Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Are we headed for the Third World again?

Disclaimer first: I love Peru. I have had some of the most intellectual, politically savvy conversations of my life with people there. I have marveled at the astonishing work ethic, the informal and private-sector social supports people provide to their peers there, and the full bloom of free speech and a richly developed public sphere beyond the scope of American civics outside of university campuses. But most of the Peruvian intellectuals I spoke with mentioned the corruption of their government, and it is hard to be unaware of the difference between national standards of living -- particularly in terms of infrastructural services where they impact health and sanitation. So I am turning to the only well-fleshed example in my experience for this little rant.

We come ever closer to catching up with international petroleum prices (I think we are now approaching what Peru's gasoline prices were in 2004-2005 when we lived there). My family continues to panic about the sagging real estate/mortgage market, which provides their bread and butter: they ridiculously carp about agents "starving to death" and other such flights of hyperbole. As we all know, in a hark-back to the irrational exuberance backlash of 1996, the R-word is being applied, with a mixture of paranoiac hysteria and litotic schadenfreude to the predictions of even the most sober-sided of newscasters. And even my most right-wing acquaintances (okay, so I don't have any right-wing acquaintances... let's just call them "family") have come to realize that high level governmental corruption is so plainly obvious that it is impossible to pretend it doesn't exist.

This, my darlings, is a recipe for Third World economics, or more pointedly, Latin American democracy. The seemingly rigged elections and broken one-party-plus-dozens-of-mini-parties systems. The disenfranchisement of groups of people. The racial unrest. The rampant inflation of basic needs items (i.e. foodstuffs and fuel), the devaluation of the worker's salary, and so forth.

Humor me. This is a whimsical flight of fancy, nothing more. But what keeps our economy and government from becoming a duplicate of post-Fujimori Peru?

What's keeping our unemployed people from taking their severance checks and buying Daewoo Ticos or motocicleta taxis and going into subsistence-level business as informal taxi drivers?

I'll tell you what. It's our insanely litigious society. Estadounidenses cannot and will not assume that kind of liability risk, for fear of being cleaned out and criminalized.

Maybe I am more than usually sensitive to litigiousness, since I maintain all the commercial insurance policies for the largest commercial producer for my (huge) company in the region. I spend 8+ hours a day trying to tune up customers' policies to protect them from lawsuits. Yeah.

In my imaginary, simplified universe, all it would take is a little deregulation of industry and a little banning frivolous lawsuits from the courthouse, and bam! Instant Latin American democracy with a side of gray market.

This kind of spinning of airy bullshit is why I'm not a social scientist anymore. Heh. Oh well, it's fun to think in that zombie-apocalypse, unilinear-ethnocentric, Planet of the Apes way anyway: when does our society become unrecognizable as itself? "You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to Hell!" (And yes, my tongue is in my cheek... I have not gone crazy-survivalist, nor do I anticipate subscribing to that kind of illogical crapthought.)

And while we're comparing the U. S. to other places... check out this article on carbon footprints. Especially you, Sam.

(Pictures mercilessly "borrowed" from and

More sad news this morning

Working in an insurance agency, with a dedicated outreach person who contacts all our customers to wish them happy birthday, send get well cards (or care packages) when they are ill, send baby blankets to all first-time parents, send congratulations cards to graduates, and sympathy cards to the bereaved, I hear a lot of news. It gives this small town an even smaller-town feel.

Judie, our outreach person, is brimming with love and weeps for the misfortunes of strangers -- I have never known anyone quite like her, and I treasure her. She makes sure we all know what is going on in our community.

Tomorrow there will be a blood drive in honor of a long-time customer, the brother of the woman who owns the family restaurant across the parking lot from us. He was in a hideous motorcycle crash and is in critical condition. Hang on, Bill. Best of luck.

This morning, the news that another customer, an effervescent and very sweet woman who I last saw when she was preparing blithely for vacation 2 months ago without an evident care in the world... and who was taken rapidly by colon cancer. She has been terribly ill and we have been thinking often of her, and I am heartbroken to hear that she lost this battle. You'll be missed more than you know, Rose.

Get your medical checks. Nag your family members to get their checks, too. And always remember to appreciate the time you have with your loved ones.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Perfumes: the Guide (again)

The book is making a splash and there is a lot of excitement about the quality of the reviews and whether the catty judgments they offer are worthwhile (and/or fair)... if you are interested in the debate, go here to Perfume Posse's hosted comments-debate.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

The noble savage, redux

I grow weary of Middle America.

Not in a Reverend Jeremiah Wright way (although I think I understand what he said, and I think he's been misconstrued and hypertrophied in embarrassingly anti-intellectual ways by the press and the political engines that stand to benefit by it). No, I grow very tired indeed of the Romantic notion of Middle America.

Middle America is the post-modern Noble Savage in press and politics, both demonized (bitter, ignorant, incestuous, oblivious) and canonized (the folk of the nation, salt of the earth, somehow more real and more valuable than we jaded cosmopolitan souls fallen from the Eden of nature.) Let me tell you something: Middle America is imaginary.

I must confess that seeing American Gothic brought me to tears. Its subtle and compelling wit is eloquent indeed, and I suggest that you go admire the original if you ever have the chance. Prints and digital images fail quite utterly.

One of the haunting things about that painting is the forthright and arresting look of the man. He is looking back at the viewer. Although he is uncommonly orderly (look at the way the pitchfork tines, stitching of the overall, and shirt pleats echo one another) and his expression is grave, it is his attentiveness that captures the viewer. His wife, restless and thoughtful, has her eyes on something else -- perhaps something that escaped the couple as they worked past their first bloom of youth and on into their homely middle years. Behind them, the rounded trees, the tidy landscape, and the stately home show the modestly magnificent and hard-won fruits of their labor.

It is the discontent, the inscrutability, and the uncannily returned gaze that give this picture its magnificence. The respectful attention to the details of orderly and respectable life; the evidentials of hard labor, the diacritics of proud frugality, the withering into thin and dour ghosts of what was evidently a fierce young couple. A Romantic notion: belatedness. Too hard a life for Eden, and too much focus on putting Nature into orderly straight lines; we work to create our own little corner of paradise until we are trapped upon our path. We retire to live upon the fat of our labor in middle or old age, when para-gliding and war are sadly beyond our capacities and, bewilderingly, no longer tantalizing. It is a tragic image, as I see it -- a tragedy of constricting liberties and fading, unsatisfied youth. (Your mileage may certainly vary.)

Yet this couple is a caricature, and the image depends on that loving caricature for its success. They are archetypally our collective parents, our roots. They expect something of us: do we measure up?

The Romantic poets were obsessed with the idea that they had come too late. Too late for Nature, too late for Classical grandeur, too late to live in God's garden. We work; we age; we die; we are not living myths. The inherence of the noble savage concept to this world-view is hardly surprising: primordial Man, casting an immortal heroic shadow on a landscape of Nature. It is the desirable antithesis to what we feel we are.

In lazy political rhetoric, the Founding Fathers cast such shadows: they are culture heroes who transcend the bonds of mere mortality (or fact, as it happens.) Lately, Middle America -- generalized, robbed of its true grit, complexity, and intellectualism, faded into pastel red-white-and-blue and caricatured immensely -- has begun to acquire some of the same sepia luster.

Friends, this is the problem: art and life are not the same thing.

Honor thy father and thy mother. Enjoy your retro "comfort food." Quote the Founding Fathers (better still, READ what they wrote and know them as something that was flesh, blood, and brain, not cartoon.) Hell, put flags all over your vehicles if you want. But try, for the love of your country, not to lump together large parts of its citizens and predict their responses as if they belonged to a native, innocent, and somehow prior condition. If there is a real Middle America, it is in the present, it shares the blood or glory on the hands of ... (what's the alternative? Edge America?), and it must make its decisions the same way we all do: by thinking of its own future. There is no part of the country that resembles the Jerry Springer Show in its social dynamics, and no part that resembles the Super-Friends' Justice League, either.

Reporters and political campaigners, I beg you to stop telling these people what they think. I'm interested in seeing their frank and returned gaze break down my expectations, instead.

Turin & Sanchez - Perfumery: the Guide

Oh my gosh. I am thoroughly enjoying this book. It's admittedly not everybody's cup of tea, and goodness knows I don't agree with them on many of the reviewed fragrances, but here is my advice of the day:

1) Pick one of your particular hobbies or passions, something about which you know rather a lot but maybe something you can't discuss much with your beer buddies without seeing their eyes glaze over.

2) Find a vicious, savage, gleeful, playful, catty review book, thick enough to sink your teeth into and audacious enough to make you gasp.

3) Delight.

I adore this book. I've never understood all of the fashion-magazine meowing over this awful dress or those awful shoes or who's schtupping whom, but... oh me, oh my, I love reading something written in that register about a topic I care about.

El oh el.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Headspace Analysis, social ramifications

I don't think I've posted before on "headspace analysis," but those who are close to me in physical location may have heard me ramble about it. In perfumery, it is the remarkable and revolutionary ability to analyze how something smells through the use of gas chromatography. This allows scents that are difficult to capture through traditional means of extraction to be replicated chemically: gardenia, carnation, or stargazer lily scents in perfume, for instance, are always artificial and can presumably be made rather faithful now that headspace analysis allows for chemical replication of what the flower smells like a few centimeters from its "head."

Perfumery houses like Demeter and its upscale and much more exciting offspring, CB I Hate Perfume, synthesize aromas that don't necessarily hark from flowers: CBIHP's "Burning Leaves" is one of my favorites, and Demeter is known for its dirt, grass, tomato, and other cheap but fascinating aromas.

On a wild flight of fancy, I wondered what it would be like if a police state began analyzing headspace and carrying "sniffing machines" capable of finding wanted persons. Truth is stranger than fiction... it's as easy as employing dogs to do the finding. Who needs sniffing machines?

On the other hand... there is an inherent potential for such massive inaccuracy as to usher in a new age of Keystone Cops (only this time, they're in your airports and infiltrating your universities). If a gardenia's headspace can be synthesized in a cocktail of chemicals sufficiently to fool a human, how much will it really take to fool a dog?

Dreadful. Will there be perfume houses run by criminal masterminds bent on disguising criminals as innocent people with their dog-stunning masterpieces? Better yet, will there be politically-minded performance-artist perfumers disguising everybody as criminals, a la V for Vendetta?

Don't bother stealing the story idea; I'm already writing it. Heh heh. But I thought I should share.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Because nothing says fetal health like Jell-O shots...

Well, we manned the booth for the March of Dimes walk yesterday.

As is any project staffed by a handful of volunteers, some of whom are new, it was a Chinese fire drill of sorts. But we assembled a very nifty looking booth (decorated lavishly and cheerfully in "luau" style by our Hawaii-obsessed volunteer), cheered for everyone as they passed the halfway mark, kept motorists from plowing over tired walkers/runners in the crosswalk, and provided refreshments including cups of water, bottled water, fresh fruit, and Jell-O shots.

Because... nothing says "fetal health" like Jell-O shots.

These were alcohol free, made with Jell-O and regular ol' commercial apple juice, according to the Jigglers recipe that 2 out of 3 of us screwed up*** (Jigglers aren't sticky... apple-juice-tainted Jell-O is.) Gross? Non-vegetarian? Oh, my, yes, but I opted not to care.

Ours is the longest run in the country (rougly 9-10 miles!) and we normally have a turnout of 200-300 people. This year, only about 70-80 passed our booth, tops. I think it was fewer, to be honest. About 120 started, but it was cold, windy, and gray, and a large portion of the runners apparently crapped out and went home.

Oh well, not a biggie. Most likely, they stumped for contributions before they walked. Or... "waaaaalked."

The first people who passed our booth run the course every year. Eight years ago, they lost their infant son to birth defects. They now have two healthy young daughters, but they never forget their missing child. I wish I'd gone to the morning ceremony (we were setting up instead); I'd have cheered and saluted them with even more enthusiasm.

*** Just for the sake of honesty, I was one of the 2 that screwed it up. Yes, you can laugh at me now.

Using social science for evil...

Forget all the academic debate about whether or not anthropologists should work for the gub'ment abroad...

There's always using survey data to determine what music people hate, and making a song that violates all tenets of musical taste.

As one would expect, the antithesis, a song made to conform to the most popular music elements (as polled and produced by the same artists), is perhaps even more heinous. Orwell was right -- fuck the versificator.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Muhahahaha... perfume bloggers terrorize the industry

This amuses me.

Also, I have to get me a copy of Turin & Sanchez's book. It's making waves in the perfumery community. [Edit: okay, I ordered it. Yes, impulse buy and all that, but hey, it's going to be fun to read.]

This weekend, I will be purchasing raw materials to begin my noodling around with perfumery, for reals. Woohoo!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Uncharted territory

If girl stuff squicks you, move along to another post. I promise I won't do this often. This is pretty cool stuff anyway in my opinion, but your mileage may vary.

So, after our miscarriage in January, I have gone a little bit crazy. It starts quietly at first, but this is the kind of thing that can rapidly absorb your attention and bloom into full blown craziness. Yep. Thanks, biological clock.

Now, I seem to be obsessed with my reproductive system. I don't think this will last, but I have a combination of paranoia, curiosity, and diligence that subs in nicely for craziness.

Everyone pity Pat now.

Innocuously enough, this started with me wanting to find out more about how my system worked so that I could tell if it was working properly. (Miscarriage is not a sign that it's not working properly -- it is extremely common and indicates that something has gone wrong... and does not indicate that it will go wrong again, in most cases.) I acquired a copy of Toni Weschler's book, Taking Charge of Your Own Fertility, and started charting my cycles.

The theory is simple: hormonal fluctuations cause your temperature to rise dramatically after you have ovulated. It stays high until you menstruate, at which point it plummets and stays low until you ovulate again. Neat. Precise.

All it requires is staying in bed, warm and cozy, for 5 extra minutes after you wake up to take your temperature with a basal thermometer. Easy, right? Well... if you're like me and your full bladder awakens you, it can be torture, but... no, it's not the end of the world.

However, in order for this knowledge to be operational, you need to know when you're getting close to ovulation BEFORE you ovulate.

There are other indicators that help you know when you're actually fertile. This is where it gets weird. The position and feel of your cervix, the texture and quantity of cervical fluid, and your perception of how your nethers feel on any given day help you to recognize the crucial 4 days or so before you ovulate. (Sperm can live for about 4 days in the woman's body if the conditions are right. The egg, not so much -- maybe 6 to 24 hours tops.)

The resulting charts look like this:

(Chart stolen from someone I don't even know in sample charts on What, you think I would share my own with you? God no. Move along. Nothing to see here. Although my temperatures are more dramatic than in the example -- seriously, the first month I did this I thought of checking myself for zombie-ism. Before ovulation my temps when I first wake up hover below 97. And yes, I've had my thyroid checked.)

Tired of the ol' "checking the oil" method of figuring this out? Guess what? Your saliva can tell you if you're approaching your fertile period or are fertile -- it develops a "ferning" pattern when it dries that can be seen under a microscope.

I am so freakin' in charge of my own fertility right now.

That said, a couple actively trying to conceive has roughly a 25% chance in any given month to achieve pregnancy. I think that goes up slightly for those who are "in charge of their own fertility" because they know when to get busy.

And so we play the waiting game. Which isn't a bad game -- it's a fun game, y'know?

For those who might want to purchase the excellent software and chart their own stuff, there's a free trial and a full version for about $40 at It probably helps to have Toni Weschler's book, but the tutorial might be enough. Of course, the pen & paper version is cheap as free and you can get it at

You can find saliva ferning microscopes cheaply at, among other places.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

March of Dimes walk

Hey guys, this year I am not walking due to a minor foot injury and my general lack of desire to walk a "5-mile" that is actually 9... but I am manning a water booth for those who are. For my region, the event is next Saturday, the 19th of April.

It's a great cause. I have found their site enormously helpful and comforting this year, and hope that you will consider this cause among whatever philanthropic work you do.

Here's their site:

And the donate link:


I love nest-cams. There is something thrilling, scary, and wonderful about watching fledgling birds develop and then leave the nest. And it's a nifty way to catch some unintrusive "personal time" with the elegant parents while they're tethered to some point in space. The cheater's route to bird-watching. I can imagine that if you had small kids, it would be even more fun.

Beakspeak maintains a wonderful list of bird cams, separated into nests with chicks, nests with eggs, nests for your easy gratification.

It would be hard for anything to be cuter than these owlets, with their fuzzy "horns."

I am obsessed with this hummingbird's nest. (Use "guest" as login and "guest" as password if you want to watch, too.)

Remember, folks -- tempus fugit. If you don't go look now, the birds may have fledged and gone on their merry way.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Movies I really don't have to see...

Yep. It's called Teeth.

You can find the trailer here, if you really think you have to. It has shockingly good reviews from people I trust -- even feminists I find particularly interesting and provocative as commentators. I haven't seen the film but it looks like more misogyny and gynophobia to me. Garden variety. (Tee hee, see what I did there what with the inexcusable rose and thorns tagline?) Yawn.

Am I missing something? Or has ironic consumption finally come full circle and rotted our brains?