Friday, November 28, 2008

Mumbai attacks

For amazing/appalling photos, go here.

UPDATE: This AP story provides the most comprehensive timeline of events that I've seen thus far.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Winner!

Of the Bad Sex in Literary Fiction Award - Rachel Johnson! Take a bow, Rachel! Here's an excerpt from her first-place entry:
Almost screaming after five agonizingly pleasurable minutes, I make a grab, to put him, now angrily slapping against both our bellies, inside, but he holds both by arms down, and puts his tongue to my core, like a cat lapping up a dish of cream so as not to miss a single drop. I find myself gripping his ears and tugging at the locks curling over them, beside myself, and a strange animal noise escapes from me as the mounting, Wagnerian crescendo overtakes me. I really do hope at this point that all the Spodders are, as requested, attending the meeting about slug clearance or whatever it is.
According to the Literary Review,
"Johnson was singled out for her novel's slew of animal metaphors, including comparing her male protagonist's "light fingers" to "a moth caught inside a lampshade", and his tongue to "a cat lapping up a dish of cream so as not to miss a single drop". Literary Review deputy editor Tom Fleming was also disturbed by the heroine's "grab, to put him, now angrily slapping against both our bellies, inside".
Johnson, nothing if not a good sport, declared winning the award (a bottle of champagne and a plaster statue of a foot) was "an absolute honor."

John Updike received a lifetime achievement award for his numerous passages of bad sex. But heck, you're all winners, contestants!

You can find selections from the short list here.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The most wonderful time of the year II

Readers of this blog know that in spite of my lack of religious belief, my ingrained cynicism and general misanthropy, I actually enjoy the holiday season. I love getting together with friends and family to celebrate the festivities. I love those annual occasions that help mark the seasons and the passages of our lives...

Thanksgiving dinners...Christmas trees...the Bad Sex in Literary Fiction awards...

Oh, where to start with the cornucopia that is bad writing about sex in serious literature? I missed the 2007 contest, but here is a selection from 2006.

So what are the criteria for choosing the worst sex in serious literature?
Jonathan Beckman at the Literary Review said there had been "quite a lot of variation" in this year's shortlist in terms of how, exactly, the sex was bad. "There are some which take the sex far too seriously, like Coelho, and some which have a grating change of register, like Buchan, and others that are just slightly ridiculous," he said. "The Campbell seems quite Alastair Campbelly-bad, in the slightly tortuous logical path the passage takes … and also, we wouldn't pass up the chance to put Alastair Campbell on a bad sex shortlist."
I tend to root for the far too serious. Here's Paulo Coelho's nominated contribution:
in which the act of sex – on a public footpath – is described as "the moment when Eve was reabsorbed into Adam's body and the two halves became Creation".

"At last, she could no longer control the world around her," Coelho continues, "her five senses seemed to break free and she wasn't strong enough to hold on to them. As if struck by a sacred bolt of lightning, she unleashed them, and the world, the seagulls, the taste of salt, the hard earth, the smell of the sea, the clouds, all disappeared, and in their place appeared a vast gold light, which grew and grew until it touched the most distant star in the galaxy."
Yeah, it was good for me too.

Oh, and since I missed last year's awards, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the winner:
Last year's award was given posthumously to Norman Mailer for his final novel The Castle in the Forest, in which a male member is described as being "as soft as a coil of excrement". "It was the excrement that tipped the balance," admitted Philip Womack, assistant editor of the Literary Review, at the time.

(H/T to Judi Fennell)

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The way to fly...

Why can't we have these now? Without the explosive hydrogen...

(h/t to Shanghai Slim)

Monday, November 17, 2008

China's documentary realism

I highly recommend this China Digital Times article on the not-quite-underground Chinese documentary scene. These filmmakers operate in a gray area that is increasingly a part of Chinese culture — unsanctioned by the government, at times out-and-out banned but still managing to circulate inside China thanks to video hosts like Youtube and the considerable Chinese black market for censored materials. In a weird twist, there are even award ceremonies for documentary festivals that feature banned films within China (and no, I don't get quite how this works either). Support from "common people" is also essential:
Commenting on the way independent Chinese documentaries have become an alternative livelihood for the people, the Beijing Broadcasting Institute professor Cui Weiping said to Duowei: “Many people help other people shoot films for advertisements, and most people engage in the advertising industry. Some people, after shooting a commercial for five months and earning 100,000 RMB in profit, will invest this money in documentaries.”

For the documentary filmmakers, the greatest problem isn’t making a living, but having their documentaries censored and unable to enter the market through normal distribution channels. Professor Hao Jian said to Duowei: “The making of independent documentaries in China isn’t a normal occupation and lacks normal commercial activity. Because feature movies are able to gain commercial value through the participation of film festivals, and at the same time documentary film makers are crammed in a run-down room of a rented building, filmmakers of feature films usually have better living conditions. The government’s criticism of independent documentaries is usually negative, and thus the government will not let them enter the market.”

At the moment, support for Chinese independent documentaries comes from the common people. Some celebrities and civil organizations have provided the funds to establish some documentary film festivals such as the Chinese Independent Film Festival in Nanjing, the Clouds South Documentary Festival, the Chinese Documentary Exchange Week at the Songzhuang Art Museum, the Beijing Independent Film Forum and Chinese Independent Documentary Film Festival. In the fall of 2006, Li Xianting set up the Li Xianting Fund at the Song manor to collect 34 independent Chinese documentaries. The top donor was Fang Lijun who gave 100,000 RMB.
You can find the work of one banned Chinese documentarian, Hu Jie, at the CDT link, and also here, where his hour-long documentary on a Cultural Revolution casualty, "When I am Gone," is available with English subtitles. I strongly recommend it. Part 1 is linked below...

I hate the expression, "You go, girl!" but...

Oh hell. You go, girl! :
A 16-year-old schoolgirl with a mean knuckleball has been selected as the first woman ever to play alongside the men in Japanese professional baseball.

Eri Yoshida was drafted for a new independent league that will launch in April, drawing attention for a side-armed knuckler that her future manager Yoshihiro Nakata said was a marvel...

...Yoshida, 155 centimetres (five feet) tall and weighing 52 kilograms (114 pounds), says she wants to follow in the footsteps of the great Boston Red Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Fast Food Nation

The economy needs to pick up "so people can afford to get healthy," said Ronnie Adkins, 67, a retired policeman, as he sat one recent morning on the smoking porch of the Jolly Pirate Donuts shop on U.S. 60.
Fascinating, disturbing profile of the unhealthiest city in the US, Huntington, W. Virginia.
Nearly half the adults in Huntington's five-county metropolitan area are obese — an astounding percentage, far bigger than the national average in a country with a well-known weight problem.
Huntington leads in a half-dozen other illness measures, too, including heart disease and diabetes. It's even tops in the percentage of elderly people who have lost all their teeth (half of them have).
The article cites a complex set of factors responsible for the situation: an economy once built around manual labor (for example, coal mining) that has largely lost its industrial base and suffers from a 19% poverty rate, eating habits that have not changed since those days of high-calorie burning work, an over-reliance on fast food, a population convinced that they can't afford to eat more healthfully. And fast food companies take advantage:
Fast food has become a staple, with many residents convinced they can't afford to buy healthier foods, said Keri Kennedy, manager of the state health department's Office of Healthy Lifestyles.

Kennedy said she had just seen a commercial that presented "The KFC $10 Challenge." The fried-chicken chain placed a family in a grocery store and challenged them to put together a dinner for $10 or less that was comparable to KFC's seven-piece, $9.99 value meal.

"This is what we're up against," said Kennedy, noting it's an extremely persuasive ad for a low-income family that is accustomed to fried foods. "I don't know what you do to counter that."
Add in a cultural attitude that does not value exercise or understand the health benefits (I'm guessing that has something to do with a past built on hard physical labor - why would you look at exercise positively when a measure of success was finding a job where you didn't have to do it?), and you have a population having heart attacks in their thirties.

The causes of obesity and its attendant health problems go far beyond laziness and lack of discipline. This article helps lay out some of the very complicated and intractable issues behind our nation's health crisis. It's about culture; it's about how society is structured, the built environment in which we live and work. And it's about a country that doesn't provide preventive health care or even basic healthcare necessity for tens of millions of its citizens.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Decisions, decisions...

After a lot of hemming and hawing which caused me to miss out on the best flight options, I found a pretty good second best itinerary to Beijing for next year. I'll depart shortly after New Year's - Chinese - sorry, I traveled during that holiday in 1980 and learned my lesson - and will return after the first week in March. This ought to give me enough time to do work on my Mandarin chops and do some serious traveling as well. I'm already planning on going to Kunming - I haven't been there since the total eclipse of the sun in 1980, and I have to make that pilgrimage for a number of reasons - and I have a friend who is a Dean at a college in Yili, Xinjiang. I mean, Xinjiang - how cool is that?

There's a bunch of other places I'd like to see that I've never visited...Lijiang, Kaifeng, Yantai, Qingdao...and old favorites I'd love to visit again (I really do heart Chengdu).

Given that I'm flying in and out of Beijing, am already committed to Kunming and will make a serious effort to go to Yili, does anyone have any suggestions?

Monday, November 10, 2008

Branding with Chinese Characteristics

Via Kaiser Kuo comes this hilarious example...

Green renewal

Okay, I'm pretty much a tree-hugger. I heart polar bears and light rail and all that. The election brought us a lot of good news on the environmental front, not the least of which is that we'll have a new administration in Washington that actually cares about things like global warming. Meanwhile, here in California, we passed the high-speed rail initiative and Measure R in Los Angeles (which will fund a variety of transportation projects, including light rail). And as a bonus, the Governator reversed his earlier stance and now proposes a 9.9% tax on every barrel of oil pumped out of the ground in California.

Beyond the warm-fuzzies of tree-hugging and polar bears (I would not recommend hugging the polar bears though), there are compelling reasons why we should move to a Green economy - and not just to, you know, save the planet from the deleterious effects of global climate change.

Reason #1 - it's good for the economy, and we really need to rebuild our economy.

Here's what Al Gore had to say in Sunday's New York Times:
Here is the good news: the bold steps that are needed to solve the climate crisis are exactly the same steps that ought to be taken in order to solve the economic crisis and the energy security crisis.

Economists across the spectrum... agree that large and rapid investments in a jobs-intensive infrastructure initiative is the best way to revive our economy in a quick and sustainable way. Many also agree that our economy will fall behind if we continue spending hundreds of billions of dollars on foreign oil every year. Moreover, national security experts in both parties agree that we face a dangerous strategic vulnerability if the world suddenly loses access to Middle Eastern oil...

...Here’s what we can do — now: we can make an immediate and large strategic investment to put people to work replacing 19th-century energy technologies that depend on dangerous and expensive carbon-based fuels with 21st-century technologies that use fuel that is free forever: the sun, the wind and the natural heat of the earth.
Gore goes on to outline a five-part plan "to repower America with a commitment to producing 100 percent of our electricity from carbon-free sources within 10 years. It is a plan that would simultaneously move us toward solutions to the climate crisis and the economic crisis — and create millions of new jobs that cannot be outsourced."

In case that sounds a bit too idealistic and grandiose, here's an example of how a small slice of Green economy is helping to resurrect a Midwestern Rust Belt town:
Like his uncle, his grandfather and many of their neighbors, Arie Versendaal spent decades working at the Maytag factory here, turning coils of steel into washing machines.

When the plant closed last year, taking 1,800 jobs out of this town of 16,000 people, it seemed a familiar story of American industrial decline: another company town brought to its knees by the vagaries of global trade.

Except that Mr. Versendaal has a new factory job, at a plant here that makes blades for turbines that turn wind into electricity. Across the road, in the old Maytag factory, another company is building concrete towers to support the massive turbines. Together, the two plants are expected to employ nearly 700 people by early next year.

“Life’s not over,” Mr. Versendaal says. “For 35 years, I pounded my body to the ground. Now, I feel like I’m doing something beneficial for mankind and the United States. We’ve got to get used to depending on ourselves instead of something else, and wind is free. The wind is blowing out there for anybody to use.”

From the faded steel enclaves of Pennsylvania to the reeling auto towns of Michigan and Ohio, state and local governments are aggressively courting manufacturing companies that supply wind energy farms, solar electricity plants and factories that turn crops into diesel fuel.

This courtship has less to do with the loftiest aims of renewable energy proponents — curbing greenhouse gas emissions and lessening American dependence on foreign oil — and more to do with paychecks. In the face of rising unemployment, renewable energy has become a crucial source of good jobs, particularly for laid-off Rust Belt workers...

...No one believes that renewable energy can fully replace what has been lost on the American factory floor, where people with no college education have traditionally been able to finance middle-class lives. Many at Maytag earned $20 an hour in addition to health benefits. Mr. Versendaal now earns about $13 an hour.

Still, it’s a beginning in a sector of the economy that has been marked by wrenching endings, potentially a second chance for factory workers accustomed to layoffs and diminished aspirations.
All this adds up to a reason for optimism, even to a cynic like me.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

But less of this...

From the WaPo's Sleuth blog:
Ailing Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) apparently has rebuffed a bold bid by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) to take over health care policy in the Senate when the new Congress convenes in January.

Sources tell the Sleuth Clinton had approached Kennedy, who chairs the Senate health committee, and Democratic leaders about creating a new special health care subcommittee, one she would chair.

Her hope was to draft the legislation that would fulfill her presidential campaign promise - and President-elect Barack Obama's - for a sweeping health care overhaul plan.

But sources say Kennedy is cool to the idea. So is his top health care aide, Michael Myers, Kennedy's staff director on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.

Myers tells the trade publication InsideHealthPolicy that Kennedy will continue handling health care policy at the full committee level. Asked if that meant Clinton would not be tapped to head a new health subcommittee as rumored, Myers said that was correct.
Enough already. Ted Kennedy is obviously in no condition to spearhead the battle for universal healthcare. This is a subject about which Hillary Clinton is passionate, informed and engaged. She's had years of experience dealing with both the big picture and the minutia. Her healthcare proposal was widely regarded by progressives as superior to Obama's. Why not put her to work?

A significant portion if not a clear majority of Obama appointees look to be Clinton Administration veterans. And yet the woman who got over 18 million votes in the Democratic primaries, who campaigned her butt off for Obama and down-ticket Dems across the country, seems to be excluded from meaningful participation in an area where she is greatly needed.

Yes, I get that there are seniority issues. I get that there was a lot of bad blood in the primaries between the Clinton and Obama camps. But unity is a two-way street, and this sort of continued dissing has got to stop.

More like this, please!

Those who know me in RL know that I am a good liberal who has had some serious issues with Barack Obama. For the purposes of this post, I'll mention only his opacity in terms of policy. Mantras of "Hope" and "Change" don't resonate with me; tell me what you are going to do.

Things like this:
Transition advisers to President-elect Barack Obama have compiled a list of about 200 Bush administration actions and executive orders that could be swiftly undone to reverse White House policies on climate change, stem cell research, reproductive rights and other issues, according to congressional Democrats, campaign aides and experts working with the transition team.

A team of four dozen advisers, working for months in virtual solitude, set out to identify regulatory and policy changes Obama could implement soon after his inauguration. The team is now consulting with liberal advocacy groups, Capitol Hill staffers and potential agency chiefs to prioritize those they regard as the most onerous or ideologically offensive, said a top transition official who was not permitted to speak on the record about the inner workings of the transition.

In some instances, Obama would be quickly delivering on promises he made during his two-year campaign, while in others he would be embracing Clinton-era policies upended by President Bush during his eight years in office.

"The kind of regulations they are looking at" are those imposed by Bush for "overtly political" reasons, in pursuit of what Democrats say was a partisan Republican agenda, said Dan Mendelson, a former associate administrator for health in the Clinton administration's Office of Management and Budget. The list of executive orders targeted by Obama's team could well get longer in the coming days, as Bush's appointees rush to enact a number of last-minute policies in an effort to extend his legacy.

A spokeswoman said yesterday that no plans for regulatory changes had been finalized. "Before he makes any decisions on potential executive or legislative actions, he will be conferring with congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle, as well as interested groups," Obama transition spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said. "Any decisions would need to be discussed with his Cabinet nominees, none of whom have been selected yet."

Still, the preelection transition team, comprising mainly lawyers, has positioned the incoming president to move fast on high-priority items without waiting for Congress.

Obama himself has signaled, for example, that he intends to reverse Bush's controversial limit on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, a decision that scientists say has restrained research into some of the most promising avenues for defeating a wide array of diseases, such as Parkinson's.
All this would be change I can believe in.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Buy a Book, Dammit!

Via Nathan Bransford comes this excellent post by Moonrat (now added to my blogroll - "editorialass") about why October is the unkindest month of all in book publishing. It has to do with the unique (some would say "bizarre") returns policy:
The crux of the problem is that book publishing is a returnable industry. That means that say Big Chain Store (BCS) agrees to stock a book that my company publishes. They buy 100 copies at, say, $1 a piece (to be easy). They give me $100; I send them the books. Two months later, they didn't sell any, so they send them back. I have to give them $100.

Keep in mind a couple of things about this system that don't work in the publisher's favor:
1) Shipping costs. Books are heavy.
2) Production fees incurred by the publisher (because, unfortunately, we can't return the books to the printer).
3) Inflation. Haha.
Moonrat suggests that those of us who love books fight back...and buy more books. Buy 'em for your friends and family!

Well, it's not like I need much (any?) encouragement; I'd come home with three new books in my shopping rucksack yesterday before even reading this post. But here's a follow-up suggestion: why not make October "Buy More Books!" month? It's too late for this year, but beginning next year, we could all make it a point to do our holiday shopping early.

Buy a book. The publishing industry you save may be your own.

No On Proposition 8!

Efforts are already underway in California to repeal the unjust, anti-equality, anti-family and homophobic Proposition 8, which would ban same sex marriage through an amendment to the state constitution.

Proposition 8 may have won, but the fight is not over. Legal challenges have already been filed, and we have an Attorney General, Jerry Brown, who has been great on this issue.

Here are a few things you can do right now:

If you are a registered California voter, go here and sign the petition. It's already over 250,000 signatures (H/T to Dana for finding this)

You can also sign the Courage Campaign's pledge. You do not have to be a California voter to sign.

Finally, here is the No On Proposition 8 homepage. They are still accepting donations, and I'm guessing they will remain a focal point for any organized effort to fight this.

Please show your support of equality for everyone. Reject the idea that "separate but equal" is somehow acceptable in the 21st century.

I'm not someone who has been deeply involved in this issue, just a sideline supporter who knows many people directly affected by this and who is outraged by the injustice Proposition 8 represents. If you know of any other actions, please let me know about them, and I'll add them to this post.

Monday, November 03, 2008

For California Voters

Here is a progressive voter guide (pdf) covering the initiatives - a good compendium of sources.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Check this out...

People who haven't been to China tend to have a lot of mistaken ideas about what it's like. This is not surprising. Popular stereotypes generally fix on outdated images - rice paddies, Little Red Books.

Even if you've been there, even if you've lived there, you can still not get it. I'm not sure that I do. China is a complicated place, and it's naive to think that you can somehow get a handle on The Truth about a country, any country. Even your own.

Regardless, here is a fascinating photo essay about disaffected young people in Changsha, a provincial capital best known for its association with Mao Zedong. Mao wouldn't recognize his hometown from these images of punk bars and graffiti art and transgender performances. Though perhaps he would relate, somewhat, to their alienation.