Archive for the ‘Current Affairs’ Category

Infinite Jest

Monday, September 15th, 2008

The title of the book Infinite Jest comes from a film within the story.  it’s been a long time since I read the book, but as I remember it, people who come to see the movie see a projection of themselves sitting in the audience.  Nothing else happens, and eventually, some of the people give up and leave, but the film keeps going as long as a single person stubbornly sits in the auditorium, keeping the movie going.

My personal theory about the book is that Wallace intended it like the movie — he didn’t really expect that anyone would slog through the 1000 plus pages (including footnotes).  While he wrote darkly funny prose, and a lot of things happened in the book, it was just one thing after another, without a clear plot trajectory.  To be honest, you could  stop anywhere along the way and not miss too much.  Just as the audience had the power to end the movie by simply leaving, I think he was suggesting that his readers had the power to end the book just by saying "enough" and closing it.

This week, David Foster Wallace seems to have decided that he didn’t need to find out what comes next in his story.  I didn’t know the man personally, and I didn’t even love his book.  But I feel diminished by his passing.


Friday, September 12th, 2008

The pictures are amazing and terrifying. I can’t believe that more people didn’t evacuate Galveston — I pray that those who are staying put have the opportunity to laugh at me and say "that wasn’t so bad."

And anyone, right or left, Democrat or Republican, who thinks that God sends hurricanes for political purposes is a jackass.


Saturday, August 30th, 2008

I keep checking the NOAA tracking page for Gustav.  I’m not sure what I’m expecting to change — it might weaken a bit, but it’s unlikely to veer off into the Atlantic.

They’re doing a lot of things right this time around that were screwed up for Katrina– ordering an evacuation early, providing buses for those who don’t have cars.  We’re pretty good at defending against the last threat — that’s why security is so good on airplanes, and so bad on subways or container ships.  Which makes me wonder what we’re still missing.

Perhaps more fundamentally, if Gustav hits near New Orleans and the levees don’t hold, it’s hard to imagine people coming back to rebuild again.

interesting odds and ends

Monday, July 28th, 2008
  • I thought this article on the growth in Fairfax school enrollment was interesting  It says enrollment is up by 2,500, in part due to a shift of 1,000 students from Prince William county.  Some hypothesize it’s due to Prince William’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants; others suggest it’s due to the high price of gas.  It’s likely that both contribute, and may even affect the same families. I wonder what the typical shifts between the two counties are.
  • Via Yglesias, I ran into this study arguing that redshirting of kindergarteners leads to reduced high school completion, since it means that kids have completed fewer years of school when they reach the age where they’re no longer required to attend school.  This doesn’t make sense to me, as it’s overwhelmingly upper-middle-class families who hold their kids back a year, but lower-income kids who drop out as soon as they’re legally able to.  Anyone want to take a crack at it?
  • I love Alan Blinder’s idea of stimulating the economy by buying back polluting clunkers for more than book value.  One of my pet bugaboos is that when people talk about "green jobs" they always focus on the sexy futuristic stuff like solar and wind power, when you could get a lot more bang for the buck subsidizing new boilers and more insulation in low-cost rental housing.  (As long as renters pay for the utility bills, it almost never makes economic sense for landlords to make those investments on their own.)


Thursday, June 19th, 2008

Someone posted on my neighborhood listserve this morning, wondering "where are the cries for help for
the poor people of Iowa? Are they less deserving than the people of Louisiana?"  The question wasn’t from someone I know, and maybe I’m misjudging him, but my interpretation of the subtext was "all you people who were so dramatic about Katrina weren’t really worried about the people, but looking for a reason to beat up on Bush."

My impression is that the floods in the midwest have caused massive displacement, and overwhelming property loss, but that there’s been relatively little loss of life.  Kari Lyderson writes at Rooflines about the contrast between the disasters and suggests a few causes:

  1. The local governments are far more functional.
  2. Most people displaced in Iowa are staying with friends and family; in New Orleans, many of the affected had no social networks outside of the city.
  3. Those from outside helping (FEMA, National Guard, volunteers)  have positive impressions of the people they are helping: "To put it bluntly, law enforcement and volunteers in Iowa were not
    afraid of or harboring deep-seated hatred toward the people they were
    trying to help."  I mentioned this idea to someone at work, and she commented that if Iowans break store windows, they’ll be seen as "getting needed supplies" not "looting."

That said, I do think it took a ridiculously long time for the East Coast media to figure out that this was a major story.  One of my colleagues is from Iowa, and she was stressing last week when the flooding started.  I hadn’t heard the news, so went online to look, and discovered that there wasn’t a single mention of the flooding on the Washington Post’s website at the time. 

Via Crunchy Granola, I found Boomerific’s postings about the flooding.

Some ways to help:


Thursday, May 15th, 2008

All week, I’ve been blinking away tears as I read or hear the news.  This morning I turned the car radio from NPR to the classic rock station because I just couldn’t cope with listening to the story about the middle school that collapsed in the earthquake in China.  The disaster in Burma is even bigger, but because the government isn’t letting aid workers in (let alone reporters), there aren’t the first-person stories that tug at the heart.

This NY Times story suggests that the grief of the Chinese parents is made worse by the fact that the one-child policy means that most of the dead children were their parents’ only child.  I’m not sure I believe that — I don’t believe that the grief of a parent of two children is cut in half when only one child dies, or the grief of a parent of five is only one-fifth.

I — and most (if not all) of my readers — am lucky to live in a time and place where the death of a child is a rare tragedy.  At other times and places, it has been less rare, but no less tragic.  Reading 18th and 19th century diaries, it  is quite clear that the frequency with which children died of disease did not diminish the pain felt by those left behind.

But even here and now, we are never entirely safe.  Last week I learned that the son of one of the women on the birthmonth email list I joined when pregnant with D was killed, along with his grandfather, in a car accident.

Stupidest policies ever

Monday, May 5th, 2008

In his quasi-blog* at The Atlantic, James Fallows asked whether anyone can name a more stupid policy that passed with bipartisan support during the last 50 years than the McCain-Clinton proposal for a gas-tax holiday.  His pick from the many submissions he received is the mandates and subsidies for corn-based ethanol.  The full list of popular submissions is worth reading — Fallows notes that while some of them had worse effects than ethanol subsidies, in order to make the short list, a policy had to be obviously bad even without the benefits of hindsight.

The policy that I was surprised not to see on the list is the mortgage interest deduction, the one policy that everyone from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities to the American Enterprise Institute agrees is terrible policy.  It’s expensive, regressive, and most people agree that it makes homeownership MORE expensive for the people likely to be on the margin between owning and renting.  I don’t know if it misses the 50 year cut off, or if Fallows’ readers are likely to be in the group that benefits from it, and so are blind to its faults.

What else would you put on the list?

*It’s a quasi-blog because it doesn’t allow comments.  This is clearly Fallows’ choice rather than The Atlantic’s because Yglesias has a real blog on their site.

LED lights

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008

In honor of Earth Day, I wanted to post about the LED lights that we’ve put into our new kitchen. They’re LR6 lights, from Cree Lighting.  If you walked in, you wouldn’t notice them — and that’s the point.  They look like standard lights, are even more energy efficient than CFLs, don’t contain mercury, and can be dimmed (although they require a digital dimmer). 

So, what’s the downside?  Well, for now they’re somewhat overpriced.  If they last as long as the company claims (on the order of 20 years), they’ll more than pay for themselves, but that assumes that we don’t discount the future stream of savings.  And they’re fairly new products, so no one really knows that they’ll actually last that long.  But we decided they were worth a try.  And they look good enough that we’re probably going to use them in our living room as well.

I was more than a bit nervous about buying these without being able to see what they’d look like in practice.  (Amicus Green has them, but as part of a display with a bunch of other lights, so it’s hard to see what the light looks like.)  So, if you’re in the DC area and you’re considering these lights, feel free to email me if you want to come see them.

my letter to Congress

Saturday, April 5th, 2008

Here’s the letter that I just sent to my Senators and Representative:

Dear xxx:

While I am deeply concerned about the current housing and economic situation, I am writing to urge you not to support a massive give-away to the banks and homebuilders who got us into this mess.

In particular, it is outrageous to provide a tax credit to encourage people to buy foreclosed or new homes, thus making it even harder for people who have stayed current on their mortgages to sell their houses.  I also oppose the provisions that would rebate previously paid taxes to those who prospered during the housing boom.

I think the idea of allowing a deduction for housing costs for those who do not itemize their taxes is appealing, but it should be paid for by capping the mortgage interest deduction for houses worth more than $1 million.

As the new jobs numbers show, we are heading into a recession.  Congress should extend unemployment insurance benefits, put more money into WIC and LIHEAP, and temporarily increase the Medicaid match rate to ensure that poor families don’t lose their health coverage.  That would help the people who are suffering the most, not the people who created the problems.

Thank you for your consideration.


There are some good things in the bill — some money for community-based actions, some money for financial counseling.  But they’re outweighed by the massive giveaway.  I’d rather no bill than this bill.

world news

Thursday, April 3rd, 2008

A few months ago, I received an offer to get the Economist for airline miles.  Since I an unlikely to use them for anything else, I signed up.  The Economist offers two things that I find interesting:

  • A very distinct take on US politics, from a point of view that is quite different from either of the US political parties — very pro-market, but without the social conservativism of the Republicans.
  • In depth coverage of world news.

That said, I have to admit that I often find myself skimming past many of the international stories — oh, there are protests in Albania, who knew?– but not really caring a whole lot about the details.

The world news story that I’m following most closely right now is the elections in Zimbabwe.  With no official results 4 days after the elections, it’s hard to believe that Mugabe’s people aren’t cooking the books.  (The opposition is claiming that they’ve won, but the government says that just saying that is an attempted coup.) And today some journalists have been arrested.  I don’t have any particular insight into how it’s going to turn out, but I’m watching with my fingers crossed.

Why do I care about this story?  Like Becca at Not Quite Sure, I’ve been there.  For two days, which doesn’t make me any sort of an expert.  But I know how desperate people were then for our American dollars, and I just can’t wrap my head around what a million-fold inflation since then means.  It’s a heartbreaker of a story, and a reminder that much (most?) hunger
in the world is political, not (just) the result of natural disasters. (And yes, we all had serious misgivings about our tourist dollars going to support Mugabe’s government, but we went anyway.  I don’t know if we did net harm or good.)

But I think I’d care about Zimbabwe even if I hadn’t been there.  I wrote a report about it in 6th grade, shortly after it achieved independence.  I can’t remember many of the details, but I know that I wrote to the embassy asking for information and they sent me a thick envelope with newspapers and other material. At the time, I think I was most intrigued by all the cities whose names were changed.

One concern I have about The Economist as my source for international news is that I don’t know enough to know where their biases and blind spots are.  For example, they had a story about Zimbabwe last month, in which they argued confidently that Simba Makoni is "no joke for the incumbent." But it looks like he’s a distant third, getting less than 10 percent of the vote from the unofficial figures that have come out so far.   Morgan Tsvangirai is the candidate who appears to be leading.