Tuesday, May 27, 2008

getting ahead

A member of my family recently graduated from college. She got herself an excellent liberal arts education, achieving a GPA high enough to qualify for Cum Laude and getting Honors in her major as well. She made the right choice of school and right choice about balancing academic work with the rest of her life. In both cases she succeeded -- to her credit and for her benefit -- in avoiding an environment of hotly-competitive over-achievement.

The commencement program lists all the honors and awards which the seniors attained. Although my daughter has lots of friends in disciplines outside her major, there are a few in her class whom she never got to know even well enough to pick out in a crowd. One or two of these are the students with double majors, receiving honors in one or both, graduating summa cum laude with an award or two. She suggests she didn't know them because -- studious as they were -- they were invisible.

Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum has a nice piece today on the inevitable hyper-attention that's given this time of year to the rising high school juniors and seniors and their quest to get accepted at top-tier colleges and universities. She says the pressure-cooker lives that these stories depict exists in fact, but the children that suffer so much to shine in the eyes of admittance committees are actually a pretty small group out of the population at large. Nobody, not Applebaum even, says they are an elite, but that's what they are.

She does relate this frenzy to the competition among families in places like the UK and Korea where a single exam determines the fate of those who seek high academic prestige. This makes me think of soul-destroying competition in the top French lycées which we hear about from time to time.

You have to wonder what this intense focus on a single goal does to kids and their parents. Applebaum links to a front-page article in the New York Times about one small indicator: how many high school students skip lunch because, as one says, “I would never put lunch before work.”

This quoted young person, it turns out, attends the high school from which I graduated close to 50 years ago. In my day we thought we knew what mix of subjects, taken at Advanced-Placement level, with what level of success, and what combination of sports and extracurricular activities would give us the most acceptances in the colleges and universities to which we applied. I don't recall much if any parental pressure in my own home or those of my friends (one excepted). And, I don't recall that (a) we actually agonized over getting the highest grades in the most difficult subjects, or (b) made sure we had some exactly ideal mix of other credentials (though we did do lots of miscellaneous stuff). We certainly never sacrificed a lunch hour to any kind of work unless we were late with required assignments and totally frantic. Of course my memory about these things could be wrong. From the occasional reunion weekend I know that my high school classmates have quite different memories of the short period of life we shared together.

I do also recall thinking of myself as landing at "the bottom of the top" which is to say I found myself at the low end of an imaginary scale that showed the attainments of gifted kids in my own environment and (so it seemed from my scores on nation-wide aptitude and achievement tests) across the country. In all the turmoil of that period of my life (hormonal, emotional, social, above all simply transitional) I think that actually felt a pretty comfortable place to be.

Having said all that, I wonder why the New York Times (et al) do annual scare stories about over-stressed high school students and not college undergraduates. Why focus so much on the scramble for the small number of places in classes at the best of the best schools of higher education? Maybe it's because of the parents. They can and often do have pretty much total control over the lives of kids at home. (And this means, where I live now, that many compete for their kids' admission to schools at all levels, right down to kindergarten and even pre-school.) Parents have traditionally been less intensely involved in the undergraduate lives of their children.

There's been a change in the amount of this involvement in my lifetime I think. I recall next to none myself and believe it's been growing over the years since I attended college. But I expect the media focus on high schools is probably parent driven because I expect it's as much their ambitions which the children are supposed to fulfill as it is the kids' own and because they have the ability to act on their mania for vicarious success while the kids are still living at home full time.

I suspect this is not good for parents or kids, not at the time it occurs and not in the long run. Applebaum suggests there's a conflict between the societal quest for immediate gratification and the work discipline for an anticipated gratification in later life: two opposing ways of attempting to enact the American-dream "pursuit of happiness." I think there might be too much of both in our lives: too much focus on living happy and not enough on a good life lived well.

Here's a link to the Applebaum column with a brief extract:
The Busiest Generation, by Anne Applebaum, Washington Post, Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Thus our kids are both stupider than we were and harder working -- though perhaps this makes sense. America is, after all, the industrialized country with the fewest paid vacations, as well as the only nation, as far as I know, that considers the "pursuit of happiness" a fundamental right. We invented both the assembly line and the modern notion of "leisure." So welcome back to work today, if you even bothered to take yesterday off: Spring is here, the beaches beckon -- and you've got only a few weeks left to find an impressive summer job for your high school junior.
And here's a link to the NYT article, also with brief extract:
Busy Students Get a New Required Course: Lunch, by Winnie Hu, New York Times, May 24, 2008

At Briarcliff High School in Westchester County, many students eat in class. Others, citing heavy workloads, don’t eat at all.

High school students in this well-to-do Westchester suburb pile on four, five, even six Advanced Placement classes to keep up with their friends. They track their grade-point averages to multiple decimal places and have longer résumés than their parents.

But nearly half the students at Briarcliff High School have packed their schedules so full that they do not stop for lunch, prompting administrators to rearrange the schedule next fall to require everyone to take a 20-minute midday break. They will extend each school day and cut the number of minutes each class meets over the year. Briarcliff currently does not require students to have a lunch period.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

David Millar races Italy

David Millar, a world-class professional cyclist from Scotland, writes an interesting blog for his current team, Slipstream. Today's post is particularly good: The good and bad breaks of cycling. He writes about his experience in stage five of the Giro d'Italia in which he's poised to make a winning move when his chain breaks.

Millar's career has had its ups and downs. He's had a great deal of success and, like many of the guys who made it to the winners' podiums in top races, he was caught using a performance-enhancing drug, EPO. He confessed and was banned from competition for two full years. Now he's riding for the cleanest team in the sport -- one that proves its athletes are drug-free by constant testing of its own in coordination with the official testing of cycling authorities.

This year's Giro is one of the toughest ever run and all the more interesting because the number of potential winners is unusually large.

Cyclingnews provides a good review of the race so far. Notice that one of the top favorites is now racing with a fractured elbow. Here's the link: Giro enters second week with demanding time trial.

Pez Cycling News also provides good coverage. Today it features an interview with the guy who's (temporarily) in second place overall: Giro PEZ-Clusive: Matthias Russ Interview!

Here's are some photos of stage five from CyclingNews:

Riccardo Riccò (Saunier Duval-Scott)
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
(Click for larger image)
Stage four winner Mark Cavendish (High Road)
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
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Paolo Bettini (Quick Step)
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
(Click for larger image)
David Millar waits for the team car
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
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Pavel Brutt launches his winning move.
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
(Click for larger image)
Riders enjoyed stunning views.
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
(Click for larger image)
Liquigas has matching pink and magenta jerseys
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
(Click for larger image)
Oleg takes a "sip".
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
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Oleg Tinkov had his own champagne
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
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Paolo Bettini (Quick Step)
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
(Click for larger image)
Oleg Tinkov was overjoyed
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
(Click for larger image)
Daniele Bennati (Liquigas)
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
(Click for larger image)
Simoni and Giovanni Savio
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
(Click for larger image)
Emanuele Sella (CSF Group)
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
(Click for larger image)
Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner)
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
(Click for larger image)
Pellizott tucks his hair in
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
(Click for larger image)
Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas)
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
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Gibo Simoni signs autographs
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
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Pavel Brutt
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
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Best young rider Morris Possoni
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
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British champ David Millar (Slipstream)
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
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Fröhlinger has a dig
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
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Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
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Gilberto Simoni is relaxed
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
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Pavel Brutt (Tinkoff)
Photo ©: AFP
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Brutt in major oxygen debt
Photo ©: AFP
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The break of five approaches Contursi
Photo ©: AFP
(Click for larger image)

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

streetstyle bike culture

This bike site is doing a series of posts on cycling in Paris in general and Vélib' in particular. The blog's authors, man and wife, celebrate the high level of bike use in cities such as Copenhagen and advocate style over speed. For them "urban cycling is something to be done in your normal clothes and on normal bikes." To make their point they focus particularly on the huge numbers of women who have adopted cycling as as their normal way of getting about some of Europe's largest cities. Here's a link to today's post: Joie de Vivre Avec Vélo Libre. And here, the logo:

There, you can find this graphic showing the density of Vélib' stations in the city:

And a bunch of good photos. Here're a couple. In the first, notice that it's a rainy day.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

topsy-turvy economics

This is brilliant. An editorial in the AARP Bulletin tells how much our economic well-being has deteriorated in the last 12 months: One Year Later, a New World.

The piece says the world is complex, fully interconnected, and volatile, enhancing the need for individuals to do what they can to ensure their own financial security. Here's the main graphic and excerpts:

In just 12 months, unemployment has risen from 4.5 percent with a growing workforce to 5.1 percent and a shrinking workforce as millions stopped seeking jobs. The average price of a gallon of gas has jumped 53 cents to $3.44, and crude oil has nearly doubled from $64 a barrel to

$115. Inflation is growing; medical costs are growing faster. Stock prices have dropped nearly 15 percent, and housing prices have plummeted more than 10 percent, part of a spiral of delayed payments, defaulted mortgages and home foreclosures. Banks and lenders around the world are in full retreat.

The U.S. trade deficit and the federal budget deficit continue to mushroom, and the national debt is $9.4 trillion—up 10 percent in a year. And the value of the dollar has fallen another 15 percent, driving the cost of imports ever higher and shaking the confidence of foreign investors.

If there is turmoil in the markets, there is chagrin and anxiety at home. Amid all the statistics, it is workers, home-owners, spouses, children and grandparents who feel the impact of this wrenching sequence of events—in lost jobs, postponed retirement, reduced wealth, delayed medication, lower confidence.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Vélib' update

It's been a while since I've given an update on Vélib', the wildly successful bike-sharing scheme in Paris. Heavily used last summer, I expected a severe fall-off in usage over the winter months, but that does not appear to have been the case. What follows is an update from Paul DeMaio's bike-sharing blog:
Updated Velib' Stats

The latest Velib' survey results are available and posted on the Velib' Website. Just in case you don't parlez Français, here's a summary:

* Trips to date: 20 million
* Average trips/day: 70,000
* Average trip time: 18 minutes
* 190,000 annual pass holders
* 42% of users are female, 58% are male
* 1/3 of users come from outside the central city
* 17% of users are 46+ years old
* 94% of users like the service

These results are highly impressive. The stats that amazed me the most are the number of trips to date and the percentage of female users. As Velib' is not yet one year old, there are still about two months of trips still to be made which could equate to another 5 million trips, or a total of 25 million trips, before the anniversary of it's launch date of July 15.

Having nearly the same percentage of female and male customers shows how mainstream bike-sharing has become in Paris. In cities where lesser bike cultures exist, such as those in North America, males tend to dominate bike usage by 3 to 1. Women are less likely to ride a bike when concerned about their safety compared to men. Men also tend to be generally more risk-taking and will ride in less safe street conditions. While not 50/50, this male/female customer demographic shows that women are using Velib' confidently, so Paris has done a good job in creating safe bike facilities before the launch of the program.


image credit: Velib'
Posted by Paul DeMaio
Here are some women-on-Vélib' shots from a Google image search:

(Not a Vélib' bike, but I couldn't resist it.)

Sunday, May 11, 2008

nice guys finishing first

Last year, a retired American pro cyclist formed a new team based on a clean-living/no cheating philosophy and now that newbie US team has taken the first stage of Italy's premier stage race, the Giro d'Italia. The event is of a type which is one of the most prestigious within the national tour frame: a team time trial, where each team competes against the clock and the winner is determined on the fifth rider to cross the line. It's an extremely difficult event and the team's success is a major achievement.

The American ex-pro is Jonathan Vaughters and the team is Slipstream.

Here are links to accounts on the team blog:
- Having fun chasing excellence
- Argyle Armada wins TTT! Christian in pink!

The blog is written by members of the team and its support people, not promotional flacks. Notice that one of the commenters points to a contrast with the US Postal team where all the riders were slaves to Armstrong rather than working together as a team for the team's success. Another makes an obvious point: nice guys do sometimes finish first. Another comment comes from Andy Hampsten, a pioneer American race winner in Europe and former winner of the Giro when leading 7-Eleven, the first successful US team. To his cost, he refused to take performance-enhancing drugs during his career in the sport. He says: "Respect -- Let me join in thanking you boys for showing respect in all you do, and how you race. Its been 20 lousy years since we got any respect in Pink and now the other families can all see how it should be done. With honor. And in the Old Country too. Don’t forget to eat well while you’re there too."

The Wikipedia article explains the team's drug-free orientation in brief: Slipstream Chipotle.

Cyclingnews.com explains just how extra-thorough is the team's testing program: Independent testing to continue alongside UCI's 'biological passports'.

And here's a more detailed account of The Slipstream Experiment.

The team has a photostream on flickr: Slipstream Sports/Chipotle's photostream

This one shows the team's discplined paceline:

The first guy across the line gets to wear the pink jersey of race leader. It's Christian Vande Velde

This shows good time trial form. It's Tom Peterson (photo credit: Velonews):

Here's Andy in 7-Eleven gear in a photo by Graham Watson:

Friday, May 09, 2008

we buy, we sell, we make society around us

I saw this photo while thinking about a review in Spiked Online of a book on shopping: Con$umed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults and Swallow Citizens Whole, by Benjamin Barber.
(Click image to view full size.)

The photo is by Rachel Leow, who is "a fledgling historian trying to understand herself and the world." It appears in an entry of hers on a blog called a historians craft. Here's the link: bookporn #32: NYC bookstore (I): somewhere on broadway.

The book review is an unusually good review essay not just of the one book but of the whole topic it covers. It's by Josie Appleton, who is identified as convener of the Manifesto Club, a humanist campaigning network and is found here: The cultural contradictions of consumerism.

Appleton says there's much to like in Barber's book. However she questions its basic thesis that the US economy "infantilizes" Americans as mindless consumers who throw their money away on frivolous purchases instead of using it wisely to help solve the world's problems. She admits that "the biggest trouble with consumption is that we really are consumed by it – we can’t see beyond it, but can only push it away in disgust."

But she goes on to point out:
It is not so much that we have an ethic of consumption, but that – by default – it remains as one of the few meaningful experiences in our lives. There is a tangibility and satisfaction to buying – to picking out a new shirt or a new album and taking it home – that means that shopping remains for individuals a confirmation of their power to make things happen in the world.

The power of consumption has been usefully theorised by the Marxist sociologist Georg Simmel. In The Philosophy of Money, he looks at how buying an object is an act of individual subjectivity, the person stamping himself on a thing and claiming his right to its exclusive enjoyment. Simmel cited the example of a friend he knew who would buy beautiful things, not to use them, but to ‘give an active expression to his liking of the things, to let them pass through his hands and, in so doing, to set the stamp of his personality upon them’.
This thought brings me to my contemplation of the bookshop photo. I think there's something wrong with the theses pushed by both Barber and Appleton. Yes, we're participants in a consumerist culture and yes we're manipulated by advertisers and victims of our own primitive, acquisitive greed to acquire more and more stuff. But there's more to us, more that's good, than this broad overview makes plain.

First, individual expression exists in selling as well as buying. Notice that the owner of the shop has obviously set a personal stamp of personality on the place. And consider how many sellers the world now has, especially all those of us who participate in online markets, not just eBay and Craigslist, and half.com, but also give-away sites such as bookmooch and freecycle.

Second, consider the long tail of retail. Wal-Mart may inhabit the top in terms of sales volume and numbers of customers, but niches predominate: some are upscale, glossy, and high-tech; others mall-oriented ranging from haut-bourgeois to teeny-jeansey; and many exist to satisfy hobbyists, craftspeople, do-it-yourselfers, and all who buy to make rather than just to wear or display. And of course many cater to those of us who suffer from book-lust, particularly lust for books that are passed-by and long-forgotten. All this under-market consumerism isn't evidence of the Marxist ravages of rampant end-stage capitalism, I don't think, but a positive cultural phenomenon. We engage in buying and selling to express ourselves and the expression isn't all bad. Appleton and Simmel suggest this but don't appear to give this social effusion its full due.

So, here's to the contribution made by second-hand bookstores to make the world a more livable, humane, and maybe even civically-engaged place.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Bogey, Bacall, drunken Bill, and Raymond's big sleep

I keep a blog called Today in Literature in my aggregator. Today's article is on Faulkner in Hollywood. It's by the site's owner Steve King and it starts out thusly: "On this day in 1932 William Faulkner reluctantly arrived in Hollywood to begin work as a screenwriter, a labor that would last, on and off, for twenty years." The TinL formula doesn't give much space for extensive treatment of a subject. Still, I wish he had made room for my favorite anecdote on this subject.

Just after the close of World War II Faulkner worked on movies made from the famous detective novels of Raymond Chandler. One of the novels, The Big Sleep, was notoriously convoluted. In the movie, its almost incomprehensible plot was made even more difficult to follow by the absence of the hero as narrator; the whole complex mess had to be revealed to the viewer by dialogue. Worse yet, the producers decided to edit out a scene in which Chandler's detective, Philip Marlowe, runs down what's known about the case with a police inspector somewhere near the midpoint of the plot.

This situation generated the anecdote I missed seeing in the TinL article:
The most famous loose end in the story concerns a chauffeur, one Owen Taylor, who turns up dead in a water-logged Packard, "washing around off Lido Pier." Questions on the set arose as to who, in the carnival of conflicting motives that made the film a Chinese box of mayhem, actually did kill Owen Taylor? Hawks realized he didn't know, and successive calls were put in to screenwriters Leigh Brackett, Jules Furthman, and William Faulkner; they didn't know, either. Finally, Chandler himself was reached; no, he said, he guessed he didn't know, either. Editor Christian Nyby remembered years later that work on the film stopped for two days while a way out of this narrative cul-de-sac was sought. At that point, Hawks realized it didn't matter who killed Owen Taylor, and the film went ahead, its atmosphere of treachery somehow improved by the ambiguity.

There is a ton of good sites on "The Big Sleep," Chandler, and Faulkner in Hollywood. One, a blog by Bernard Schopen, I particularly recommend for bits of dialogue. Some of these bits are with an 18-year-old bombshell named Lauren Bacall, whom Humphrey Bogart, the actor playing the hero, would soon marry, but this one is with the other lead actress. Here's how Schopen presents it:
Behind the credits, a silhouetted couple light cigarettes, and then leave them burning in an ashtray. In the opening sequence, an unidentified hand and finger press in the doorbell buzzer of a mansion doorway. A hard-boiled, laconic, intelligent, and cynical private detective Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) arrives at a lavish mansion. [Bogart played the part of Marlowe only once.] The Los Angeles gumshoe is there to consult with wealthy, aging and dying, dessicated, wheelchair-bound "General" Sternwood (Charles Waldron), a rich widower:

My name's Marlowe. General Sternwood wanted to see me.

On the way in, he meets one of the General's two alluring and sexy daughters, the younger, troubled, errant, thumb-biting, frequently doped-up nymphomaniacal heiress Carmen (Martha Vickers), wearing a white polka-dot miniskirt. He notices her legs after she descends the stairs. Capriciously, she tells him:

Carmen: You're not very tall, are you?
Marlowe: Well, I, uh, I try to be.
Carmen: Not bad looking. Oh you probably know it. (while twirling and biting a lock of her hair)
Marlowe: Thank you.
Carmen: What's your name?
Marlowe: Reilly. Doghouse Reilly.
Carmen: That's a funny kind of name.
Marlowe: You think so.
Carmen: Uh, uh. What are you? A prizefighter?
Marlowe: No, I'm a shamus.
Carmen: What's a shamus?
Marlowe: It's a private detective.
Carmen: You're making fun of me.
Marlowe: Uh, uh.
Carmen (she leans back and falls into his arms, throwing herself at him): You're cute.
Bogey's most famous line in the film comes a bit later in his first scene with Bacall:
Vivian: You know, I don't see what there is to be cagey about, Mr. Marlowe. And I don't like your manners.
Marlowe: I'm not crazy about yours. I didn't ask to see you. I don't mind if you don't like my manners. I don't like them myself. They're pretty bad. I grieve over them long winter evenings. And I don't mind your ritzing me, or drinking your lunch out of a bottle, but don't waste your time trying to cross-examine me.
Kuusankosken kaupunginkirjasto, from Finland, has the best web page on Raymond Chandler. I leave it to you to find other pages on Faulkner, Chandler, Bacall and Bogart, and the rest.

Some publicity stills from various sites, including Bernard Schopen's blog. These are from "The Big Sleep":

Martha Vickers twirling her hair.

This is from the most famous scene in "To Have and Have Not;" it's unforgettable:

A couple of Faulkner shots from the brightlightsfilm site:

Faulkner's publicity photo for Sanctuary

Faulkner in Hollywood