March 2013 Archives

The Rabbit of Easter. He bring of the chocolate.

Happy Easter. A tale from David Sedaris (listen to him read it here), who casts all holidays in ridiculous and appropriate light.

Jesus Shaves by David Sedaris

“And what does one do on the fourteenth of July? Does one celebrate Bastille Day?”

It was my second month of French class, and the teacher was leading us in an exercise designed to promote the use of one, our latest personal pronoun.

“Might one sing on Bastille Day?” she asked. “Might one dance in the street? Somebody give me an answer.”

Printed in our textbooks was a list of major holidays alongside a scattered arrangement of photos depicting French people in the act of celebration. The object was to match the holiday with the corresponding picture. It was simple enough but seemed an exercise better suited to the use of the word they. I didn’t know about the rest of the class, but when Bastille Day eventually rolled around, I planned to stay home and clean my oven.

Normally, when working from the book, it was my habit to tune out my fellow students and scout ahead, concentrating on the question I’d calculated might fall to me, but this afternoon, we were veering from the usual format. Questions were answered on a volunteer basis, and I was able to sit back, confident that the same few students would do the talking. Today’s discussion was dominated by an Italian nanny, two chatty Poles, and a pouty, plump Moroccan woman who had grown up speaking French and had enrolled in the class to improve her spelling. She’d covered these lessons back in the third grade and took every opportunity to demonstrate her superiority. A question would be asked and she’d give the answer, behaving as though this were a game show and, if quick enough, she might go home with a tropical vacation or a side-by-side refrigerator-freezer. By the end of her first day, she’d raised her hand so many times, her shoulder had given out. Now she just leaned back in her seat and shouted the answers, her bronzed arms folded across her chest like some great grammar genie.

We finished discussing Bastille Day, and the teacher moved on to Easter, which was represented in our textbook by a black-and-white photograph of a chocolate bell lying upon a bed of palm fronds.

“And what does one do on Easter? Would anyone like to tell us?”

The Italian nanny was attempting to answer the question when the Moroccan student interrupted, shouting, “Excuse me, but what’s an Easter?”

Despite her having grown up in a Muslim country, it seemed she might have heard it mentioned once or twice, but no. “I mean it,” she said. “I have no idea what you people are talking about.”

The teacher then called upon the rest of us to explain.

The Poles led the charge to the best of their ability. “It is,” said one, “a party for the little boy of God who call his self Jesus and … oh, shit.”

She faltered, and her fellow countryman came to her aid.

“He call his self Jesus, and then he be die one day on two … morsels of … lumber.”

The rest of the class jumped in, offering bits of information that would have given the pope an aneurysm.

“He die one day, and then he go above of my head to live with your father.”

“He weared the long hair, and after he died, the first day he come back here for to say hello to the peoples.”

“He nice, the Jesus.”

“He make the good things, and on the Easter we be sad because somebody makes him dead today.”

Part of the problem had to do with grammar. Simple nouns such as cross and resurrection were beyond our grasp, let alone such complicated reflexive phrases as “To give of yourself your only begotten son.” Faced with the challenge of explaining the cornerstone of Christianity, we did what any self-respecting group of people might do. We talked about food instead.

“Easter is a party for to eat of the lamb,” the Italian nanny explained. “One, too, may eat of the chocolate.”

“And who brings the chocolate?” the teacher asked.

I knew the word, and so I raised my hand, saying, “The Rabbit of Easter. He bring of the chocolate.”

My classmates reacted as though I’d attributed the delivery to the Antichrist. They were mortified.

“A rabbit?” The teacher, assuming I’d used the wrong word, positioned her index fingers on top of her head, wiggling them as though they were ears. “You mean one of these? A rabbit rabbit?”

“Well, sure,” I said. “He come in the night when one sleep on a bed. With a hand he have the basket and foods.”

The teacher sadly shook her head, as if this explained everything that was wrong with my country. “No, no,” she said. “Here in France the chocolate is brought by the big bell that flies in from Rome.”

I called for a time-out. “But how do the bell know where you live?”

“Well,” she said, “how does a rabbit?”

It was a decent point, but at least a rabbit has eyes. That’s a start. Rabbits move from place to place, while most bells can only go back and forth—and they can’t even do that on their own power. On top of that, the Easter Bunny has character; he’s someone you’d like to meet and shake hands with. A bell has all the personality of a cast-iron skillet. It’s like saying that come Christmas, a magic dustpan flies in from the North Pole, led by eight flying cinder blocks. Who wants to stay up all night so they can see a bell? And why fly one in from Rome when they’ve got more bells than they know what to do with right here in Paris? That’s the most implausible aspect of the whole story, as there’s no way the bells of France would allow a foreign worker to fly in and take their jobs. That Roman bell would be lucky to get work cleaning up after a French bell’s dog -and even then he’d need papers. It just didn’t add up.

Nothing we said was of any help to the Moroccan student. A dead man with long hair supposedly living with her father, a leg of lamb served with palm fronds and chocolate. Confused and disgusted, she shrugged her massive shoulders and turned her attention back to the comic book she kept hidden beneath her binder. I wondered then if, without the language barrier, my classmates and I could have done a better job making sense of Christianity, an idea that sounds pretty far-fetched to begin with.

In communicating any religious belief, the operative word is faith, a concept illustrated by our very presence in that classroom. Why bother struggling with the grammar lessons of a six- year-old if each of us didn’t believe that, against all reason, we might eventually improve? If I could hope to one day carry on a fluent conversation, it was a relatively short leap to believing that a rabbit might visit my home in the middle of the night, leaving behind a handful of chocolate kisses and a carton of menthol cigarettes. So why stop there? If I could believe in myself, why not give other improbabilities the benefit of the doubt? I accepted the idea that an omniscient God had cast me in his own image and that he watched over me and guided me from one place to the next. The virgin birth, the resurrection, and the countless miracles -my heart expanded to encompass all the wonders and possibilities of the universe.

A bell, though, that’s fucked up.

Treehouses by Takashi Kobayashi, Japan

I’ve got a long obsession with (1) tree houses and (2) Japan. This short story and related photographs takes those two interests and smashes them together with vigor.

From designboom:

takashi kobayashi is a self-taught designer that has brought treehouse vernacular to the japanese landscape. the carpenter and architect of 120 houses throughout japan, his prolificness is borne of a deep-seated investment in the creation of a new architectural tradition in his country added to the hefty, overall aim of each project- to erode the boundary between man and nature. using reclaimed wood, the designer and his collective treehouse people have developed methods since the first building in 1993 for the arboreal structures balanced on living boughs and limbs that avoid stunting the growth of the tree.

A robust, low-cost particle monitor and data platform for evaluation of cookstove performance

Johnson M, Pillarisetti A, Allen T, Charron D, Pennise D, Smith KR. A robust, low-cost particle monitor and data platform for evaluation of cookstove performance. EPA Air Sensors 2013: Data Quality & Applications. Research Triange Park, NC: March 18-19, 2013.

forecast.io

Beautiful new service from the creators of Dark Sky. A number of cool things about it, including its beautiful visualizations and use of data from around the globe. Particularly, the developers note:

We’ve gathered hour-by-hour observations from tens of thousands of ground stations world-wide, in some places going back a hundred years. We expose it as a sort of “time machine” that lets you explore the past weather at any given location. We’ve also used the data to develop statistical forecasts for any day in the future. For example, say you have an outdoor family reunion in 6 months: with the time machine, you can see what the likely temperature and precipitation will be at the exact day and hour.

Their API sounds good, too, though I haven’t taken the plunge on that yet.

Now that we’ve developed a general-purpose weather API, we’re trying to compete with the other weather APIs available around the Internet. We’ve found those APIs to be difficult and clunky to use, so we’ve tried to make our API as streamlined as possible: you can sign up for a developer account without needing a credit card, and start making requests right away—you can worry about payment information when your app is ready. Additionally, we’ve lowered our prices so that we’re competitive with the other data providers out there.

Via DF

Tokyo Metro Posters

Back in 2008, the Tokyo Metro system launched a three-year-long campaign aimed at reminding subway passengers to mind their manners while riding the trains. It featured the slogan “Please do it at home” or “Please do it again” alongside an illustration of the featured manner or rule. All posters are written in Japanese and English, some featuring hilariously outrageous and sometimes confusing activities that make you wonder, “Do people actually do that on a train?!”.

Via The Loop

NYTimes: How beer gave us civilization

…[T]hese same lifesaving social instincts didn’t readily lend themselves to exploration, artistic expression, romance, inventiveness and experimentation — the other human drives that make for a vibrant civilization.

To free up those, we needed something that would suppress the rigid social codes that kept our clans safe and alive. We needed something that, on occasion, would let us break free from our biological herd imperative — or at least let us suppress our angst when we did.

We needed beer.

Read the whole article here.

via Vargo

Excellent Infograph in NYT: The Small-State Advantage in the United States Senate

from the first part of the related interactive article:

What is certain is that the power of the smaller states is large and growing. Political scientists call it a striking exception to the democratic principle of “one person, one vote.” Indeed, they say, the Senate may be the least democratic legislative chamber in any developed nation.

Behind the growth of the advantage is an increase in population gap between large and small states, with large states adding many more people than small ones in the last half-century. There is a widening demographic split, too, with the larger states becoming more urban and liberal, and the smaller ones remaining rural and conservative, which lends a new significance to the disparity in their political power.

And this little gem:

Beyond influencing government spending, these shifts generally benefit conservative causes and hurt liberal ones. When small states block or shape legislation backed by senators representing a majority of Americans, most of the senators on the winning side tend to be Republicans, because Republicans disproportionately live in small states and Democrats, especially African-Americans and Latinos, are more likely to live in large states like California, New York, Florida and Illinois. Among the nation’s five smallest states, only Vermont tilts liberal, while Alaska, Wyoming and the Dakotas have each voted Republican in every presidential election since 1968.

Happy Birthday, Douglas Adams

I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies: 1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. 2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. 3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

Google marked the birthday of Douglas Adams, raconteur supreme and creator of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, today with a pretty fun doodle. Beyond his comedic creations, Adams was a technologist-futurist and a conservationist. The doodle’s awesome — a fitting little tribute to DNA.

thanks to Dr. CLK for pointing the doodle out!

In Focus: Two Years after the Japanese Tsunami and Earthquake

The Atlantic:

In a few days, Japan will mark the 2nd anniversary of the devastating Tohoku earthquake and resulting tsunami. The disaster killed nearly 19,000 across Japan, leveling entire coastal villages. Now, nearly all the rubble has been removed, or stacked neatly, but reconstruction on higher ground is lagging, as government red tape has slowed recovery efforts. Locals living in temporary housing are frustrated, and still haunted by the horrific event, some displaying signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Follows up on a similar activity they did after one year. In fact, some of the before shots are the same — so you can see how things looked a year and two years after the devastating disaster.

Beautiful, devastating, and appropriate: Nora Ephron's Final Act

A moving tribute and farewell from son (Jacob Bernstein) to mother (Nora Ephron).

In the play my mother wrote, there’s a scene toward the end, in which McAlary, sick with cancer, goes to the Poconos to visit his friend Jim Dwyer, then a columnist at The Daily News. It’s a glorious summer day, and McAlary’s 12-year-old son, Ryan, wants to do a flip off the diving board, but he gets scared and can’t do it. So McAlary takes off his shirt, walks to the edge of the diving board and says to him: “When you do these things, you can’t be nervous. If you think about what can go wrong, if you think about the belly flop, that’s what’ll happen.”

And then McAlary does the flip himself and makes a perfect landing.

It’s a metaphor, obviously, for his view about life. And I’ve come to think it might as well have been about my mother. The point is that you don’t let fear invade your psyche. Because then you might as well be dead.

As she saw him, McAlary was a role model not so much in life, but in death, in the way that he used writing to maintain his sense of purpose and find release from his illness. In the six years my mother had MDS, she wrote 100 blog posts, two books and two plays and directed a movie. There was nothing she could do about her death but to keep going in the face of it. Work was its own kind of medicine, even if it could not save her when her MDS came roaring back.

Read the whole thing. Keep a box of Kleenex or a towel handy.

NYT Public Editor's Journal: For Times Environmental Reporting, Intentions May Be Good but the Signs Are Not

Margaret Sullivan, the fifth public editor appointed by The New York Times, on the recent closings of the Environment Desk and the Times’ Green Blog:

Here’s my take: I’m not convinced that The Times’s environmental coverage will be as strong without the team and the blog. Something real has been lost on a topic of huge and growing importance.

Especially given The Times’s declared interest in attracting international readers and younger readers, I hope that Times editors — very soon — will look for new ways to show readers that environmental news hasn’t been abandoned, but in fact is of utmost importance. So far, in 2013, they are not sending that message.

Understatement of 2013, thus far.

NYT, WaPo cut back environment coverage, since we're not worried about that anymore

Grist.org:

On Friday afternoon, The New York Times discontinued the Green blog, the paper’s one-stop shop for environment-related news. Then on Monday, the Washington Post announced it was pulling its star climate reporter, Juliet Eilperin, off of the beat and putting her on an “online strike force” covering the White House.

All of this can only mean one of two things: 1) The environment is fine, or 2) imminent global catastrophe is not as interesting as photo essays of matching, over-upholstered apartments in Manhattan.

R + Global Burden of Disease / Comparative Risk Assessment Data: A tutorial (version 0.1)

R can be scary for those new to it, but it is exceptionally useful for a number of things, including managing, importing, and merging text files; resaving them; and performing statistical analyses to your heart’s content. It is your friend, albeit one that you must learn to love slowly and painfully.

This brief tutorial does not serve as an introduction to R. Instead, it focuses on reading in a large, complex data set with ~1 million rows and 50+ columns. It was created to help facilitate some analysis in a GBD course at Berkeley. It will help you figure out how to do some basic manipulation and subsetting and export these subsetted data into a comma-separated text file (“csv”) for analysis in your favorite spreadsheet program. It is a work in progress and will be updated over time.

the Eames timeline

As part of an effort to save the Eames House and come up with a 250 year plan, the Eames Foundation is selling 500 copies each of 4 limited edition prints at 75 USD each. The prints are interesting and well-designed.

They’ve also got a great timeline up of the Eames’ achievements. Pretty cool and definitely worth checking out if you’re a fan of the Eames and their work.

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