We Feel Fine

We Feel Fine is, according to the web site, “an exploration of human emotion, in six movements.” The creators, Jonathan Harris and Sepandar Kamvar, have written software which trolls the blogosphere and gathers statistics about how people are feeling. More precisely, it scans blog posts for occurences of the phrases “I feel” and “I am feeling” and catalogs the results. At first it just looks like a random jumble of swirling circles (this mode is called “madness”), but it draws you in the more you explore. Click on murmers, and it starts showing random messages about how people are feeling, along with their locations and the time they wrote it. Eg. “i feel the sparks of a crush” or “i feel it is altogether more likely to happen than my other life ambitions.” Other modes tally up the feelings in interesting ways. Neat stuff. I’m a sucker for this kind of purposeless data mining of the ‘net.

Via Cool Hunting

Indonesia Earthquake Situation

indonesia-map-thumb.gifHere is a map and a report of the current situation in Indonesia. According to the report, between 4,500 – 5,400 people have perished (a more recent estimate put it at over 6,000) and the homeless population could be as much as 200,000 (a more recent report estimates as many as 600,000 people have been displaced). 9 out of 12 water treatment plants are down. This kind of devastation is just unfathomable to me.

This article, titled Smoke and Mirrors: Deficiencies in Disaster Funding (written in February, 2005, in the wake of the 2004 tsunami) talks of a need to change the way the world deals with disaster relief. They propose a new system: 1. UN relief agencies should be funded by member countries rather than having to appeal for donations after a disaster has struck. 2. Pledges for financial relief should be tracked to make sure they don’t fade once disasters recede from the headlines (and that they are not merely reallocations of existing relief funds pledged to other regions, or loans disguised as donations, or attached with unreasonable strings). 3. Vulnerability to disaster should be taken into account in economic development strategies (I assume they are referring to developing nations, but Katrina has taught us that the distance between the first world and the third is not as great as we might think, in the arena of disaster preparedness). They claim that in southern countries, where the economic cost of disaster are lower than in the north, but human costs are higher, the emphasis is not placed on examining the risk of disaster and protecting against its effects on infrastructure.

Until these plans are put in place, appeals for donations are necessary. Here are some links to well-known organizations’ donation forms:

Via ResourceShelf

Chocolate

If I could be said to have a vice, it would be fine, dark chocolate. Good thing too, since it is actually healthy (I happen to really enjoy red wine and coffee as well — all three are high in antioxidants). But the health benefits are beside the point. There’s nothing like breaking off a small square of 70% bittersweet goodness and savoring it.

valrhona_lenoir.jpg Le Noir 71% from French makers, Valrhona has been a dependable high quality choice for years. It has enough bitterness to be sophisticated, and just a hint of fruitiness to open up the palette. Trader Joe’s is the place to get this — they are somehow able to charge less than half what most do.

santander.jpgFor my birthday, along with a cd of music from the chocolate lands and a book about the chocolate barrons (my friends really know what I like), I received a bar of Santander 70% Columbian chocolate. This is really something different. It starts off fruity, moves into vanilla (or marshmallow) territory, slides into espresso roast, and finishes with a beautiful 50/50 mix of bitter and sweet. This one really changes if you exhale through your nose as you let it melt on your tongue. It may be a bit too sweet and candy-like to have on a regular basis, but so far I’m really enjoying it. It also happens to be an incredible value.

Enough with the Computer Voices Already

A number of electronic music podcasts I’ve been listening to use the Mac’s built-in speech synthesizer to narrate or introduce the show (even Harry Shearer has a corny bit with one once in a while on Le Show) and indicate the song information. Even though I enjoy these shows, this cliche is incredibly irritating. Just because Radiohead got away with it in 1997, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. “Fitter Happier” is the one track on Ok Computer I always skip. Spring for a $20 mic. No matter how much you hate your own voice when it’s recorded, it’s going to be less grating than “Vicki” or “Bruce”.

That said, I think it’s very cool that Mac OS X has assistive capabilities built-in.

The Stealth Veto: Presidential Signing Statements

I recently heard an interview with Boston Globe reporter, Charlie Savage, on NPR’s Fresh Air. Mr. Savage has written a series of articles about President Bush’s use of so-called “signing statements.” While this topic may sound about as exciting as chewing on a mouthful of cotton, it turns out to be quite interesting, and revealing of this administration’s desire to push the limits of power of the presidency. Bush has yet to veto a single bill that’s crossed his desk since taking office in 2001. There have been only 8 presidents who didn’t veto a single bill — the last one was James Garfield in 1881, who only served six months before being assassinated. This may be explained by the GOP control over the House and Senate only passing bills that are in line with the administration’s interests. After all, until recently Republicans have been known for their discipline.

However, that discipline has been fraying in the past year as the president’s popularity has sunk and the Iraq war has dragged on. Last year Senator John McCain introduced an amendment to the 2005 defense appropriations bill that would, in short, prohibit the torture of detainees. The White House threatened to veto the bill unless it made an exception for the CIA. Eventually, the bill passed and the president signed it. McCain called it a “done deal.” Probably due to the wrangling leading up to the bill’s passage, journalists (including Mr. Savage) decided to take a look at the final bill, and the President’s signing statement, expecting it to be pretty standard boring legalese saying “I didn’t like it, but I signed it and here’s the law.” Instead it effectively says (in standard boring, obfuscated legalese), “I interpret this part of the law to be meaningless, and therefore will ignore it, and instruct my subordinates to do so as well.”

Puzzling. If he didn’t like it, why not veto it? And so what, he doesn’t like it. It’s still a law, right? Here’s where the interesting part comes up. A signing statement is not just a place for the president to officially bellyache about something he didn’t like. It is an official interpretation of the law, instructing the executive branch how to implement it. And indirectly, the judicial branch, since it looks to signing statements for guidance on interpretation in court. Not only does it not (usually) attract all that nasty media attention (and the attention of Congress) that an official veto would, but a signing statement can also selectively interpret parts of a bill, effectively making it a line-item veto. Although Congress granted line-item veto power to the President in 1997, it was ruled as unconstitutional a year later and struck down by the Supreme Court. The President is only supposed to be able to accept an entire bill as is, or veto it and send the whole thing back to Congress.

After this statement came to light, Mr. Savage started looking at past statements, and found that this kind of thing has been standard operating procedure for this administration. George W. Bush has issued over 500 of them. While past administrations have used this tool in similar ways, none has been this aggressive in essentially reshaping laws to its liking.

The US Constitution states that the executive responsibility is to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” It seems that this administration has interpreted that to mean faithful to its own goals and ideology.

References:

Bay to Breakers 2006

[thumb:30:l][thumb:24:l]Today was San Francisco’s annual Bay to Breakers race. It is the longest consecutively running footrace in the world, having started in 1912 to boost the city’s morale after the great earthquake of 1906. It’s a 12k, with the course starting in downtown (the Bay), going straight through the city, through Golden Gate Park and ending at the shore of the Pacific Ocean (the Breakers).

[thumb:31:r][thumb:26:r]While it is a real race and people apparently take it seriously, the real fun is in the costumes that the less competitive participants wear. I had the pleasure of being a spectator and taking these photos, and cheering on Ally, Linda and Lynn. Congratulations on finishing, and for your most excellent costumes!

The Nostalgia of Sulfur

[thumb:8:r]For most, the smell of sulfur is the epitome of noxiousness. For me it brings back fond memories of my grandmother’s kitchen. Not because her cooking was bad or that she particularly favored eggs, but because in Iceland hot water is pumped directly from geothermal springs, giving it that distinct odor. The cold water however is completely odorless and is some of the best tasting spring water in the world, straight out of the tap. You did have to remember to run the cold water for a few seconds before using it, otherwise that sulfur taste would sneak in from the last use of the hot water. For the first few days after arriving in the country, you’d practically have to hold your breath while taking a shower, but eventually you’d get used to it. On our last visit the only time we smelled it was on a day trip to see the geysers (side note: the largest geyser in Iceland is called Geysir, meaning “erupts”, whence the English word geyser derives). The trend in modern plumbing is to heat the nice, odorless cold water indirectly with the smelly hot water. Some day nobody will wax nostalgic upon smelling sulfur.

Darfur

I’ve been thinking about the conflict in Darfur lately. It’s been a blip on the news radar for a couple of years and yet I still didn’t really know anything about it until doing some research to write this post. Here’s a summary of what I’ve learned.

Darfur is a region covering about the western fifth of Sudan, which is in north eastern Africa (south of Egypt). The region borders Libya, Chad and the Central African Republic (map of Africa). Sudan is Africa’s largest country and its main economic drivers are agriculture and oil. Potable water is in short supply and much of the north is desert.

The current conflict began in February, 2003, between nomadic, Arab gunmen, collectively called the Janjaweed, and non-Arab, mainly agriculturalist peoples. Rebels comprised of non-Arabs had accused the Sudanese government of oppression in favor of Arabs and attacked government installations. The government responded with aerial bombing and attacks using Arab militia, recruited from the Janjaweed (although the government denies any connection to the group). While there is an ethnic dimension to the strife, in that Arabs are pitted against non-Arabs, both groups are comprised of black Muslims. There is also great competition for land and water in the region.

Figures vary but reports are that between 300,000 and 400,000 people have died since 2003, from starvation, disease and violence. Both sides have been accused of human rights violations but the Janjaweed are more heavily armed (and I imagine have a tactical advantage in being mobile to begin with), and seem to have earned the bad guy rep. in the media.

There is controversy over whether to use the term “genocide” to describe this conflict. US officials have called it that, while UN investigators say there was no intent to commit genocide (so, is that “involuntary genocide”?). I wonder what the hesitation to officially use the term is, since clearly an ethnic group is being targeted. Would it trigger some kind of enforcement by peacekeeping troops?

This month, on May 5, the Sudanese government signed an accord with one of the rebel groups calling for the disarmament of the Janjaweed and the absorption of the rebel forces into the army. It was brokered in part by the US Deputy Secretary of State. I do hope this ends the tragedy, but I’m skeptical. The authoritarian government itself has been part of the problem, and continues to put up obstacles to foreign press coverage and arrest staff of relief organizations without charge. Not all the rebel groups were happy about this accord either, and things became more chaotic as they began fighting each other before the pact, in an attempt to gain territory before it was signed. Now these groups are accused of the same crimes against humanity that the Janjaweed have been (razing, killing, looting, raping, etc.). Makes choosing sides a bit harder, doesn’t it? Notice that no matter who the perpetrators are, women and children end up the victims.

So what can be done? It seems we’re stuck between not wanting another Somalia and not wanting another Rwanda. It seems to me that sanctions would just further victimize those we are trying to help. Numerous organizations show up in search results appealing for donations. But with the situation as muddled as it is I wonder what these organizations actually do (and whose agenda they serve).

I just keep thinking of the refrain at the end of Peter Gabriel’s song, Biko:

And the eyes of the world are watching now…

It was about apartheid but there was something powerful about the idea that the simple attention of the world can bring about change.

Cody's Books on Telegraph Shutting its Doors

The venerable Cody’s Bookstore on Telegraph Ave. in Berkeley will be closing on June 10th, after 43 years in that location. They say they’ve lost a million dollars trying to keep it open. The 4th Street location (one of the few Berkeley neighborhoods that has seen a steady increase in business, rather than a decline) will remain open.

They cite the internet and “economic concentration in bookselling” as reasons for their declining sales. An article in the SF Chronicle also points to Telegraph Avenue itself as part of the problem, mentioning the homeless and a new generation of students who don’t identify with the lingering air of the 60’s. I suppose those things can be off-putting if you’re new in town but in the decade I’ve been here Telegraph hasn’t changed at all. Aside from gentrification, the other thing 4th Street has is fairly ample parking, which probably draws more of the non-student residents.

It is a sad indicator for independent businesses in the country. If the closest, largest bookstore to a large university campus can’t make it in Berkeley, of all places, it just doesn’t bode well. Makes me want to walk down to my neighborhood bookstore and buy some books. Or maybe I’ll go to the library. Books are expensive.