Monday, July 31, 2006

Spam Biography: Beulah Ali

[Spam Biography: a biography is produced based solely on the fake name attached to a piece of mail that winds up in the Spam folder of my gmail account.]

Beulah Ali was born Beulah MacAlister in Belzoni, MS in either 1897 or 1898 to a farmer named Padrig MacAlister and his wife, Meaghan. She would later describe her childhood as "Small people living small lives in a small town. It was alright." In 1914, she won the title "Miss Saw Mill" and was sent to Cologne, Germany to represent American industry in the 1914 World's Fair (The infamous "Werkbund Exhibition," in which the first German-designed tanks were "jokingly" pointed directly at Serbia's table and sole representative - generally considered a small, but important incident in the run-up to WWI.). While there, Beulah met and fell in love with Jacques "Scimitar" Ali, the knife juggler at The Ottoman Empire's "Healthy Man of Europe!" Pavilion. As war broke out around them, Jacques and Beulah fled to his native Paris (Jacques was a French citizen of aristocratic extraction who had been hired by the Ottoman Empire for his robust mustache and willingness to change his last name) and were hastily married on the steps on Notre Dame.

Unfortunately, Jacques was drafted and sent to the front within weeks of their arrival in Paris. Beulah eked out a living by singing in clubs at night and weaving bandages for the war effort during the day. As the war dragged on, Beulah became well-known for her cabaret act, a set of self-penned songs in a mix of English and French that detailed - in quite explicit language - how happy she'd be when her husband returned from the trenches. She recorded "That Shot'll be Heard 'Round the World" in August 1918, on the eve of Allied victory. It became the unofficial anthem for the end of hostilities and the homecoming of millions of soldiers. Unfortunately, her own husband, Jacques, perished on the battlefield days before the Armistice. Beulah never recovered. She wrote and recorded a handful of songs after receiving the news, but destroyed the masters before they could be released. "They were my love letters to Jacques. I didn't want anyone to hear them," she said.

She retreated from the world, living in a small apartment in Montmartre off royalties and the kindness of a still appreciative public. She died in 1942 while working on her first new songs in over two decades. Only "Vichy Victory," a scathing critique of French collaborationism, was released. While suppressed, it became popular abroad and among the resistance. At her request, her body was interred in her family's cemetery in her native Mississippi. "Since I can't be with Jacques," she said, "Mississippi seems as bad as anywhere else."

Friday, July 28, 2006

Time Out...Time Out NY

This summer, Time Out NY has thrice (thrice!) gotten me to buy it with an interesting looking cover story. The first promised "Food Getaways." Now, when I think "Getaway," I think short, easy (e.g., "Go to Philly, and hit these ten spots over a weekend to become a cheese steak connoisseur."). They were, instead, offering advice on full-fledged vacations (e.g, "Fly to North Carolina, rent a car, drive two hundred miles to a strip of restaurants that's BBQ Heaven."). Since, I'm not sure if getaway really has the connotation of being quick and easy, I let it slide. Then, I bought an issue that promised interesting "staycations" in New York City. Y'know when I should have known that it was not going to be great? When it had the word "staycations" on the cover. Anyway, most of the "staycations" were kind of hectic and jam-packed (one would do a lot of subway riding) and fairly expensive...and kind of lame.

Last week's issue's cover says: "Why didn't we think of that?! How to make New York better by stealing the best ideas from other cities." I looked up, read that, and thought, "Hey, that's interesting." And I bought it. And most of the ideas are kind of bad. Or at least not needed. So, I'll provide a rebuttal for their top five bad ideas.

1. Downtown Minneapolis has tubes connecting buildings, so pedestrians stay warm in the winter.
Bad idea because: Minneapolis has a population of less than 400,000, and it has a longer, harsher winter. In other words: suck it up. The cost of building sky tubes to accomodate the millions of people in Midtown Manhattan including commuters and tourists for a (relatively) mild winter seems like it would be gigantic. Also: have you been to Yankee Stadium and walked through the tube that connects the parking lot? That shit is ugly.

2. We need something like London's Hyde Park, where people can stand on a soapbox and make fools of themselves.
Bad idea because: If you want to exercise free speech in NYC, make like the Black Israelites or Moondog and find a busy intersection. We don't need a publicly sanctioned, tourist-ridden spot to do it.

3. Herring is a popular snack in the Netherlands. We need herring as a snack food in New York City.
Bad idea because: You looked around NYC and decided that what it needs is herring? What? What! Herring? Fah!

4. Paris closes down an important road, fills it with sand on the Seine, and creates a beach. We should do that on the FDR.
Bad idea because: Maybe not a bad idea, just a really, really unnecessary one. Paris is landlocked. It's like 3 hours from the ocean (according to google maps). New York is not. Coney Island. Rockaway Beach. Orchard Beach. Knock yourself out. Wait: the French do this in August. Aren't the French famous for taking the month of August off? Meaning, wouldn't traffic be a million times worse in NYC, because not everyone is on vacation. I change my vote: bad idea. Bad idea.

5. We need a Waffle House!
Bad idea because: Don't you want to at least pretend that New York is special? That it's an individual place? You're suggesting that what New York needs is the regional chain that you visited when you were hungover in college? C'mon! Go to a diner or a coffeeshop.

This leads me to my real problem with the article. I'm not one of those "New York ain't New York if it ain't dirty" people, but New York is not just the sum of its parts. It has a character, and the people who wrote the article, in several places, just didn't account for that. This is worrying, because they, working for a publication that covers New York, should be best informed as to what makes New York special, and how it can be improved. Look at it like the Galapagos: New York evolved diners and coffee shops to fill the same evolutionary niche the Waffle House does in the South. Enjoy them. If you want to kill off all the finches by importing competitors, go for it, you heartless wretch. I don't.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Spotted at 'disiac on 54th nr. 9th.

-What's...uh...What's that?

-Up in the tree?
-Is that a?
-It is.

-It's a chair.
-In that tree.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Junk, junk, idiocy, bill, junk.

[Mail's here. Junk, junk. I've been pre-selected for an American Express Gold Card. You don't say. Fancy.]

[Aah. Tara's been pre-selected as well, looks like. Very exclusive. Wait a second.]
Me: Hon'?
Tara: Yeah.
Me: Take a look at this.
Tara: Ha!
Me: Where'd they get Pecanpie from?
Tara: Uh, that's my password for pretty much everything.
Me: I think you should change it.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Internal Monologue: Mayor Bloomberg Takes a Sunday Off and Bums Around

Good morning, New York City! Oh my, it's 12:05. Hmm. Good afternoon, New York City! Capital of the World. Time to take a shower in water consistently rated among the best of major American municpalities. Or should I? C'mon, Mike. Nothing to do today. World is your oyster. You can just sit around watching golf in your underwear. Plenty of people do that. Hmm.

I live in and efficiently manage the greatest city in the world, and I'm going to squander a day off in front of the television? No, thank you.


Okay, now what? 1 o'clock already. Hmm. Is it lunch or breakfast? Hmm. Never been a big breakfast person. But I do like coffee. You can have coffee at lunch. No law against that.

New York is the greatest city in the world to have lunch in. Get out there and eat some lunch!

Or perhaps I'll order lunch from one of the many exquisite places in this neighborhood, and have it delivered, likely by a member of one of the outstanding immigrant groups who have made New York, the bustling, thriving metropolis it is today. And I'll eat it and then I'll do the Times crossword puzzle. What a perfect way to spend an afternoon in the city with the biggest heart in America.

[Orders. Eats.]

Three letters. "Like an ostrich." Not today, my friend. E-M-U.

[A half hour later.]

Who knows this stuff? These words exist only in crossword puzzles.

[Puts puzzle down. Turns on the TV.]

Only 4 o'clock. Five hours till the Sopranos. Oh, no, they're done, aren't they? Not back for months. Dangit. I should work a Tony Soprano thing into a speech.

That's a dumb idea.

Rudy could've pulled it off. He prosecuted those guys. And his last name was Giuliani. Stay on target, Mike. Efficient management. That's what you're about. You efficiently manage the most vibrant city in the world.

[Flips idly for a few minutes. Settles on golf. Falls asleep]

[Wakes up.]

7 o'clock. Okay, Mike. You can do this. Just relax in front of the television. Just watch.

[Flips around for a moment.]

[Reaches for planner.]

There's gotta be something going on tonight. This is New York, Dangit. Nothing? Nothing. No dress gala? No museum opening? A car wash? Nothing. Jeez-louise.

I'll go see Superman. Everyone knows Metropolis is really New York. They shot in Australia, though. We're practically giving streets away to film crews, and they went to Australia to shoot Superman. Sheesh. Both Spiderman movies shot here.

[Flips around for a moment.]

Oh, heck, I'll go see Superman.

[placeholder: naked atms]

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Grups Award #3

Aaah, The Grups Award. For its illustrious history click here. It's given to ideas and articles that at first glance might seem insightful, but in reality are simple overgeneralizations. Today's Gruppy goes to New York Magazine for this article about happiness. It is filled with generalizations that are drawn from studies that may or may not be rigorous -- the first thing mentioned, which the author uses to tell us that New York City is an unhappy place, is an online test called the Authentic Happiness Inventory. Now, I'm no big city statistician, but because it's self-selecting, this has all the authority of an AOL "Is Brangelina pregnant? Yes/No/Maybe" poll. The doctor even says so: "But please appreciate—and this is a formal disclaimer—that these are not representative respondents." But the article still spends like the first four paragraphs on it, then mentions it a few more times.

It's a lazy, tangent-filled wreck of an article. It dips into the author's personal life before flying through some summaries of studies, before making a few more generalizations and "big picture insights." Then it makes it New York-centric, with some snark, before reversing its position and doing everything all over again. It is, in one convenient location, all the things that bother me about New York Magazine. So, it's winning a Grups award. Here's my running commentary on the article. Feel free to go page by page, and shout these things out, Mystery Science Theater style.

p. 1

- A self-selected group of people logged on and took a test. There is no significance to this test, as the group was self-selected, and, as admitted very small in some locations.

- What is this test, anyway?

- Stop talking about this test.

- The number of people who sign up for a class at Harvard is also not significant. Maybe it's an easy A.
- Wait, how can it be a recent phenomenon if that Smiles guy wrote a book in 1849?
- Has "positive psychology" existed under other names?
- Oh, wait, as self-help books?
- Describing the interest as "explosive" conveniently allows one not to cite a single real number.
- Name-checking Malcolm Gladwell does not make you Malcolm Gladwell. And he kind of has nothing to do with this.
- How is studying happiness a "boomer phenomenon" if all those Harvard kids are interested in it?
- Aaah, putting the pieces together. Self-help=dot com; George W.=positivity. I hate this magazine sometimes.

p. 2

- I still haven't don't know what the Authentic Happiness Inventory is or how it works, but it and its inventor, have been mentioned several times.
- "To wade into the literature on happiness is to wade into a world of control groups and volunteers, questionnaires and ratings scales, cases of the fortunate and cases of the medically extreme." I think you mean: "To wade into the literature on anything related to any trend in any social science is to..."

- A bunch of statistics and studies that aren't synthesized in any way. Or: "I did my homework."

- Wait, a lot of these studies are from before 1998? Umm, why are you still pretending this is a brand new field?

p. 3

- Some generalizations that may or may not be based on rigorous studies.
- "Because our imaginations are limited, we can be disappointed by the things we covet most." I don't think limited is the right adjective there. I don't think limitations have much to do with "being incorrect" in this situation. Wouldn't a limited imagination be more likely to lead you to things that would make you happy? Instead of dreaming about a house made of gold, you'd dream about the new CD you were going to buy.

- "Like most New Yorkers I know, I can’t imagine living in most other places in the world." This statement is a fakey generalization. "No, look, I was only talking about the ones that I know."

p. 4
- "Yet New York, as surprisingly neighborly a city as it is, is still predicated on a certain principle of atomization." I need numbers on this. I need you to demonstrate that New Yorkers have fewer friends and less social interaction than non-NYers.
- "Then there’s the question of the hedonic treadmill, such a demonic little term, so vivid, so apt. Isn’t that what New York, the city of 24-hour gyms, is?" Mixing figurative and actual treadmills is not cool.
- "More charitably put, one could say that New York is a city of aspirants, the destination people come to to realize dreams." Have you considered the notion that if - if! -NYers are less happy than the rest of the country (something you haven't proven), then maybe NYers would be even less happy in the places they came from. Maybe NYers are people who are, say, made unhappy by their families? You're pretending like the same set of inputs makes people happy in exactly the same ways, which is the most consistently annoying thing about this article.
- Based on a comment by Barry Schwartz, you're imagining that NY creates unhappy weirdos, instead of the other way around. Meh. I need more than a comment by Barry Schwartz.

- What's the jam story have to do with anything? I remember reading about food studies that suggested that one simply can't keep more than 7 or 8 tastes specifically in mind. Simple confusion is not the same as being paralyzed by choice ("Wait, did I like Jam 19 or Jam 16?"). Or unhappiness.

- "Yet most of us insist that New York is the only place we’d be happy, just as parents insist their children are their greatest sources of joy." Dammit, you have to back that "most" up. A lot.

p. 5
- And now, you contradict everything you wrote. Y'know I used to do that in college when I realized I only had three pages of a five page paper.

- Writer, please stop implying psychology focusing on pathology was/is a bad/incomplete thing. Do you criticize surgeons for not removing the appendixes of physically healthy people? Making sure that schizophrenics don't go crazy and kill people is more important (I think) than making sure a guy who's already happy gets nominally happier. In fact, that psychologists can focus on this, shows how far the pathology side of things has come, no?
- This guy's peddling self help books? Umm, didn't you say this was different from self help?

p. 6
- "(In fact, happiness researchers frequently use the equation H = S + C + V, or happiness equals our genetic set point plus our circumstances plus what we voluntarily change—a tad too reminiscent, for my taste, of a certain “Far Side” cartoon: “Einstein discovers time actually is money.”)" That's nothing like that Far Side cartoon. Umm. What the fuck?
- The English Patient? Where are you going with this?
- "Some of us are Hanas, some of us are Kips." BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Seriously. Did you just tell me there are two types of people in this world? You did. You didn't say, "There are two types of people in this world," but that's really what you said.

p. 7

- Stop writing about yourself.

- "Like every religion, movement, and interesting idea, positive psychology has its own creation myth." Someone needs to have all of her generalizations taken away from her.

p. 8

- "There’s an untold distance between knowing happiness and knowing about it." Umm...yes? You can put just about any thought/idea in that sentence. Poverty. Hunger. Sunlight. Hunting. Fishing. William Shakespeare. Peanut Butter.
- "And sometimes, to our blinking incomprehension, that distance can only be measured in the space between this life and the next." Oooh. [inhales] Oooh.

- "Until extremely recently, happiness wasn’t even a value, much less an inalienable right. Instead, it was something one got to experience only in death, after leading a virtuous, and often self-denying, life." What? 1) It isn't a "value" now, either. 2) It isn't an inalienable right (cough*pursuitof*cough). Are you really suggesting people weren't happy before 1998? Or 1776? Or...what?

p. 9

- I knew you'd get to the depressed = realist study! It's mentioned in that "Lincoln was depressed" book.
- Ah, and we end on a snarky note, naturally. "A psychoanalyst might even call him conflicted."

- Blech.

Monday, July 10, 2006

No Pictures Comix Presents: The Adventures of Second Wave Gentrification Man

["Making Neighborhoods Less Threatening!"]

[Wall Street Financial Analyst Mike McMichaels walks into a loft party thrown by a neighbor he ran into at D'Agastino's in last week's issue.]

Neighbor, looking suitably bohemian: Hey, glad you could make it...uh...I'm sorry I completely blanked on your name.

Mike: Oh, Mike. And you are Kurt, right?

Neighbor: Yeah.

Mike: So, what's the occassion?

Neighbor: Oh, just one last party. My landlord's raising the rent, so I have to move out. He's going to divide this space up into apartments.

Mike: Really? Do you know what they'll go for?

Neighbor: What? Uh, no.

Mike: This is a great space. [beat] I bet you had a great deal on it. [beat] "New York" said this neighborhood was "Up and Coming," but I wish it would already "Up and Come!"

[Neighbor glares at Mike.

Mike: Is there a good place for coffee around here?

Neighbor: There's that little place on the corner, next to the dry cleaners by the subway.

Mike: I know that place. I mean, like, y'know... [trails off]

[Neighbor glares some more.]

["Later that evening..."]

[Mike is walking down the street, and spots a homeless man.]

[He looks around to make sure there's no one else, then looks up in the sky.]

Mike: KAAAA-Ching!

[A lightning bolt descends from the sky and turns Mike into Second Wave Gentrification Man. He looks pretty much the same as Mike.]

[He walks over to the homeless man, and shoots gentri-beams from his eyes.]

[The homeless man turns into a squirrel who cocks a curious head at Mike, then hops away.]

[Mike walks up to a gated storefront. He waves his hand over the gate and it disappears, revealing a sign that says "Pollo Azteca."]

Mike: Not in what has only recently become my neighborhood.

[More gentri-beams.]

[The sign changes to read "Dandelion Cupcake, Co."]

Mike: That's better.

[The End.]