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29 de Mayo 2005

continued adventures in consumerism

Last weekend I went to the mall . Yes, I went willingly, in search of some sunglasses. All pairs that I presently own are falling apart. So, having just earned $50 from letting a fellow graduate student scan my brain, I was in an indulgent mood, and thought I would get some hardier sunglasses, a pair that would last me a while before getting scratched or bent out of shape. But my search was fruitless. Sunglasses have gotten big, big, big. Forgive me as I have not participated in American culture for a while: When did sunglasses get so large? And what was the inspiration? Too many people seeing The Aviator? Has Martin Scorsese shaped our national sunglass preferences?

Me, I just cannot handle it. The man at the "Sunglass Hut" kiosk patiently handed me pair after pair, as I looked in the mirror and felt mildly traumatized. How can you walk around with something so heavy weighing down your temples?

So, after some investigation on Froogle, I found this pair, which I am contemplating. It may be the closest I will get to my ideal. I haven't decided whether to buy them or not. I welcome your opinion.


25 de Mayo 2005

Caffeine and the Coming of the Enlightenment

In a recent book review in the New Yorker, I caught a citation of the journal Raritan that caught my eye: "Caffeine and the Coming of the Enlightenment", by a guy named Roger Schmidt. Now this is a cultural studies article after my own heart. While I can neither easily nor legally post the entire pdf here, I encourage you to seek it out in your own library collections, and I'll quote at least an excerpt:

That other world reached through the strange nocturnal journey of sleep turns out to be the world we have lost. We have as a culture become estranged from that fount of poetry and art so familiar to the old culture, and have distanced ourselves from one of the most elemental and ancient sources of spirituality we are ever likely to encounter. The causes of this estrangement are various, but one can reconstruct its history, starting around 1650 when, according to Anthony A Wood, "Jacob, a Jew, opened a coffey house at the Angel, in the parish of S. Peter in the East, Oxon, and there it was by some, who delighted in Noveltie, drank." Within a decade, caffeine had profoundly altered the feel of London life; coffee and tea (which soon followed) were at the center of London's transformation to a commercial power, with coffee shops and tea houses becoming important institutions for political, economic, and cultural transactions....

...Sleep deprivation is both a symptom of modernity, as well as one of its primary causes. At the very least, it seems worth inquiring whether that sense, common in the eighteenth century, of a newly widened gulf between the divine presence and human society, can be entirely dissociated from the chronic sleep loss the period's major thinkers and writers experienced...
I am not suggesting that no one slept badly before 1660 or so, but rather that the activity of sleep becomes increasingly problematic for large numbers of people after this date; attitudes become conflicted and morally urgent in ways previously unfelt. Discusssions of sleep in the late Renaissance, for example, focus almost exclusively on its hygenic aspects; immoderate sleep, or sleeping during the day or after a large meal, is to be avoided because it was thought by some to be injurious to one's health. By 1748 however, the year Benjamin Franklin voices the clearest expression of the commodification of time ("Remember, time is money"), immoderate sleep is not seen as unhealthy, but rather as a sinful waste of time-- an indication of a slothful and idle temperment...

20 de Mayo 2005

catching up

Hello everyone.

Sorry I disappeared for a while.

I want to respond to the comments that I've missed.

John: Can you elaborate a bit on that last Dali quote? Destroying the most sublime dreams and creations of civilization? What's he referring to there?

Jim: Good for your wife for actually enjoying matrix manipulations. Though I guess I can at least imagine how one might find, as you say, 11x11 matrix inverses a not altogether unpleasant task. From the introduction that I've had thus far, it seems that much of linear algebra is so routinized (is that a word?) into various algorithms (like the basic Gaussian row reduction scheme that my mother mentioned) that the execution of the problems can become easily automatized. As with all other skills we learn to the degree of thoughtless but perfect performance--playing the piano, riding a bike-- there's something vaguely satisfying about standing by as witness as your own mind or your own hands carry out a task that you no longer have to supervise.

Mom: You had never told me the filing cabinet story. That's a good one. Also thank you for sharing with the University of Minnesota community my childhood propensity to fall off of playground equipment. That distinction does, at least, go a long way towards explaining my present mental state. Anyways, yes, I used to have the number of occasions counted and could recollect them all in vivid detail (except the concussion, of course).

Let's see, so, a recent time when I did something stupid and ended up physically hurting myself. Hm hm hm. Usually papercuts and other such mundane events. I remember sometime maybe when I was in high school when I was trying to remove a contact lens, and was trying to get it to stick to my fingers, and was having quite a bit of trouble, wondering why it wouldn't come out, and feeling that my eye was getting very sore -- it was then that I realized (d'oh!) that I had already taken the contact lens out. Yeah. Oops. That obviously had to be some time ago because now there's no way I could be unaware that my contacts are removed.

14 de Mayo 2005



The other day I was intrigued by the most recent cover of the Utne Reader: "Why surrealism is good for you." So I checked out the article online: The Surreal Life. The article itself was somewhat disappointing. I don't like to be critical, but this guy obviously spent an hour or so gathering relevant facts from the internet, and then tacked on one or two paragraphs waxing pseudo-philosophical on the merits of taking the surrealist perspective. These relatively unenlightening essays, I believe, are an unfortunate byproduct of the internet. My opinion is that prior to internet days, the challenge of locating good information resources filtered out some of the poorer writers, because journalism required greater committment, effort, and literacy. Similar trends have watered down academia, at times -- the ease of collecting data and downloading journal articles may speed up some of the good research, but at the cost of a lot of quick-and-dirty studies cluttering up the field.

Anyways, feeling let down by Utne Reader, I sought out some more satisfying surrealism links. The picture above came from a site called "Insomnium" where you can find more such images, if floating heads are your thing. Also, a few readings from Andre Breton: First, a popularly quoted excerpt from "Nadja," and it's also worth checking out the Surrealist Manifesto.

10 de Mayo 2005


You know, you think you could earn a bit of a breather after finishing a year of grad school. Not this week. I had a subject come in at 7:30 this morning and she's coming back at 7:30 on Thursday. Erstwhile I'm taking a summer course in Linear Algebra, trying to tweak a stimulus-presentation program for an undergrad in the lab, and so on.

Thus the blog continues to be silent. You all shall either wait in my absence or feel free to spontaneously chime in with whatever you want. I am far too tired right now to put serious effort into thinking of discussion topics. Here's what I can offer just off the top of my head:

1.) Latvia? Georgia? What is George W. Bush doing in these places? Is it Democracy On The March propaganda? What exactly is the story about Latvia? Who are the Latvians? How did they become independent? Should they even care that W. is in their country? Should they feel like they're being used?

2.) Randomness: Is it a real phenomenon? Or is it a descriptor we attach to any event which we simply lack the precise knowledge and/or formulas to predict?

3.) When's the last time you accidently hurt yourself as the result of your own careless or stupid action?

4.) At work a few weeks ago, we were talking about the changes to Sesame Street. Cookie Monster discourages gluttony by singing, with a showy jazz tune, that "Cookies are a 'sometimes-food'", while Bert and Ernie no longer share a residence (I don't see the concern, given that they had separate twin beds...).
What's the deal? I always considered Sesame Street as a more sophisticated, well-researched attempt at providing educational yet entertaining children's television. Why are they suddenly vulnerable to the same mass hysteria as the rest of pop culture?

ok, will re-engage with the world sometime this weekend. everyone have a good week.

7 de Mayo 2005

morning again and here I am

It's Saturday morning of the week when I think I finally finished my first year of graduate school. At least, let's say I have. I will plant my flag here. I took my last final yesterday. Of course, research continues on for eternity -- no rest for the wicked and the righteous don't need any (put me in whichever category you like there) -- I still have data to collect, and I plan to spend at least some of my weekend scrambling around for elderly folks who can't wait to be stuck into an MRI scanner on two consecutive days. That eager anticipation of post-finals relief that motivated me all the way to the undergraduate degree-- now it seems no longer valid. No relief. Not quite yet. Someday I just need to hop into my car and take a vacation from Pittsburgh. We'll see when that day comes.

Anyways, you all accompanied me through this past year, and you can attest to the fact that I'm still alive, and the probable mental degeneration that resulted from a year of grad school has now been well-documented with the U's kind patronage.

So, now it's time to (somewhat) catch up with the rest of life. First, for my civic duties-- the Pittsburgh mayoral race is coming up. Technically, it's the Democratic primary that is on May 17th, but from what I hear, the winner of the Democratic primary has won the overall race for the past 80 years. At first, I was uncertain that I would even vote at all. I've only been here since August, I know very little about local politics, and I know even less about how to fix this city. My impression was that our elected officials were uniformly inept and this city was fairly helpless under their guidance. My attitude was partially motivated by a cover on our independent weekly, the City Paper: The three major candidates appeared on front with the telling question, "Why would anyone want to be Mayor of Pittsburgh?" And, that sounded like a pretty good question to me -- the city is broke, litter lines sidewalks in even the best neighborhoods, bumpy streets go perpetually unpaved, and it's not unusual for the bus to be packed to sardine capacity or, on the worst days, emit a disturbing urine-like smell. So, I dismissed all the bland-looking male candidates as power-hungry men who wanted to preside over their own little kingdom, even if this was the only kingdom they could get.

But recently, I have seen my impressionable, undecided-voter mind be pushed around by the forces of propaganda. This has given me some insight into the mysterious undecided voters that were such a focus of attention during the Bush/Kerry days. How are our minds swayed? The other day one of my research subjects arrived with a "Vote for Peduto" button. This is Bill Peduto, one of our candidates who, if nothing else, probably has the most well-designed yard signs. The woman was in her 60's, a retired professor who had worked in my building. She was the most awesome research subject ever, describing the MRI experience as "fun". (I am not kidding.) She conversed easily about her happily married daughter in the UK, and about what she has been reading lately in her subscription to The Economist. And so my impressionable voter mind starts seeing a profie match -- this woman is of my general cultural/political/socioeconomic niche. I must vote for Bill Peduto.

I can see her clipping on that button in the morning, knowing that she would be meeting with a naive and ignorant young voter. Well, it worked.

Also supporting Bill is the Partisan Project, a clever Pittsburgh development that grew during the presidential election. They published reams of simple but hard-hitting posters, 100% aimed at discouraging the Bush vote, that they distributed to coffee shops, grocery stores, and so on. Hundreds to thousands of us had them taped to our windows in our offices and residences. Now these same folks have made the very catchy banner, "Sometimes I hate Pittsburgh because I love it so much", which beautifully captures an ambivalence that I know at least I feel about this place. Anyways, it's worth checking out their website.

So, I'll be at least minimally involved in a civic sense. Now, what else to resume in terms of Normal Life. Aside from cleaning my apartment. Hmm. My bike is in a perpetual state of disrepair (Hi, Jim). I can't think of any time in my life when I've had a bike that's been comfortable to ride, because it seems like there's always been something wrong with them, and I'm too lazy to fix it. I just stop riding it. After having 2 bikes stolen in the Twin Cities, I finally settled for an old, yellow Bridgestone that I bought for ~$110 at Varsity bikes in Dinkytown (nope, I don't have a picture) It did an OK job, I guess, at getting me from Marcy Holmes to Stadium Village every morning. But in Pittsburgh it's been sitting in the laundry room of my apartment. Part of that is attributable to the *very* intimidating hills, the narrow streets, reckless drivers, and so on. You could only dream of a bike lane. Ha ha ha. Sometimes I'm not even sure there's enough of a lane to fit an entire car. But the other issue is that I think I need a new tire. This seems to happen, like, every other month. Why do I keep messing up my tires? Hoping that the tire was just a little low, I invested in a snazzy hand-held air pump and tried to add some air, to no avail. So, I hear that there is a do-it-yourself bike place a couple of miles away that will provide you with the supplies to change the tire yourself (and therefore save the money that would otherwise be spent on labor). So, I should maybe go do that. I don't know if I can work up the motivation. I think my bike has other problems aside from that but I don't even know how to describe them. I can never seem to shift into a comfortable gear. Always too much tension or too little.

So, that's enough material for one coursework-free morning. More later.