Saturday, May 31, 2008

Sign in a Cambodian restaurant on University Avenue in Saint Paul:
1. Be Nice
2. Respect Others
3. Help Others

More Homework and 20 min. timeout

Friday, May 30, 2008

There's Nothing Women Can Do To Change The Fact That Most Self-Respecting Men Will Not See This Movie Unless Paid Handsomely

Don't go see Sex & the City. Just look at the image above (by David Hughes, from the New Yorker review by Anthony Lane) and then read these passages from Lane's review:
You cannot simply shift a load of television actors onto a movie screen and expect them to command its greater expanse.

Faced with the flimsiest of concepts, [Michael Patrick King] had to take it by both ends and pull until he stretched it out to two and a quarter hours.

There are four of them—banded together, like hormonal hobbits, and all obsessed with a ring.

On TV, “Sex and the City” was never as insulting as “Desperate Housewives,” which strikes me as catastrophically retrograde, but, almost sixty years after “All About Eve,” which also featured four major female roles, there is a deep sadness in the sight of Carrie and friends defining themselves not as Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, Celeste Holm, and Thelma Ritter did—by their talents, their hats, and the swordplay of their wits—but purely by their ability to snare and keep a man.
And finally, the shocking conclusion:
All the film lacks is a subtitle: “The Lying, the Bitch, and the Wardrobe.”
Ah, yes. That hits the spot.

Ethical Dilemma: Broken Glasses

I was walking down 38th Street in Manhattan last week, on my way to lunch. As I walked by two men in their mid-20s, the one nearest me dropped something on the sidewalk. When I heard the clatter, I turned around and saw that it was his glasses.

"Oops, I'm sorry, did I do that?" I asked as he walked by me. He didn't reply, he just gave me a blank stare. I hadn't felt anything when I passed him, but maybe the rolled up magazine I was holding had brushed his hand and knocked the glasses out of it -- I don't know.

He turned into a storefront and his friend kept walking. So did I. But then I heard an "excuse me" a minute or two later. It was the guy who dropped his glasses. "They're broken," he seethed, breathing menacingly through his nose and tightening up his mouth.

Sure enough, there was a nasty series of cracks on one lens. "What can I do?" I offered.

"You can get me a new pair of glasses!" he said. Neither of us knew of any glasses store nearby. We went back and forth about what was fair, but I was ready to follow him to a store to see what would happen. Was I obligated to buy him a new lens? Could the cracked lens be repaired for cheaper? I didn't know, but I thought trying to help was the right thing to do.

He told me how much he appreciated my initial apology, but he was frustrated and seemed to want something from me that he couldn't quite articulate. This got frustrating for me. "Why the hell were you holding your glasses anyway?" I demanded. "They should be on your head!"

Finally, it started to look like what he really wanted was for me to give him $40 or $50 in cash so we could both walk away. I wasn't about to do that. I insisted we find a glasses store together, and told him that this would mean I was giving up my lunch hour and my lunch money for the next week or two.

At this point, he shook my hand and said something incoherent about what I ought to do the next time this happens. He walked away and I was left standing there confused. I went and ate my lunch.

But what should I do the next time? Was it even my fault? Did I open myself up to this whole thing by apologizing in the first place?

When I got to my lunch, I felt terribly guilty and thought I should have just gone to the cash machine and helped the guy out. When I got back to my office, two co-workers thought I was crazy for thinking I should pay anything.

So what would you do? Let's say it's a cup of warm (not hot) coffee spilling on a stranger's white shirt accidentally. Do you offer money for a cleaning bill? What are the rules for random accidents in the city?


Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Scenes From the New 35W Bridge Construction

Lists of Ten: How to Be a Gentleman

How to be a (modern) gentleman
1. Some things don't change: say please and thank you and ask questions about other people rather than talk about yourself.

2. Be punctual. Tardiness does not make you look important, it turns you into an arrogant incompetent who thinks that his time is more important than other people's.

3. The modern gentleman cares about the planet. Be environmentally aware (but not obnoxious about it).

4. Open doors for people and stand up when they enter a room, but do this for men as well as women. The modern gentleman doesn't treat women like porcelain.

5. Be modest. Bragging is distinctly ungentlemanly.

6. Be a good father. Nothing is less charming than a man who leaves childcare to women.

7. Be honest about wherever you have come from in life. Pretension is spineless.

8. Flirt - with everyone. Good flirting is a form of politeness. Pay compliments and put your companion at ease.

9. Do not phone/text/check your BlackBerry incessantly.

10. Dress tidily. Whatever style you are going for, scruffiness just isn't in.
This list is from an article in the Times (U.K.) called "Are gentlemen a dying breed?"

The answer is yes, of course. But this is mostly about good manners -- any of these, save the one about being a good father, could apply to women. I might add to this list a couple of my own:
*When shaking hands, a gentleman should firmly grasp the whole hand not just the fingers.

*A gentleman writes thank you notes. Hand-written notes are more meaningful than e-mails (although a rapid electronic thank you may be rare enough to be meaningful, too). Write notes for a good party as well as for gifts.

*A gentleman always introduces himself to new people in a group, whether it's in the office or at a social function. And he makes sure to say hello to old acquaintances and (especially) people he's dated in the past.
We also associate gentlemen with dressing well. Whether Casual Fridays permanently ruined the suit and tie businesses or not, American men as a group have not been dressing with the sort of conscious attention and grace that they used to.

Blame disposable fashions and more distractions. Few men shine their shoes these days, but even fewer own shoes worth shining. (You can always spot American men abroad by their ratty, dingy sneakers.) The typical American man (myself included) has more questions than answers with regard to how to dress. The art of dressing well without looking like someone who cares about looking like he dresses well is all but lost.

So how does one dress like a gentleman? I'm not sure. I mean, who knows? But I do know that it's not about rules, like always iron your shirts and never wear sneakers with suits. All those rules are made to be broken; that's what gives a man style.

It's not about money, either. My best-looking sport jackets are not my most expensive ones. I get great blazers at Savers on 35E in St. Paul for under $10. I get great ties in Manhattan for less than $10 at a thrift store on 17th and 5th.

Every man needs a nice pair of black leather shoes. Every man needs a suit -- whether he's a mechanic or a banker -- and he shouldn't be afraid to wear it occasionally. Don't want to look too formal? Skip the tie. Not sure how to pull it off? GQ, Details, Men's Vogue (and sometimes Esquire) have good advice every month and online.

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The End of a Movement

I'm trying to curb the conservative coverage here on The Masticator, but I couldn't help calling attention to this gem of a quote by Pat Buchanan from the current New Yorker:
“Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”
Very quotable. It's apparently a paraphrase of something Eric Hoffer once said.

Eric Hoffer (1902-1983; pictured at left) may be best known as the author of the 1951 pop-sociology book The True Believer, in which he described "the nature of mass movements." Hoffer was a self-educated longshoreman from the Bronx who couldn't serve in the War because of his health. He wrote 11 books, the last of which (an autobiography) was published poshumously.

Reading through some of the quotations available on The Eric Hoffer Resource, it's clear that he was a product of the Cold War, with that very American combination of a suspicion of conformity (read: Communists) and a suspicion of non-comformity (liberals and other artsy-types). Here's a sampling:
"Whoever originated the cliche that money is the root of all evil knew hardly anything about the nature of evil and very little about human beings."

"The monstrous evils of the twentieth century have shown us that the greediest money grubbers are gentle doves compared with money-hating wolves like Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler, who in less than three decades killed or maimed nearly a hundred million men, women, and children and brought untold suffering to a large portion of mankind."

"When grubbing for necessities man is still an animal. He becomes uniquely human when he reaches out for the superfluous and extravagant."

"Man is a luxury loving animal. Take away play, fancies, and luxuries, and you will turn man into a dull, sluggish creature, barely energetic enough to obtain a bare subsistence. A society becomes stagnant when its people are too rational or too serious to be tempted by baubles."

"We clamor for equality chiefly in matters in which we ourselves cannot hope to attain excellence. To discover what a man truly craves but knows he cannot have we must find the field in which he advocates absolute equality. By this test Communists are frustrated Capitalists."

"It is not actual suffering but a taste of better things which excites people to revolt."

"The technique of a mass movement aims to infect people with a malady and then offer the movement as a cure."
A few of the quotes reveal a loneliness and distrust of solitude:
"A man by himself is in bad company."

"When we leave people on their own, we are delivering them into the hands of a ruthless taskmaster from whose bondage there is no escape. The individual who has to justify his existence by his own efforts is in eternal bondage to himself."

"It is loneliness that makes the loudest noise. This is true of men as of dogs."
But I digress. The original quote was Hoffer, but paraphrased by Pat Buchanan. It's from an article pondering the possibility of the conservative movement's death called "The Fall of Conservatism." Is it as simple as a rift between social/religious conservatives and fiscal/libertarian conservatives?

Not exactly. George Packer writes:
"The fact that the least conservative, least divisive Republican in the 2008 race is the last one standing—despite being despised by significant voices on the right—shows how little life is left in the movement that Goldwater began, Nixon brought into power, Ronald Reagan gave mass appeal, Newt Gingrich radicalized, Tom DeLay criminalized, and Bush allowed to break into pieces."
Put that way, it sounds pathetically mismanaged.


Sunday, May 18, 2008

Obituary: The Compact Edition of The Oxford English Dictionary, Complete Text Reproduced Micrographically

I had a race last week with the editor I sit next at work: I swiped my paperback Oxford Dictionary of Current English off the shelf to see if I could find a definition in print before she could retrieve it online. She won.

It reminded me of my favorite Tall Tale from childhood, the story of John Henry, the steel-driving man who died trying to to out-work a steam drill. As a Minnesotan, I should have preferred Paul Bunyan to the railroad laborer who was replaced by a machine, but I like anachronisms.

This is why I'm so upset that the The Compact Edition of The Oxford English Dictionary, Complete Text Reproduced Micrographically is going out of print.

I know it's easier to read and quicker to use online. And I know my argument about surprise power outages during word emergencies is weak. But I prefer paper. When I'm working on the computer, whether I'm at work or at home, I use a paper dictionary to look up words.

The CEOED is still for sale ($399.95). It's "not an abridgement, but a direct photoreduction of the entire 20-volume set, with nine pages of the original on every nine-by-twelve page of the Compact." It's one 15-pound volume of 2402 pages, and it comes with a magnifying glass.

It's so big because: "The OED records not only words and meanings currently in use but also those that have long been considered obsolete." Like Boeotian (pronounced bee-ocean), a word I discovered browsing a three-volume edition of the OED. It refers to the ancient Greek culture and means "exceptionally dull or stupid."

But this soon-to-be obsolete edition is, in my estimation, inferior to the earlier, three-volume set, which condensed a mere four or so pages to every page. It can be read without a magnifying glass if your eyes are good.

And if you want the electronic version of the OED, you have to get it online. It costs $295 per year for a subscription. So while Oxford University Press is saving money by going out of print, we are not.


Saturday, May 17, 2008

War Rugs

I had the pleasure of attending a reception and cocktail party on Thursday for Australian art historian and war rug expert Nigel Lendon, hosted by the war rug dealer Kevin Sudeith in Queens. Lendon and Sudeith make up the two best sources of information on war rugs on the internet, with their sites and Rugs of War, respectively.

What is a war rug? Semi-nomadic Baluchi weavers started making them in about 1980, shortly after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Traditional rug weavings started to take a new symbology, including representations of the sudden and increasing military presence. Tanks and helicopters started joining floral forms and animals.

When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan after September 11, 2001, a whole new type of war rug came about. American armament replaced Soviet weapons. A whole sub-genre of war rugs -- one of many -- shows the World Trade Center towers being hit by the two planes. They are considered memorials, and they often feature a peace dove carrying an olive branch over American and Afghan flags.

Others look like a typical abstract-patterned rug, until you look closer and realize that a filed of flower and medallion designs is bordered by helicopters. Lendon told me that sometimes it's hard to tell at first whether you're looking at a tank or a teapot, both common motifs now that almost blend together.

Cityscapes are now common -- even Western cities. He mentioned one that showed the Sydney Harbour Bridge -- inexplicable until he saw a travel poster in a market depicting the bridge.

Lendon and Sudeith were on their way to Toronto for an exhibition at the Textile Museum of Canada called "Battleground: War Rugs from Afghanistan". Lendon is giving a talk there this weekend.

My first encounter with war rugs was in about 2003, when I read an article about the subject in a Canadian magazine. I was captivated by the photos of these strange rugs. About a year later, I ran into a small one at a sale at American Rug Laundry in Minneapolis. I still regret not spending the $120 they were asking for it. After a bit of research, I asked about war rugs at a St. Paul dealer and was met with confusion and rudeness. I wondered if such rugs were considered offensive to dealers of traditional Oriental carpets.

I never got the answer to that question, but when I met Kevin Sudeith, it became clear that war rugs are a niche market. He's been profiled in Forbes and NPR. He's an artist who is, coincidentally, originally from Minnesota himself.

Sudeith sells his rugs online, at New York flea markets, and through his home in Long Island City, Queens, just across the river from Midtown Manhattan. His war rugs start at $75 and go up to the thousands, but most are priced in the $200-$800 range. He divides his online catalog into five main categories: "red rugs," which are variations of the rug pictured above (usually red, usually featuring two or more AK-47s flanking patterns of tanks, helicopters, and troop carriers on a field of grenades with bullet or mortar shell borders); "subtle weapons" and "obvious weapons," which speak for themselves; "pictorial," which show city scenes and portraits; and "yellow rugs," which usually show the World Trade Center or maps of Iraq or Afghanistan.

These are, of course, divided for ease of commerce. Sudeith divides them more thoroughly in the section of his website called "War Rug Styles," in which he describes dozens of types from the red Turkmen rugs like mine to rugs woven to serve as warning guides to unexploded ordnance.

Very little is known about the people who actually create these rugs. "It's as if these things had fallen out of the sky," Canadian curator Max Allen told the National Post in April. One hundred twenty of Allen's rugs make up the Canadian Textile Museum's exhibition. He's never even seen a photo of anyone weaving the rugs.

There's a real gap of scholarship about war rugs, which is one of the things Nigel Lendon told me excited him so much about the subject. He and Tim Bonyhady, both professors at the Australian National University, have been working since before 2003, when they launched an exhibition on war rugs in Canberra and Adelaide, and since 2006 under a research grant.

It's apparent that many of these rugs are made for sale to the West now (although Lendon wrote in an early essay, "it seems inconceivable to me that these works may be accounted for solely as commodities"), and many others are copies of earlier designs rather than unique one-offs and new variations.

As Lendon notes in his 2003 exhibition catalog (which can be viewed in its entirety as a PDF here), "For anyone outside the immediate context of a work’s production, understanding the maker’s motivation is a fundamentally speculative exercise." There are so many different weaving styles and traditions in Central Asia and the Middle East. There is a lot yet to be learned.

I like these rugs because they are relatively affordable pieces of functional art. The contrast of multi-million dollar high-tech weaponry and the ancient weaving that depicts it all is dumbfounding. I'm fascinated by the notion that a traditional craft could change its thematic focus organically based on the war around the weavers, rather than the weavers ceasing to create. And I'm amazed at how beautiful the weapons become when they are turned into pieces of a decorative pattern.

The rug at the top of this entry is my own. The Textile Museum of Canada's website has a great database of the rugs from the current exhibition (from which the images below were taken), but the best and easiest source for images of war rugs online has to be Sudeith's website.
From the database: The many “exodus” rugs that depict the 1989 withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan are the model for rugs like this one, four of which are known to exist. Here the writing in Farsi describes the defeat, not of the Soviets, but of al-Qaeda! The rugs came to light in late 2007. They bear the dates 2001 or 2002, coincident with the arrival of coalition ground forces in Afghanistan.

From the database: Airplanes with bent tails form the border and a centre column on this rug, together with columns of tracked battle tanks and tiny scattered hand grenades disguised as flowers. But columns of domestic objects assert themselves between the columns of weaponry –pots of flowering shrubs and urn-shaped samovars for making tea do their best to resist the military onslaught.

From the database: In the rug business there are nearly as many fanciful stories as there are rugs. One story about these little poster-sized rugs covered with weapons is that, at the time of the Soviet occupation, they were made in Pakistan refugee camps for sale to collectors or aid workers to raise money for the Afghan mujahideen. Perhaps, but given the vast amounts of money and weaponry the Americans were already funneling through Pakistan, this is hard to believe. In any case, two of the rugs here have the name of the northern Afghanistan city Mazar-i Sharif written on them, which implies they were made there, and not in Pakistan. The array of weapons represented includes helicopters [956 is commonly used on war rugs to symbolize the identification numbers that appear on Russian helicopters – over 300 of which were shot down and crashed in Afghanistan], Stinger missile launchers, tanks, fighter aircraft, armoured cars and troop carriers, hand grenades, and the ubiquitous Kalashnikov assault rifle.


The Platypus

The first platypus to make it to England from Australia in 1799 was received by naturalists as a hoax. The species has characteristics of birds, reptiles, and mammals. And did you know that males have poisonous spurs on their hind legs? A sting can kill a dog or cat. And then there's the radar-like bill that senses both pheromones and electrical fields.

Scientists have finally decoded the genome for the 150 million year-old platypus, revealing an even stranger beast. But first, a poem by Ogden Nash:
I like the duck-billed platypus
Because it is anomalous.
I like the way it raises its family
Partly birdly, partly mammaly.
I like its independent attitude.
Let no one call it a duck-billed platitude.
While the platypus has only two-thirds of the molecular letters of DNA that human beings have, we both have about the same number -- 18,500 -- of genes. The genome was like nothing scientists had seen before, according to a Washington Post article earlier this month.

With mammals, there are two chromosomes, X and Y, which are paired differently to make males and females. The platypus has 10 sex chromosomes. Platypus milk, which is secreted from abdominal patches instead of nipples, changes in nutritional complexity according to five or more genes that turn on in sequence (similar to kangaroos). This is of apparent interest to the dairy industry.

The genome tells us that the venom males use evolved differently than snake venom, but started from molecule and ended up very similar.

Scientists are still baffled by the platypus's ability to detect electrical fields -- they could not locate any genetic clues to this strange ability.

The short video below from National Geographic shows the odd beast in action, including some platypus battle scenes.


Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Quote of the Day: Robert Rauschenberg

“I really feel sorry for people who think things like soap dishes or mirrors or Coke bottles are ugly, because they’re surrounded by things like that all day long, and it must make them miserable.”
That's artist Robert Rauschenberg, who died this week at 82.

"No American artist, Jasper Johns once said, invented more than Mr. Rauschenberg. Mr. Johns, John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Mr. Rauschenberg, without sharing exactly the same point of view, collectively defined this new era of experimentation in American culture," wrote art critic Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times.

The image above is one of BMW's Art Cars, decorated by Rauschenberg in 1986.


Monday, May 05, 2008

Quote of the Day: James J. Hill

"Give me snuff, whiskey and Swedes, and I will build a railroad to hell."
So said Minnesota railroad baron James J. Hill, the man who took a bankrupt railroad in 1878 and turned it into the Great Northern Railroad, amassing a $63 million fortune by his death in 1916.

His quote, which is so good it must be apocryphal, sounds a bit like the title and opening line of a Keats poem:
Give me women, wine, and snuff
Until I cry out "hold, enough!"
You may do so sans objection
Till the day of resurrection:
For, bless my beard, they aye shall be
My beloved Trinity.
Not to be confused with wine, women and song (or sex, drugs and rock and roll). John Keats died in his apartment near the Spanish steps in Rome in 1821, almost a decade before Hill was born.

I stumbled upon the Hill quote in the latest issue of a year-old quarterly called Art Review & Preview published by a couple of artists in the Twin Cities. The quote was invoked by my friend Andy Sturdevant in a review of an exhibit of Minnesota art at James J. Hill's mansion called "Looking Back / Moving Forward" (October 4-April 20). Andy's review can be read online in a PDF version of the Spring 2008 issue.

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