Quick Note on Occupy

Like many, I find the Occupy encampments incredibly interesting—if perplexing at times—and I think there’s a lot of merit in the larger “We are the 99 Percent” concept, which will surely last longer than the occupations. I think both efforts have done much to highlight questions of economic inequality, political corruption and collusion, and state power. There’s a good argument that the Occupy message is lately drifting to one of state power at the expense of the economic argument. But I think these messages are all of a piece. After all, it highlights the government’s enforcement priorities (it’s easier to arrest a bunch of tangible protesters standing in a street than a bunch of financial wizards practicing monetary alchemy) as well as a more metaphorical theme of how powerful interests will scramble to retain a status quo that maintains and consolidates their own power.

By resisting or subverting conventional tactics and rules the movement displayed a kind of strategic brilliance. A few examples:

  • It highlights immediate economic problems like the housing crisis and homelessness (they’re living in tents!), spiraling prices (particularly the University of California protests), and, especially, joblessness. After all, who else would have the time for this kind of effort?
  • It is grounded in the concept of the peaceful sit-in, which harkens back to the American civil rights movement and, even before that, Gandhi. So it has that sheen of righteousness, particularly when that sheen is a coating of pepper spray.
  • It promotes overt creativity in the face of opposition, whether symbolic (Cal’s balloon-borne tents; the 99% bat signal) or practical (the people’s mic, which started as a way to get around a prohibition on megaphones in Zucotti Park; the choice of Zucotti itself, whose confusing public-private legal status they exploited to great effect for almost two months)
  • It makes a mockery of the current political system by highlighting how that system has made a mockery of democracy. I’d argue this is the overarching message that encompasses the Wall Street gripes, the fairness issues, the democracy rhetoric, the tension between order and the rights of speech and assembly, etc.  And it’s not even a new idea, really.

As the major occupations seem to be winding down and the movement (possibly) reaches a turning point, it’s that last bullet point that I think of when I hear exasperated observers say this movement is not legitimate until it starts organizing phone banks to call congressman, starts letter writing-campaigns and the like. Those are fine things to do, and if done smartly (targeting the rare undecided, open-minded politician), still have potential. But set aside the occasional Occupier’s rhetoric about starting a true revolution and a new kind of government; by staying outside of conventional political tactics, they sidestep the lobbyists and special interests and the politicians themselves. A lot of commentators says Occupy needs to grow up and get overtly political. It’s the classic “reform from the inside” argument used to justify political expedience. But if the political system is rigged to disenfranchise citizens, as the occupiers convincingly argue, then they’d just be setting themselves up for failure.

ideas, language

Temps Perdu

There are a lot of books I look forward to reading, and even a few I look forward to re-reading. Among that smaller, second set is Swann’s Way, the first book of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, The Search for Lost Time, better known but perhaps worse translated as A Remembrance of Things Past. (The six following volumes in that opus are on the aforementioned looking-forward-to-reading list.)

Perhaps the greatest legacy of Proust’s work in the popular imagination comes in the opening pages, as he describes the experience of involuntary memory triggered by the taste of a little madeleine.

And suddenly the memory returns. The taste was that of the little crumb of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before church-time), when I went to say good day to her her in her bedroom , my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of real or of lime-flower tea. . . . And once I had recognized the taste of the crumb of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-flowers which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like the scenery of a theatre to attach itself to the little pavilion, opening on to the garden, which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated panel which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I was sent before luncheon, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine. And just as the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little crumbs of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch themselves and bend, take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, permanent and recognisable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwelling and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, spring into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.

from Overture, translated by C.K. Moncrieff

Anyway, what was it that got me thinking of Proust? What was the trigger?

Belgian film poster. Title of movie is "Le Monstre des Temps Perdu".

*Belgian film poster for The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, effects by Ray Harryhausen. Happy 91st, Ray. Image via Jesse Marinoff Reyes Design.

Asia, ideas

Big In Japan

It’s been a while since I got anything into a newspaper. But I helped out a friend at the Asahi Shimbun last week with a little transcription and editing of an interview with Michael Sandel, which appeared in last Sunday’s edition.

Japanese article on Michael Sandel

Sandel is a professor of political philosophy at Harvard. You may have caught his lectures on public television a couple of years ago, a series called Justice with Michael Sandel.

The series was picked up last year by NHK and became a hit in Japan, topping pay-per-view charts, boosting book sales, and prompting Sandel to visit Tokyo to give some of his famous lectures.

His lectures, called “Harvard Hakunetsu Kyoshitu” (translated as “Harvard Heated Discussion Classroom”) have taken on a new life at NHK, with Sandel recently leading a new set of discussions among Japanese, American, and Chinese students.

ideas, journalism

Why Slate’s article on toilet squatting reminds me of the imprisoned Shane Bauer.

Why? Because he wrote a very similar piece a while back.

You can read it here: The Toiletization of the West

Both Shane Bauer’s and today’s piece by Daniel Lametti in Slate share many of the same ideas: the Sikirov research, the first-world/third-world toilet divide, the physiological contortions spurred by modern toiletry, and of course the perching experiment. To be fair, I don’t think you could write about this stuff without mentioning these very things, so the overlap is unsurprising. If anything, Bauer advances a decidedly post-colonial argument: the appeal of anti-natural toilet design as civilizing agent. Meanwhile, Lametti reminds us of the capitalists and their toilet entrepreneurship.

When Bauer and his friends were captured by Iran, I searched for some of his work out of curiosity, and discovered this essay.* (I knew of a few of Bauer’s projects, having met him once or twice at Berkeley, where our interest in photojournalism overlapped.) I found it strangely resonant at the time, as many people on Twitter are finding Lametti’s piece today. Maybe it revived, for me, the suppressed, culturally jarring memory of a Chinese railway bathroom lined with doorless squat stalls. Or maybe it’s just because everyone poops and is secretly fascinated by it.


*N.B. for F.C.: I’m assuming it’s the same Shane Bauer due to the mention of spending time in the Middle East; his living in California; the fact that his fellow prisoner, Josh Fattal, is listed on the About page; and the site affiliating itself with the Aprovecho Research Center in Oregon, where Fattal was once a staffer. Please let me know if it’s a different Shane Bauer.

history, ideas, international, journalism

Unfamiliar does not equal Improbable

Kaplan has a worthy review of Donald Rumsfeld’s strategic legacy in the Atlantic. I’ll comment more on it later. But for now, a provocative point that Kaplan introduces in the piece’s lede:

In 1962, a Harvard economics professor named Thomas C. Schelling wrote an introduction to Roberta Wohlstetter’s Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision. In a few hundred words, Schelling, a future Nobel Prize winner, delivered a tour de force about the failure to anticipate events. “We were so busy thinking through some ‘obvious’ Japanese moves,” he writes,

that we neglected to hedge against the choice that they actually made … There is a tendency in our planning to confuse the unfamiliar with the improbable … Furthermore, we made the terrible mistake … of forgetting that a fine deterrent can make a superb target.

Schelling’s introduction so impressed Donald H. Rumsfeld that he memorized parts of it and, as others have reported, regularly handed it out before the Pearl Harbor–level attack of 9/11. In his subsequent planning for the invasion of Iraq, Rumsfeld took Schelling’s precepts to heart, thought pessimistically about all sorts of dire scenarios, and got the best possible result.

But only up to the point when organized Iraqi military resistance collapsed. In a tragic, latter-day extension of Schelling’s analysis, Rumsfeld was so busy thinking about the Iraqis’ “obvious” military moves—launching chemical weapons, making a last stand in Baghdad—that he neglected to hedge against what they actually did: melt away and return weeks later as small bands of insurgents. Because of the meager resistance to our interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, and the swiftness of our apparent victory in Afghanistan in 2001, which Rumsfeld had played a great part in orchestrating, by early 2003 the specter of a debilitating Vietnam-scale insurgency against the United States military had been sufficiently exorcised to seem “unfamiliar,” and therefore to be confused with “the improbable.” By the time Saddam Hussein’s statue was toppled in Baghdad, we had become too impressed with our own military to see it as a “superb target.”


The Stroop Effect

Just learned about the Stroop effect. You can experience it for yourself using this quick test from the Stroop effect Wikipedia page:

Say aloud the colors of each of these words, as fast as you can:

Green Red Blue

Yellow Blue Yellow

Blue Yellow Red

Green Yellow Green

If naming the first group of colors is easier and quicker than the second, then your performance exhibits the Stroop effect.

art, history, ideas, language, life, poetry, talent, unfortunate

Enormous Changes, Last Minute: About Grace Paley

Grace Paley died two days ago. She was a sweet and humane poet and short story writer, one of those individuals for whom many will admit a familiarity with the name if not a specific knowledge of the work because some high school English teacher somewhere along the line (but a fan, truly) assigned a couple of her stories about the lives of working class New York women, narrated by those same working class New York women. But many others will remember her for a long time because they were great stories and great poems and illuminated a talent and a part of society that we would do well to remember–the Yiddish-inflected Jewish street and home life of New York in the 50s and 60s.

Grace was also an ardent activist, particularly for the cause of piece. During the Vietnam War she went to Hanoi on a peace mission to negotiate for the release of American prisoners. To learn more about her, I strongly recommend the obituaries in the New York Times and Washington Post–the Post for its wit (really, Grace’s wit), and the Times for its sheer, uninhibited enthusiasm.

I first met Grace Paley in 2000 or 2001. She lived near my college during the later part of her life, in Thetford, Vermont, and we had a couple of friends in common. One of them, Cleopatra Mathis, introduced me to her after a reading by the poet Grace Schulberg. We were at a little reception, catered by a local African restaurant, with platters of doughy fried finger foods and fresh vegetables. Grace Paley wasn’t in much of a talking mood, but was still very warm and friendly. “Don’t forget to eat your vegetables,” she told me. And then she bit into a carrot.

I saw her again a few years later, in April 2003. During the new Iraq War, it turned out. And she was worried about me. It was like talking to a close family friend or favored great aunt who is in town for the night and really just wants to make sure I’m getting along OK: am I? really? OK?

She was in San Francisco to give a talk at the giant Temple Emanu-el. (I wrote a friend about it, and from that am I getting some of these comments.) She didn’t read much, except a short and excellent story about spending six days in jail, and a few poems by other people. But she did talk a lot, especially about current events, and she didn’t avoid any questions. When asked about US involvement in the domestic situations of other countries, she recalled meeting a Chilean truck driver who had a briefcase full of paper money from the CIA. She and her husband Bob Nichols were visiting Chile to learn about strawberry farming. This was 1973.

I think I must have been the youngest person in the audience, except for a few 12 year olds. Maybe I was the youngest person who went there voluntarily. One woman a bit older than me stood up and asked Grace how she felt about current events as a Jewish person. This woman was young and attractive and well-dressed and well-spoken and after Grace’s talk she was surrounded by complimentary old women who clucked and cooed over her. The question seemed to arouse a sense of approval from some sections of the audience, though not necessarily all. How do you feel about these things as a Jewish person?

And Grace said, I’m not quite sure what you mean.

Grace Paley grew up as a normal socialist Jewish girl, she said, and added that religion never was very important in her family. I think she also said that her parents were quite critical of religion. She did make her opinion on the Israel-Palestine problem clear by suggesting that we transplant the anti-war slogan “Bring our soldiers home” to the occupied territories: “Bring the settlers home.” (This was before Sharon started the settlement withdrawals.) An Israeli friend of hers pointed out that having those settlers integrated into regular Israeli society would drive everyone else crazy, so Grace switched gears: “Send them home. They’re all from Brooklyn, anyway.”

She then mentioned that a series of threats she had received for her criticism of the settlements were traced to a single phone booth at a college in Brooklyn.

I talked to her briefly afterward, and she signed my edition of Collected Poems. (The poet and professor Gary Lenhart gave me a copy of her Collected Stories a couple of years back, as well–there you’ll find much of what the critics rave about.). We talked for what seemed a long time, but was probably just 10 or 15 minutes. I could feel all the middle aged women there eyeing me suspiciously–why is he taking so long? Though by the time I talked to her, there was no line. No rush, I suppose, either, as she made time for everyone who wanted to speak with her.

She hadn’t shaken the Bronx inflections (one former New Yorker told me they all work to cultivate it long after they’ve left): How’s life, dahling, whatta ya doing, are ya making enough money, good luck, dahling, good luck to you.


Grace Paley figured in the first blog entry I ever wrote, on the occasion of the death of a playwright. In that little essay, I lamented not getting to meet these great and talented people who lived when I lived, but died before I could talk to them, and noted that when it came to Grace Paley, I was lucky. Another person I mentioned there was the poet Kenneth Koch.

Kenneth Koch wrote a lot about helping people–especially children and seniors–write poetry. Koch figured heavily in me getting to know the aforementioned Gary Lenhart. And a friend of mine used some of Kenneth Koch’s writings when he helped children learn creative writing. Through some circuitous conversation, we ended up talking a little about all that. I hadn’t talked or thought of Koch for a while. This was Wednesday, the same day Grace Paley died. She was 84.


“Here,” by Grace Paley. First published in the Massachusetts Review.

Here I am in the garden laughing
an old woman with heavy breasts
and a nicely mapped face

how did this happen
well that’s who I wanted to be

at last a woman
in the old style sitting
stout thighs apart under
a big skirt grandchild sitting
on off my lap a pleasant
summer perspiration

that’s my old man across the yard
he’s talking to the meter reader
he’s telling him the world’s sad story
how electricity is oil or uranium
and so forth I tell my grandson
run over to your grandpa ask him
to sit beside me for a minute I
am suddenly exhausted by my desire
to kiss his sweet explaining lips

ideas, influence, politics

Read the Times, Save Dartmouth

Ran across an interesting ad on the New York Times‘s home page today:

Save Dartmouth Ad

(Note, the image is a composite of two screenshots as my screen is quite small.)

So. Save Dartmouth.

I must have misunderstood that the ruckus over Dartmouth’s alumni constitution and its system of having alumni vote for half the Board of Trustees was over with the last election. It can’t be cheap to purchase ad space as large as the main photo on the home page of the New York Times.

It’s hard to tell who’s behind this. They ponied up the extra money to keep their domain registration private. There is only one name listed with the organization: “Comments and questions can be directed to our unofficial leader, Mr. Andres Morton Zimmerman, at”

East Wheelock Cluster

Interesting to note that during my freshman year I lived in Andres Hall (back left), and my sophomore year in Zimmerman (back right). Of the three residence halls that made up the early incarnation of the East Wheelock Cluster when I was at Dartmouth, I did not live in Morton Hall, which you can see in the foreground on the right. As I recall, there was a fair amount of criticism of the East Wheelock Cluster (once called the New Dorms) because they were an attempt to establish a residential college of the sort overseen by the late former Dean of First Year Students Peter Goldsmith when he was at Mathey College at Princeton. A very un-Dartmouth kind of program tutted the traditionalists. And so perhaps an odd choice of name for the unofficial leader of Save Dartmouth. Only Mr. Andres Morton Zimmerman really knows.


Carbon: Will That Be Credit or Debit?

Last week, the Guardian reported that the British government is creating a “radical plan to curb greenhouse gas emissions by rationing the carbon use of individuals.” The plan includes what sounds to be a debit card, in which every citizen is allocated an annual carbon allowance. Writes David Adam:

…Points would be deducted at point of sale for every purchase of non-renewable energy. People who did not use their full allocation, such as families who do not own a car, would be able to sell their surplus carbon points into a central bank.

High energy users could then buy them – motorists who had used their allocation would still be able to buy petrol, with the carbon points drawn from the bank and the cost added to their fuel bills. To reduce total UK emissions, the overall number of points would shrink each year.

When polluters–large-scale polluters–face regulations on emissions or effluent, they often try to pass any new compliance costs down to the consumers (raising electricity rates, for example). But a carbon card offers a different perspective on combating pollution, one that not only aims to decrease carbon emissions, but also emphasizes how individual choices can have a measurable effect on the environment.

The idea itself is not a new one (though the application is). The British government appears to be setting up a pollution trading regime for its citizens. Many companies engage in that now, trading things like sulfur dioxide allowances in the United States as part of the EPA’s “cap and trade” program, which sets a limit for emissions which are then divvied up into salable allowances–pollution credits. (One way to get those credits is by shutting down your coal-fired power plant or improving its emissions controls. You can then be awarded a number of allowances equivalent to what your old plant would have emitted; one allowance per ton, in the case of sulfur dioxide. You can then sell those credits–the reward for not polluting–to other polluters, such as older power plants who choose to pay for more allowances to keep polluting rather than upgrading their pollution controls. Or you can just buy a bunch of credits from the EPA with the aim of making money off of them in a kind of pollution commodities market, as Enron tried to do.)

Environmental groups like the Sierra Club oppose trading programs, contending that a market like this (it isn’t a truly “free” market by any stretch) isn’t the best solution. They point, for example, to the way trading creates “hotspots,” where pollution is concentrated because facilities buy more allowances, exposing area residents to more harmful emissions than if those plants were upgraded. (Sulfur dioxide, the pollutant that keeps popping up in this discussion, is an air toxic. It creates sulfurous and then sulfuric acid in the environment–remember acid rain?–and can cause a variety of respiratory ailments.) But the overall aim of a government-regulated trading regime is, ostensibly, to lower the cap and reduce the number of available allowances and total pollution.

The British carbon card plan does the same: sets allowances for carbon for each individual per year, with those allowances decreasing over time.

Could we do something like this in the United States? Technically, yes.

My California driver’s license has a magnetic strip. When I get carded at certain bars, the bouncer will swipe my card in a hand-held reader before letting me in (at Blue Light, for example, which, I believe, instituted the card-reader after getting busted for serving minors). According to a 2002 New York Times article by Jennifer 8. Lee, “Under current standards, the magnetic stripe and bar codes essentially contain the same information that is on the front of the driver’s licenses. In addition to name, address and birth date, the machine-readable data includes physical attributes like sex, height, weight, hair color, eye color and whether corrective lenses are required. Some states that put the driver’s Social Security number on the license also store it on the data strip.” The reporter notes that, “Already, about 40 states issue driver’s licenses with bar codes or magnetic stripes that carry standardized data, and most of the others plan to issue them within the next few years.”

However, that kind of technology may not be enough to track carbon allowance accounts if, say, a California driver happens to fill up at a Nevada gas station. Instead, a federal standard would be necessary to tap into a central database, identify individuals, and record their carbon usage. But wouldn’t that have the civil liberty and privacy advocates up in arms?

Of course. And, it turns out, they already are. A federal standard for identification is just over the horizon. In 2008, the Real ID Act takes effect. At that point, all drivers will have to get new licenses. To get them, each will need to provide at least three different documents–which must then be checked for veracity–to prove their identities. Proponents say the act will help in combating terrorism, and despite a great deal of opposition–many critics say this will effectively be a national identity card–it was slipped into a spending bill (tsunami relief, Iraq) and signed by the president last year. States can opt out of the program, but if they do, their citizens can’t use their license as identification for federal purposes, like entering government buildings or getting Social Security, or to get on airplanes.

An article by Kim Zetter in Wired last year says the card will contain standard identifying information, “[b]ut the Department of Homeland Security could add more data, such as digital fingerprints.”

Let’s forget, for a moment, the privacy issues associated with a program like this. (And those issues won’t go away, as business writer David Lazarus writes in his column today that the Department of Homeland Security’s “privacy czar” has no experience in that area. My colleague Phil, who alerted me to the Guardian article and once lived in London, says the British don’t get quite as worked up about the privacy issues when it comes to these things.) Look at the potential: a card that can be read nationwide, connected to a database, capable of holding any kind of information that its administrators wish. A carbon-concerned administration might decide that the card would be a convenient way for citizens to track their carbon use.

Technically, an American carbon allowance program could be just over the horizon. Politically, not as likely. But you never know. Function creep happens.