Friday, July 27, 2007


That Louis MacNeice is less known and less read than W.H. Auden, his friend and fellow poet, has always seemed to me a shame. Auden, it's true, attains greater heights ("Musee Des Beaux Arts", "In Memory of W.B. Yeats"), but MacNeice is a far more consistent read. Brilliant lines litter the Selected Auden, but long stretches are tedious and hectoring. It is also increasingly irrelevant. Auden's poetry has become less useful now that the historical eras with which it engaged (Nazism, Fascism, Socialism) have faded.

The Selected MacNeice is less showily brilliant. It's pleasant, approachable, and humane. This is not to say that MacNeice was never virtuosic. "Sunlight On The Garden" and "Bagpipe Music" both are monuments to craftsmanship. But what distinguishes MacNeice's poetry is their matter-of-fact-ness. It's a volume you can open at any page and find that most desirable poetic commodity: pleasure. This is one of my favorites.

Goodbye, Winter,
The days are getting longer,
The tea-leaf in the teacup
Is herald of a stranger.

Will he bring me business
Or will he bring me gladness
Or will he come for cure
Of his own sickness?

With a pedlar's burden
Walking up the garden
Will he come to beg
Or will he come to bargain?

Will he come to pester,
To cringe or to bluster,
A promise in his palm
Or a gun in his holster?

Will his name be John
Or will his name be Jonah
Crying to repent
On the Island of Iona?

Will his name be Jason
Looking for a seaman
Or a mad crusader
Without rhyme or reason?

What will be his message--
War or work or marriage?
News as new as dawn
Or an old adage?

Will he give a champion
Answer to my question
Or will his words be dark
And his ways evasion?

Will his name be Love
And all his talk be crazy?
Or will his name be Death
And his message easy?

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Fun With Fatwas

Nutty fatwas from important Islamic leaders. The second is the best. Apparently, it is forbidden for married couples to be completely naked during sex. The workaround, proposed by a fellow Imam, is even better....

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Pure Intentions

Next time you’re in the supermarket, go to the soap aisle and read the label of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap.

Actually, that’ll take too long. Just read this. It’s a selection—one of the milder ones—from the aforementioned label
The 2nd coming of God's Law" Mohammed's Arabs, 1948, found Israel Dead-Sea-Scrolls & Einstein's "Hillel" prove that as certain as no 6-year-old can grow up free without the abc, so certain can no 12-year old survive free without the Moral ABC mason, tent & sandalmaker, Rabbi Hillel taught carpenter Jesus to unite all mankind free in our Eternal Father's great All-One-God-Faith! For we're All-One or none: "Listen Children Eternal Father Eternally One!" Exceptions? None!

Yep, that’s a soap label being quoted. And it goes on. And on and on and on.

Dr. Bronner, it turns out, cared about more than getting people clean. He wanted to reform mankind. The soap was a vehicle; it allowed him an outlet for his…philosophy.

I know all this because last night I saw Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox, a documentary on the great man. It was outstanding. With a subject as…intense…as Dr. Bronner, how could it not be?

I cannot possibly do justice to the movie or the philosophy in a few paragraphs. Here, though, is a very small selection of what I've learned about both.

1) Dr. Bronner’s philosophy (explicated, at length, on the bottle) centered around something called the moral ABCs. He believed his mission on earth was to teach the world the moral ABCs. Once he had done so, war would end and mankind would unite in love and happiness.

2) The Moral ABCs appear on every bottle of Dr. Bronner’s soap. There are thirteen (which makes me think they should actually be called the moral ABCDEFGHIJKLMs. But no matter). Here is ABC number 11.

Essene & Chinese birth controls must reduce birth or Easter Isle type overpopulation destroys God's Spaceship Earth! God's law prevents all conception below pH3. Therefore, Essene contracepted for 400 years with rosehips, pH2! So, absolute clean, apply vaseline oil, butter or cream, insert teaspoonful juicy lemon pulp, pH2. O.K.! Next day, douche with qt. soapy water, pH8, restoring pH5 balance God made! Eggwhite is pH9. Dr. Bronner's soap, pH8, guaranteed the mildest made; below pH8 soaps biodegradable, synthetic-sulfides cannot. At conception, 10 grams contain 100 million humans! or... 10 HUMANS IN 1 INVISIBLE MICROGRAM - SMALLER THAN DUST!

3) Dr. Bronner believed that every 76 years, in time with Haley’s comet, a prophet would return to help guide man back towards peace and unity. Examples of past prophets include Jesus, Muhammad, Hillel, and—and I am not making this up—Mark Spitz.

4) Really.

5) Dr. Bronner was institutionalized in the mid 40s. He escaped and made his way to Los Angeles, where he dedicated himself to selling soap.

6) During the 40s and 50s, Dr. Bronner called the FBI on a near-daily basis. He complained, mostly, about the presence of communists within America. He hated communists.

7) As who does not?

8) During his life, Dr. Bronner filled more than 3000 audio cassettes with thoughts about his philosophy. Unfortunately most of it remains, to this day, untranscribed.

9) Dr. Bronner’s grandsons, who run the business today, are major figures in the drive to legalize industrial hemp.

10) His son, Ralph, recently starred in a one-man, off-Broadway play. In it, he tells stories about growing up with his legendary father. In his youth Ralph was left with strangers for years at a time so that his father could travel the country lecturing on the moral ABCs. Amazingly, Ralph holds no grudge.

11) This list captures no more than 10% of the Bronner family’s craziness.

12) Really, more like 5%.

13) You need to see this movie. Believe me.

Friday, July 13, 2007

A New Town

"When he enters the territory of which Eutropia is the capital, the traveler sees not one city but many, of equal size and not unlike one another, scattered over a vast, rolling plateau. Eutropia is not one, but all these cities together; only one is inhabited at a time, the others are empty; and this process is carried out in rotation. Now I shall tell you how. On the day when Eutropia's inhabitants feel the grip of weariness and no one can bear any longer his job, his relatives, his house and his life, debts, the people he must greet or who greet him, then the whole citizenry decides to move to the next city, which is there waiting for them, empty and good as new; there each will take up a new job, a different wife, will see another landscape on opening his window, and will spend his time with different pastimes, friends, gossip. So their life is renewed from move to move, among cities whose exposure or declivity or streams or winds make each site somehow different from the others. Since their society is ordered without great distinctions of wealth or authority, the passage from one function to another takes place almost without jolts; variety is guaranteed by the multiple assignments, so that in the span of a lifetime a man rarely returns to a job that has already been his.

Thus the city repeats its life, identical, shifting up and down on its empty chessboard. The inhabitants repeat the same scenes, with the actors changed; they repeat the same speeches with variously combined accents; the open alternate mouths in identical yawns. Alone, among all the cities of the empire, Eutropia remains always the same. Mercury, god of the fickle, to whom the city is sacred, worked this ambiguous miracle."

-from Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Poker III

My first foray into the LA poker world went...badly.

You never really know, when you lose, how much of it is due to bad luck and how much is due to poor play. It’s easy to assume that every time you win you played well. Similarly, it's easy to beat yourself up every time you lose. (As I have been all week). But the two don't necessarily relate. You can play very well and lose, and you can play very poorly and win. To play “well” means that you play in a way will win over the long term. It means you put money into bets that will win more often than they lose. But in the short term, anything can happen. If you’re constantly putting money in on hands that are 80% favorites, you’re a good player. Even so, 20% of the time—1 in 5—you’ll lose. And if your opponents are any good, realistically you’re much more likely to be putting money down on hands that are only 55-60% favorites.

So it’s helpful for me to think about how I play independently of how much I win or lose. To evaluate decisions, not results. (A tactic, by the way, that I think is useful outside of playing poker. That's why poker is REALLY interesting--because of how much it connects to).

I think I played OK last night. B-, let’s say. Maybe I’m just being charitable.

Most of my losses occurred in one hand. I describe it below. I still don’t know if I played it well, badly, or somewhere in the middle.

Game: No Limit Hold’Em
Blinds: 5/10
Place: Mos Eisley (otherwise known as Commerce Casino--“a wretched hive of scum and villainry”)

My hand: 8d Qd

I’m on the button. Everyone folds to the cutoff, a terrible terrible player. He limps in. He’s already shown a willingness to call enormous off bets on very thin draws. He’s also on tilt. I have position and I feel pretty good about my chances of outplaying him after the flop. I raise to 40.00$. I figure I’ll either take down a small pot (of the blinds and the donkey’s limp) or he’ll call, and I’ll play heads-up, in position, against a poor player.

Instead, the Big Blind re-raises, making it 75.00$. Limping donkey calls (putting in 65.00$ more on top of the 10.00$ he’s called with, on a hand not good enough to raise the button and the blinds).

It comes back to me. I consider the Big Blind. He’s a decent player, I think. But, like most players at the middle-limits of NLHE, he’s already shown an inability to fold big hands. (He’s lost a large pot earlier when his overpair got beat by a set.) He’s clearly ahead of me at this point in the hand—I put him on KK or AA. However, I have a hand that will be very easy to get away from if I miss the flop. And if I do outflop him, I think he might pay me off. Also, there’s limping donkey. He can’t lay down anything; god knows he’ll pay me off.

If I call the BB’s raise, I’ll have a little more than 400.00$ left. The big blind has more chips than I do; the donkey has about 200.00$. That means I have a chance to turn my 400.00 into 1100.00$.

Or so I tell myself as I (perhaps mistakenly) call.

The flop: 8h 10d Jd

Huzzah and hurrah. This is about as good a flop as I can ask for. I have a diamond flush draw, an inside straight draw, and a pair. If the Big Blind has AA or KK, I have a total of 17 outs (two eights, three queens, three (non-diamond) nines, and nine diamonds). It's impossible to put the donkey on a hand, but even if it's something as good as 9/Q , I have outs to beat him.

The big blind bets 150.00$. The donkey goes all–in (it turns out to be $280.00). I think for not very long, and go all-in as well. The pot has gotten large enough to justify a call, and if I'm going to call 280.00, I may as well reraise. It's unlikely I'll push out the BB, but it's not impossible. Anyway, I'm willing to play for all my chips. Even though I’m trailing, I doubt I’m worse than a 40% dog. As long as neither player has a diamond draw, I like my chances.

The BB thinks for a while, and then calls.

He tables: Ad Ah
The donkey tables: Js 9c

I am 44% to win at this point. (I find, now). I have invested a total of 450.00 to try and win 1150.00$. I am being laid the correct odds. Which is small comfort when the turn and flop come 10, 2 no diamond, and the Aces rake the pot.

In retrospect, I guess I could have folded preflop. There was enough dead money at the table that it might have been smarter to wait for a more clearly favorable opportunity to get all my chips in the middle. While it's true that this was the statistically correct play, it's also true that, psychologically, it can be difficult to open a session by losing 600.00$.

Once the flop came, though, I can’t get away from that hand. Can I?


Monday, July 2, 2007


I went to Peru a month ago; I’m just now finishing my post about it. The long-awaited move, with all its attending hassles (packing, driving, defeating brigands), has caused the long delay. Hopefully within the next few weeks I will get the blog back even with real time. For now, it’s going to be a month behind.

* * *

So I’m back from Peru (motto: “far fewer violent rebel armies than you think.”) I was there to visit the wife, who was working in a tropical medicine hospital in Lima. (Spanish for: “Lima.”) I spent the first week with her in Lima; then, when her job got done, we traveled up into the mountains, stayed in Cusco for a day, and went to Machu Picchu. (Also Spanish, and meaning “many picchus.”)

I was only in Peru for a total of ten days, so I’m not going to attempt any grand syntheses of Peruvian culture. (Well, one: they like fish. Oh, and are all deceitful, thieving parasites. Who like fish. I guess I DID get a deep understanding of Peruvian culture!) Big syntheses take work. Work interferes with my 'lounge around the den in cabana wear writing letters to the Vice President about how we all need to get back on the gold standard' M.O.


Lima is very very big. (I know: profound. It’s only to going to get more penetrating, my Peruvian insights). I mean: really big. I think it’s something like fifty times the size of Rhode Island. Or five? Or was that Fire Island? Anyway, it’s large. Sprawling. Filled with many neighborhoods.

It actually reminded me a little of Los Angeles. Both have ‘downtowns’, but the local neighborhoods are what matter. Also, like LA, it’s filled with anorexic women driving SUVs and trying to find green-only tanning salons. And opera houses designed by Frank Gehry.

No, that’s not right.

But both do have…uhm…taxis. (Transitions! They’re a part of good writing.)

The taxis in Lima alert passengers of their availability by honking. So, any time you walk out on the street, you find you’re constantly getting honked at. It’s a bit disconcerting. I kept wanting to apologize. You’ll be sitting there, plotting the violent overthrow of the government (for example) when suddenly a car across the street starts to honk at you. You think: “what?? What did I do? Why is this person honking at me when all doing is eating an ice cream cone and plotting the violent overthrow of the government?”

Then you think: “oh, wait; they’re just trying to get me to hire them.”

THEN you think, “well then why don’t they do it in a way that’s A LITTLE LESS AGGRAVATING.”

And then you take your Percoset.

“He’s waiting in the wings….”

While I was in Lima, I played a poker tournament. The tournament was scheduled to start at 9 pm. The tournament actually began…at 10:45.

That tells you all you need to know about Peruvian time. Oh, except this: in my Lonely Planet guide to Plotting Violent Overthrows of the Peruvian Government (its sinister purpose cleverly disguised by its unassuming title: Peru)
“As in the rest of Latin America, the concept of time is extraordinarily elastic; the concept of ‘on time’ is almost non-existent.’"

I LOVE that quote. I don’t know why. I feel there must be some way to it in my future work. At the very minimum, I could use it on my wife. If, for example, I neglect to do the dishes for fifteen straight weeks, say, I could print out a little guide explaining that in TimLand the “concept of doing the dishes is almost non-existent.” Or whatever.

As you probably know, Peru is one of the world’s top coffee producers. (It’s second, I believe. After Turkmenistan.) Interestingly, though, nine times out of ten when you order coffee in Peruvian restaurants, what you receive is not a wonderful, local bean. You get Folger’s instant. Why is this? Because all their good coffee goes abroad. To the gringos. (Spanish for: "penguin.") Because we deserve good coffee. Because we aren’t Catholic.


Cusco is up in the mountains. Very high. 95,000 feet, as I recall. On the recommendation of friends, we took anti-altitude medication as a prophylactic. Even then, on the first day after ten minutes walking around the town I got winded. On the last day, the wife stopped taking her medication (I threw her pills away, because she sassed me.) She said she definitely noticed the difference. For example, she grew gills. Which is strange, because we were in the mountains…

They abound, in Cusco. It is absolutely impossible to walk anywhere without being accosted fifty times by insistent, doe-eyed children trying to sell you tourist junk.

Why are there so many of them? Because everyone who goes to Peru goes to Machu Picchu (it’s in the constitution), and everyone who visits Machu Picchu stays in Cusco. So, there are lots of tourists; so, there are lots of tourist-related trappings. Like street vendors. And wild dogs.

Wait, no. No dogs.

But there were llamas. And alpacas.

Indian women who live in the mountains around Cusco bring them into town. As far as we could tell, they did so in order to make money charging tourists to take photographs of themselves next to a llama. (This is true, by the way. A man on our train to MP told a funny story about how he took a picture of one of the woman’s llamas without her seeing him in order to avoid paying. Stealing llama shots, as it were. Which is pretty sad, really, since the women generally wanted one sol for a picture—about 33 cents.)

However, it’s against the law to have a llama in town. (Imagine if they tried to pass that law in Los Angeles. Pandemonium!) So, the Cusquena traffic wardens (who were always women), upon the sight of a native Indian woman leading a llama through the streets, would blow her whistle and pursue the Indian llama-warden on foot.

I saw this happen two or three times in Cusco, and let me tell you, it was something. You’d think the Indian would have no chance; after all, she does have a llama in tow. But both times I watched, the Indian woman managed to duck into a back alley and evade the whistle-blowing warden. (The whistles, by the way, are phenomenally loud. If a policeman in New York tried to blow a whistle that loud, I’m pretty sure someone would come after him.) I guess the llamas helped. They know all the back allies, after all.

Before going to Machu Picchu tourists are generally advised to spend at least 24 hours in Cusco, being hounded by urchins. This we did. Because 95% of Cusco consists of stalls filled with native women selling clothing woven from alpacas, we ended up buying a few alpaca-related products. (Like a camera-phone. And goggles.)

In one of these stalls, the woman who was trying to sell me the rug I didn’t really want decided, I guess, that she couldn’t understand my Spanish, her Spanish, or my Quecha. To facilitate our haggling (which consisted entirely of us saying numbers) she had me type the price I wanted to pay into her cell phone. She responded by taking the phone, typing in a new price, and handing it back to me. In this way, we agreed that I would pay 80 soles for a rug I didn’t want, instead of 120. I’m not sure who ended up ahead on the deal.

Anyway, something about the experience stuck with me. Here I was, bargaining with a woman who had been weaving rugs the exact same way, using the exact same technology, for something like a thousand years. (Not the same woman, of course.) And yet, in order to sell it, she had taken to using a technology developed in the last twenty years to do something entirely unrelated. A very globalization kind of moment. I was sure Tom Friedman was going to pop out from behind a bush and start going on about Bangalore.