furia furialog · Every Noise at Once · New Particles · The War Against Silence · Aedliga (songs) · photography · other things · contact
13 September 2005 to 16 August 2005
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.
We split our time between movie-going, eating and shopping, this year. The shopping gods did not favor us at all, though; we should have seen more movies instead. Here's what we did see:  

Friday, 9:30am [1]
Hainan Ji Fan (Rice Rhapsody)  

Sweet enough, if you don't object from the beginning to a mother being inconsolably distraught at the thought that the third of her three sons might also be gay, and obliviously attempting to force-feed him to a loopy French exchange student to cultivate his heterosexuality.  

I love seeing other places in movies, but I don't have a much better idea of
Singapore after this movie than I did before. The people speak more English than I realized, and apparently airport security is relaxed enough that you can have bike races even after checking in for your flight. Everybody's mind seems thoroughly blown by the wildly innovative idea of Hainan Duck Rice, despite having grown up on the traditional staple of Hainan Chicken Rice, and I have no idea whether these two concepts really are radically different to a Singapore rice-eater, or I was supposed to understand the exaggeration of a subtle distinction as allegorical irony.  

Shot and assembled cleanly and professionally, but without any particular individual style.  

Friday, 5pm [2]
Sex hopp och kärlek (Sex, Hope and Love)  

The host of a Swedish TV dating show goes back to his small hometown for a funeral and semi-wittingly perturbs it. The town, not the funeral. Actually, come to think of it, they never showed the funeral, did they?  

B and I both find Swedish domesticity familiar and appealing somehow, which is distantly explicable on genetic grounds, but not really based on anything more tangible. The characters in this revolving romantic farce are encouragingly normal and confused and real, and even when they freak out it seems fairly reasonable.  

Saturday, 9:30am [3]

A well-intentioned Berlin lab-tech brings home an illegal Algerian cleaning woman after inadvertently almost betraying her to the police. Her boyfriend isn't entirely supportive, and her father has an unnerving habit of standing outside their apartment door whenever they open it. It's not clear whether he's standing there all the time, or if it's opening the door that causes him to appear. Naturally the cleaning woman is beautiful, and eventually they figure out that she isn't mute, she just speaks something called "French".  

Good acting, and pretty well done for a debut film, but a first half spent building up interesting complexities collapses regrettably into a second half in which the most predictable surprises mostly happen, and none of what might have been puzzle pieces turn out to be part of any puzzles.  

Still, after taking Spanish courses in Boston, and then traveling to Japan and Bali, and then being in bilingual Montreal, it was interesting to see a movie in which believable real life moved so fluidly between languages. The couple are German, but she talks with her father in something Slavic and unsubtitled, they speak to the Algerian in a melange of German and French and English, and the Algerian is actually trying to get to Sweden.  

Saturday, 7:00pm [4]
Stiilipidu (Shop of Dreams)  

After a TV studio is abruptly shut down, three women from the wardrobe and makeup department take the costumes and start a rental shop.  

Estonians are gorgeous. And costumes are cool. Another sweet Scandinavian movie, and a rather sunnier one than most of the others we've seen, but maybe not as coherent as it might have been, and more over-plotted than it needed to be.  

And as it became clear that our movie-going rationale was virtual tourism, we definitely wanted to see more of Tallinn. But the American version would have had them being miraculously successful and popularly ubiquitous in a way that would have told you lots about movie America and nothing about real cities. Better brief glimpses of a real place than fake insight into irrelevant facades.  

Sunday, 9:30am [5]
Shonen to Hoshi to Jitensha (Satoru - Fourteen)  

Great pre-film intro, with director Fukuhara Susumu providing historio-cultural background about Christianity in Amakusa and the expectations around Japanese boys turning 14, his interpreter translating his long and detailed remarks into English, and a hopelessly overwhelmed festival worker trying gamely to render the English into wildly paraphrased and/or baldly inaccurate French.  

The film itself, sadly, was god-awful, like an after-school special as a stern warning to potential soundtrack assemblers of the nauseating effects of pounding every tiny emotional point into a mushy and indigestible pulp. Yeep. A mildly disgruntled fourteen-year-old takes to following a lumbering Polynesian clown around, and they meet some other issue-brandishing kids and their dopey and patronizing adult minders. Easily the worst thing we saw.  

Sunday, 9:30pm [6]
Krama mig! (Love and Happiness)  

A good finale, though, with what we both thought was the best movie of the six. Mostly just small-town life in Sweden: a girl, her father and stepmother and brother and sister, her best friend, some boys, the factory, the movie theater, learning to drive, driving around in circles, wondering what it's like somewhere else, a stranger coming to visit (with his dog), eventually going to find out. The family is a bit dopey, but not pathetic or psychotic. The boys are all dense, but none of them are pathological. The friends are simple, but not corrupt. The town is small and poor, but neither shuttered nor squalid. The girl is naive, but not self-destructive. It sounds mild, but was quite pleasant.  

Food notes  

- Cheese bagels: still one of the world's great things, even if they aren't what any reasonable person would expect from the words "cheese" and "bagel".  

- Underground food-court Lebanese chicken: better than American mall food, but not likely to be mistaken for restaurant-grade.  

- Zenya: serviceable sushi, but "sake toro" turned out to be cooked, and the gomaae was beyond "chilled" to "frozen into chunks".  

- Frites Alors!: whee! As close to the Belgian frites experience as I've come outside of Brussels.  

- Soupebol: the blandest pho-shaped thing we've ever encountered.  

- Eggspectation: cheerfully abundant brunch, after which I felt kind of yolk-logged for about five hours.  

- Fonduementale: a gluttonous farewell-dinner in fine style. I think the Japanese have worked out the meat part more effectively with shabu-shabu, but they don't serve caribou and wild boar, and they unwisely omit the cheese and chocolate courses.
It will be of interest to approximately nobody, but if this particular approximation misses you, I have written up an unsolicited idea about simplified XML.  

I give this about a 97% chance of being completely pointless, and a 3% chance of being an inspired idea that will ultimately be the foundation of my reputation as an esoteric technical visionary.  

And I wish I knew whether saying 3% is an example of humility or egotism.

The default architectural approach for a dynamic web site, these days, is to put all the content into a relational database system, retrieve pieces of it with SQL queries, and format the content on the fly with some combination of code, style-sheets and style transformations. There are many good reasons for this, among them scalable performance, manageable storage, transactional updating and a full relational query system for use in subsetting and searching.  

When I was writing the forum software for vF, though, my primary goals were statelessness and an absolute minimum of installation dependencies, and I was willing to assume relatively small scales, so instead of using a database I opted to store notes as simple XML files directly in the file system. In my scalability tests this actually worked better than I'd expected, so I used a variation on the same approach for the new architecture for the rest of the site when I recently rewrote it.  

I did wonder, though, how much speed I was giving up in the interest of file-system transparency and simplicity. So today I got around to dumping the back issues of my music-review column into a MySQL database so I could do a couple of performance tests of the two approaches.  

The first test was to build an alphabetized list of issue titles. The SQL version of this is very simple, as the titles are stored in a discreet field, and SQL lets you demand sorting, so a query like "SELECT title,id FROM thistable ORDER BY title" gets the right data in the right order, and some simple post-processing formats it into HTML. The XML version builds a file list by operating-system glob expansion (which is every bit as glamorous as it sounds), reads in each file, uses string-matching to find the content of the appropriate XML mark-up and stuff it into an array of hashes (again, very sexy), and then sorts the array by the title hash key using a custom comparison function. This test is slightly biased in favor of the SQL approach, as my XML code does some extra string-processing in between retrieval and sorting that I left out of the SQL version because there isn't a directly corresponding intermediate step. The XML version could be optimized in several obvious ways, but the SQL version would also be faster with an index.  

The second test was to retrieve the back-issues that contain a particular text phrase. Again, in SQL this is very easy: "SELECT title,id,content FROM thistable WHERE content LIKE '%this phrase%'". The XML method is the same as in the first test, plus some arcane string-matching and some even more arcane string-unmatching to avoid matches that occur inside of HTML tags. This second test is more significantly biased in favor of the SQL approach, because my XML code does a whole XML-HTML transformation step that I didn't bother plugging into the SQL version, plus the SQL version would produce false-positives inside tags that in production use would have to be caught in post-processing. There aren't any trivial accelerations for either approach to this problem, and it's a much more processing-intensive example than the first one, so this is the more interesting of the two tests.  

In the first test, the SQL approach reliably generated the title list in about 45 milliseconds, and the XML approach generally took about 89ms, for an SQL advantage of a factor of 2, more or less. This is actually much less of a different than I anticipated, given the absurd brute-force nature of my current XML approach to this problem.  

In the second test, even handicapped by post-processing, the XML method actually beat the SQL method. Every time, although not by a lot: SQL times range from 1.5s to 1.8s, XML times hover more consistently around 1.3s to 1.4s.  

Neither of these tests were remotely scientific, and I have made no attempt to run then in any environment other than the one I really use, or at any scale other than the one I'm really dealing with. So it would be insane to conclude that a global revolution against databases is imminent. But maybe, at least, I'm not as crazy as I feared for trying to see how far I can get without them.
My lifetime running distance, where for running purposes my life only began a year ago June, will hit 1000 miles about halfway through tomorrow's run. My first week of post-run/walk running I covered 9 miles; most weeks now I do 20. As of today I am on track for my arbitrary goal of running 1000 miles during calendar 2005. This isn't very much in serious running terms, but it's as far as I can go in as much time as I care to devote to the cause, and it's appealing to have an order of magnitude for a goal.  

I am slightly behind on my equally arbitrary goal of reading 50 books in 2005. I've finished 28, which suggests 43 or 44 for the year, but the numbers don't account for the fact that I spent most of May and June reading travel guides and grammar manuals, so I expect the current extrapolation underestimates the eventual total. If I get to 46, I'll have read more books in 2005 than in any year since 1996. A graph plotting my reading against my writing would explain most of the fluctuations in the former, as if there is a conservation of the time I spend with written words.  

Out of my goals of gaining and losing zero pounds in 2005, I have so far gained zero pounds and lost zero pounds, both of which trends point to a total calendar-year weight-gain and -loss of zero pounds.  

Out of my goal of having been married for one year during the first year of my marriage, I completed one year, for 100% of my goal. During the first seven days of the second year of my marriage, I have successfully been married for seven days. My goal is to reach two years of marriage by the end of the second year.  

Math is a comfort. If only anything important could be so simply measured.

The Field Mice: "Emma's House" (1.7M mp3)  

I'm still not getting through sunny days without listening to Waltham's blast of uncomplicatedly shallow puppy-romantic zeal at least once, but it's good to have counterpoint, and if Waltham are a recursivist's dream of a band trying to impress girls by playing songs about trying to impress girls by being in a band, then the Field Mice were their polar opposite, a band about trying to figure out how best to end up alone. This one reduces melancholy almost past its essence, understanding perfectly that the core of redemptive loneliness is self-circumscribing, and that in the perfect portrait of sadness details exist only to anchor atmosphere.
She touches three keys with the same fingers she must have run through your hair, and then we are away and I will never have to see you again.  

She stands by windows onto ten worlds, watching a hundred billion people dodge through each other's enmities, and we duel quietly with our convictions about what she hopes to see among them.  

It is only through the invisible mercy of infinitesimal machines that she can breathe in this air and my company.  

You have no idea how much more courage it took to come out here alone with what I know and brought with me than to land on these rocks where we know nothing and owe nothing.  

In the logs it is at first Minerva, and only self-consciously do we leave off the catalog number; and then later Beta, when discovered implications begin to eclipse portaged expectations; and in my mind it is half of the time Home, and half of the time only Without You.
Site contents published by glenn mcdonald under a Creative Commons BY/NC/ND License except where otherwise noted.