blog-O-rama archive
april 2003

ann maria bell


setting free the mice

I'm leaving for a trip to Arizona and the Grand Canyon tommorrow. Spring has finally gained a toehold here in Madison, and it was time, time to free the mice. Marbles, one of the deer mice that we caught at Rivendell last fall, was just too small and too impetuous to have much of a chance outside, so I set him up in a small glass tank in my room for the winter. We caught Ralphina mid-winter when she would have turned into a mousicle with in moments of being set outside, so she was stationed in a former snake habitat in the furnace room for the duration. They both led well fed, but boring and lonely, lives all winter.

The truth is, mice don't like living in cages. And now they're not. Here's the photo-documentation of their entry into the big wide world at Picnic Point.


verbal sprawl

My apparent neglect of blog-O-rama is caused by my ongoing attempt to review A Reader's Manifesto by B. R. Myers (an expanded version of an Atlantic Monthly article with the same title). The 'review' has sprawled to include my thoughts on the relationship between writing and critical thinking and an analysis of how I choose books to read.

Meanwhile, I'm itching to discuss the increasingly blunt acknowledgements of US imperialism that have stated appearing in the popular press, statements like this one by Boston Globe columnist William Pfaff:

Put simply, the Bush administration envisages a world run by the United States, backed by as many states as will sign on to support it.

Its stated intention is to maintain an overwhelming military advantage and do its level best to prevent other states from creating nuclear or other deterrent systems. It intends, where feasible, to disarm those already in possession of nuclear weapons. North Korea is a candidate for imminent preemptive disarmament.

Washington doesn't want any government in a position to check it through international institutions or legal opposition, which is why the UN has to go. Otherwise, the only obstacles to neo-conservative Washington's freedom of action (other than Chinese and Russian nuclear forces) would be Europe's economic power and potential political unity, and even there the American advantage is large, although not decisive.
(full column no longer available online)

A few years ago, this analysis could only be found in the alternative or international press (or an interview with Noam Chomsky). The matter of fact tone in which US imperial ambitions are now being discussed amazes me.


newsflash -- xander loses an eyeball

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is in its final season, and evidently the scriptwriters are taking no prisoners. According to my Buffy-watching housemates Alexander had one of his eyeballs squeezed out by an evil priest in tonight's episode. Who, and what body part, is next?

My non-Buffy-watching housemate Jason (who is nonetheless prone to breaking out into Buffy's song from the musical episode complete with Broadway-style slayer choreography) mourned Alexander's eyeball along with the rest of them. A real tragedy, he said, like when the villain's outfit gets ruined in Batman movies, you know, when Catwoman's ears get a little crooked and her hair's all messed up and she's just done for, don't you just hate when that happens?

bike & butt reunited

day 4 of bike season. it was 78 F as I headed out for a ride yesterday, and windy. very windy. madison has a large network of paved bike trails, most of it built after I left grad school and before I returned here a year or so ago. I was heading into gusting wind for a good part of the capitol city trail, which winds through county park land with no roads or buildings nearby, so I decided to turn around and retrace my route rather than doing the last leg of the loop which is on the road. but really I just wanted to ride with the wind at my back for a change, after 5 miles exhausting miles heading into it. I actually make more of an effort riding with the wind, because the payoff in speed is glorious.

20.5 miles yesterday, 54 miles this season. one benefit of biking is that my bike computer provides a steady stream of statistics to judge progress, current speed, distance travelled, time in motion, average speed, maximum speed. to distract myself on the ride back I calculate and recalculate fractions of the ride completed, fractions left to go. working out at the gym is measured in books on tape --- it took three trips to the gym to make it through one tape of The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, that leaves 10 more to go. at the end of every workout the LED screen scrolls the same ticker tape message: GREAT WORKOUT! then it (over)estimates the calories I burned and tells me my average speed and total distance covered even though neither me nor the machine has budged an inch.

I like riding my bike because it feels like I get something for nothing, flying over the pavement, the rhythmic action of my legs smoothly multiplied by the bike. (I like ice skating and cross country skiing for the same reason.) a bicycle is human-scaled transportation, perfect for exploring and observing. when I lived in palo alto I would just get on my bike and start riding. I had a set of maps that covered the whole penisula, when I felt like it was time to head home I'd pull out the maps to figure out where I was. once someone asked me "where do you keep your consciousness when you're biking?" (he was experimenting with focusing his attention on his thighs as the source of power.) what I like best about about biking is that I have no idea where I keep my consciousness when I'm biking. I can bike for hours and not remember a single distinct thought later.

20 miles is on the high end for me right now. last night I felt the familiar heat in my muscles and the strangely increased effect of gravity on my limbs as I climbed the three flights of stairs to my room and collapsed onto the futon at 8:30 PM. I'll be back at the gym or on my bike later today (after having a new chain and rear gear cassette installed this morning. my email to bill: "shiny new gears. shiny new chain. same old butt." his response: "couldn't they sell you a new butt too? what's up with these bike places anyway?") I'll be out of town for the spring into wisconsin ride that benefits the Lance Armstrong Foundation's Cycle of Hope program. if I'm not on my way to the east coast I may do 50k on the (more expensive) Tour de Cure for The American Diabetes Association.


confessions of a /. karma whore

An article I submitted to slashdot (an abbreviated version of my last blog-O-rama entry on diets) has just appeared. Another 15 seconds of my allotted 15 minutes of fame is disappearing into cyberspace.

bowling for columbine

What I am most concerned about right now is that all of you -- the majority of Americans who did not support this war in the first place -- not go silent or be intimidated by what will be touted as some great military victory. Now, more than ever, the voices of peace and truth must be heard.I have received a lot of mail from people who are feeling a profound sense of despair and believe that their voices have been drowned out by the drums and bombs of false patriotism. Some are afraid of retaliation at work or at school or in their neighborhoods because they have been vocal proponents of peace. They have been told over and over that it is not "appropriate" to protest once the country is at war, and that your only duty now is to "support the troops."

This message from Michael Moore's website was forwarded to my email box a few days ago. He debunks the media-created myth that The Dixie Chicks got their come uppance for Natalie Maines' criticism of George W. Bush --- their album has gone from #6 on the charts to #4 and their upcoming tour is virtually soldout. Box office receipts for Moore's documentary "Bowling for Columbine" increased dramatically in the wake of his remarks at the Oscars and his book "Stupid White Men" is back at the top of the bestseller list. Like so many events of late, the "backlash" against those who oppose the war on Iraq is probably 10-percent reality and 90-percent media fiction. It's the FUD (fear-uncertainty-doubt) strategy applied to political activism, an attempt to isolate and marginalize the millions of people who actively oppose Bush & Co.'s military adventures abroad and attacks on civil rights at home.

So after reading the message about the renewed interest in "Bowling for Columbine" I finally decided to see it for myself last night. What was I thinking? I really really don't like violent movies. That's why I haven't seen Pulp Fiction. Or Fargo. Or Fight Club. Or Reservoir Dogs. Or Full Metal Jacket. Or A Clockwork Orange. Come to think of it, that was why I didn't go see "Bowling for Columbine" when it came out months ago.

And the violence in "Bowling for Columbine" is much worse because so much of it is real, not ketchup and stunt doubles. I hadn't seen the videos from inside Columbine or heard the soundtracks, I didn't even know such footage existed. Some of the clips of military executions were familiar but no less horrible. It was a good movie, if painful to watch (at least for me). Moore asks why the US has so many more gun homicides than other countries, but does a better job at eliminating easy explanations than at providing new ones. He indicts the culture of fear that leaves people feeling more and more vulnerable even as crime rates drop. He also outlines the connections between the large bloody canvas of US foreign policy and the violence that occurs on our streets and in our homes and schools. Yet he received a standing ovation at the Oscars:

When "Bowling for Columbine" was announced as the Oscar winner for Best Documentary at the Academy Awards, the audience rose to its feet. It was a great moment, one that I will always cherish. They were standing and cheering for a film that says we Americans are a uniquely violent people, using our massive stash of guns to kill each other and to use them against many countries around the world. They were applauding a film that shows George W. Bush using fictitious fears to frighten the public into giving him whatever he wants. And they were honoring a film that states the following: The first Gulf War was an attempt to reinstall the dictator of Kuwait; Saddam Hussein was armed with weapons from the United States; and the American government is responsible for the deaths of a half-million children in Iraq over the past decade through its sanctions and bombing. That was the movie they were cheering, that was the movie they voted for, and so I decided that is what I should ack! nowledge in my speech.

Charlton Heston, president of the NRA, was an easy target for Moore's confrontational approach. Heston was so inchoate, I almost felt sorry for him, until Bill reminded me that he has been the headline speaker at pro-gun rallies deliberately located in communities that have suffered the most extreme gun violence. For example, Heston spoke at an NRA rally in Flint Michigan shortly after a 6 year old girl was shot to death by one of her classmates in a public school. The Canadian politicians and law enforcement officials that Moore features were so sensible I wondered how they managed to get themselves elected or appointed to positions of power. Marilyn Manson was particularly lucid. Ditto for the creator of South Park (can't recall which one it was) who pointed out that the painful myopia of adolescence is reinforced by the "this will go on your permanent record --- screw up now and you've screwed up for life" claptrap that teachers brandish in an attempt to maintain control. (And anyway, it's the dorks move on to better things, who grow and create --- the popular kids are still stuck in Littleton, unable to make the break, reliving their parents' lives.)

BTW Michael Moore's website is excellent --- don't miss Operation Oily Residue.


lose weight the slow boring way

The notes from my trip are still waiting to get bloggified (is that spelled with one or two g's?). In the meantime, spring weather has returned Madison and today may be the day that I get back on my bike. A Wisconsin winter spent sitting in front of a computer, with only the occasional afternoon of ice skating and not a single day of cross country skiing, has had the predictable effect on my weight (up) and physical condition (down). My equally predictable spring response has set in: a ban on sweets & treats of all kinds (& on salad dressing) and renewed attendance at the gym. I'm old enough to have seen the same diets cycle in and out of favor, and old-fashioned enough to favor the most old-fashioned of diets --- eat less, exercise more.

A recent "meta-analysis" of 107 studies of low-carbohydrate diets by doctors at Stanford and Yale (press release no longer available online) comes to the same conclusion:

"The greatest predictors of weight loss appear to be caloric intake and diet duration ... The findings suggest that if you want to lose weight, you should eat fewer calories and do so over a long time period."

In other words, successful low carbohydrate diets are just low calorie diets in drag. John Walker's "Hacker's Diet" explains it perfectly, with an extended analogy that compares the human body to a rubber bag:

If, over a period of time, the calories in the food you eat exceed the calories you burn by 3500, you'll put on about a pound. Conversely, if you reduce your food intake so that you burn 3500 calories more than you eat, you'll lose about a pound.

Please reread that last paragraph. It contains essentially everything there is to know about weight control.

Another bit of diet news that caused me to gloat (initially) demonstrated the correlation between hours spent watching TV and weight gain: "researchers found that each two-hour-per-day increment of TV watching was associated with a 23-percent increase in obesity and a 14-percent increase in the risk for diabetes." Good news for me, I thought, I never watch TV. But wait, from a metabolic point of view is sitting in front of a computer all that different from sitting in front of TV? (Hey, I do a lot of pointing and clicking.) The article doesn't mention websurfing specifically, but each 2 hour increase in other sedentary activities like "sewing, playing board games, reading, writing and driving a car" only led to a 5-percent increase in obesity (I feel better already). Possible explanations for the correlation between TV watching and obesity include the common habit of eating junk food while watching TV and its tendency to crowd out other more active pursuits, but it seems to me that television's unique ability to induce a near catatonic state devoid of all conscious mental activity above the level of "I wonder if there are any more cheetos in the kitchen?" is the key to understanding its dramatic effect on metabolic rates.

a pocket cellular automata for me?

I received a cool game in the mail from Looney Labs, a small game company run by three hippies who live and work together in a house called Wunderland outside Washington D.C. The game that I received is called Q-turn and consists of 16 wooden nickels printed with 3 types of arrows that indicate the direction that a player can move as well as actions that affect the orientation of the arrows on the board. The goal is to move your piece from one corner of the board (the 4 x 4 array of nickels) to the other and back again. It seems like a cool little game, though I've only played it 3 times, once against myself (I lost) and twice against Bill (I lost).

Now here's the mystery --- I have no idea who sent me the game, or why. The comment on the order said "a pocket cellular automata for you." I think this is a true statement only if the moves that a player makes are considered to be stochastic, but in my case that's not a bad guess. A mysterious present in the mail, very cool. Thanks to whom/whatever is responsible.


back in the u. s. s. a.

I got back from my trip to France and Italy about a week ago and have finally returned to my long neglected blog. For me, every departure is preceded by a frenetic attempt to complete all the items on the comprehensive list of things to do which I started in the 4th grade and have been adding items to ever since. Every return is like remembering a dream in the middle of the day, except I can't tell whether the place I've just left or the place I've just returned to is the dream.

Stepping back into Rivendell was like stepping inside a newspaper picture puzzle: can you spot seven differences between these two pictures? The blackboard in th kitchen, our morphing record of events, was scrawled with new messages, the old ones reduced to chalk dust and smudges: RENT DUE, cieslewicz won! (the underdog in Madison's mayoral race, an anti-sprawl environmentalist who faced off against former-student-radical-turned-political-hack paul soglin), RENT OVERDUE!, planning for the garden has begun (even if the garden is currently under snow). In my not quite two week absence, one of my housemates broke up with his boyfriend, another housemate acquired a new boyfriend, a grad school acceptance letter arrived, and the process of finding new housemates for the fall began. On the other hand, the laundry I left drying on racks in my room was still there, quite dry.

The subtle ebb and flow of life evident in Rivendell's kitchen, in the waiting soil of the garden, in the open water of the lake finally rid of winter's ice stand in mute contrast to the cataclysmic violence that has rained down on Iraq since the war began. The reality of war is simultaneously incomprehensible and desolate -- war coverage that mimics sports commentary and photo ops of a statue being toppled in Baghdad leave me feeling like I know less rather than more about events in Iraq.

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