Thursday, 26 June 2008

Pulp Orwell

Jason Lundberg just blogged about a wonderfully lurid and pulpish book cover for Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in 1954 by Signet, that he happened to randomly find on Amazon. Significant is the artwork and over-the-top copy on the back, which is quite different from almost every other edition of this novel that I've seen.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Shipping children by postal mail: illegal since 1913

From the Smithsonian's Flickr stream of historic, public domain photos, a shot commemorating the end of being able to ship your children by postal mail:

This city letter carrier posed for a humorous photograph with a young boy in his mailbag. After parcel post service was introduced in 1913, at least two children were sent by the service. With stamps attached to their clothing, the children rode with railway and city carriers to their destination. The Postmaster General quickly issued a regulation forbidding the sending of children in the mail after hearing of those examples.

Monday, 16 June 2008

I Can't Sleep Because

Because my brain has trouble getting rid of bad memories. They could be old memories or new ones, if they pop into my head, I experience the same anxiety (or close to it) as if that thing had happened recently. When that happens, I feel a slight tightness in my chest and that cascading sense of worry begins to grip me, making sleep very difficult.

For days after that, going to bed comes with a similar sense of foreboding, even if the memory has gone away. In a sense, my psyche has "learnt" to associate falling asleep with the anxiety of the bad memories. Every night I don't fall asleep perpetuates and strengthens that learning.

The key is to break the chain and unlearn this anxiety. But how?

Another issue I'm dealing with right now, is a dislike of situations where life is celebrated on any spontaneous level. It's not a suicidal tendency per se, it's more an eschewing of any situation where people are excited by something, and seem to be enjoying themselves. I don't begrudge them their excitement, nor do I envy it (though, interestingly, I'm aware I should be envious), but I am anxious to get away from it, in order to go somewhere quiet and non-invasive.

I'm also finding people harder and harder to deal with. I can do a phenomenal job engaging with people, genuinely and naturally, but in terms of forming a bond or initiating a connection, I favor isolation every time. I crave companionship, but I can't stand people with their demands and their noise and their cluttered lives. It feels like such a burden.

For the most part, I function well with people, and even enjoy myself without really trying. I mean, despite the sourpuss connotations of this post, I am a lively, engaging and entertaining person. I'm just concerned that as time goes by, my taste veers more towards isolation than integration.

I know I've said this many, many times before...but the next few months should be telling.

Friday, 13 June 2008

Being a Man

Human males have yet to evolve flesh-eating sperm like some animals, but their biological imperative for sex has made them into the creatures they are today.

By T. C. Flory

The animal kingdom is crawling with kink: threesomes, sadomasochism, spontaneous sex changes, and coital decapitation, for starters. There are also male ducks with corkscrew-shaped penises and sea creatures that shoot acidic semen leaving their partner pregnant and covered in burns. Nature even has its own date rape drug: the Great Barrier Reef's yellow slug delivers a sedative to its desired mate with a quick penile stab.

It's all in the name of successfully passing along genes -- much like these creatures' human counterparts. The male of our species has yet to evolve flesh-eating sperm, but their biological imperative to sow their seeds has led to similarly mind-boggling behavior, like paying $2,150 for seduction seminars. Faye Flam, a science reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, charts this carnal quest in "The Score: How the Quest for Sex Has Shaped the Modern Man," and details the trade-off experienced by most males: They invest less than females in reproduction, but pay for it (among humans, sometimes literally) by working harder to have sex in the first place. After all, some male mammals need only ejaculate, while the female is responsible for gestation and nursing.

In addition to engaging in pop-culture discussions (like Christopher Hitchens' assertion that women aren't funny) and scientific meditations, Flam also infiltrates a pickup artist's boot camp, tours the world's only penis museum (Iceland's Institute of Phallology), and grills experts on the sex lives of our Stone Age ancestors. There's very little that escapes her survey of men's sexual selves, including pornography, monogamy, parenting and homosexuality.

We spoke with Flam by phone from her desk in the Philadelphia Inquirer's newsroom.

In your book, you mention the idea that everybody -- including animals -- wants to be the male when it comes to sex. Why is that?

It has to do with a couple of common male traits that run through the whole biological world. One of them is that the sperm are smaller than the egg and for most male animals that translates into not having to invest as much energy or work into the babies. Everybody wants to do less work. It's a universal laziness.

You really only have a chance to see that sexual choice play out in these crazy sea worms that can be either male or female. Before they have sex, they fight it out, and the winner always plays the male role. Most other animals don't get the chance to fight for the right to be the male during reproduction.

There are a few animals that turn the tables and the female sticks the male with all the work. More often than not, though, the females not only have to either incubate the babies or create the eggs, but they also end up stuck with more of the work. The males can pass on their genes without investing quite as much.

What about the question of pleasure. Does that play into the male sexual advantage?

It's hard to say what is going on in animals' heads when they're having sex. Who knows whether it's any more pleasurable for these sea worms -- if they feel any pleasure -- to be the male during sex, and that's why they fight over the position or whether it's just an instinct.

One of the funny things about sex is that we have an urge to do it, we want it, but it doesn't always turn out that well. You can chase and chase after someone, but it doesn't necessarily mean the sex will be particularly pleasurable. That may be something that's going on with a lot of men. But they chase it anyway.

Your book mentions the idea that sexual anticipation, rather than realization, might give us greater pleasure.

They're doing a lot of research in an area called neuro-economics where they're looking at what really gives people pleasure and why we spend our money the way we do. Apparently, an animal's brain really reacts and the pleasure centers turn on during the period when he's anticipating a reward, not when he actually gets it. That's a growing area of research right now and it applies well to sex.

Pickup artist Mystery's "Venusian Arts" -- which you point out should technically be called "Venereal Arts" -- loom large in your book. Does it have a biological basis?

The pickup artists illustrate a couple of things really well. First, they illustrate the idea that because males invest less in offspring, their success in evolutionary terms is more tenuous. Males are more likely to get completely frozen out of reproduction. So they are likely to end up evolving to chase after sex in a way that females might not. The pickup artists illustrate the way that men are likely to invest a lot of their money and time in going after plain old sex.

Second, there were some things they did that psychologists believe might really work -- and they would probably work for females, too, in some cases. Their concept of playing hard to get was tested in a lab. There was a speed-dating setup in which people pretty successfully guessed how picky their opposite-sex counterparts were. The participants they liked the most were the ones they thought were the pickiest. So, projecting that you're picky could actually be helpful.

The pickup artists also attempt to play on people's tendencies to copy each other. They would show up somewhere with a lot of female friends, so that women would look at them and think, "Wow, he must be popular. Those women must see something in him." That's also something that works on some animals. A researcher actually surrounded male birds with fake female birds, and the real females went for the males surrounded by decoys. The females were attuned to thinking they had to have what everybody else wanted.

You mention some people's desire to return to the "simple" days of hunting and gathering, when men and women had strict sex roles. How accurate is this popular perception of those times?

I had a long interview with an archaeologist, James Adovasio, who co-wrote a book on the topic called "The Invisible Sex." He exploded all of these myths. From what we know from archaeological records, and modern people that hunt and gather, women were pretty independent. They could get fish, small animals and plants on their own. They really weren't dependent on men -- at least to eat, anyway. The idea that somehow in the old days the men's hunting was so terribly important is a myth. Our picture of prehistoric man was built up during the late 1800s, so it was a reflection of what men thought life should be more than what it really was.

That opens the way for a lot of interesting evolutionary forces. If women aren't dependent on men then they can afford to be picky, they can decide to only mate with the men who are skilled singers, attractive or good fathers. It puts men under an evolutionary pressure of a different kind.

It's a commonly made assertion that testosterone is "poison." How has that idea been challenged?

I traced the term "testosterone poisoning" to Alan Alda, of all people. He used it in an article for Ms. magazine and it really caught on. Subsequent research suggests testosterone simply needs to be balanced. If you shoot yourself up with lots of testosterone, that's probably going to really hurt your health, but if your testosterone gets too low, it can also be associated with health problems and depression. It looks like there is a healthy amount for men.

The level of testosterone a man has ebbs and flows over the course of the day and his lifetime.

Speaking of testosterone, why did risk-taking evolve in men?

That's the subject of a lot of speculation in evolutionary psychology. A lot of it comes down to showing-off behavior. It's a peacock type behavior -- among peacocks, the male with the best tail gets all the females. It's possible that over the long history of humanity men who did incredibly risky things and survived would be like the peacock with the best tail. They would be the heroes, whether it was for beating up someone from an enemy group or hunting a dangerous animal.

Males are under more evolutionary pressure than women to stand out from the crowd. Every study shows that men are more likely to do risky things of all kinds. Women simply have a little more common sense when it comes to drinking, driving, guns -- that sort of thing.

What are we to make of the fact that the Y chromosome is actually shrinking?

I've talked at great length to the first scientist to propose that the Y chromosome was shrinking, and she was shocked that people got so up in arms about it. It would take millions of years or maybe hundreds of thousands of years for it to completely disappear -- in any case, it won't cause males to go extinct. We know of two other mammals that have actually lost their Y chromosome and, somehow, they keep making males and females. Scientists aren't sure what they're doing, but there must be some new genetic switch that creates males.

Do alpha males exist in human society as they do in the animal world?

In animals like gorillas and chimpanzees and dogs, it's much more clear-cut -- the alpha male has to beat everybody else up. Then he gets access to all the females. You can see similar stuff happening with humans, but instead of the tough guys, it's the artists, rock stars and actors who get all the attention.

Some animals have alpha females, but it's not too common. The bonobos, one of our closest relatives, have alpha females. They're actually more powerful than the males. The females dominate the whole group.

What inspires monogamy and fatherly behavior in animals?

It can have something to do with how much care the offspring actually need. If you're a male bird and all of your offspring are going to die if you don't take care of them, then your genes will not pass on to the next generation. You will be a Darwinian failure. In that case, only males who stick around to help will manage to pass on their genes.

In some cases, like in some fish, the females just abandon the eggs, and if the male doesn't take care of them, they won't survive. Sometimes the female turns the tables.

And humans are somewhere in the middle when it comes to sex and commitment?

Currently, yes. There's a lot of monogamy and paternal care, but we're not quite as monogamous as birds and some other animals. Women can have sex, have babies and get by without a man. Monogamy depends a lot on social groups and whether you have help in raising offspring. Humans are so flexible. There are ways women can work around the need for fatherly care.

In a lot of groups, there is serial monogamy. In a lot of cultures around the world it's pretty common that people go through a couple relationships in their lifetime. People can be monogamous but not mate for life.

You raise the possibility that DNA paternity testing and contraceptives could, respectively, change men and women's sexual drives. Can you explain that?

It goes back to the common themes that run through males and females. One of those is the uncertainty of paternity: Females know which baby is theirs, males don't necessarily. Paternity testing might make men more afraid of certain types of sex, like sex with women they would like to never see again. It might not make them less interested in sex, but rather more circumspect about whom they have sex with.

On the other hand, it could be that women have traditionally been more circumspect about sex because, until more recently, ending up pregnant was an ever-present possibility. Birth control takes away some of the risk.

What might cloning and artificial insemination mean for men's and women's sex drives?

Both would probably have a similar effect in that they would amplify men's perceived risk of not having any kids. It might make their evolutionary existence even more tenuous. Women could have reproductive independence. A man can't use cloning to have a baby but women could, in theory.

It seems it could make men even more competitive. I think it makes men insecure, the idea that in the future they could be left out of the equation completely.

This article originally appeared on Salon.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

How much sleep is ideal?

Studies show that people who sleep between 6.5 hr. and 7.5 hr. a night, as they report, live the longest. And people who sleep 8 hr. or more, or less than 6.5 hr., they don't live quite as long. There is just as much risk associated with sleeping too long as with sleeping too short. The big surprise is that long sleep seems to start at 8 hr. Sleeping 8.5 hr. might really be a little worse than sleeping 5 hr..

Morbidity [or sickness] is also "U-shaped" in the sense that both very short sleep and very long sleep are associated with many illnesses—with depression, with obesity—and therefore with heart disease—and so forth. But the [ideal amount of sleep] for different health measures isn't all in the same place. Most of the low points are at 7 or 8 hr., but there are some at 6 hr. and even at 9 hr. I think diabetes is lowest in 7-hr. sleepers [for example]. But these measures aren't as clear as the mortality data.

I think we can speculate [about why people who sleep from 6.5 to 7.5 hr. live longer], but we have to admit that we don't really understand the reasons. We don't really know yet what is cause and what is effect. So we don't know if a short sleeper can live longer by extending their sleep, and we don't know if a long sleeper can live longer by setting the alarm clock a bit earlier. We're hoping to organize tests of those questions.

One of the reasons I like to publicize these facts is that I think we can prevent a lot of insomnia and distress just by telling people that short sleep is O.K. We've all been told you ought to sleep 8 hr., but there was never any evidence. A very common problem we see at sleep clinics is people who spend too long in bed. They think they should sleep 8 or 9 hr., so they spend [that amount of time] in bed, with the result that they have trouble falling asleep and wake up a lot during the night. Oddly enough, a lot of the problem [of insomnia] is lying in bed awake, worrying about it. There have been many controlled studies in the U.S., Great Britain and other parts of Europe that show that an insomnia treatment that involves getting out of bed when you're not sleepy and restricting your time in bed actually helps people to sleep more. They get over their fear of the bed. They get over the worry, and become confident that when they go to bed, they will sleep. So spending less time in bed actually makes sleep better. It is in fact a more powerful and effective long-term treatment for insomnia than sleeping pills.

Wrong Directions, Right Intentions

This is a wonderful article: insightful and sensitive.


CAIRO — Emad Refaat strode out of his workshop with purpose, his grease-covered hands pointing down the road even before he could see the road. “Come here,” he said, his voice strong with reassurance. “Go to the light, make the first right. That’s Salah el-Din Street.”

“I am sure, totally sure.”

But he was wrong, totally wrong. “I wanted to help. I was actually going to tell you to ask the flower vendor on the corner. He knows all the streets,” said Mr. Refaat, 28, who was slightly embarrassed when he was asked why he gave the wrong directions with such conviction.

Navigating Egypt can be a challenge of understanding, and not just language but also culture, values, norms. A pile of trash may look like litter to a foreigner, but it is a commodity to poor people who recycle and reuse almost everything. In Egypt, it is routine, absolutely routine, to get the wrong directions.

That is not because people are mischievous, but because if you ask for help, they feel obligated to try to help — even if they send you off in the wrong direction.

There is a lesson in this confusion that has more value than merely cautioning tourists to bring a map, sociologists, political scientists and intellectuals agreed.

The United States’ relations with Egypt are strained. From the man on the street to the president, rightly or wrongly, Egyptians are feeling disrespected by Washington.

It is not just about the invasion of Iraq, or the perennial feeling of favoritism for Israel, or the mild critiques coming from Washington about Egypt’s lack of democracy. It is what people here see as the demonstrated failure to understand how they think, what they value — even when those values mean sending someone off in the wrong direction.

Egyptian society values hospitality and personal honor over precision and directness; there is a kind of emotional camouflage that Egyptians wear to get through their days. Drivers act as if no one else is on the road, but almost always smile and wave after a near collision.

“Here, even if someone sends you in the wrong direction, he still feels that he did what he was supposed to do,” said Hamdi Taha, head of a charity, Karam al-Islam, and a professor of communications at Al Azhar University. “He doesn’t think he misguided you. He helped. Right and wrong is a relative thing.”

It is the little things that can be hardest to understand. But it is the little things, especially at a time when people are angry with the big things, that can stoke people’s ire, Mr. Taha said.

Even with people you might expect to be on America’s side.

Like Ghada Shahbendar. She is an outspoken, English-speaking rights advocate who has tried to prod the Egyptian government to be more democratic, more open and less repressive. But even Ms. Shahbendar was offended by President Bush’s remarks last month at the World Economic Forum in Sharm el Sheik.

Mr. Bush came to the podium with little credibility among Arabs, that is a given. But his indirect criticism of Egyptian politics set off a national chorus of protest. People were offended because Mr. Bush, with all his own baggage, stood in Egypt and criticized Egypt, Mr. Taha and Ms. Shahbendar said.

“We are emotional people,” Ms. Shahbendar said. “A criticism of a regime that represents us, whether we are in agreement with that regime or not, sparks negative emotions.”

It is a complicated line that officials must walk when they try to balance the values of foreign countries against the values at home. When Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, wrote a letter to Mr. Bush, the language was the kind of flowery prose common in Iranian communication — but quite different from the very direct communication of American English. It was widely mocked as sophomoric.

In Egypt, the recently departed United States ambassador, Francis Ricciardone, was well regarded by Egyptians on the street and in high office because he spoke the way they did — with effusive praise for his hosts. But this got him in trouble at home.

In February 2007, the ambassador was interviewed on Egyptian television and displayed his characteristic guest-in-the-house behavior. “Egypt today is very different from Egypt during the 1980s, both economically and politically,” he said at a time when it was clear that the government was backpedaling on political reforms. “There is more freedom and there are more intense, aggressive discussions.”

He was then blasted back in the United States for sounding like an apologist for the government. His term ended abruptly at the three-year mark. He left Egypt last month.

“Most Egyptians like him because we believed he liked us,” Ms. Shahbendar said.

Egyptians want democracy. Mr. Bush talked about democracy. But it is not at all clear that both sides were talking about the same thing. Magdy Mohammed, 22, an engineering student, was hanging around a coffee shop in Tahrir Square recently when he reflected on democracy. “If democracy brings us food we can afford, and a government that really cares about its people, then this is what we want.”

What he and others say they most want is fairness, rule of law, to no longer be victims of a system that links opportunity with connections and the ability to pay bribes. He was not talking about free elections. “This is what you do in America, but your leaders are no better than ours,” he said.

There have been numerous times when American officials have been blindsided by the little things in the Middle East. When the United States first organized a police force in Iraq, officials purchased uniforms with baseball caps. But the Iraqis were infuriated and embarrassed because they wear berets, not caps.

When Karen P. Hughes, then the under secretary of state for public affairs, told women in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, that they should be able to drive and to “participate fully” in society in 2005, she was met with hostility from her handpicked audience.

It is those kinds of assumptions — that the citizens of foreign countries want to be liberated by America and live like Americans — that can really get under people’s skin. Egyptians may give out wrong directions — but only when they are asked for directions.

Mona el-Naggar contributed reporting to this New York Times article.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Geoducks are Strange

Check them out. Geoducks are the weirdest creatures I've ever seen.

Keith is an Alien

Keith says:

Here's something that's kinda strange, maybe you can help. Here's a link to a picture of my tongue. Perhaps other readers can help me out.

I've had these things hanging under my tongue all my life. Only recently have they been bothering me. I've been accidentally biting them and/or getting them caught on my lower teeth. It hurts a lot when this happens. Nobody else I know has these, except for my 5-year-old son; I figure it's genetic. As an adoptee though, I have limited access to my genetic history. My birth mother says that she doesn't have these. Anyone out there have these? Anyone have them removed? I searched Gray's Anatomy online, and of course have googled, but haven't found anything on this. Any tips or information would be appreciated.

Anyway, if you could post this, cool, I'd like to hear what others have to say about it.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Too Dumb to Decide

Sure, ignorance is rampant among the American electorate, as Rick Shenkman argues. But without The People, there would be no Democracy as we know it.

By L. Bayard

"Just How Stupid Are We?" There's no getting around the provocation of that title, and if your mouth is already forming the words, "Not stupid enough to read this book," then pause and give author Rick Shenkman his proper due. By questioning whether American voters have the capacity to think straight, he has ensured that he will never win an election and probably won't scare up a lot of readers, either. But at a time when Obama and Clinton and McCain have been hustling around the country trying to feel the common man's pain, it's oddly bracing to hear someone argue that the common man is a pain.

If nothing else, it flies in the face of a great many clich├ęs. "The people have spoken." "The people are always right." "Government of the people ... by the people..." Well, you know the rest. Or maybe you don't. Because, according to Shenkman, Americans don't know a hell of a lot, and some of us are, by any available metric, D-U-M dumb.

"No one thing can explain the foolishness that marks so much of American politics," writes Shenkman, former journalist and founder of History News Network ( "But what is striking is how often the most obvious cause -- public ignorance -- is blithely disregarded ... We feel uncomfortable coming right out and saying publicly, The People sometimes seem awfully stupid."

For starters, they know nothing about government or current events. They can't follow arguments of any complexity. They stuff themselves with slogans and advertisements. They eschew fact for myth. They operate from biases and stereotypes, and they privilege feeling over thinking. The result is a political system of daunting irrationality, and rational people like Rick Shenkman are paying the cost.

Don't look for things to get better, either. With the decline of political bosses, party machines and labor unions, the hoi polloi no longer have anyone telling them how to think -- even as polls, referendums and ballot initiatives place an ever greater premium on their opinions. "Nothing in our past experience," writes Shenkman, "justifies the belief that people in these circumstances are up to the task that history has now given them ... Our confidence in democracy rests on a myth."

Stated this baldly, Shenkman's thesis has the sting of novelty, but in its rough outlines, it's no different from what Alexander Hamilton was arguing more than 200 years ago. Indeed, as Shenkman usefully reminds us, our constitutional history betrays from the very start "a constant tension between faith in The People and contempt for them." Madison and Jefferson may have talked a good game, but many of the Founding Fathers lived in terror of mob rule, which is why, under the original Constitution, only the House of Representatives could be directly elected.

If it had been up to conservatives, that would still be the case today. Indeed, until Nixon and Reagan seized populism for anti-populist ends, America's right wing (the late William Buckley included) had very little use for representative democracy. By contrast, Shenkman argues, liberals actually swallowed the myth of mass wisdom and so were all the more stunned when The People turned on them for such crimes as embracing the rights of women and minorities. The upshot is that we are now "in the pitiful position that neither liberals nor conservatives are prepared to say to The People: stop and pay attention. Liberals cannot because their ideology leaves them unprepared to find fault with The People. Conservatives have not because The People repeatedly put them in power."

But are The People really such a bad bargain? We can all, of course, muster at least anecdotal evidence of American stupidity. We've seen "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?" We've watched Jay Leno flummox bystanders with the most basic questions. ("How many doors in a four-door sedan?") I know of more than one journalism professor who's been forced to quiz students on current events because tomorrow's news reporters don't actually follow today's news.

But the more Shenkman tries to define our stupidity, the more slippery it becomes. Short-sightedness is part of it, he says. Boneheadedness, wooden-headedness, good old-fashioned numbskullery. But where are the statistics to show we are living in "an Age of Ignorance"? We're told that students forced to listen to NPR for a whole hour liken the experience to "torture." Depending on the hour, I might agree with them. A study finds that 22 percent of Americans can name all five members of TV's "Simpsons" clan, but only one in 1,000 can name all five First Amendment freedoms. I'll admit I'm among the 999 -- on the spot, I couldn't come up with "petition for redress of grievances" -- but what exactly makes these fact sets worth comparing, other than that each numbers five? Is a widespread familiarity with the most intelligent and subversive comedy in American TV history really a cause for despair?

Shenkman has an equally tough time gauging our irrationality (though, again, each day brings fresh evidence). He criticizes voters for measuring economic success by employment and not productivity, as economists do. But isn't employment how the economy manifests itself to the average citizen? Similarly, Shenkman considers voters irrational for buying into George H.W. Bush's "no new taxes" pledge. Surely, though, that makes them not irrational but credulous.

And in truth, the condition that Shenkman seems to be anatomizing is not so much stupidity as malleability. Americans are very good, he says, at being manipulated and lied to (to buttress his point, he offers a brief history of political ads) and we're equally good at lying to ourselves. Is it any wonder, then, that our current president was able to ram such an ill-advised war down our throats?

But again, this won't quite pass. A sizable number of Americans opposed the Iraq war from its infancy, and a majority of Americans opposed it once it became clear the Bush administration had trumped up the casus belli. The 2006 congressional elections and the dismal state of Bush's poll rankings are persuasive testimony that the masses, one way or another, are tuned to the world around them.

At any rate, representative democracy is a hard genie to put back in the bottle. As Shenkman admits, with more than a touch of rue, "We cannot fire the American people." He holds out hope, however, that we can downsize them. Among the bizarre trial balloons he lofts for enhancing political discourse are requiring voters to pass civics tests (shades of the Jim Crow literacy tests), letting state legislatures once again choose senators, and restoring the Electoral College's historic autonomy in electing presidents.

A counter-revolution, in other words, that would roll American governance back to the good old days of Hamilton (without, presumably, rolling over women and blacks in the process). It would all be pretty alarming if it weren't so hopelessly, even endearingly, unrealistic and if it didn't arise from a fundamental misreading of the electoral process. Elections are not, despite the fond wishes of academics like Shenkman, examinations. A basic understanding of the issues is certainly an asset to a voter, but the decisions we make about candidates can't help being informed by all the things that Shenkman distrusts: emotions, hopes, values.

I tend to vote Democratic, for example, not because I've scrutinized the party platform down to the last plank but because I approve, in general, of how Democrats want to use their power. The same, I assume, holds true for many Republicans. And so the seemingly blinkered outcomes that drive Shenkman crazy -- Clinton supporters overlooking his crassness, Bush supporters overlooking his obtuseness -- can actually be seen as exercises in priority setting. We may not like what our leaders are doing, but we continue to like who they are and how they look at the world. Simply because these sentiments can't be assayed through true-false questions is no reason to deny their validity. Even in the voting booth, the heart has its reasons.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Scenes from a Group Marriage

I was a normal 9-year-old boy with two parents. And then, after a fateful camping trip, I had four.

By L. Harrison

One day in the summer of 1971, my parents held hands, closed their eyes and jumped out of their conventional marriage into something strange and new. I was 9 years old at the time, and we were camping at Betsy Lake in the High Unitas Wilderness with another family of five. We were halfway into the camping trip when the six of us kids realized our parents had mixed and matched: My father was in the tent with their mother, and their father was in the tent with my mother.

No sound came from either tent. I remember the smell of mosquito-repellent. I remember gray ripples in the lake, squirrels scrambling up pine bark and us kids nervously discussing. I remember trying to believe my life hadn't shot off its safe, predictable tracks.

Of course, it had. We began seeing the other family at least once a week; one of my parents spent each Sunday at their house and one of theirs at mine. And then we all moved in together. The arrangement felt uncomfortable, if only because no one else's parents were doing anything like it. One day, as I lay reading on my bed, the girls from the other family came downstairs with moving boxes in their arms. That night, the adults erected a screen to separate the dining room from the living room. In place of our dark varnished table and the buffet with its china and silver appeared a king-size bed. Downstairs, the salt-and-pepper sofa and the desk where my father tracked investments gave way to bunk beds for two of the girls. Over the next few days, my brother and I learned to grab for our bathrobes when our new sisters slipped through our room on the way to the toilet in the morning. They learned to duck behind closet doors when we trespassed through their bedroom on our way upstairs.

Fiction about the 1970s -- including "The Ice Storm" or the new "Swingtown" TV series -- typically depicts such experiments as frivolous and irresponsible. "How could they have done this to you?" my wife still asks me. It's true that boredom was an element in my parents' motivation. It's also true that the arrangement embarrassed me in front of my friends, and that it threw me off balance at a nervous time of life. But behind that -- at least sometimes -- lay an idealism that has disappeared from the public recollection.

My parents saw themselves as part of a movement, promulgated in visionary writings like Toffler's "Future Shock." The notion was that an adult could simultaneously maintain more than one intimate relationship as long as all the partners agreed. The movement, which now calls itself "polyamory," is still going, though mostly underground. Webster's accepted the word two years ago.

But my parents didn't take a public stance. They kept their sex lives to themselves; they never suggested I should want to follow their example. And the communal household enjoyed a kind of camaraderie I have never felt since. I liked the party we made when all of us kids sat down to watch "Hogan's Heroes" or danced to the soundtrack from "Cabaret." Over the next two years, I swapped books with my stepsisters, listened in awe to their stories of crushes, exchanged tips on teachers. Their father imparted his love of great music and their mother her passion for cooking. A sort of bond formed among the 10 of us.

I found out it was ending one day, after a tennis lesson, when my mother picked up my brother and me in her blue Dodge Dart with its painted butterflies. I knew from her silence something was wrong. She pulled into the parking lot of a drug store and sat for a moment. Without turning to face us, she said that the two families were splitting into separate households -- but not in the original configurations. My father would live with the other woman, my mother with the other man.

I didn't ask for the story of the foursome's disintegration. Despite the intimacy of our crowded household, or perhaps because of it, we kids refrained from probing the details of the adults' love lives. Instead I stared at the smudged upholstery of the seat in front of me, feeling in my stomach as though we had just driven off a cliff.

Over the next few years, that falling sensation accelerated. My father married the other woman. The other man found a new lover and left my mother. I switched back and forth every six months between my parents' households. For the first time in my life, my mother let me see her tears. I learned to hide mine in my pillow.

Divorce is commonplace now, but group marriage is still weird, almost incomprehensible to most people. Only recently have I overcome the shame that used to make me gloss over that period when I told new friends the story of my life. But now, when I think back, I can see it wasn't the group marriage that cast a lasting shadow on my childhood; it was the divorce. For a few years I'd had something more than a family, then suddenly I had something less. And the loss was wrenching.

This year, my youngest son is 10, as I was at the beginning of my parents' odyssey. His brother is 14 -- close to my age at the end. I've felt for myself the stress that our hyper-individualist culture puts on families. Few of us live with extended family; fewer and fewer of us know our neighbors, go to church or belong to a social club. We measure success by the size of our houses and our paychecks. We see child rearing as a lifestyle choice, not a community endeavor. But two grown-ups sometimes aren't enough to pay the bills, to wipe the noses, to coach the soccer team and listen to the stories of schoolyard bullying. After 17 years, my wife and I are still passionate about each other. I have no desire to engage in the bold sort of experiment my parents took on. But sometimes, even when all four of us are home together, our world feels too small, and I understand the hope with which my parents blindly plunged into uncharted love.

This article originally appeared on Salon.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Thanks to Laura for sending this.

Monday, 2 June 2008

A Mad (Cow) Question

This question has been kind of driving me crazy, not because it's of any vital importance, but because I'm unsure where or to whom one would pose such a question, in order to gain a satisfactory (and accurate) answer. The question is this:

I was reading on the Interwebs about Neil Entwistle, 29, who murdered his wife Rachel, 27, a couple of years ago, in Massachussets. Now if he killed her 2 years ago, this means he was 27 when he did it. Does that mean she was 27 too? Or do they list their age at the time of the crime and keep it there?

I know I'm stoned, but it's a valid question.