Beneath the streets of Toronto

This story is called “Die Another Day,” and justifiably so:

A woman, crouched down, is at the very edge of the platform. Her toes are over the edge and she has her head buried in her hands. I’m afraid that calling out to her will startle her and she might fall, so I stand just beyond armslength away and desperately hope that she’ll look up at some point before I hear the sound of a train. She glances to the side just long enough that I’m able to make eye contact with her. I ask if she’s okay. She doesn’t respond, just shakes her head. “If you’re not feeling well, it’s dangerous to be that close to the edge,” I say. She shakes her head again. Her face is red — so red — like she’s burning up. I ask if she’s sick; she says she has a fever. When I offer her an Advil, she looks right at me and says “It’s not that kind of fever.”

I just know in my heart, immediately, that she has AIDS. I glance up at the clock. Due to the flood the trains are running less frequently and there isn’t one due for 4 minutes. I ask her “Is it okay if I touch you? Can I help you move back?” “No,” she says. I crouch down beside her, although not as close to the edge and still just beyond armslength away as I can’t gauge her mental state. “Why are you here?” I ask. She says it doesn’t matter. She has a fever all the time and it doesn’t matter. Over and over again, it doesn’t matter it doesn’t matter. I tell her that’s not true. That’s not true at all. “It matters to me. You matter to me.” She looks a bit spaced out and I’m scared she’s going to fall forward. I want to take her hand but I know that if that spaced-out look is her experiencing psychosis, I could be putting myself in danger of being pulled onto the tracks if she jumps. I look at the clock — 3 minutes.

In the late 1980s, when I was wrestling with the question of whether it wouldn’t be easier just to Get It Over With rather than continue to drag on in a state of severe emotional damage, I said that over and over again: “It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter.” Seeing it again here serves as a double shock to the system, reminding me of where I once was, and of the fact that others are finding it just as tough going through those same suburbs of Hell.

Disclosure: The author and I go back about fifteen years, to when she was a budding musician and I was a babbling idiot on Usenet.

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Dirty birds

Well, maybe not so much. But in 1915, when Dr George Levick wrote up his findings on the sexual habits of the Adélie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae) on Cape Adare in Antarctica, he couldn’t help but filter those findings through the mores of the time:

He was so shocked by what he saw he even wrote in Greek to disguise the information. ‘There seems to be no crime too low for these penguins,’ he wrote.

Levick described ‘little knots of hooligans’, penguins that hung around the outskirts of the colony, terrorising any chicks that went astray. He wrote, ‘The crimes which they commit are such as to find no place in this book, but it is interesting indeed to note that, when nature intends them to find employment, these birds, like men, degenerate in idleness.’

He observed and commented on the frequency of Adélie penguin sexual activity, autoerotic behaviour, the behaviour of young unpaired males and females including necrophilia, sexual coercion, the sexual and physical abuse of chicks, non-procreative sex and homosexual behaviour.

Or, as it’s called in 2012, “Saturday night.” Except maybe for the necrophilia, and eventually we found out that technically that’s really not what it was: they’re not actually into dead chicks, but apparently they don’t check for life signs before approaching. Bird motivations and human motivations don’t necessarily coincide.

Dr Levick’s report was not published with other studies from the ill-fated Terra Nova expedition, though more generic observations made it to his book Antarctic Penguins: a study of their social habits (New York: McBride Nast & Co., 1914). The report has now been published in the journal Polar Record at Cambridge, and it will cost you to read it.

(Via this syaffolee tweet.)

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No longer the hot topic

Tatyana has decided that she’s had it up to here with political discussions:

Only 6 months ago I was totally in the game, reading at least 10 political blogs and getting into online (and sometimes off-) debates on the hot topics.

But that was then. Now:

Maybe it is exactly my — at some time — close familiarity with people supposedly on the same side of political divide that disillusioned me, but my general attitude now run something like “plague on both your houses”.

It occurs to me that if the alleged leaders of those houses thought they could retain their power and perks, they’d gladly, even gleefully, welcome that plague.

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Eight digits and counting

Robert Stacy McCain and his faithful sidekick Smitty have now recorded ten million hits, a circumstance which calls for some recognition. And they got them the old-fashioned way, too: they busted their [insert euphemism here] to get the word out.

What? Envious? Me? Not in the least. I have neither the time nor the inclination to work that hard. However, I note semi-ruefully that McCain once had a post that garnered 438 comments, which exceeds any thread here by a factor of ten. Then again, if I wanted to read feedback all day and into the night, I’d try to wangle a job at Equestria Daily.

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How it’s done in der Vaterland

Admirers of European semi-socialism — sometimes without the prefix — look upon the high tax rates in the Eurozone as a feature rather than a bug, and they tend to be scornful of those nasty American companies who work so diligently to avoid taxes.

Then there’s the curious case of Volkswagen and Porsche. Former Porsche CEO Wendelin Wiedeking had masterminded an ongoing attempt to buy out the much larger Volkswagen group; it failed, Wiedeking was set free via golden parachute, and after the dust settled, the resulting corporate structure had the Porsche holding company, owned by the Porsche and Piëch families — the government of Qatar has a 10-percent stake — owning 50.7 percent of VW Group, which in turn owned 49.9 percent of Dr. Ing. h.c. F. Porsche AG, the Porsche unit that actually makes and sells cars. (The Porsche holding company owned the other 50.1 percent.)

This has stuck in Volkswagen’s craw for some time now, and earlier this year VW Group decided to buy out the rest of Porsche AG. The trick was finding a way to do so without incurring a ginormous tax bill, and apparently they’ve succeeded:

The way has been found, says Wirtschaftswoche. The out has its price: €118, or $148. That’s the price of one share of Volkswagen stock.

Under the new deal, Porsche SE [the holding company] receives €4.5 billion, and one Volkswagen share. If a share changes hands, then it’s not a sale, but a tax-free restructuring.

Now that’s ingenious. [whistles admiringly] These are apparently the rules in the Eurozone, and Porsche SE is organized under European Community regulations — hence “SE,” short for “Societas Europaea,” the official designation for such an operation. (Before you ask: “Dr. Ing. h.c.” was Ferdinand Porsche’s title, “Doktor Ingenieur [honoris causa],” reflecting the fact that his engineering degree from the Vienna University of Technology was honorary.) Volkswagen will own all of Porsche’s carmaking assets, and will save almost two billion euros in taxes. Warren Buffett, darling of the American left, couldn’t have played it any better.

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To borrow a premise from Augustine: “Lord, give me delayed gratification — one of these days.”

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Saturday spottings (much weathered)

The Big(gish) Storms on the 30th of May left their mark over much of the town; at least one house on every block, it seems, is sporting a sign advertising a local roofing company. And there’s still a lot of ex-tree debris piled up on various curbsides, which the city has vowed to remove as part of the monthly Big Junk pickup. Mine was picked up on Wednesday; they left only a couple of small sticks behind, which is better than I had any right to expect, given the essentially random way it was stacked up.

There are also a fair number of cars sliding around town with duct-taped plastic sheeting in lieu of actual window glass. I was caught this afternoon behind some poor old Mopar econobox that had lost both a rear window and the trunk-lid latch: the lid flew open under acceleration, then eventually dropped back down and bounced with the road irregularities. The road in question being May Avenue north of 30th, there were lots of irregularities.

In somewhat better shape was a Nissan I saw at a supermarket parking lot: a very old Altima — old enough to have received a Stanza badge, which means twenty years at least — with the series name spelled out in letters several inches apart: A L T M I A. Wait, what? This must have been one of the first models built in Amercia.

In somewhat poorer shape, I must assume, was the guy who pulled his ancient Mitsubishi into what he thought was a handicap space up front. Turned out to be the ramp to the entrance, and he came within a yard or two of actually driving into the store. Near as I can tell, he’d just been there, had left a bag of something behind and wanted to retrieve it, and this way store staff would have less distance to carry it. Managers were mobilized, and he was gone long before I finished filling up my cart.

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One hundred years of platitude

The courts of Moscow have decreed a ban on gay-pride parades through the year 2112, by which time one may safely assume that all the members of said courts will have vacated their seats.

The Bayou Renaissance Man finds this, to put it mildly, risible:

WTF??? You don’t like the cause for which protesters are on the streets, so you ban the protests for the next century??? I can’t think of anything more calculated to make the banners look ridiculous — and justify the protesters in the eyes of any sane person!

I suppose it’s too much to hope that the ban will end with the overthrow of the Priests of the Temple of Syrinx.

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Sitar hero

Today is the thirty-first birthday of sitarist Anoushka Shankar, daughter of Ravi Shankar (and half-sister to Norah Jones). Most of the pictures out there fall into two categories — either Hard At Work or Overly Glammed Up — so I looked for something to split the difference:

Anoushka Shankar

Both Anoushka and Norah were nominated for Grammy Awards in 2003; Jones won five, including Best New Artist, while Shankar’s Live at Carnegie Hall album was beaten out in World Music by Rubén Blades. Curiously, the 2002 World Music Grammy had gone to Ravi Shankar, for an album recorded live at Carnegie Hall. Go figure.

And for those of you who haven’t heard a sitar since George Harrison, here’s Anoushka playing one of her father’s compositions at the 2003 Concert for George, in memory of Harrison, who had died the year before.

This qualifies as Hard At Work.

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Greatest commencement speech ever

Okay, maybe not ever, but surely this is one for the ages. David McCullough Jr. addresses the Class of 2012 at Wellesley High in Massachusetts:

[C]ommencement is life’s great ceremonial beginning, with its own attendant and highly appropriate symbolism. Fitting, for example, for this auspicious rite of passage, is where we find ourselves this afternoon, the venue. Normally, I avoid clichés like the plague, wouldn’t touch them with a ten-foot pole, but here we are on a literal level playing field. That matters. That says something. And your ceremonial costume… shapeless, uniform, one-size-fits-all. Whether male or female, tall or short, scholar or slacker, spray-tanned prom queen or intergalactic X-Box assassin, each of you is dressed, you’ll notice, exactly the same. And your diploma… but for your name, exactly the same.

All of this is as it should be, because none of you is special.

You are not special. You are not exceptional.

Contrary to what your u9 soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you… you’re nothing special.

Yes, you’ve been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped. Yes, capable adults with other things to do have held you, kissed you, fed you, wiped your mouth, wiped your bottom, trained you, taught you, tutored you, coached you, listened to you, counseled you, encouraged you, consoled you and encouraged you again. You’ve been nudged, cajoled, wheedled and implored. You’ve been feted and fawned over and called sweetie pie. Yes, you have. And, certainly, we’ve been to your games, your plays, your recitals, your science fairs. Absolutely, smiles ignite when you walk into a room, and hundreds gasp with delight at your every tweet. Why, maybe you’ve even had your picture in the Townsman! And now you’ve conquered high school… and, indisputably, here we all have gathered for you, the pride and joy of this fine community, the first to emerge from that magnificent new building…

But do not get the idea you’re anything special. Because you’re not.

It gets better — one might even say Incredible — after that:

“But, Dave,” you cry, “Walt Whitman tells me I’m my own version of perfection! Epictetus tells me I have the spark of Zeus!” And I don’t disagree. So that makes 6.8 billion examples of perfection, 6.8 billion sparks of Zeus. You see, if everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless. In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another — which springs, I think, from our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality — we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement. We have come to see them as the point — and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole. No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even whether you win or lose, or learn or grow, or enjoy yourself doing it… Now it’s “So what does this get me?”

You know a kid who needs this speech. (You probably know an adult who needs this speech.)

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I blame Erasmus B. Dragon

Click and Clack will go out with a clunk:

TOM: And with Car Talk celebrating its 25th anniversary on NPR this fall (35th year overall, including our local years at WBUR)…

RAY: …and my brother turning over the birthday odometer to 75, we’ve decided that it’s time to stop and smell the cappuccino.

TOM: So as of October, we’re not going to be recording any more new shows. That’s right, we’re retiring.

RAY: So, we can finally answer the question, if my brother retired, how would he know?

There are enough old shows, of course, to keep the thing going for another 25 years, and to remind you not to drive like either of them.

(Dragon, you may recall, is the head of their Working Mothers Support Group.)

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Bucking proud

PBS’ Idea Channel floated this semi-defense of the brony community, suggesting that they may be “changing the definition of masculinity,” or something like that:

While I don’t take issue with any of their conclusions — and the brief image of Anaïs Nin riding Rainbow Dash put all sorts of notions in my head — I must point out that there is, in the current MLP television series, one classically (and of course stereotypically) masculine attribute, possessed to at least some extent by all of the Mane Six: they’re prepared to kick ass and take names.

Consider, if you will, the situation just after the midpoint of “A Canterlot Wedding.” The false Princess has been exposed, Celestia is temporarily disabled, the entirety of Equestria is about to be overrun with changelings, and the Elements of Harmony are pretty much inaccessible. Can half a dozen mares save the world as they know it? As it turned out, no; but that didn’t stop them from going full-tilt at the invaders. “A mare’s gotta do what a mare’s gotta do,” I said while watching the battle. There’s a lot to be said for simone-pure guts, even when they’re wrapped up in a pastel-colored package.

(Seen at DerpyHoovesNews.)

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Begun, the cola wars have

Almost any paragraph in James Lileks’ Tuesday Bleat about Nanny Bloomberg’s manifest obsession with the size of your Big Gulp could be celebrated as a Quote of the Week, but I figured that a proper QOTW would have to include the whole thing, and I’d just as soon not copy it all over here. (And I’m sure he’d just as soon I didn’t copy it all over here.) I will, however, reproduce one representative passage:

A culture that redefines food choices as moral issues will demonize the people who don’t share the tastes of the priest class. A culture that elevates eating to some holistic act of ethical self-definition — localvore, low-carbon-impact food, fair trade, artisanal cheese — will find the casual carefree choices of the less-enlightened as an affront to their belief system. Leave it to Americans to invent a Puritan strain of Epicurianism.

Besides, the Mickey D Must Die crowd, thinking themselves to be enlightened free-thinkers, would instinctively resist, even resent, being labeled as Puritans, which to me is one more reason why they should be.

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Compensation issues

Payback, they say, is a bitch. In the July Motor Trend, Kim Reynolds checks the papers on one of its puppies:

Every time I observe somebody calculating a hybrid’s “payback miles” — that is, its price premium (if you can figure that out) amortized by its mileage improvement — I cringe. For those who need simple answers, I guess it’s hard to resist, but the tradeoffs embodied by these cars are more complex than simpleminded division. Let me flip the conversation: How many people figure out the payback cost effectiveness of a concert-quality sound system? A bigger engine? Carbon-ceramic brakes? Nobody. But for some reason, the word “hybrid” brings the calculators out.

It’s based, I think, on the assumption that no one would buy these automotive hair shirts were it not for the deep-seated desire to avoid gas stations. But would-be buyers do the same calculations for diesel vs. gas, and nobody does the math for the Toyota Prius line, which sells about 20,000 copies a month, accounting for around half the hybrid market in the States — and which doesn’t have a nonhybrid version for comparison.

Then there are the oddballs like the Infiniti M35h and the late, lamented Honda Accord hybrid, which posted modest fuel-economy gains while being faster than their ordinary brethren. What’s the payback on zero to sixty in under six? Anyone?

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This was easy, sort of

After some uproar over her endorsement of a Mexican presidential candidate, Rebecca Black has been keeping a lower profile this week, taking a trip to Staples and mourning the death of Eduard Khil, the Trololo Man. (She’s admitted several times that she keeps a close watch on viral YouTube stuff.)

Rebecca Black for NOH8On the other hand, she’s apparently not overloaded with free time, since her ostensibly weekly “Ask Rebecca” series on YouTube has gone a whole month without the appearance of a new installment. (There have been three.) She did, however, unearth an outtake from her NOH8 photo session from last fall, in which she had her mouth duct-taped shut. (See, for instance, here.) And she did have a small role in this goofy Funny or Die video. Debbie Gibson’s in it too, which guaranteed my attention.

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He outranks Colonel Sanders

Breathes there a man with soul so dead, who never to himself has said: “Who the hell was General Tso, and why am I eating his chicken?” Now I know:

[It's] “the most famous Hunanese dish in the world.” That might come as news to chefs in Hunan, who apparently had never heard of it until the opening of China to the West in recent decades. The man generally credited with the idea of putting deep-fried chicken pieces in a hot chili sauce was the Hunan-born chef Peng Chang-kuei, who fled to Taiwan after the Communist revolution in 1949. He named the dish for a 19th-century military commander who led the suppression of the Taiping Rebellion, a largely forgotten conflict that claimed upwards of 20 million lives. Peng moved to New York in 1973 to open a restaurant that became a favorite of diplomats and began cooking his signature dish. Over the years it has evolved in response to American tastes to become sweeter, and in a kind of reverse cultural migration has now been adopted as a “traditional” dish by chefs and food writers in Hunan.

About that “largely forgotten conflict”:

The Taiping Rebellion was a widespread civil war in southern China from 1850 to 1864, led by heterodox Christian convert Hong Xiuquan, who, having received visions, maintained that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ, against the ruling Manchu-led Qing Dynasty. About 20 million people died, mainly civilians, in one of the deadliest military conflicts in history.

The General’s role in same:

When the Taiping Rebellion broke out in 1850, Zuo [Pinyin spelling], then 38 years old, was hired as an advisor to Zeng Guofan, the governor of Hunan. In 1856, he was formally offered a position in the provincial government of Hunan. In 1860, Zuo was given command of a force of 5,000 volunteers, the Xiang Army (later known as “Chu Army”), and by September of that year, he drove the Taiping rebels out of Hunan and Guangxi provinces, into coastal Zhejiang. Zuo captured the city of Shaoxing and, from there, pushed south into Fujian and Guangdong provinces, where the revolt had first begun. In 1863, Zuo was appointed Governor of Zhejiang and an Undersecretary of War.

In August 1864, Zuo, together with Zeng Guofan, dethroned the Taiping teenage king, Hong Tianguifu, and brought an end to the rebellion.

The Chinese apparently don’t eat a lot of General Tso’s chicken, having discovered in recent years the wonders of KFC.

(Via Nancy Friedman.)

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