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5 October 2005 to 7 September 2005
I always pay my credit-card bill in full, every month. I'm not boasting, I'm just explaining. I don't use my credit card for cash advances, either, so I never incur any finance charges.  

Or never intentionally, anyway. When we were in Indonesia recently, though, I paid for our entrance visas with my Visa, and only later discovered that this was processed as a cash advance. Annoying, and the fee was ruinously absurd as a percentage rate, but it was small in absolute terms (and less than I paid in meaningless bank fees for ATM withdrawals on the trip), so I paid it and forgot about it.  

There was a tiny finance charge on the following statement, too. After some scrutiny I figured out that it applied to a prorated portion of the cash advance for the time between when the previous statement had been issued and when my payment had gone through. There was something morally offensive about this, a loophole that allowed them to charge me despite my paying my bill in full, but for $.50 I didn't feel like sitting on the phone to complain about it. So I paid it and forgot about it.  

But the next statement there was another $.50 charge. In fact, looking closer, I found that they were actually charging me $.01 on what was supposedly a $.50 cash advance, which was then bumped up to $.50 because that's the minimum finance charge. They were charging me finance charges on my finance charges! An infinite loop!  

I have worked as a customer-service rep, so I try to help make my customer-service experiences as efficient and painless for both sides as possible. So instead of pretending ignorance or assuming beligerence, I just called CapitalOne and explained in detail how one cash advance had led to them charging me finance charges on my finance charges. The rep listened politely, and then delivered a pre-scripted speech in monotone about the general concept of fees. I explained in detail again how one cash advance had led to them charging me finance charges on my finance charges, and the rep listened politely and then delivered a pre-scripted speech in monotone about the specific concept of finance charges on cash advances. I explained in the same detail yet again how one cash advance had led to them charging me finance charges on my finance charges, and the rep delivered a third pre-scripted speech in monotone about the advanced concept of finance charges on pro-rated balances of cash advances.  

At this point I got angry enough to point out to the rep that they'd now given me three speeches, all of which covered topics I'd explained in detail in my original description of the problem. So could I get a supervisor now? This yielded a fourth speech, in exactly the same monotone as the other three, about the regrettable necessity of consulting a supervisor to determine how to respond to this complex problem.  

I don't know that the supervisor ever understood the problem, either, but eventually, albeit without admitting that their business practices were developed by observing the behavior of ticks feeding on feral coyotes stuck in bear traps, they agreed to credit my account for "these charges".  

My next statement, however, contained not a $.50 credit, but a $.49 credit. The remaining cent was again accounted for as a cash advance, which thus generated an even tinier fee, which was then dutifully rounded up to the $.50 minimum again.  

I've just gotten off the phone with them again, having reached incrementally higher levels of authority and ostensible responsibility, and been assured that this time the whole thing will be corrected. If it isn't, I will keep calling until I am connected directly to the actual accountants in whatever sickly circle of Hell they malinger.  

But this must happen to tens or hundreds of millions of credit-card users, all over the world, every month, only most of them don't notice, or don't have the time or energy or self-confidence to complain. The aggregate corrupt revenue of negligently or deliberately corrupt business practices like this, across every negligently or deliberately corrupt world industry, is an internal measure of our collective moral failure, and while it's dwarfed by the aggregate corrupt revenues of active immorality and amorality, like resource depletion and selling sugar-water where there are no dentists, greater evils do not forgive lesser ones.  

Look around you, particularly where you work. Look for any evil you participate in allowing. Stop it.  

[A postscript, in fairness, since I mentioned CapitalOne by name: I use CapitalOne because it's the last card I could find that does not impose arbitrary, financially unjustifiable and far-higher-than-$.50 fees on transactions recorded in non-US currencies. But the avoidance of one evil doesn't forgive other ones, either.]
For the past two days, a huge work-crew has been ripping up row after row of still-blooming pink flowers from the careful gardens in front of the new building into which my office just moved. Railed trucks laden to the top with flowers still clumped with rich potting soil have driven off towards, I guess, some sort of flower-based landfill on which, to compensate for building toddler playgrounds on top of industrial waste, we will no doubt construct an elevated uranium diffuser or a plant that converts wheat berries into asbestos via cyanide leaching.  

This morning, the same crew is emptying trucks filled with new, already-blooming and subtly redder potted plants, cracking the plastic pots off by whacking them with trowels, and patiently digging the plants into mounds of new potting soil along the strips of just-evacuated dirt. The trucks lumber away again with stacks of broken plastic, huge engines grumbling, and the crew revs up overcharged gas leaf-blowers to blast the clods of dirt off the wide, empty sidewalks. By tomorrow the grounds will have been restored, refreshed, to their normal lessee-attracting state of methodical cheer, for at least as long as abject terror keeps the flowers on the new plants.  

This is corporate America's idea of "gardening".
The fact that Tom's of Maine Body Wash is made entirely of "natural" ingredients doesn't mean that you'll enjoy getting any of it in your eye.
I still haven't gotten over the first time I saw a UPS truck from above and realized that they're white on top, not brown.
L'Arc~en~Ciel: AS ONE (1.8M mp3)  

For anyone in the US who is at all curious about J-Rock (as opposed to J-Pop), the new L'Arc~en~Ciel album, AWAKE, is actually available domestically.
I've started imagining that the Dictionary.com word of the day is one that has just been invented, that day, to help us with some new situation for which we previously had no focused concept, or maybe that has been retroactively erased from the past via time-travel and then reintroduced to remind us of a way of thinking that had fallen into neglect.  

On Tuesday somebody devised the word "officious" to describe the oblivious use of procedure in place of judgment. The immediate derivation is from "official", which of course comes from the root "offal". Even if this one doesn't get used in conversation so much, off.icio.us will be an excellent domain name for a web clearinghouse of Bush-administration aid programs for New Orleans evacuees.  

Wednesday's (re)neologism was "afflatus", a 92-point Louis De Bernières word that describes the way in which divine inspiration propagates (and is attributed) like flatulence.  

Today's is "quorum", which is a method of reaching consensus by figuring out how many people you are allowed to ignore.
Hypocrisy Has a Blog
There Is No I in Ass
Greenwich Meal Time
Nothing Stays Fresh Forever
My Other Car Is a Christian
At Least It's Over
Opinions Are Cheaper in Bulk
Are They Here Yet?
I Love My Daughter. She's Awesome!
These Cars Don't Run
Take the Next Left
At Least It's Over Again
We Can't Eat Extinction
Land of the Freaked
Will Bleed for Oil
According to Google Maps, We're Lost
Why Aren't You Even Fatter?
I Don't Like Wednesdays
Save Room for Toast
There's No Business Like Noh Business
Noah Called: He Already Has Two of You
If You Can Read This, Why Aren't You Dead?
Shut the Fuck Up, Toto
Answer the Phone, Dammit, It's Me
Are You Avoiding Me?
You've Got Milk
Are Those Your Real Ears?
I'm Not Cranky, I'm Objection-Oriented
Red Is the New White
Ask Me About My Angina
Laughter = Death
Mileage Is a Myth
I Haven't Noticed This One Yet
A Lie Has Been Around the World Before the Truth Gets It Into Bed
When You See God, Tell that Bitch to Text Me
When We Doubt Each Other, OJ Wins
You Can't Win a War You Started
Give a Man a Fish, He'll Thank You for a Day; Teach a Man to Fish, and You'll Have to Listen to Him Talk About Fishing for the Rest of Your Life
Don't Trust Anyone Over 4'2"
Don't Trust Anyone Over 4'8"
Don't Trust Anyone Over 5'9"
Keep Your Hands Off My Page Rank
- get a cat, or two
- get a dog
- have a child, or two
- write more of my novel
- spend more time with our friends
- help B get her metalsmithing going
- cook more
- quit my job
- get a better job
- start a company of my own
- put some real effort into getting a freelance consulting business going
- put some real effort into transforming my current job
- get involved in XML micro-format standards work
- buy a digital SLR and start taking photography more seriously
- get my music studio set up again and start taking music more seriously
- learn more Japanese
- learn more Spanish
- regrout the tub
- replace the fence
- remodel everything unsatisfactory in our house
- sell our house and move to an industrial loft in an artists' community
- sell our house and move to Somerville
- sell our house and move to Vermont
- sell our house and move to Portland, Oregon
- sell our house and move to Copenhagen, Denmark
- sell our house, store our belongings, and set out in any direction
- visit Vancouver
- visit the Yucatan Peninsula
- visit Iceland
- visit Sweden, Norway, Finland and Estonia
- visit Switzerland, Greece and Croatia
- see more of Spain, France, Holland, England and Scotland
- visit South Korea, Hokkaido, Okinawa, Taiwan, Singapore, China, Vietnam, Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii
- buy a drysuit and do more kayaking
- get better boots so I enjoy climbing more
- run a little more, a little farther, a little faster
- curl up on the couch and watch movies for a month
- curl up on the couch and read books for a month
- figure out an investment/retirement plan that doesn't support or rely on anything we hate
- find a way to help save the human presence on Earth
- escape to space
I've been trying, ever since I first walked into one, to figure out exactly what I think of Trader Joe's. The place has several obvious positive features:  

- In general, when something they carry seems like something I would like, I do end up liking their execution of it.  

- The prices are almost always decent, and sometimes dramatically lower than elsewhere.  

- The people who work there seem to be having fun.  

- To the extent that you can believe packaging, the people who run the engine seem to also be having fun, and maybe even to be genuinely interested in delivering interesting food to interested people.  

- Within the structural constraints of the chain and its branding, they do seem to lean away from over-processed garbage and toward organic principles.  

But I also have two huge nagging misgivings:  

- At the highest level, the place seems overwhelmingly biased towards a relationship to food that is more about shopping than cooking. It is possible to buy some ingredients for conventional cooking there, but that is clearly not the store's focus or the core of its personality. The bulk of the store's physical and mental space is devoted to pre-fabricated whole or partial meals. Calling this a "grocery store" seems subtly disingenuous to me, and to the extent that it participates in a shift in how people think about buying and consuming food, and disengage from the most basic involvement in its preparation, it may qualify for me as part of what could ultimately be a socially destabilizing problem. If so, then its other apparent virtues become elements of its insidiousness, and just serve to make it a more dangerous influence.  

- Even if I believe that the chain is pushing the right direction from processed and manipulated towards whole and organic, it has opted out, from its very credo and premises, from the less visible but equally critical movement from global back to local. I'm in no position to assess the chain's fair-trade practices, but no matter how fairly it treats individual producers (and pervasively low prices don't suggest that producers' welfare is an overriding concern), the cost-motivated flattening of source geography via fossil-fuel cargo-movement is a huge hidden aspect of the First World's disproportionate drain on whole-world resources. Probably Trader Joe's is no worse than any major conventional supermarket chain in this regard, but it may not be any better, and no better may not be good enough.  

So my provisional moral precedence still goes like this:  

- Best: what you grow yourself. This year, for us, this meant a little lettuce and a few herbs. We did a little better last year, and aspire to do much better some day.  

- Best for the rest: buying directly from local specialists. We joined a CSA program from a nearby organic farm this year, and that now seems to me like the most basic possible step, and one that should make us question the viability of any area where it isn't available, or where there isn't at least a thriving farmers' market. Local butchers, fishmongers, bakers, farm stands, maple-syrup producers, ice-cream makers. The closer you can get to the source, the better.  

- Good and necessary: a principled local co-op. If it doesn't make you roll your eyes at least three or four times per trip, it probably isn't principled enough. If it feels obliged to label turkey sausages "non-vegan", it may be too principled (but probably not). Keys: local, organic, whole, seasonal, wild, fresh, anything-free and, where all else fails, recycled.  

- Good and worthy: a big company with a conscience. The sizes of business and conscience tend to react in warily inverse proportions, but maybe this just makes the exceptions more deserving of our support. From my extremely limited perspective, Whole Foods seems like one of the Good Companies (and you can't eat Apples).  

- World-expanding: anywhere the people who didn't grow up eating Doritos shop. I don't have the tools to evaluate the social responsibility of grocery stores that operate in foreign languages and/or cultures, but absent obvious abuses I'm comfortable presuming that diversity is inherently desirable independent of other factors. Around here this mostly means Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean and Latin American grocers, Indian spices, the odd European boutique, and the occasional adventure in Market Basket's international combat shopping.  

- Trader Joe's. The suspicion of flaws is better than the simple certainty of corruption, at least.  

- Anywhere else. I am fully aware that my blanket hatred of all standard American supermarket chains marks me as an ungrateful elitist, and I am comfortable with that. If a cat isn't planning to shit on it, I don't want to buy it from anything owned by Ahold, Albertsons, Kroger or anything-Mart.  

Today's lunch: bread from Trader Joe's; peanut butter, jam and fruit from Whole Foods. Not ideal, but acceptable.  

Today's prayer: Goodbye, Ramona, sleep in purer sunlight. 1988-2005, and I was lucky enough to be around for the last few, and now I am a cat person.
Inept responses are not the problem in New Orleans. The problem is that New Orleans was an occupied city in an unsustainable state steadily deteriorating further. A 2001 Scientific American article predicted that a hurricane could flood it, but anybody could predict that a hurricane could flood it. It's a huge depressed bowl, and only survives rain through heroic temporary measures that ultimately accelerate the destabilization. The damage in New Orleans is the essentially ensured result of the systematic and laborious placing of a giant and hopelessly idiotic bet.  

And the problem in New Orleans is the same problem in Aceh and the Sudan and Tokyo and San Francisco and Los Angeles and New York. It is, basically, the problem on Earth. We have built our civilizations in precipitous locations and eroding conditions, and relied on luck and frantic myopia to preserve us from inevitable disasters just long enough for them to kill somebody else. This was arguably excusable when we were ignorant of the statistics and the astronomy and the tectonics, but now we know. And still we do little more than sit and pray. New Orleans sat and prayed. And if there are gods, they just pissed in the bowl until it was full.  

So we obsess about FEMA response protocols and bureaucratic compassion and whether people are admirable or insane for attempting to stand waist-deep in a cesspool until they're allowed to take their dogs out with them, all of which are real issues but not significant ones. The immediate problems of individuals must be solved, but they are dwarfed by the single underlying problem that ubiquitously confronts humanity, and that coddled Americans have just been able to complacently ignore more often than most other people: we are not the blessed tenants of a benevolent paradise. Hurricanes and earthquakes and tsunamis are real, and they will not spare the optimistic or the wealthy or the devout. Global warming is real, resource exhaustion is real, overpopulation is real, ecosystem destruction is real. Evolution is real, and implacable. We pour massive energy into self-distraction and self-destruction, and an almost inconceivable amount of it must be redirected from the fleeting arbitrage of trivial impulses into an epic investment in human survival.  

Actually, it's even worse than that. Not only are our models of "civilization" wildly misprioritized, but our most elaborated modes of dissent are little better. Not only are there are too many of us to live in naive "harmony" with nature, there is no harmony, or at least none in any of our musics. The planet's harmonics pulped the dinosaurs, and will happily sing a similar end for us. This is the dividing line between primitive social humanity and some opposite that we don't even have a good word for: one is defined by random fortune and the suffered play of outside forces, the other by self-awareness, and deep understanding of system dynamics, and pervasive considered design. As a kind of creature, we stand at the point where we must go from thinking like hungry pets to thinking like there are no other gods than us, and thus from being constant victims to being immortal. It's not at all clear that we have the collective willpower to make this shift in our social priorities, but if we don't, we will be cheerfully erased. The planets won't miss us. The gods, if there are gods, will go elsewhere for relief.  

So don't pump out New Orleans and recross our fingers and hope it won't happen again until it's people we don't know chopping through their own roofs to get out of attics that we forgot to tell them weren't going to be high enough. And don't abandon it and let it turn into a distracting capital of illusionary rebellion and ultimate defeat. New Orleans is not a battle between policy and contingency, it's a battle between the past and the future, and the only good answer is so much bigger than anything we're currently daunted by, and that's even without comprehending that the same thing also applies to every other city that hasn't been drowned or crushed yet. We must level it and start again, and this time do it right, not to the best of the meandering free market's tactics and the fickle attentions of elected governments and the miserly metrics of economies, but to the best of human understanding and abilities with all the perspective and limitlessness and moral identity we can manage as a culture. We must do it right with the awful awareness that the ground rules are very literally provided by the ground, and the outcomes will be derived and determined and discovered, not stipulated and bid upon. We must be willing to learn that the only ways to live there are none of the ways we know. We must be willing to learn that the only ways to keep living here, anywhere, are none of the ways we have grown up in.  

And here is the necessary first step, and if we don't do this, not only are we admitting we have learned nothing yet, we are admitting that we aren't willing to pay the cost of learning at all: don't pump that sludge into the Gulf or the Mississippi or anywhere else. Forget about any reconstruction measured in days or months. Forget about getting back to business. Business is what got us here, in the path of this water. New Orleans is now filled with our entrails, and thus constitutes a test, not for the Army Corps of Engineers but for human wisdom. This is not a cleaning project, this is an autopsy of a failed society, a society that didn't fail in a day in a storm, but failed for centuries that ended with a storm. We must start making the lists of everything we did wrong, in all that time, and what it now means to do it correspondingly right. We must look into the bowl of our blood and poison, because that's all that ever comes out of gods, and see how to become our next and purer selves.
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