A nautical fundraiser

Our dear friends over at Portside NY, who are preserving and restoring that crusty old tanker, the Mary Whalen, are holding a fundraiser. Barbecue is involved, as well as sunset in NY harbor and much more. I've written before about the delights of life on the decks of the Whalen, and I highly recommend you attend! Brooklynbased has all the info, Here.

And for the last week before this July 3rd event, tickets are discounted to a measly $35! 


My Brother, the Doctor

Yesterday I took time off from my rigorous and demanding schedule of watching three World Cup games per day and drove down to Philadelphia to attend my brother Luke's dissertation defense. Luke had asked me to lend whatever moral support I might have to spare. I was expecting a kind of academic version of a football match, with a coterie of mudslinging professors going forehead-to-forehead with my poor brother, kicking him in the shins and exploiting every opening and weakness in his argument as they rampaged through the hallowed halls of the University of Pennsylvania. While speeding down the New Jersey turnpike, listening to Argentina pummel South Korea on the world's best portable radio, I imagined myself as a sort of boxing trainer who would crouch in Luke's corner with a towel, ready to mop up the inevitable tears, blood and vomit that would soon be splashing onto the floors of the Department of Anthropology.

In fact, and almost to my disappointment, the event proved to be far more affirmative than combative. I've forgotten the long and challenging title of Luke's doctoral thesis, although I know that it is about linguistic exogamy in the tribes of the upper Rio Negro of the Brazilian Amazon. If you don't know what linguistic exogamy is, don't feel bad; I only know because Luke told me, a few times. It's the practice of only marrying people from a tribe who speak a different language than your own. Much of the terminology in Luke's presentation was so far beyond me that if I so chose I could practice linguistic exogamy myself, simply by marrying a linguistic anthropologist, that remote is their idiom from our own. Words and concepts like "performativity," "virtual metapragmatics," "patrilects," "proleptic," and "signaling indigeneity" flew through the air like hard-hit soccer balls. (By the way, it isn't just me that's clueless, Blogger, on which I'm writing this, thinks all of those words, except for "virtual" and "signaling," are misspelled, meaning they aren't in Google's dictionary either!). Soon I was using the towel I had brought to mop my own sweaty, confused, brow.

But if I had trouble following, not so the committee of professors also in attendance. Professor Greg Urban, making introductory remarks before Luke began to speak, said that the dissertation in question "reshapes our understanding of what is going on in South America in major ways." GOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAL! The Graduate Group Chair, Professor Deborah Thomas, then announced that Luke would have approximately half an hour to discuss his work. Twenty-nine and a half crisp minutes later, he concluded a presentation packed with almost mathematically precise powerpoint slides.

It was at this point I thought the bloodletting would finally begin, and I awaited the first of what I expected would be dozens of excruciating and unanswerable questions, flying flat and fast like an endless series of penalty kicks, with Luke as the hapless goalie. Here, too, I was sorely disappointed; the few questions asked were more like suggestions, softballs intended to promote minor changes in the text that might help catapult this already epic, if specialized, work to new heights of popularity. The subtext seemed to be that after a few slight adjustments, a bestseller, at least in the peculiar language of linguistic anthropology, was not only within reach, but virtually assured. Deborah Thomas then unceremoniously kicked us all out of the room so that the quartet of professors could discuss Luke's fate (apparently, in this sort of trial, the jury stays in, while everyone else leaves). We stood in the hall chewing our knuckles fearfully, while assuring Luke that he had done an excellent job. But these agonizing moments were short; the jury did not deliberate for more than a handful of minutes before we were called back into the salon. "The verdict is, you did a fantastic job," announced Professor Thomas.

He's the smart one, on the left.



In case you need a vuvuzela fix between games...

First, what ought to be called permazela, the all-vuvuzela, all-the-time radio station, with zero commercial interruptions. "All killer, and no filler."

Next, tune up your instruments for the concerto, via daniel maier's posterous:

These days, of course, you can always count on Hitler to get a word or two in on the subject.

Last and likely least, life wouldn't be complete without a vuvuzela iphone app. I would have called this "iVuzela," but to be fair, "iVuvuzela" is more annoying, and perhaps that's in keeping.

BP Global's PR machine

There's nothing funny about the ongoing gulf oil hemorrhage, but there's a lot funny about this bogus "BP Global" public relations twitter feed. It's the best thing of its kind since Fake Steve Jobs.



Some specific cases of the Shirky Principle at work UPDATED

A couple of months ago Kevin Kelly identified what he called the Shirky principle, namely that "institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution." (This is not the only simple, brilliant aphorism by philosopher of the internet, Clay Shirky; if you are unfamiliar with his work I recommend you read Here Comes Everybody, which is packed with pithy and compelling ideas about ways in which the internet is transformative.)

The notion resonated with me because it explains in one short sentence the systemic failure of international aid organizations, who win battles, but never wars. Those working in hunger relief, for instance, are paradoxically attempting both to feed people and to eliminate their own jobs; the ultimate goal is for 'hunger-reliever' to disappear entirely as a job category. This is not a sustainable model, so despite the best intentions of countless sincere individuals, whose heartfelt desire to help others I in no way wish to impugn, it is easy to understand that the inevitable institutional tendency is to self-preservation. Hunger, therefore, must exist, and even be promoted.

The Shirky principle also helps explain military dictatorships and some of the reasons armies declare war on their own populations, as in Guatemala in the 1980s. Counterinsurgency campaigns often result in a radical mobilization of people willing to join the insurgents, particularly when the military overreaches, treating the civilian population as a target indistinguishable from the guerilla. Cuba in the late 1950s is a perfect example. Such mobilizations are usually presented as an unfortunate side-effect of inevitable "collateral damage," but viewed through Shirky's lens, we understand that such an expansion of an insurgency is a logical, and even desirable outcome for the military; suddenly, more resources are diverted to an institution, the army, in order to combat a problem, a growing revolutionary movement. But in the event that the problem is solved, those additional resources will dwindle, so the army has every interest in promoting and sustaining the insurgency, even to the point of pretending that it still exists, even if it has been weakened, eradicated or dissolved.

An article in the NYT a couple of days ago describing some of the pitfalls of hiring private security forces to protect NATO supply convoys in Afghanistan, is another prime example of the Shirky principle at work. The same day that two large Afghan security companies were banned from working "after a pair of bloody confrontations with Afghan civilians," a supply convoy was attacked. Soon thereafter those security contracts were restored. The suspicion is that the companies colluded with the Taliban to promote the attack, justifying the urgency of their continued employment, despite any human rights shortcomings. There are further suspicions of entirely phony attacks, staged just in case NATO were to start to imagine that things are secure enough for them to move material on their own. Given the lack of transparency that accompanies the widespread outsourcing of military functions to private companies, both Afghan and American, the Shirky principle also sheds light on why the Afghan war is now the longest war in United States history.

UPDATE: I'm tremendously interested in coincidence, particularly in that phenomenon, with which we are all familiar, when a subject, once broached, suddenly seems to crop up repeatedly in a variety of contexts, as if the topic has become a spirit in the air around us. Only hours after I had posted this, reading Raffi Khatchadourian's June 7 New Yorker profile of Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, I came upon this passage: "[Assange] had come to understand the defining human struggle not as left versus right, or faith verson reason, but as individual versus institution. As a student of Kafka, Koestler and Solzhenitsyn, he believed that truth, creativity, love and compassion are corrupted by institutional hierarchies...." (My emphases. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, one of Koestler's many works is The Roots of Coincidence.)


The Billboards of Gowanus in the World Media

In case you missed my post a few weeks ago on what the blank billboards of Gowanus have to tell us about economic recovery and our consumer culture, I'm pleased to report that the insightful folks at a major German media outlet took notice and licensed it, lock, stock and barrel. A translated version appears in the Suddeutsche Zeitung today, including extra, never-before-published photographs. It is always gratifying to have one's paranoid musings and anti-capitalist fever dreams elevated to the stature of real news!


Shrimps, Rice, Haiti and the neo-liberal plan UPDATED

Cooking shrimps with the heads removed is like eating pitted olives. It might be more convenient, and less disturbing, but the tradeoff is a definite loss of flavor. But perhaps to save their customers from having to encounter the bulging eyestalks and delicate tentacles of the head-on shrimp, the Red Hook Fairway doesn't sell them. Suffering from a craving for another of Donald Link's superlative dishes, a spicy, minty Vietnamese take on the Cajun shrimp boil, I was obliged to head down to the Brooklyn Chinatown, which lines 8th Avenue from about 45th to 60th streets. The Hong Kong supermarket on 61st street is even better stocked than the one on Allen and East Broadway in Manhattan, and has all sorts of things that are sometimes difficult to come by, like fresh pork bellies, dressed rabbits and large, meaty shrimps with heads. Near the door and the registers are stacked innumerable brands and styles of rice in hefty twenty-five pound sacks.

As I was paying for my shrimps I spotted something odd, a pile of gleaming white bags adorned with the Haitian flag. The news from the Haitian rice growing industry is not good, so this was a bit confusing. Until at least the late 1980s, Haiti was self-sufficient in rice production, but in recent years the sector has collapsed, thanks largely to the free trade strategies pushed by the United States as part of the neo-liberal plan. United States rice, produced with the help of a variety of agricultural subsidy schemes, began to appear on the Haitian market, undercutting Haiti's unsubsidized domestic rice growers. Haitian farmers, unable to compete on price, stopped growing and producing. The industry collapsed and withered. Recently, in the wake of the earthquake, Bill Clinton admitted that US policy on rice had been devastating and wrong, although he failed to extend his logic to a broader critique of neo-liberalism. "I have to live every day with the consequences of the lost capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people, because of what I did," he said. It is perhaps only a painful coincidence that Bill's home state of Arkansas is a center of US rice production; our country has been pursuing comparable strategies in the production and export of a broad variety of staple foods for the last thirty years. Under the circumstances I thought it highly unlikely that an enormous Chinese supermarket in Sunset Park, already overflowing with bags of rice from Thailand, Vietnam and Japan, would find the floor space for so elusive a specialty, so rare a commodity, as Haitian rice. Is there any Haitian rice still produced at all, and is any of it exported? I wondered.

The Haitian flag, the colorful red and blue motif of the bag, and a vaguely Asiatic almond-eyed version of Aunt Jemima all proved only to be part of a branding strategy. The rice was clearly marked as having been produced in Thailand, and was being sold as "Haitian Princess" brand Hom Mali Jasmine, my favorite variety. But the thai origin of this rice leads only to more questions. It is a strange choice, isn't it, to name your rice after a basket-case of a country, a small, impoverished Caribbean island nation? In Africa these days, small boutiques looking for cachet often calls themselves "Dubai Fashions," or "USA cellphone," associating themselves with the allure of those faraway Shangri-Las, but Haiti doesn't have such resonances of luxury and dominance. In fact, to make a possibly racist observation, it seems to me likely that few customers at the 61st street Hong Kong Supermarket would take away any particularly strong association from this bizarre packaging.

So what it is all about? The only hypotheses I can come up with are that this thai rice was packaged for sale within the borders of Haiti, or to spark the interest of aid organizations shopping for earthquake relief supplies. Perhaps a Bangkok rice executive read Clinton's remarks and saw an opening in the market. Somewhere along the distribution chain it was diverted. Maybe a container fell off a ship in the Red Hook container port, and so this rice ended up in Brooklyn. I couldn't resist buying a bag. I haven't cooked any yet, but I'll report later on its quality.

UPDATE: There is no question that semiotics is a theoretical discipline, not an exact science, and a recent trip to an ethnic grocery in Somerville, Mass., has me wondering whether there isn't something more to the Thai-rice-with-shameless-Haitian-branding story than I have yet uncovered. In the first place, this small purveyor of Asian and Caribbean necessities was also a stockist of "Haitian Princess" brand rice, meaning the stuff did not just get diverted from an aid ship to one random Asian supermarket in Brooklyn. But that's not all, they also had, right next to the Basmati, this:

Who the hell is the cockeyed Madame Gougousse, with her Picasso cubist-period nose, half pointed and half rounded, and her racially ambiguous slash mouth, twised grin and half-shaded face? Frankly, she looks like a satanic version of the Haitian Princess. Note also that the "Five Star Quality" legend written at the top in French, as well as the five stars themselves, are, font and size-wise, identical on the two bags. Only the colors are reversed, as they are in the polka-dotted Aunt Jemima do-rags both women are sporting. It turns out that Madame Gougousse doesn't only adorn rice, she's the mascot for an entire line of tropical products, and she even has her own facebook page.

I'm a firm believer that the simple and obvious solution will very frequently turn out to be the correct solution, but this is all getting so terribly complex that I'm having trouble imagining what that solution could possibly be. And as if Madame Gougousse wasn't enough, there's this:

Currently out of stock at this nameless Somerville grocery, but represented by an empty bag hanging above stacks of other brands, is Madame Roland's White Fragrant rice. Madame Roland has a pair of (partial) Haitian flags crossed above her head, on which she is thankfully not wearing a handkerchief, and seems quite clearly to be of African extraction.

I find it difficult to imagine that there are multiple competing Thai rice companies all vying for the Haitian food-relief market with these many variations on a theme. Evolution, in graphic design as in species, takes time, and I'm left wondering whether there isn't some much more ancient trade relationship about which I am so far ignorant. Perhaps, despite her objectively more demented graphics, Madame Gougousse is well-established, and the Haitian Princess, along with Madame Roland, is trying to ride on her coattails? Or was the now unavailable Haitian rice once so desirable that the Thais, who grow an excellent product themselves, tried to muscle in on the Haitian's export market, perhaps in francophone West Africa? Anyone who can illuminate us, please chime in.