Saturday, February 28, 2009

two days in the life of a conference-goer

I'm taking a couple moments to note that academic conferences make for terrific arm-chair sociology and cultural anthropology, by which I really mean terrific arm-chair psychoanalysis. Here at the 11th annual conference of the Society for Phenomenology and Media, there are about as many such opportunities per capita as one might expect, but maybe somewhat less.

I was scheduled for first thing Thursday morning. On the way here, I finally returned a message to the conference organizer, who asked if I would be willing to present later that day. I said I was, and I was grateful, because my loveliest and I had been up since before 4 am, and would be traveling for more than 12 hours, etc., etc. (it's not longer from Turlock to DC than from Helsinki - where our furthest-flung participant comes from -, but you can't get anywhere from Turlock). I was shifted to Thursday afternoon sometime. That didn't sort out, by the time we arrived at the conference, so I was put in a slot Friday over lunch at a café where they do poetry readings and such, as a weird addendum to a panel my theme didn't fit. The problem there was that I wouldn't be able to connect my laptop's audio jack to their sound system to play the ads that are central to my presentation (on political campaign ads and news coverage).

So I would be "sometime in the afternoon," which turned out to be right after a paper, without any warning. I was a little flustered, but got Yaptop (my laptop's nickname) up and running without too much ado. I felt like I was visibly shaking. It took all of my introduction, and showing the first ad and news piece before I settled into the stuff I was doing and could relax (this same thing happens before every single class session, with the significant difference that I usually know when class starts). The ads and coverage went over well. The ads were from the Elizabeth Dole-Kay Hagan NC senate race from 2008, in which Dole, in the final days of a losing campaign (she had to explain why she supported the Bush agenda, which was unpopular even in NC), disseminated ads on TV that insinuated some connection between Hagan and a group called Godless Americans.

The whole trip is pretty insane, and can be seen (along with another, randomly selected news story montage about atheist ads) in a youtube playlist I put together (I can't seem to get youtube to save them in order, so it's not in the order I presented them).

I won't get into the analysis here. It seemed to go over pretty well, too, and generated some good questions and feedback, for which there wasn't time to discuss.

Then we went to a brew pub so loud it was difficult to hear the person sitting right next to you, and which was gigantic in every way - the size of the store, the size of the kettles behind the bar (no doubt as props), the size of the portions and prices, the faces of patrons, the TVs above their heads tuned to various sports and newz channels. It struck me, at the time, as incredibly oppressive. I didn't want to be in noise after my two days.


I'm also thinking about the difference in the way I prepare for a day of teaching and the way I prepare for a day of conference-going - the kinds and levels of tension I feel, where it locates in my body, how it focuses attention, how I dress, how I arrive (walking in both cases, thankfully), and what my expectations are.

Friday, February 20, 2009

the budget to end all budgets

Early Thursday morning, the state legislature finally voted for a budget deal through 2010. It raises income tax 0.25% and raises sales tax 1% - both regressive taxes - and cuts about $15 billion in spending, including cuts to education funding.

In the 1970s, when California was the future, the state spent more on education than any other in the US. California schools were also the envy of every other state, renowned worldwide, and understood by politicians, government officials, and the public at large as the best investment we could make in the state's economy. Now, California's per-student expenditure on education is 49th among 50 states. Sometime soon, spending on prisons will exceed education.

The budget deal also calls for a special election on propositions allowing the state to eliminate the requirement that lottery funds all go toward education, and to impose a spending cap on the state. If the spending cap passes, and since there is no political will to cut spending on prisons, and the prison population continues to increase, one of the few discretionary parts of the budget - education - will have to be cut more as prison spending goes up.

I'm not an economist, so the logic of this escapes me. Spending on the CSU, we've learned, ultimately repays the state more than four-fold, because people with college educations earn more, thus they spend more, and also pay more personal income tax, property tax, etc. So, I'd think, funding education, including higher ed, is a way to increase the state's revenue. But apparently, for reasons I can't fathom, putting money into prisons, where inmates don't earn incomes, where they don't contribute to the productivity of the state's workforce, is somehow a higher budget priority.

That's not to say I'm necessarily anti-prison. I don't think I'm an abolitionist. I imagine that there are people who are deliberately criminal, rather than out of desperation or insanity.

But really, is this the best we can do for our society?

Anyway, it's Friday, and I'm off to cellblock H campus.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

if you like the global economic depression, you'll love...

... the global drought. Of particular interest to me:

And talking about drought gripping breadbasket regions, don't forget northern California which "produces 50 percent of the nation's fruits, nuts and vegetables, and a majority of [U.S.] salad, strawberries and premium wine grapes." Its agriculturally vital Central Valley, in particular, is in the third year of an already monumental drought in which the state has been forced to cut water deliveries to farms by up to 85%.

Observers are predicting that it may prove to be the worst drought in the history of a region "already reeling from housing foreclosures, the credit crisis, and a plunge in construction and manufacturing jobs." January, normally California's wettest month, has been wretchedly dry and the snowpack in the northern Sierra Mountains, crucial to the state's water supplies and its agricultural health, is at less than half normal levels.

It has rained a lot this week, and it looks to continue to rain later this week and the weekend, but seasonally, we're down about half of our normal precipitation, following two years of similar conditions.

The quotation above misstates, or, better, hyperbolizes, regarding the reduction in water deliveries. The state has taken some fairly draconian measures - like 85% cuts in deliveries - but most ag areas get most of their water from local irrigation districts. Mass-scale fallowing of land is restricted to only a few areas, mainly in the Southern Central Valley, particularly in the Western portion of Kern County. From what I understand, that's not terribly good or vital ag land anyway. Up here is where we should be concerned, especially those of us who like almonds, peaches, apricots, grapes and grape products (if ya know what I mean). Water deliveries by irrigiation districts have been cut here too, but not nearly as much.

There's another side of this, too. When you wander around the San Joaquin Valley in the morning, between, say, April and October, you see field after field and orchard after orchard covered in several inches of water. Because, you see, they still use flood irrigation here. I don't know what it would mean here, but a study comparing drip irrigation to furrow irrigation in Uzbek cotton fields concluded the increased water use efficiency of drip irrigation was (depending on local conditions) between 34 and 104%.

Maybe we'd consider doing something like that in the most important agricultural region in the nation, and perhaps the world? You know, to avoid turning it into a dust bowl? Anyway, it's a refreshing change of pace from the usual news of fiscal disaster and political obstructionism.

Meanwhile, California agribusiness thanks you for your patronage. Please enjoy our nuts.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

an open letter to a concerned California teacher

Dear Jeanne Caldwell,

I see you and your attorney husband are appealing to the US Supreme Court to hear your lawsuit against UC Berkeley for violating the separation of church and state. Berkeley has a web site presenting information on evolution, and from that site one can link to a page which presents an argument that evolution is not incompatible with religious positions about divine creation. That, according to you and your husband, is a violation of church and state.

I realize that your argument is that the violation is that it contradicts a your religious position that evolution and (your) religion are contradictory - that is, that it says something about the relationship of science to religion that your religion disagrees with. But I think you've hit on something much deeper.

You see, you're absolutely right that religion and the state should be divided by a wall of separation. In fact, the UC Berkeley web site should not have mentioned the issue at all, since there is no scientific controversy about evolution: evolution is the only scientific theory of the development of life. Religious views have no place whatsoever in the discussion, as your law suit helpfully points out. You no doubt support the independence of all public schools from any incursion of religion, too. For instance: no instruction on creationism in biology classes. I'm right, aren't I?

The only way the state can protect your religious freedom is to keep the state free from any religious affiliation at all. Equal protection, right? Which of course means removing "under god" from the Pledge of Allegiance - another move I'm sure you're ready to support, since obviously the mention of god in the Pledge affiliates the state with religion.

While you're at it, maybe you should sue the federal government for granting tax money to faith-based social services groups that discriminate in employment, which would be a violation of federal equal opportunity statutes for a public agency to do. That's an obvious case of a violation of the separation of church and state, innit?

Wow, there's a lot for you great activists for liberty and the constitution to do! I can only wish you the best of luck, because there are lots of people who seem to think the separation of church and state is a principle they can bend and twist in all sorts of shapes to basically any particular outcome they want.

Yours in the Jeffersonian spirit,
Doc Nagel

Thursday, February 12, 2009

relaxing and enjoying my shoes

I gots me new shoes.

Last Christmas, my loveliest gave me a pair of hot pink high tops from a sweatshop-free clothing company called, obviously enough, No Sweat Apparel. There stuff is 100% union made - including not only the people sewing stuff together, but the vendors who sell them the materials - all the way down. The pinks were a limited-edition breast cancer awareness and research item, and I really love them. I love them so much, I decided to look into getting a couple other pairs from No Sweat. Sadly, once I got to their shoes, I found that they are sold out of my size (which is 13) in any color but red and pink - which they are closing out. So I picked up two spare pairs of the pinks, and the red ones featured here.

They're dandy. They're also my MoJo shoes, as you might be able to read on the label. The tongue spells out the MoJo connection for you: Mother Jones, the great muckraking and activism rag. Brilliant!

And now I can put them on and declare to the world: I got my MoJo workin'! Even more brilliant!

Sunday, February 08, 2009

what I learned at Disneyland

I learned a few things at Disneyland, mainly about myself, but also about Disneyland.

1. I don't like roller coasters.

After getting in the car to drive back from Disneyland to Harbor City, I told Lauren, "It turns out that if you want to make me miserable, you can put me in a vehicle I can't control, stop be from being able to see which way it's going, and then make the ride turbulent and really loud." Basically, a roller coaster is everything I hate about air travel (except for 'security') and everything I hate about going to the movies, rolled into one.

Lauren suggested this was mainly a psychological issue about control, but to me a key factor is perception. If I can look forward and out of a vehicle, I don't mind it. I like boats, for instance. I enjoyed being in a teeny tiny two-seater prop plane. I don't mind being a front-seat passenger in a fast-moving car, as long as I can predict where the vehicle will go and can see where it's going and it's not incredibly rough. Take one of those away, and I'm less happy. Take all three away, and you've got a foolproof recipe for making me miserable.

2. I really like carousels.

I had no idea. I'm not certain I've been on an honest-to-Moose carousel before, because I think I would have remembered. Carousels always looked like pleasant, but rather dull, rides. Indeed, it wasn't thrilling riding the big Mary Poppins carousel, but it was much nicer than it seemed it ought to be, if that makes any sense. For as simple and un-thrilling as it is, just going in a circle, it was inordinately pleasant.

3. Disneyland's main purpose is to sell you Disneyland.

I suppose I should've seen this coming. After all, I'd read Peter Steeves' "A Phenomenologist in the Magic Kingdom" before, and remembered his sense of the packaging and sale of experience as a fundamental feature of Disneyland. But I wasn't prepared for the full reality. Every major ride ends in or immediate in front of a souvenir shop selling you ride-related crapola. Famously, Space Mountain ends at a video display of stills of you riding the thing, and a booth where you can plunk down 15 bucks for a copy of the image - selling you your own experience.

Steeves also points out the obvious self-referentiality of the place, which if anything is apparently on the increase (Small World now includes Disney characters, for instance). But more than that, what Disney sells you is your trip to Disney, your being in Disney - at every single moment. It's rather like ads on TV telling you to watch TV, or ads in the mall for the mall, telling you how great it is being in the mall. The big tagline all over the place was "Celebrate Today."

4. Ultimately, amusement parks don't have anything I need.

This is rather sad for my loveliest, because she grew up with and adores Disneyland. I can see that, I really can. I didn't grow up with it, or with other amusement parks. We went to Cedar Point in Ohio all of two or three times when I was a kid. I went to Disneyworld sick as a friggin' dog when I was 9 or 10. I don't have warm childhood associations with it, and unlike Mexican restaurants (the only childhood memories of which were of traumas at my parents' favorite dive in Toledo, called Loma Linda), there isn't something inherent to amusement parks that I can learn to love.

I don't mean that it was a terrible experience, or even mostly bad. I liked Pirates of the Caribbean. It wasn't disturbingly Disneyfied to the point of being hard to take. I was never accosted by a guy in a Mickey suit.

Plus, you know, it's $69 to get in to the place.

Monday, February 02, 2009

goin' to Disneyland

In all frankness, I can hardly believe that I'm going to Disneyland on Wednesday. (If you're there, say hi!) And that about sums it up.