Friday, August 30, 2013

Polished Black Bone

"The knife had a handle of polished black bone, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. If it sliced you, you might not even know you had been cut, not immediately."

First lines of The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. Gaiman has the skill to make the most banal things seem magical, which makes this YA book a really fun read so far.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Calvin and Hobbes Live

It's indisputable that Calvin and Hobbes is the best comic strip in existence. That fact is self-evident, but if for some strange reason you need proof, check out Progressive Boink's collection of 25 classic C&H strips.

Bill Watterson, we miss you.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Astounding Transportive Magic of Words

The Dish pointed me to Mark Edmundson's poignant appreciation for us English majors:
Real reading is reincarnation. There is no other way to put it. It is being born again into a higher form of consciousness than we ourselves possess. When we walk the streets of Manhattan with Walt Whitman or contemplate our hopes for eternity with Emily Dickinson, we are reborn into more ample and generous minds. “Life piled on life / Were all too little,” says Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” and he is right. Given the ragged magnificence of the world, who would wish to live only once?
The English major lives many times through the astounding transportive magic of words and the welcoming power of his receptive imagination. The economics major? In all probability he lives but once. If the English major has enough energy and openness of heart, he lives not once but hundreds of times. Not all books are worth being reincarnated into, to be sure—but those that are win Keats’s sweet phrase: “a joy forever.” …
What [the English major] feels about language most of the time is wonder and gratitude. For language is a stupendous gift. It’s been bequeathed to us by all of the foregoing generations. It is the creation of great souls like Shakespeare and Chaucer to be sure. But language is also the creation of salesmen and jive talkers, quacks and mountebanks, hookers and heroic warriors. We spend our lives, knowingly or not, trying to say something impeccably. We long to put the best words in the best order. (That, Coleridge said, is all that poetry really comes down to.) And when we do, we are on the lip of adding something to the language. We’ve perhaps made a contribution, however small, to what the critic R.P. Blackmur called the stock of available reality. And when we do, we’ve lived for a moment with the immortals.
A bit pretentious, perhaps, but i'd much rather be pretentious and fun than boring!

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Mmmm.... Sugar

Check out National Geographic's fascinating article on sugar. Along with an analysis of the history of the sugar trade (involving, unfortunately, lots and lots of slaves and subjugated colonies), it's surprising just how many doctors assign blame for Americans' continued poor health on too much of the sweet stuff:
"fat makes up a smaller portion of the American diet than it did 20 years ago. Yet the portion of America that is obese has only grown larger. The primary reason, says Johnson, along with other experts, is sugar, and in particular fructose.
According to [Richard Johnson, a nephrologist at the University of Colorado Denver] and his colleagues... excessive sugar isn’t just empty calories; it’s toxic.
“It has nothing to do with its calories,” says endocrinologist Robert Lustig of the University of California, San Francisco. “Sugar is a poison by itself when consumed at high doses.”
Johnson summed up the conventional wisdom this way: Americans are fat because they eat too much and exercise too little. But they eat too much and exercise too little because they’re addicted to sugar, which not only makes them fatter but, after the initial sugar rush, also saps their energy, beaching them on the couch. “The reason you’re watching TV is not because TV is so good,” he said, “but because you have no energy to exercise, because you’re eating too much sugar.”

Friday, August 9, 2013

Paramilitary Raids

The statistics quoted in Sarah Stillman's article SWAT Team Nation are insane:
In 1972, America conducted only several hundred paramilitary drug raids a year, according to Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” By the early nineteen-eighties, there were three thousand a year; by 2001, Alexander notes, the annual count had skyrocketed to forty thousand. Today, even that number seems impossibly low, with one annual count of combat-style home raids hovering around eighty thousand.
The federal government continues to invest in SWAT gear for the smallest of police departments as part of a massive permanent infrastructure to fight the War on Drugs. Is it any wonder that given such tools they're being used more and more? And yet the problem SWAT teams are ostensibly formed to solve are as pervasive as ever.

Even worse, these tactics seem inexorably linked to questionable civil-forfeiture laws. Click through and read the whole thing - it's eye opening.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

I Learned to Swear

I learned to swear
twenty minutes before my first child was born.
Since then, it's been a handy habit
to have around, and I expect God
to turn his head. After all,
he owes me one. It's a trick
to make babies look so good.

The truth is they leak.
And of all horrors, they grow.

They only speak whine;
they cry and complain and wipe snot
on their sleeves. They spill dinner.
They stir pasta into their milk cups
and squish spinach between their teeth.
They eat crayons and toothpaste.

They call constantly. They call
constantly. Mom. Mom. Mom. Mo-om.

They inhale money, bang down stairs,
and store dirty socks and sandwich crusts
like hidden treasures in their closets.
They lipstick walls; they swallow marbles.
They break things.

Yet, God (no doubt in his wisdom) has ordained
that these crude creatures
should sleep incognito:

I am fooled easily.

Each night as I tuck covers around them
and bend to kiss their sweet, sleepy faces,
I don't care that they used
all the silverware in the garden.

Let's fill the house with angels,
I whisper to my husband
as I slip between the sheets.

- Pam Vap

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Paradoxes of Evil

The Dish pointed me to this thought-provoking quote from James Dawes, the author of Evil Men, a collection of interviews with war criminals from the Second Sino-Japanese War , about the paradoxes inherent in studying evil:
Talking about evil is hard. It involves at least two paradoxes. Here’s the first. On the one hand, to denounce evil is an ethical act. It is to affirm our deepest values and to commit ourselves to preventing acts that dehumanize others. On the other hand, to denounce evil can be an unethical act. It is a way of demonizing; it is, precisely, to dehumanize another. Here’s the second paradox: On the one hand, we need to the concept of evil to philosophically and ethically distinguish acts that shock our consciences, acts that are not adequately encompassed by words like bad, wicked, or wrong. The concept of evil clarifies. On the other hand, the concept of evil confuses, prevents thinking. We imagine evil is other than human, beyond understanding, almost mystical. This lets us off the hook, lets us deny our own capacity for evil, and stops us from analyzing the very human, very common causes of it.
This is very well stated. I remember thinking along these lines when I read Richard Lourie's The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin (read the first chapter here) and was confounded by what I felt was a surprisingly flat attempts to detail the human life of such a monster. The book itself is excellent when dealing with the ying/yang relationship between Stalin and Trotsky, but now I recognize that the novel's weakness probably lies in how to addressing the Dawes' paradoxes while writing a first person perspective of Stalin's upbringing childhood. Fascinating stuff.

First Lines of "Railsea"

"This is the story of a bloodstained boy.

There he stands, swaying as utterly as any wind-blown sapling. he is quite, quite red. If only this were paint! Around each of his feet the red puddles; his clothes, whatever colour they once were, are now a thickening scarlet; his hair is stiff & drenched.

Only his eyes stand out. The white of each almost gleams against the gore, lightbulbs in a dark room. He stares with great fervour at nothing."

China MiƩville, from his novel Railsea. To me, this novel started out slowly, but has really picked up steam as it enters Part II. The man really knows how to build a world!