Thursday, March 31, 2011

Commemorating the Civil War

In two weeks our university is going to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War. Students and faculty members are invited to bring the mementos of Civil War that belong to their families. They are also urged to abstain from bringing any of their heirloom firearms to the exhibition of mementos.


I was walking around campus right now, and a student I don't know stopped me. 

"Oh, you are Professor Clarissa!" she said. "My friends took classes with you and they loved you. I wish I could take your classes too but my program is too full."

It was very nice to know that after only 3 and a half semesters here I'm already getting recognized on campus. And, more importantly, not for anything negative.

And we have 14,000 students, in case you were wondering, so it isn't a tiny little place or anything. 

Need to Grumble

It's one of those days when one would be much better off staying in bed and not moving at all because everything comes out wrong. First, I attempted to show a movie in my class and, of course, the same idiot who always disconnects the stupid equipment disconnected it again. Which meant that I had to crawl around on the floor messing up my clothes and shoes for 15 minutes trying to connect the equipment. And I have no doubt that when I show up for the second section of this course later today, it will all be disconnected yet again.

After I managed to get the movie to start playing, I remembered that there was a sex scene in it. I had forgotten about the scene completely because I find it to be so innocent as to be fit to show to children of any age, let alone university students. So now I have no idea whether it would be considered appropriate by my Bible Belt students. The movie is called Butterfly. In case you are curious, you can watch this scene in the following video. If you do, please tell me whether it was a horrible idea to show it in class. It only lasts about 4 minutes altogether.

After the class, I remembered that I'd forgotten to have breakfast so I decided to have lunch. But the stupid University Restaurant had a pizza day today. Have you ever heard anything so ridiculous? Who on earth feeds professors with pizza for lunch?

It isn't yet noon and I'm already in a very grumbling mood.

Scholarly Base Maintenance Month

On his interesting and useful blog that helps people become research scholars, Jonathan Mayhew introduces the concept of scholarly base. This term refers to all the readings, all the knowledge that a scholar has accumulated in the course of his or her life. This is the kind of knowledge that one draws upon in one's research, that allows one not to feel stupid and lost at scholarly conferences, and that helps one to maintain a coherent picture of one's own field of study as well as several other fields that in some ways overlap with or border upon one's own research area(s).

A scholarly base needs to be maintained and expanded at all times because nothing is sadder than a scholar who works on the basis of limited and outdated readings that were done 20 years ago. I usually have my scholarly base maintenance month in the summer. This year, however, I have other things planned for the summer vacations, so my scholarly base maintenance month started this week. I have gathered a stack of books that need to be read before the end of the semester five weeks from now. Here are what these books are:

1. Three Latin American novels. As I was writing my recent blog post on Latin American literature, I discovered that my familiarity with it has grown pretty dim. To be completely honest, I read nothing new in this field since my doctoral comprehensive exams in 2005. So now I will be catching up using great reading suggestions from a fellow blogger who publishes her informative posts here.

2. Four books of philosophy (Badiou, Laclau, Bauman, and Eagleton).

3. Two books of literary criticism. Possibly I will write a review of one of them since it came out very recently.

4. Four books in my field of contemporary Spanish literature. There are several authors that I follow and some of them have recently released new books (most of which are extremely long, too.) 

The good news is that I read extremely fast, so I have no doubt all these books can be read by the end of the semester. I really can't wait to get into each one of them, so it will be a very fun month.

The readers of this blog should expect to be inundated with book reviews.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Republicans Are Such Great Comedians

The persecution of progressive scholars by Republicans continues. It has now spread to Michigan. These politicians probably don't realize how ridiculous they are making themselves look with their attempts to police e-mail communications of university professors. Just look at this fresh bout of idiocy that they have regaled us with:
The Mackinac Center, which describes itself as a nonpartisan research and educational institution and receives money from numerous conservative foundations, asked the three universities’ labor studies faculty members for any e-mails mentioning “Scott Walker,” “Madison,” “Wisconsin” or “Rachel Maddow,” the liberal talk show host on MSNBC.
 Of course, we all understand why mentioning Rachel Maddow in any context must be seen as a subversive act. The attempts to persecute people for writing the word "Wisconsin," however, are too ridiculous to be discussed seriously.

I really wish that the Democrats would fight back and request emails of conservative scholars (if they can find any, of course) that mention words like "Arizona," "birth certificate," and "Bill O'Reilly." We need to start treating these freaks the way they treat us. Let's stop taking their blows patiently and deliver some of our own!

Stephenie Meyer's Twilight: A Fantasy of Helplessness

This is the promised review of Twilight, everybody. I did all I could to suffer through it. Now I'm due for some good reading because I feel like my brain has been polluted by the horrible writing in this book.

The genre of female coming-of-age stories, to which Meyer's Twilight obviously belongs, underwent a profound transformation in the recent decades. Since the inception of the genre in the 18th century, the central idea of female novels of growth and development was a conflict between the female protagonist and the repressive patriarchal society that strives to stunt her growth and infantilize her. The heroine struggles valiantly against the patriarchal authority that prevents her from developing into a fully grown individual in every sense of the word. Often, however, she loses in this struggle and either dies or consents to being transformed into a perennial child at the mercy of a husband, a father, a family member, etc.

When the women's liberation movement made huge advances in its feminist struggle, everybody expected female coming-of-age stories to reflect the changes in the position of women in society. Finally, we were to read female Bildungsromane where the protagonist takes on the world, grows, develops, and uses her newfound freedom to become a complete and fulfilled adult who does not permit others to stunt her growth. Finally.

These expectations, however, were not fulfilled by the works of literature created by female writers who live in this new, liberated reality. I initially observed this phenomenon in the contemporary Spanish literature but Twilight demonstrates that this tendency also exists in other countries that have made important feminist advances. The tendency I'm talking about consists of the appearance of a huge number of female coming-of-age stories where the female protagonist goes to incredible lengths to infantilize herself. No oppressive patriarchal society persecutes these heroines trying to stunt their growth. Just the opposite, the female characters of contemporary female Bildungsromane often have a lot more freedom than most actual women of that age.

Take Bella Swan, for example. She finds herself in a situation where her divorced parents remove themselves almost completely from the task of supervising her. Bella could use this freedom to explore different facets of growing up, experiment, develop in a variety of directions. However, just like so many female protagonists of such novels she chooses to hand the authority over her life to a male protector/savior and his clan. Bella infantilizes herself in a society where nobody demands that from her. She goes to extreme lengths to become a perennial child coddled and protected by the Cullens.

In this sense, Bella does not stray far from her mother whom she describes as lost and useless without male protection. This is how Bella talks about her mother:
I felt a spasm of panic as I stared at her wide, childlike eyes. How could I leave my loving, erratic, harebrained mother to fend for herself? Of course she had Phil now, so the bills would probably get paid, there would be food in the refrigerator, gas in her car, and someone to call when she got lost, but still . . .
However, those protagonists of today's female Bildungsromane whose mothers are passionately feminist are as likely as Bella to stunt their own growth and infantilize themselves. Much has been said about the nature of Bella's relationship with Edward Cullen. While I was reading the novel, however, I couldn't help noticing how much their relationship resemble that between a very small child and her parent. She pesters him with questions (and if you have ever spent any time in the company of a three year old, you can't fail to see the resemblance), he watches over her as she sleeps, he is always there to protect her from the big, menacing world she does not comprehend.

Twilight is a particularly badly written representative of a powerful trend within the genre of female coming-of-age stories of our feminist era. Women are now in a position where they have to confront things that their mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers never had to. Fantasies of helplessness, such as the Twilight Saga, allow female readers to imagine a world where they do not have to shoulder these new responsibilities. They can imagine themselves as eternal children supervised, protected and watched over by supernaturally strong and powerful men.

Now I have a few questions for my readers. The ideas I explore here are the ones that I developed in my doctoral dissertation. I want to spend this summer reworking it into a book. Did you find this post interesting? Easy to understand? Would you like to hear more on this subject? Any feedback will be welcome. Harsh criticisms will also be useful. 

I Am Not Going Anywhere!

People I work with keep hinting that I might not be staying at my current university for long but rather planning to look for a job with a different school. You know how in soap operas the main character is often the last one to discover that she is pregnant? The entire town knows that she is and has discussed the news at length while she is running around completely oblivious. This is how I feel during such conversations with my colleagues as to my supposed change of employment.

The comments I hear range from accusatory statements like "Well, why do you care so much if you will not be sticking around here for long anyways?" to kindly advice of "When you talk to the Dean, you have to pretend that you plan to stay here and seek tenure at our school even though it might not be true." The annoying thing is that I have no idea where people are getting this from. All my protestations notwithstanding, they keep giving me knowing looks and suggesting that they know something about me that I don't.

Now, the truth of the matter is that I love this university. In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to confess that I didn't always feel this way. When I first came here I was sure that I would look for another job pretty soon. I snoozed through my orientation session because I was convinced that none of the things that were being said would be of any use to me since I wasn't going to stick around. See? I'm very honest about this.

However, four weeks after that, when the MLA job list was published, I didn't even glance at it. Because by that time I knew that wild horses wouldn't drag me from this campus. (I know it's a horribly cliched expression but I love it and don't care.) Barring an arrival of some truly horrible administrator who will make my life here intolerable, I am planning to stick around and seek tenure here.

We are not an extremely prestigious university just yet. I have gone for the prestigious, famous name twice in the past, though, and, believe me, I have learned my lesson. Prestigious names are just that: names. They bring one neither contentment nor intellectual advancement. It's true that people don't go all "Wow, that's so cool!" when I tell them my school's name. However, I am finally completely happy and at peace with my place of employment and that means a lot to me. 

For one, I love the students. They might have their limitations but they all come from normal, regular backgrounds. They understand what it means to start out in life without a trust fund, worry about paying the bills, work part-time jobs to put themselves through school, and rush home after school to make dinner for their family. Finally, I have students who don't regale me with comments of the "let them eat cake variety." 

As to the colleagues, it is very comforting to know that every single one of them was hired on their own merits. Every single person worked hard to be where they are instead of getting the job through nepotism, flattery, and familial relationships. We had a job search this year, and it was a real, completely bona fide search. And every faculty member expressed their opinions irrespective of whether they are tenured or not.

The teaching schedules are made in a completely fair and transparent way. The situation where junior faculty members get stuck with the most unprestigious courses that nobody wants or the most inconvenient teaching times doesn't happen. At all. Everything is 100% fair, honest, and right. I get a lot of time to do my research, and everybody celebrates my successes. The Chancellor not only doesn't snub me as a young colleague but actually goes to the trouble of learning my name (and it's a difficult name, let me tell you) in order to show respect.

So please, tell me, would I not be all kinds of fool if I left this place in order to be at a school that sounds great but has none of these things? I'm way too old to care about silly things like prestige, fame, and names that sound important but cover up a reality that is rotten to the core. (Another cliche. What's wrong with me today?)

And now that I have explained all this at great length, maybe I should print out this post and stick it on the door of my office. Because it would be great finally to put this matter to rest.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Sign That I Really Like a Blog. . .

. . . is that I'll enter its url into the address line manually. There are currently six blogs that merit this effort on my part. The rest have to appear in my blogroll with a new post for me to access them. Another sign of true love for a blog is that I access it from my cell phone when I'm away from a computer.

Keyboard Bag

I saw this amazing keyboard bag at MOMA's store. I am so enamored of it that words fail me to describe the intensity of my feeling. Is it not the cutest thing you have ever seen? Is there a nerdette in the world who wouldn't want one?

They come in different colors, too.
 What an absolute beauty, people. If you feel like you can afford this bag at this moment, here is the website. Make the nerdette in your life (whether she is you or somebody you care about) really happy.

I'm not being paid to promote the bags or anything. I just love them and want to share this beautiful dream with people, even though I can't buy one myself right now.

Being Ashamed of Illinois

How come my state elected this stupid freakazoid who tells members of Congress to "stop talking about jobs" and concentrate instead on repealing the HAMP legislation that helps people get out of their crushing mortgages? Has this vile harpy been to Illinois lately? And once again, Republican voters, is that really what you voted for? A Congresswoman who wants the Congress to stop talking about jobs? Who seems visibly annoyed that the word "jobs" has been mentioned in her presence?

Can you believe it that this anti-jobs and anti-mortgage relief clown has been representing the 13th district of Illinois since 1999? And don't talk to me about the context of Biggert's utterance. The only context that matters right now is crushing unemployment. A member of Congress should go to sleep and wake up with the words "job creation" on her lips. She needs to scream "I want to create jobs!" during sex. It is her obligation to live and breathe jobs until she manages to make sure that some are created in her state.

Of course, it's entirely possible that people who live in Biggert's district don't give a rat's ass about jobs because they are concentrated on something else. See here the most recent comment from the website of the Illinois 13th congressional district:
I called the village of Downers Grove last year and was pleasantly surprised when I asked if it would be alright having a group of people say a prayer at the Village Hall. They turned me over to a very nice gentlemen ( I still have his name) and said I didn't need a permit. And asked if I was going to have over 50 people in case they were doing work at the time. I was really upset about national prayer day being cancelled. I also made a comment how nice it was to have the American flag all over town.
I mean, what do religious fanatics care about jobs and boring stuff like that when there is a much more pressing matter of destroying the wall of separation between church and state?

Religious fanaticism will be the downfall of this country.

Amazon Mom

Can anybody explain to me why there is such a thing as "Amazon Mom membership" but no "Amazon Dad membership"?

Are people truly that medieval? 

I'd never join such a disgusting, sexist program that devalues fatherhood in the most egregious way possible.


I have always been interested in philosophy. There was never any chance for me to get a formal training in philosophy. All my programs of study were too full for me to take a single course in it. So I'm a complete autodidact in this area. I follow the works of Alain Badiou, Zygmunt Bauman, Slavoj Žižek, Ernesto Laclau, Giorgio Agamben, and Terry Eagleton (whom I also consider a philosopher, irrespective of what anybody else might say.) This is what I do for fun, in case somebody thought I wasn't nerdy enough.

So the reason that I'm sharing all this is that there is a really interesting conference in philosophy that is being planned in Canada. I'm dying to give a talk there because the topic is right up my alley. I'm so interested in going to that conference that I wouldn't even mind paying for the trip myself (shhh, don't tell anybody at my university in case I do end up needing the funding to go.) However, I don't think that if I submit a proposal it will be accepted because I'm not a philosopher but a literary critic. Which will be unfair because I could contribute a different perspective on things.

Just wanted to share.

Student Insights on Democracy

"So what does this author think about democracy?" I ask my class.

"He really likes it," students respond.

"What makes you think that?"

"He is in favor of people being ruled by a small minority, access to which is extremely limited. That's democracy," they respond completely seriously.

When I explained the etymology of the word "democracy" ("power of the people"), they were genuinely surprised.

Out of the mouths of babes, indeed. . .

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Lunella Ristorante in New York: A Review

If you've never been to Lunella Ristorante in New York's Little Italy, consider yourself truly blessed. That restaurant is a complete disaster. The food it serves is not really Italian. It might have stood on the same shelf in the refrigerator with real Italian food but that's as close as it ever got to anything Italian. The service is abysmally poor.

I ordered seafood risotto. Ordering risotto is the best way to figure out if a restaurant is worth visiting again. I have ordered all kinds of risotto at a variety of restaurants across the continent. Some are good, some are bad, some are indifferent. Lunella's risotto, however, is not a risotto at all. It's rice with seafood. It isn't a bad plate of rice, mind you, but it should not be called risotto when that isn't what it is.

Now, I wouldn't bitch about a plate of food that was far from spectacular if that were the only thing that's wrong with Lunella. However, the service at that place was so horrible that I still feel traumatized. When we received the handwritten bill that wasn't easy at all to decipher, we discovered that a 22% tip had already been included. This is a very strange practice that we hadn't been warned about at any point during the bill. Many people pay the restaurant bill without reading it in detail (especially a handwritten bill that is difficult to understand). Just imagine how many people just paid the amount requested and then left a tip on top of that.

When we asked the waiter why the restaurant was doing this, he became extremely aggressive. First, he insisted that this was a common practice in New York, which is a patent lie. Then, when we disagreed (very politely, I might add), he screeched, "I don't give a fuck!" and threw the bill at us. This wasn't a matter of money for us because we were going to leave a good tip initially but such attitude was simply shocking. The manager came up and refused to acknowledge that the conduct of the waiter who yells profanity at polite customers might not have been entirely appropriate. The waiter, in the meanwhile, was lurking in the background, banging food trays, and showing his discontent in every imaginable way. Since I left my country 12,5 years ago, I haven't witnessed such naked and unjustified displays of aggression  from complete strangers. Even the criminal who mugged me several years ago was less scary than this waiter. Which is not that surprising, given that he is, in all probability, a compatriot of mine.

So my advice: whatever you do, avoid the horrible Lunella restaurant in New York at all costs.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Ukrainian National Pastime

Here is how the product looks when you
buy it
The most popular national pastime of Ukrainians (as well as our brilliant relaxation practice) is eating sunflower seeds. As you are working to liberate the seed from the shell, you forget about all your troubles and experience true nirvana. Sunflower seeds also help to lower blood pressure, which is important for Ukrainians whose national cuisine augurs early death from a stroke to people who consume it on a regular basis.

In these photos you can see the most recent innovation in the complex process of struggling with sunflower seeds. I hope that the talented individual who invented this fantastic thing makes a lot of money off it because it isn't often that people come up with something this amazing.

And this is how the contraption looks
while you are using it
The seeds are sold in a plastic cup that is located inside of another plastic cup. You join them with a red plastic clip and place the shells in the empty cup. You can easily carry the whole contraption wherever you go. When you are done, you just close the cup with a plastic lid and throw it out. Is that amazing or what?

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"And He's Not Even a Marxist!": The Nation's Shabby Coverage of William Cronon's Persecution

In case you haven't heard the story, William Cronon is a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has recently become a victim of persecution on the part of the state's Republicans. They are filing a lawsuit demanding access to Cronon's emails that contain words such as “Republican,” “collective bargaining,” “rally,” and “union.” You can find Cronon's blog that explains what happened and why here

Of course, any thinking individual who values freedom of speech is appalled at this most recent show of contempt for the Constitution of the United States on the part of the GOP. However, some progressive journalists have taken a very strange approach to defending the right of a scholar to mention the word "union" in his emails. This is an excerpt from an article that The Nation, a magazine that I subscribe to and like, has published on the subject in its blog:
Many faculty members call themselves “Marxists” or “socialists,” and some describe themselves as “anarchists” or “revolutionaries”—but Cronon doesn’t. He’s not Bill Ayres, the education professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago who happily defends his Weatherman past. Cronon describes himself as a “centrist.” He says he’s never belonged to the Democratic (or the Republican) party.
How is it relevant at all whether Cronon is or is not a Marxist, an anarchist, a satan-worshipper or a creature from the Blue Lagoon? Are we to have different standards for people based on how they identify politically? Is a persecution of somebody who is politically centrist more egregious than the persecution of a radical?  I couldn't care less about Cronon's politics in this situation. All that matters to me is that he should be able to say, write and publish whatever he wants freely and without fear of persecution.

Passport Ownership by State

Through Mike's great blog that is always filled with useful links I found the following map that shows how many people own a passport in each state of this country:

The article that accompanies this map explains that
States with more passport holders are also happier. There is a significant correlation (.55) between happiness (measured via Gallup surveys) and a state’s percentage of passport holders.  Yet again, that correlation holds when we control for income.
I wonder if we can use this data in the promotion of our university's Study Abroad program.

It makes absolute sense that people who have traveled to other countries would be happier. After interacting with people from other cultures, seeing how they live and becoming friendly with them, travelers are less likely to buy into anxiety-producing  mythology of besieged Americans who are envied and hated by everybody else on the planet.

UK's David Cameron Pushes for the Destruction of Academia

So many things have happened while I've been away that I hardly know what to blog about first. The conservative assault on scholarship in the UK is one of the topics that deserve immediate attention of all of us who value intelligence and oppose the cult of ignorance promoted by conservative forces everywhere. David Cameron's government will now pull the funding of all research in the Humanities that does not support his weird idea of "big society":
Academics will study the "big society" as a priority, following a deal with the government to secure funding from cuts. The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) will spend a "significant" amount of its funding on the prime minister's vision for the country, after a government "clarification" of the Haldane principle – a convention that for 90 years has protected the right of academics to decide where research funds should be spent. Under the revised principle, research bodies must work to the government's national objectives, although the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said that ministers will not meddle in individual projects. It is claimed the AHRC was told that research into the "big society" was non-negotiable if it wished to maintain its funding at £100m a year.
The article where I found the above-quoted statement proceeds to suggest that
It is government money. They have the right to spend it on what they want.
This, of course, is completely ridiculous. This money doesn't belong to the government. It belongs to the taxpayers who hired the government to manage this money. If the way these hired managers administer the funds given to them by the people does not serve the public good, the citizens of the country have every right to send the government packing.

The problem with forcing academics to pursue only those projects that study the "big society" is that nobody really knows what this concepts actually means. It was coined in order to promote a political campaign of a party that is not famous for its high intelligence and is supposed to have as its goal 
 to create a climate that empowers local people and communities, building a big society that will 'take power away from politicians and give it to people'.
I don't think that even the people who came up with this strange definition know exactly what it's supposed to mean. As a result, it will be possible for the UK's conservative government to exercise firm control over the country's intellectuals based on a set of criteria that nobody has even bothered to define.

What Cameron and his posse of fools don't understand is that when people start their research, they don't know where it is going to lead them. If you begin a research project and expect it to reach a predetermined set of conclusions, you are going to fail. A responsible academic does not conduct research in order to support ideas s/he had before beginning the project. Nobody can reasonably guarantee that the funding one received to promote the "big society" will end up supporting conclusions that have anything to do with that goal.

Now, every academic who wants to engage in a project will have to come up with elaborate ways of convincing illiterate idiots in charge that the project in question will fit into these unintelligent politicians' view of what the country needs. This will result in a lot of aggravation, bureaucracy, corruption and will bring about absolutely no positive results whatsoever. Unless, of course, you count the destruction of UK's academia among positive results. This, I believe, is the ultimate goal of the British government.

Honeys, I'm Home!

Aren't they just precious?
So I'm finally back from my New York trip. Thank you, everybody, for not abandoning the blog in the meanwhile. I couldn't respond to comments as much as usual because it isn't always easy to do from my BlackBerry. Especially since our hotel room turned out to be a dead zone for cell phone connections.

I have done some really interesting things during my trip, such as:

1) walked a lot because walking is the best way to get to know a new place and feel its spirit;

2) attended a very interesting lecture by a fellow blogger Jonathan who blogs here and here;

3) visited an exhibition on the history of kitchen counter space and another one on German existentialism at MOMA;

4) visited one fantastic restaurant and one horrid one, which I'm still going to write about;

5) realized that the myth about the unpleasant and brash New Yorkers is unfounded;

6) read two thirds of Zygmunt Bauman's Liquid Modernity and wondered why I'd never read it before;

These don't look very pretty in a picture
but they are extremely comfortable to
walk in. It feels just like walking barefoot
7) bought some really beautiful and, what's more important, extremely comfortable shoes that I can now wear while teaching;

8) once again confirmed that Sex and the City misled all of its viewers when it showed crowds of women in couture clothes, insanely high-heeled shoes and elaborate hairstyles running around the streets of New York. Mostly, people dress worse than they do in the area where I live;

9) realized that Delta is incapable of getting a plane to leave on time under any conditions;

10) discovered that you can now pay with a credit card in all New York cabs and was very happy about this advance of civilization. Also wondered when this important innovation will reach Montreal;

11) realized that the best way to make sure one's blog maintains a high level of visitors while one is absent is to publish posts that contain the word "smoking";

12) had a really great time hanging out with my sister and her best friend.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Why Are Americans So Anti-Smoking?

People from other countries often wonder about the reasons of the American anti-smoking hysteria. American tourists frequently berate local smokers in the countries they visit and throw hissy fits if a whiff of smoke reaches them. Even though most of the world smokes American cigarettes and enriches the US with the habit, many Americans who travel overseas fail to see how little sense it makes for them to lecture foreigners on the ills of smoking. Especially since countries where smoking is ubiquitous often have a longer life expectancy than the US.

The reason for the current anti-smoking hysteria is simple. First, there was a strong smoking lobby that inundated every public space with the cigarette advertisement. The shameless tobacco companies even went so far as to market cigarettes as slimming. Then, a new, much stronger lobby arose: the pharmaceutical lobby. It needed to peddle all kinds of anti-smoking remedies, pills, patches, gum, prescription medication, etc. In order to sell its junk, pharmaceutical companies needed to vilify smoking. Which it did very successfully. Whether the smoking is bad for you, good for you, indifferent for you is completely beyond the point. If the pharmaceutical companies could make a bundle by condemning tea drinking as an evil pursuit you need to be cured from, so they would.

People mistakenly believe that anti-smoking laws represent the authorities' promotion of healthy lifestyles. This is a ridiculous belief. If anybody cared about the health of the citizens, handing out pills at coffee-shops, prescribing anti-psychotic medication to small children, pumping tiny kids full of drugs to make them more manageable, promises to cure shyness with medication would be outlawed. Come to think of it, so would be the fast food joints. Cardiovascular diseases are still the main cause of death in the US, if I'm not mistaken, and the contribution of MacDonald's and Co to that is huge.

I have no doubt that people who have been infected with the anti-smoking hysteria will get all self-righteous on me and condemn this post from promoting smoking. That, of course, will be the best testimony one could ask for to the success of the brainwashing engaged in by the pharmaceutical companies.

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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Back Home

And this is what awaits me back home. This tree already had almost opened its buds and now it's covered in snow. How much sense does it make that it's snowing like this in St. Louis while it's sunny and warm in Montreal?

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I Know I Said It Before

But blogging is weird. You never know which post will be popular and which won't. Sometimes, I write something and think that people will really respond to it but there is no interest whatsoever. Then, I post something that I think will have no response whatsoever, yet people love it and flock to it in crowds.

To give an example, my hitcounter showed an explosion of visits to the blog today. Since I haven't posted anything exceptionally interesting while I'm in New York, I decided to see which post was provoking such a huge interest. It turned out that the review of The Modern restaurant that I published this morning was super popular for some reason. Maybe people just like looking at pictures of plates of food or something.

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The Modern Version of the Three Bears Folk Tale

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What I Really Like About NYC. . .

. . . is that there are so many people everywhere. I've been living in a town where five people equals a crowd. I've started thinking that the world is depopulated or something. But here you can see people everywhere.

I'm beginning to realize that the degree of my sensory deprivation back in Southern Illinois was extremely high.
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Traveling with Canadians. . .

. . . is funny because they are always extremely excited to see things like Starbucks and drive-by ATMs.

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The Modern: My New Favorite Restaurant

Yesterday we celebrated my sister's birthday at The Modern, which is a really great restaurant close to MOMA.
Of all the restaurants I have ever visited, this is probably the best. Not only is the food very good, but the service was absolutely outstanding. To give you an idea, they even keep chargers for all kinds of cell phones at the front desk so that the guests can charge their phones while they eat. And unlike many other restaurants, The Modern doesn't have the practice of sticking the bill in the customers' faces before they are finished eating.

We ate at the bar of The Modern, not the dining room. There, you have smaller portions that are not exactly tapa-sized but close to it. The best dishes amongst a really great selection are fish tartares. Even if you are not a huge fan of tartare, this one will still your heart.

And on the picture you can see Alsatian sausage with sauerkraut that I ordered. Finding good sauerkraut in the US is not easy but this one was very good. I think the chef went a little too far with decorating the plate but the food was delicious anyways.

I'm thinking of publishing reviews of restaurants on a regular basis. How does everybody feel about it?

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Friday, March 25, 2011

An Update on My Heroic Struggle with Twilight

I know that I promised to take a glance at the Twilight Saga and post a review. But, sheesh, people, how can anybody manage to get through this thing? Forget about the plot, forget about the characters, just tell me how it can be humanly possible to read something so badly written? I've managed to get through sixteen pages in this entire time and the flat, choppy sentences are driving me up the wall. 

Teenagers don't talk like that, act like that, or think like that. Why, oh why, do they read thousands of pages of this sad excuse for a novel? There is so much great stuff to read in the world and so little time to read it. And still people choose this??

I knew Twilight would be bad but I had no idea it could be this abysmally low-quality.

My New Favorite Ring

Have you ever seen anything this beautiful?

It's huge too. It almost covers my entire finger.

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Funny Salon and Spa

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Traumatic Events in History

A true story from the battlefield of teaching.

Me: In 1914 an event took place in Europe that would change the world. It caused the kind of global trauma that transformed the way people thought about themselves and the world at large. Who knows what event I'm talking about?

Students: The Titanic!!

Not 1914, not in Europe and not that significant. But there was a cheesy Hollywood movie about it, so they know about that one.

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If Smoking Occurs

I find it very funny how this announcement refers to smoking as something that occurs on its own.

I'm in New York, people!

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Nuclear Power in India

I find this observation from Canukistani's article on what really happened at Fukushima to be so significant that I'm publishing it as a separate post:
According to Wikileaks, the American government paid $25 million in bribes to the Indian government officials during 2008 to buy US light water nuclear reactors.
There has been a long-standing struggle between the US and Russia for extending their sphere of influence to India. A significant part of this struggle has been over who will be in control of providing India with fuel for its nuclear reactors. You can read about some of the details of this struggle here

At this point, it has become obvious to everybody that the future belongs to India and China. The former two giants, US and Russia, believe that they can keep the rise of these countries to world domination in check. I, for one, hope that India sends them both to hell and finds its own way. 

Social Ramifications of Nuclear Exposure in Japan

While your favorite blogger is travelling to New York, from where she will faithfully report on everything that happens during her trip, please read this important discussion of the social ramifications of suffering from a nuclear exposure. This piece was written and sent to me by the exceptionally well-informed reader Canukistani. I hadn't read anything on this topic before, and I find this information fascinating.

The Japanese have peculiar attitudes towards those exposed to radiation. This is similar to their attitudes towards blood types or ketsueki-gata (血液型). People will often ask your blood type in Japan which is strange to Westerners. They believe that ABO type is predictive of one’s personality and temperament. Japanese matchmakers will judge compatibility of couples based on their blood type although there’s no known correlation. For those exposed to radiation it’s much worse.
Those who survived the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings are called hibakusha (被爆者), a Japanese word that literally translates to "explosion-affected people." There is considerable discrimination in Japan against the hibakusha. It is frequently extended socially as well as economically toward their children. Not only hibakusha, but their children, are refused employment. Many Japanese believe that radiation sickness is hereditary and contagious. The few that were at both Hiroshima and Nagasaki are called nijū hibakusha or double explosion affected people. I would suspect that the nuclear plant workers would fall into this category.

Populations of some towns near power plant.

Soma            38,000           Tamura        42,000
Iwaki             35,000           Fukushima 339,000
Nihonmatsu   61,000            Koriyama   338,000
For up to the minute and archived independent radiation data from Tokyo go here.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Pet Parents

I just saw a commercial for pet food that referred to pet owners as "pet parents." I've got to wonder who the target audience of this commercial could possibly be. There can't be any normal people around who actually like being called "pet parents," right? It sounds quite offensive to be referred to in this way.

Some commercials are extremely weird.

What Really Happened at Fukushima?, Part II

In the boiling water reactors or BWR, the control rods as well as the fuel rods are contained in a metal jacket so GE made the fuel rods 14 feet high and the Boron control rods which were also in the primary containment were 14 feet long and had to be contracted so the total length was 28 feet plus.
The fuel rods have an uranium core and a zirconium cladding which cannot be exposed to air so you need another 16 feet of water above the reactor to lift the fuel rods vertically and drop them into the storage pool. Next you need a crane above the water with space above and below. Finally you need a roof. As you can see each design step leads to a higher structure. It’s also very rigid due the structural components and has a lot of mass at the top. This has a lot of inertia. You have just constructed the worst type of building for an earthquake zone – tall, rigid and high inertia which means that as the bottom moves laterally the top will tend to not move and tremendous strain develops in the structure. This is bad enough but it gets worse.  Over time the cumulative effects of damage caused by neutron irradiation to metal components include swelling (volume increase), irradiation hardening, and irradiation embrittlement (the influence of irradiation hardening on fracture toughness).  The Fukushima reactors were built in the seventies. This means the primary containment vessel which is made of metal is at risk of rupture even under normal pressure.  In this design the vessel is only removed on the decommissioning of the plant.

Unfortunately GE wanted to reduce the cost of construction in order to compete with its competitors so they made a pressure suppression design using a torus half filled with water. At higher pressure the water in the torus would condense the steam so lower pressures (1000 psi rather than 2000 psi) would exist in the primary containment. Lower pressure meant thinner metal containment and concrete secondary containment which in turn reduced the construction costs. 

People have made comparisons with Chernobyl.

Chernobyl had 200 tons of enriched uranium and Fukushima has 1800 tons if you include all of the reactors and storage pools. I find it ironic that 福島市, or Fukushima-shi means "good-fortune Island”. Dr. Gerhard Wotawa of the Austrian Institute said the iodine 131 released from Fukushima in the first three-four days was about 20 percent of that released from Chernobyl during a ten-day period based on measurements made at monitoring stations in Japan and the United States.

For Caesium-137, the figure could amount to some 50 percent of the amount released at Chernobyl. Pouring sea water onto the rods has several drawbacks. The cold water causes the zirconium cladding on the rods to crack if they are hot releasing radioactive uranium and fission products. The salt from the evaporating sea water coats the rods and acts as a thermal insulation increasing their temperature. The salt coating also reduces water flow through the reactor increasing the temperature. If the zirconium cladding gets too hot then it reacts with the water producing hydrogen which can explode and the zirconium can ignite with the oxygen to melt the uranium inside. 

Types of radioactive isotopes released from Chernobyl versus days 
P.S. A little later, I will publish a post on the social and cultural ramifications of nuclear exposure in Japan.

What Really Happened at Fukushima?, Part I

My readers are the best. The moment I mentioned that the events surrounding the nuclear reactors at Fukushima were confusing and weren't receiving a good coverage, reader Canukistani sent me the following insightful article on what happened. Even somebody so technologically challenged as I am can understand this clear explanation. I find this article to be very helpful and wanted to share it with you. Enjoy!

Fukushima Reactor Design

Poor reporting including the New York Times has been the norm on this subject. This has been legitimately criticized by MIT, GE and others. I decided to write this article after Fox News displayed a map of nuclear power plant locations in Japan where one of the sites is actually a rock and roll night club (Shibuyaeggman).
To understand the design we have to go back to the fifties when Admiral Rickover wanted build nuclear powered submarines for the US navy. There were two competitors, Westinghouse and General Electric. Westinghouse won and GE was left with a product which had a lot of R&D expenses and no customers. They decided to remarket it as a commercial electricity producing product.
According to Robert Cowan in an article entitled “Nuclear Powered Reactors, a technological lock-in”:
Recent theory has predicted that if competing technologies operate under dynamically increasing returns, one, possibly inferior, technology will dominate the market. The history of nuclear power technology is used to illustrate these results. Light water is considered inferior to other technologies, yet it dominates the market for power reactors. This is largely due to the early adoption and heavy development by the U.S. Navy of light water for submarine propulsion. When a market for civilian power emerged, light water had a large head start, and by the time other technologies were ready to enter the market, light water was entrenched.
Here is a chart of the various reactor types. The American government had a monopoly on the enrichment of uranium at the time so there were geopolitical reasons for pushing the light water reactor designs since any foreign purchaser would be on a short leash with respect to fuel.
Submarine nuclear reactors have to be squat in order to fit in the boat. They also have to separate coolant from the generator steam to protect the crew who are in close proximity.
In order to build a commercial version you have to deal with the problem of scaling. For higher heat generation in the rods which translates into more steam and ultimately more electricity, you need more uranium but this requires a different geometry. The volume of a sphere increases faster than the surface area which puts a restriction on the amount of uranium. They chose to alter the geometry by making the reactor taller


Copyright Laws Prevent Students From Learning

A group of freshman and sophomore students contacted me this semester with an initiative to organize a Spanish club. They love Spanish and want to get together to engage in language-related activities. One of the things they planned is a Movie Night. They want to get together every couple of weeks, watch a movie in Spanish, and discuss it afterwards.

And then the students discovered that copyright laws prevent them from engaging in this educational activity. In order to organize a single movie watching session, they'd have to fill out a stack of paperwork and pay several thousand dollars. Which means, of course, that there will be no Movie Night.

I know I wrote about this before but it just makes me angry to see such a great student initiaive crushed because of some ridiculous laws that make absolutely no sense.

Virginity Tests in Egypt as a Form of Torture

A colleague and a reader of this blog just left a link to the following horrible piece of news from Egypt:
Amnesty International has today called on the Egyptian authorities to investigate serious allegations of torture, including forced ‘virginity tests’, inflicted by the army on women protesters arrested in Tahrir Square earlier this month.  After army officers violently cleared the square of protesters on 9 March, at least 18 women were held in military detention. Amnesty International has been told by women protesters that they were beaten, given electric shocks, subjected to strip searches while being photographed by male soldiers, then forced to submit to ‘virginity checks’ and threatened with prostitution charges. ‘Virginity tests’ are a form of torture when they are forced or coerced. "Forcing women to have ‘virginity tests’ is utterly unacceptable. Its purpose is to degrade women because they are women," said Amnesty International. "All members of the medical profession must refuse to take part in such so-called 'tests'."
Obligatory gynecological exams aimed at shaming women for being sexually active and forcing them to hate the fact of having been born female are something that, unfortunately, I know very well firsthand. In the Soviet Union, we were subjected to forced gynecological exams since the age of 11 or twelve. Often, people conducting such tests on pre-teen girls were young male students of med schools. You can imagine how traumatic it is to be pawed and ogled by twenty-year-old men when you are at that age.

Later on, if one was getting a college education while being female, one was forced to undergo gynecological exams in order to be allowed to continue as a student. Such exams were extremely invasive and often resulted in women being shamed for being sexually active. Sometimes, spurious medical diagnoses were invented and women were obligated to go through painful and completely unnecessary medical procedures to get "cured" from illnesses they never had.

Forced gynecological procedures are one of the most popular methods used by repressive regimes to coerce and terrorize women. It horrifies me that this is now happening to the women of Egypt.

Donald Trump Is a Birther

Everybody knows that Donald Trump is not especially bright. But did you know that he is also a birther? Watch this segment from The View where Trump expresses his birther convictions. The birther crap appears somewhere after 5 minutes 20 seconds of the interview:

Georgia Rejects a Scholar for Quoting Marx

Kennesaw State University, a dinky, insignificant joke of a university somewhere in Georgia, was going to hire Dr. Timothy J. L. Chandler as its new provost. Some local ignoramuses, however, disinterred Chandler's article from 13 years ago and used it to create a scandal in the uneducated, stupid, and fanatical local community. The horrible truth that this community of fools discovered is that Chandler quoted Marx in this article:
The controversy started with a column in The Marietta Daily Journal, written by three of the newspaper's top executives -- who did not respond to request for comment for this article. The headline of the article suggests that Kennesaw State might need a new color (red) to go with its traditional black and gold. The column goes on to give a series of citations of Marx or of Marxist philosophy that appear in Chandler's 1998 journal article, such as "Increased competition results in increased ethnicity and racism." And: "Ownership is taken for granted in capitalistic societies and is central to the accumulation of wealth and domination. All ownership of land or material means of production was at one time or another obtained by force." And: "While the United States has the most sophisticated propaganda apparatus ever assembled, it is also the most violent nation-state in history."
What the sad fools around Kennesaw don't understand is that there are no major philosophers, thinkers, scholars in the Humanities today who are unfamiliar with Marx's work. If universities were to fire every scholar who quoted Marx or his followers, there will nobody left to teach. 

It is unconscionable that a bunch of fools who have obviously read less in the course of their entire lives than Dr. Chandler has published would think nothing of expressing their uninformed opinions in a public forum. There is a cult of stupidity in this country, which makes it possible for such idiots to parade their ignorance around with a profound belief in their own importance.

Annoying English

The students I have in my Intermediate Spanish class are very good. The absolute majority really wants to learn the language. They are very receptive and enthusiastic. However, months into the semester I still can't get them to stop speaking English in class. I have done all I can to explain to them that it's the most counterproductive thing they can do. They sabotage everything they achieve by switching into their native language every two minutes. Every class session, I beg them to stop using English pretty much every five minutes. I'm getting to the point where I'm almost waking up at night, screaming "No English here!" 

What annoys me is that they have had three semesters of Spanish before coming to my class. Normally, people who taught them in the SPAN 101 and 102 courses are supposed to put a stop to this habit of speaking English in Spanish classes. Many of my colleagues, however, don't want to make the effort, and use quite a lot of English in class. Retraining their students afterwards is an incredible drag.

It's one thing when language classes are taught by somebody who has been trained as a language teacher. Often, however, college administrators think that anybody can teach a language as long they are a native speaker. This is patently untrue. There are many things about language teaching that need to be learned before one can proceed to teach a language class. Of course, it saves a college a lot of money to hire a bunch of underpaid, unqualified instructors and let them do whatever they want in class. The results, however, are that our students take a lot longer than they need to learn the language.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

You Know What Makes Me Sad?

That at least once a day somebody alights on my post My Husband Doesn't Help Me Around the House after entering something similar to the post's title into a search engine. I truly hope that after reading the post these women at least begin to consider how their way of thinking about household chores infantilizes their male partners and ensures that being female transforms them into permanent domestic slaves.

Dear female reader! Please remember that it isn't "my dirty dishes." It's "our dirty dishes." You male partner is not supposed to "help" you take care of your shared space, meals, laundry and groceries. He is supposed to take care of his own shit like an adult that he is. 

Please also remember that there is no better way to bury the sexual passion in your relationship than to be the person who always runs around with a mop while the other partner snoozes on the couch. Slaving permanently over housework will not benefit you in any way whatsoever. So instead of trying to figure out why he doesn't "help," simply stop doing more than your fair share. Just stop. 

How to Make Students Do the Readings

I'm teaching two sections of a Literature Survey course this semester. It is crucial for the success of this course that students read the assigned texts before coming to class. Unless everybody has done the readings, there will be no class discussions, which, of course, will render the entire course utterly useless. 

I have discovered a way to make sure that everybody does the readings. It's very simple. I assign written homework which consists of answering very specific questions about the readings for each day of class. This means that I have 42 homeworks to grade twice a week, which is a huge pain in the neck. However, not a single time this semester have I had to deal with a group of students that hasn't read the text and can't participate in a discussion. 

We can complain that the students don't work as hard as we'd like until the cows come home. (This post at College Misery is an example of such useless whining.) The truth, however, is that often the professors themselves are resistant to doing anything to ensure that the students do their homework. Especially, if it implies more work for the professor.

Evidence of Spring

Finally my campus is becoming beautiful again.

P.S. My cell phone takes really good pictures.

P.P.S. See these beautiful pictures? Well, on Friday it's going to snow. Right on the flowers and trees in bloom. What a nasty climate this is.

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Ricardian: A Review of Elizabeth George's "I, Richard"

Elizabeth George's collection of short stories I, Richard hasn't been received very well even by her hardcore fans. The reason for what I believe is an unfair rejection of this collection is the disappointing first story titled "Exposure." If you decide to read I, Richard, I suggest you skip this story altogether and enjoy the rest of the collection.

Only the very last story, "I, Richard" belongs to the genre of Ricardian Apology. George wrote this story to make her Ricardian allegiances known to her fans. Of course, as a mystery writer, she couldn't fail to structure this story as a modern-day murder mystery that is inspired by one of the character's belief in Richard's innocence. 

George is different from many Ricardians in that she does not blame Henry Tudor for killing the young princes. This writer makes us question why we always assume that history was made by men. She allows a woman (of course, I will not spoil your reading pleasure by telling you her name) to become a protagonist of the story. Both the mystery of the princes' murder and the modern-day mystery that frames them are based on the idea that dismissing female protagonism is a big mistake. George reminds us that women make history as much as men do. Those men who try to treat women as objects with no will of their own always end up paying a very high price for this delusion.

How Can They?

Somebody on Reddit quotes my post on the GOP campaigning for oral and anal sex to be outlawed in Texas and somebody else asks, "How could any man want oral sex to be illegal?!" 

I'm not registered on Reddit, so I'll answer here: he can if he's not getting any. That's the problem of all hysteria-driven conservatives who want to police other people's genitals: they are simply jealous because they aren't getting any and it drives them nuts.

Concealing One's Age

Nothing, in my opinion, is a better indication that one considers oneself a complete failure than concealing one's age. Sadly, most people don't understand that it isn't their age that's the problem. It's their unhappiness with what they have made of their lives. Of course, people will say that it's their response to the high value that our culture places on youth. The truth is, however, that they are the ones who keep youth worship in place because of their need to pretend that everything can still change and save them from the dreariness of their lives. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Visiting St.Louis: Need Advice

So my birthday is coming up in April, and I decided that I want to celebrate it by going to St. Louis from Saturday to Monday (April 16th to 18th.) I've been living in this area for over a year and a half and I have never even been to the Gateway Arch. So now the time has come for me to discover what's fun about St.Louis.

For now, I have planned a stay at the Union Station hotel that I love and a visit to a seafood restaurant that I also really like. Of course, we'll also go to the Gateway Arch and take a river cruise. What else is there that I need to visit? Any landmark restaurants? Historic coffee-shops or bookstores? Museums? I know that there is also some international area. What is it called? Say, I get into a cab. What do I tell the driver as to where I want to go?

Any advice will be appreciated.