, to bring my keys home with me.

It was, I'll admit, kind of annoying and mildly nerve-wracking. But it was disorienting to realize that it wasn't that big a deal. Nothing in my life was that different without my keys, especially given that I do shit like leave my ground floor window open.

There is no real point to this anecdote, but it felt like a parable of some kind.

It's Quantity, Too

This is not meant to be a series of posts like dude-Paris-is-so-great I'm-going-to-become-an-expat oh-the-US-is-so-boring. Cause honestly, no one loves the US like I do. The US is the shit, and I can't wait to get back there.

But. There are, you know, a few areas in which the US could use improvement. And some of these are areas France feels like the savvy and suave wise man to our bumbling adolescent.

One area is the objectification of women, especially in advertising. OK, surprising, since France is fashion-central, and whatever. But every time I come here I'm amazed by how relaxing it is not to be constantly bombarded with images of semi-naked women. It feels good. You really do stop thinking so much about your female bodily deficiencies when you're not surrounded by this shit.

It's not just the quality of the ads -- though that is different. It's the quantity, too. I feel like the relentlessness of depictions of women being all sexy and cute and harmless and physically perfect in North America is just wearing me out.

Here in Paris there are a few giant ads in the Metro for some skin thing for summer and they do show some naked woman lying on her back. But you know, she's huge, and all muscular, and shiny. She looks ready to sunbathe, or get into a fight, not ready to smile softly and cheer your team of choice.

But there are also two other ads that are everywhere that show men. One of them is a goofball ad showing a guy in just his underwear trying to deal with his 20 electronic devices and cords. It's funny and cute. Guy is sort of buff but normal looking.

The other of them is this Dior ad, for "Eau Sauvage."

Hey, I like it. I'm not against objectification of persons for advertising. It's the cumulative effect that's driving me nuts back home.

A little variety, OK guys?

Monday, June 9, 2008


So I definitely fall, these days, into the adult rather than kid category as far as social expectations are concerned, which leaves me wondering if I am, in fact, sufficiently adult.

I mean, I have a job these days, so that's something. But there's all this shit that I do that felt kind of charming and carefree when I was a young person and now that I'm older I feel stranger about it. Especially when I'm wearing my work clothes. Like the other night I found myself locked out of my apartment and so I removed the screen and climbed in through the window. Or today I stopped and got an ice cream cone on the way home and it was dripping all over the place and I walked through the streets with my slacks and my shirt and sticky and slightly dirty hands.

I don't know. I don't know where precisely to draw those lines. I always hated those books where it was supposed to be liberating to be free from the constraints of adult life, although as someone who stopped working for eight months last year maybe I should have different feelings about it.

I guess I feel, which will come as no surprise to anyone, that these things are harder on women, that an adult woman is supposed to be more poised and seamless than an adult male, who is allowed all kinds of boyish charm, random obsessiveness, and sloppiness.

Paris: Some Images

OK, so I wrote before about how stylish Paris is, and how fun that makes the city, and yada yada yada, and of course it was the perfect post for some images but I didn't post any. I don't know what I was thinking. But rather than show you a bunch of photos-of-Paris of the kind you can find anywhere on the web, I want to call your attention first to the RATP logo, which exemplifies just what I was talking about.

RATP is the public transport system of Paris, so the logo is everywhere, especially on the Metro. Here's it is:

Mmm, isn't that something?

I've been told that literally, it's a depiction of the region it serves: the circle is Paris, and the blue line is the Seine.

But it seems to also be a kind of take-off on the London Underground symbol, you know, the circle with the line through it? Similar, but totally different.

Also, it looks sort of like a person's face, pointing up, doesn't it? You know, in profile?

And finally, it's just really just kind of a pleasing and soothing image. I love it.

Next is a picture of one of my favorite places in Paris, the open indoor space of the Pompidou museum.

It's not a great picture because what I was really trying to photograph is this thing in the middle, which is a work of art, that spins, with a heavy weight attached that looks like it's about to detach itself and bring death and mayhem to all the museum-goers. I tried to take a picture of the spinning part but it was too fast/small/blurry to come out so you can't see it here. Weird, disturbing, interesting!

And finally, since Paris is so, you know, historical and all, I here's a plaque from the Sorbonne showing some important ancestry:

Now we know why he always has that kind of pomadour hairstyle:

Beavis est mort. Vive Beavis!

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Creative Self-Promoting Nomads

Paul Krugman wrote recently in his Times column about the "Grateful Dead Economy" we're all heading toward.

In the era of cheap and easy digital copying, he says, it's going to become impossible to charge more than a nominal free for anything that can be digitized. In music this is already happening, but books loom on the horizon.

As we all know, The Dead allowed free copying for years, choosing to make their money by touring, performing, and selling stuff. It worked well.

Krugman says that's where we're all headed. As soon as we've all got our digital book readers, writers will have to write just to create buzz for other, lucrative activities, like "giving readings."

(The Amazon Kindle. Um, not a very attractive object, is it?)

He writes, "Books may end up serving mainly as promotional material for authors’ other activities, such as live readings with paid admission. Well, if it was good enough for Charles Dickens, I guess it’s good enough for me."

He may be right about the inevitability part. I mean, I'm all for easing copyright, and I think it's true that the crazed impulse to protect all works at all times is dumb. There's no question that some of the greatest things out there are mixtures of other things, and that trying to model intellectual property in the old "one work, one author, one owner" kind of way is no longer going to work.

But still, Krugman's column seems overly sanguine about the whole thing. I can see some immediate and appalling aspects to the future he is describing.

To make money from live performance requires an insane amount of traveling around. You're telling me anyone who wants to be a novelist or essay writer or scholar is going to have to get one of those tour buses and go from town to town?

A) An environmental disaster.

B) What about the children?

Also, I kind of doubt people are actually going to pony up cash in the necessary amounts to hear readings. I mean, I love novels probably more than anyone I know, and I read a ton, and I wouldn't pay anything to go hear a reading. Indeed, I wouldn't go to a reading if it was free.

I like to read. What do I care about the writer's voice, or presence, or whatever? I've been to one author appearance in my life, and it was Erica Jong, and as much as I love Fear of Flying, it was a total waste of time. The people in the audience asked moronic questions, and she tried to answer them, and she plugged her next book, and signed some copies, and we all left. I was like, "I wasted an afternoon for that?"

Of course, there's also the babe factor. If authors make money from readings, we all know who's going to survive: the tall, blond cleavage-y female writing a book about sex.

Is this really a future to accept with equanimity? No. We may have to accept it, but can't we go kicking and screaming instead?

Wednesday, June 4, 2008


I'm one of those totally devoted Mac users who can't understand why anyone would buy a PC. And what I always say about using a Mac is that it comes down to style: not just the style of the physical object, but also the style of the computer interaction. Both are always lovely on a Mac: elegant, simple, fun, and pleasing.

To my mind, this transforms the whole using-a-computer experience, from "slightly annoying" to "pretty great." And if you use your computer a lot, don't you want the experience to be pretty great all the time? Think of the net increase in your pleasure over a year.

Of course, the big argument on the other side is supposed to be something like this: Macs are more expensive for "the same features." All that extra money is just for style, and who cares about that? It's substance that's important, right?

It's a surprisingly common line of thought, at least around the academics and thinker types I hang around with. There's something vaguely not right, they say, with caring about style over substance. It's almost a little morally suspicious. It's just style! they say. It's not real!

But you know, it's funny, because I am visiting Paris right now for three weeks and pretty much everyone I have told has reacted in the same way, "Oh, Paris! You're so lucky! What a wonderful place!"

And it is a wonderful place. But seriously, most of what's wonderful about it is it's got style. Not flash, exactly, because Parisian style isn't really flashy. But things are just cool here: buildings are pretty; streets are laid out in a pleasing way; the various machines you deal with to get your subway tickets or whatever are fun to use; the people look good and are wearing nice clothes. The food and wine are good.

It makes life fun. It makes a twenty minute walk to the store and back a pleasure rather than a chore; it makes a ride on the subway a mini-treat rather than a pain-in-the-ass; it makes an espresso after lunch a delight rather than an exercise in avoiding the caramel mocha latte or whatever.

And think of the money you save, not having a car, not driving, and not going to Starbucks. Sure, Macs are expensive, but they last forever, and more amazingly, they stay fun to use.

Style. Good for you, good for your pocketbook, good for the environment.