Saturday, January 31, 2009

Impatient job-searching

"Individuals who are more impatient search less intensely and set a lower reservation wage. The effect of impatience on the exit rate depends on the relative strength of the two contrasting forces: lower search implies lower exit rates, while a lower reservation wage implies higher exit rates."

On-the-job Search and Wage Distribution, Journal of Labor Economics: 2005.

The less money you have, too, the more impatient you'd probably become. In this job market, if you thought working at a union-busting Starbucks would be a last resort in a pinch, it turns out Starbucks is laying off over 6,000 employees and are closing or already closed about 1,000 stores.

The recession and the bad job market have led to more college graduates turning to "altruistic" jobs, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal, like Peace Corps, Americorps, WorldTeach, Jesuit Volunteer Corps, and Teach For America. More and more applicants are turning out.

"The Peace Corps is expecting a 16% increase in applications for the [2009] fiscal year ending Oct. 1."

As this recession prolongs, unemployment rises, it would seem more job-seekers become impatient with the process. They would set a lower reservation wage, and eventually take jobs that are available. But as college graduates are becoming more impatient at job-searching, they take more jobs that aim at alleviating these woes. So joining the Peace Corps is like lowering a reservation wage? I think these concepts are related, perhaps not in the exact way the authors in Labor Economics suggest.

Since actions of an individual are largely determined by socio-economic class, for college graduates, impatience with a job market might not result in lowering a reservation wage so much as looking for a new line of work. Government jobs become particularly more attractive, and so it seems, do 'altruistic' jobs.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Sustain our future, Evergreen

A friend of mine is taking a course on propaganda at The Evergreen State College, Tacoma campus. Students created propaganda posters for whatever cause or idea they wanted to for one of the projects. The posters are displayed in the hallway outside the classroom for other students and faculty to see.

I recently went to the Evergreen Tacoma campus for a community group meeting, Food Not Bombs. Afterward I perused the different posters students designed and drafted. Some of them are ironic, some are artsy, all of them are creative. I think the creativity which Evergreen campuses inspire students to develop is one of the school's greatest successes. One of the posters, a very simply one, I wanted to blog on here because it made me laugh.

Look at the kid picking his nose!

The Evergreen State College, however, is in a perilous situation since Washington State began a massive budget cut that dipped severely into education funds. Evergreen, a public institution, will loose $3.5 billion in public school funding. Tacoma public schools are supposed to be hit harder than other cities in the state. Higher education will experience large budget cuts too. The administration at Evergreen has decided how it will spend its new budget, and the planners decided to eliminate the following programs, according to a budget leak which was emailed and sent to Evergreen students.

Among the programs are: the entire Evergreen Tacoma campus (which is a valuable resource to the mainly poor, inner-city African American community in Tacoma), the Olympia Labor Center (which is a center for unionization and labor justice in Olympia), some or all of the Reservation-Based Programs (which work with the indigenous populations), the NW Indian Research Center, The Longhouse (another native tribe project), and the Center for Community-Based Learning and Action. There is a larger list floating around.

There is no doubt in my mind that this school has been an incredible and valuable resource for justice movements and community-building, capacity-building, not to mention a school that provides resources and space for labor, native tribes and poor communities. Having visited the school plenty of times and attended functions, I say Evergreen is more broadly a place where students set their minds free, vigorously pursue their passions and interests, and take courses that always spark my interest. And if you want to pick your nose, it's okay because social norms were meant to be deconstructed. To see these resources disappear would hurt the communities already most effected by financial imbalances.

Evergreen aims the brunt of its budget cut at the poor and excluded. This would make matters worse. These groups obviously rank very low in the TESC administration's priorities, which does not come as a surprise. The staff have increasingly adopted a more "business model" approach to education matters in recent years. Instead of hiring educators with degrees in political science or education, Evergreen increasingly hires MBA graduates to take care of business things.

The Evergreen State College should take the advice of the propaganda poster, stop cutting community programs which are viewed as unnecessary accessories, and embrace real change: "Sustain your future - Invest in a child". Build up the communities which will be crushed by the wobbly situation, instead of sweeping the rug out from under them.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Painterly cats

Museum of Non-Primate Art

It's hard to eschew concepts like "genius," "creativity," and even "author" when you discover that the painters behind these works of art are cats. Those were, after all, concepts postmodern art tried to relinquish. But these surface-oriented paintings wouldn't be as significant to us if it weren't for the fact that cats with special abilities sat down and painted them.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

How to Grow Shiitake Mushrooms

This is a step by step guide to growing your own mushrooms from plug spawn, which is a small capsule that contains mycelia and will spread the mushroom's spawn all over a food source.

For this tutorial, the mushrooms will be planted outside in a log. There are a few things you'll need in order to do this.

  • plug spawn
  • an outdoor area
  • cheese or wax
  • electric drill, and
  • a log
Step 1)

The first step is to get plug spawn. There is a medicinal mushroom research facility in my region, near Olympia, WA, called Fungi Perfecti. This company researches the medicinal benefits of mushroom intake and environmental uses of mushrooms, such as bioremediation of oil spills. If you watched the Leonardo di Caprio film, The 11th Hour, (about climate change), you would have seen the interview with Paul Stamets, the leading researcher at Fungi Perfecti.

You can order plug spawn from their website for about $13 for a container with around 100 dowels (or small capsules). There is no precise estimate for how many mushroom fruits each dowel will yield. But after a log is inoculated well, it will produce mushrooms for years. Each log should be plugged with around 30 - 50 dowels.

You can store your dowels in a cool, refrigerated place until you are ready to impregnate some food sources. As you can see by the picture above, I have been refrigerating my shiitake plug spawn for quite a while and the bag has begun to turn white with mycelia. (If you open the bag while its white you could have mushrooms grow right outside the bag.) But you don't want to break up these mycelium networks once they have begun spreading. You want this to happen inside the food source (not the bag).

Since, despite being delicious, shiitake has many medicinal benefits as well, and for this guide I will assume you are cultivating, like me, shiitake spawn. Shiitake mushrooms have anti-viral properties which come from particles within the mushroom that behave very much like viruses themselves. An important compound in shiitake, called leonthionine, creates a healthier blood circulation systems, and prevents blood buildups and clots which lead to strokes, heart attacks, thrombosis, hemostasis, and platelet deficiencies. Shiitake is also anti-carcinogenic, will slow cancerous processes, and can also help prevent allergies and arthritis.

Step 2)

After you have the plug spawn dowels in your possession, you must either find a cut log or cut one yourself. For all mushroom types, the log should have been cut at least 1 to 3 months prior, but not too much older than that. Since the log itself is the food that will feed the mycelia, you do not want the food source to be full of runny saps and other anti-fungal juices. The more sawdusty the better, given that many mushrooms will inoculate very easily in sawdust. The more sugar content the better, so you don't want the log to be too old. The log pieces should be 3 to 4 feet long.

The two types of logs that Fungi Perfecti recommends for shiitake spawn are alder and oak, because they have thicker barks and are hardwoods. Hardwood are less porous. I will be using a Douglas Fir log, which is a softwood - albeit more less porous than many softwoods. (This was the only thing I could scavenge.) Generally, the thicker the bark and the more cracks the better, since the mushrooms must find little cracks in the bark to burst out of when its time to shroom.

Step 3)

Once you have your log pieces cut, drill small holes to put your dowels into. Generally 2 inches deep, just enough to penetrate past the bark a little ways. The holes should be no less than 4 inches apart. 30 - 50 plugs per log.

After your plug spawn is placed nicely in its hole, give it a good whack with a hammer or punch it a little with the drill bit. This breaks open the dowel and makes colonization happen much faster. However, with my dowels already bursting at the seams with mycelia, I carefully pried them apart and made sure what bits and pieces of mycelia attached were left intact.

*Note* because shiitake is sensitive to anti-fungal compounds that can be found in the soils, do not let your spawn or the mushroom fruits come into contact with the soil directly.

Step 4)

This part is optional. To guard against adverse weather conditions or curious insects one thing you can do is plug the holes with either beeswax or cheese. The best time to plug your spawn will be in late Winter or early Spring, typically after the last hard frost. And there you have it. Wait six to nine months and your logs will begin spawning delicious shiitake outgrowths, which you can use for all sorts of recipes.

The varieties of mushrooms I am growing in my *new* backyard are shiitake, reishi and lion's mane. I can post more pictures once they begin to spawn.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Tyranny of Oil

Author of "The Tyranny of Oil", Antonia Juhasz, spoke at King's Books in Tacoma not too long ago. I used to live right behind the bookstore, so when she came I recorded the talk, and spiced it up with archived footage and video from oil industry commercials and propaganda. At any rate, I hope you like this 26-minute piece.

  • Website for the book, "The Tyranny of Oil"
  • Website which Antonia is a contributor, The Oil Drum.

The video footage comes from lots of places, most notably the documentary about Enron, "The Smartest Guys in the Room" - and the PBS Frontline documentary, "Heat". I also used an old VHS program called "Economics USA: Monopolies". Here is a list of the music tracks I used.
  • Burial, "Prayer"
  • Skream, "Midnight Request Line"
  • Greg Merrell, "Clash Valian"
  • Benga, "Wobblers"
  • N-Type, "Quantum (remix)"
  • Thomas Felhman, "Feat"
  • Skream, "Stagger"

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Koto

If there was one instrument I would love to learn how to play, it would be the koto.

The koto is to Japanese society what the piano is to Western societies. The instrument has thirteen silk or nylon strings, each with a movable bridge, stretched over a hollow sound board that is about 6 feet long. The strings are plucked with ivory plectra worn on your thumb, index finger, and middle finger. The koto player can also strike and scrape the plectra on the strings to produce different tone colors and other effects. Sometimes a finger will waver on the strings to make a tremolo effect.

Most of the koto masterpieces - usually solos like this one - are from the Edo period (1615 - 1868). This is when Japan isolated itself from foreign cultures and developed new kinds of art, like Kabuki theater and color woodblock prints. This incubation period gave time to change the cultural ideas and inventions that it had received from China: the koto was something Japan gained through trade with China. Edo period koto-playing was mostly for entertainment rather than religion and aristocratic events as was the case in the preceding periods. Blind musicians became really good at playing the koto and began forming their own special guilds. Someone who was considered a master of the koto was known as a kengyo. Japanese musicians mastered koto-playing.

The most famous kengyo in Japanese culture of all time is Yatsuhashi Kengyo, whose most famous piece is known as Rokudan. Rokudan uses a specific kind of koto music style that is known for "themes" and "variations" - called danmono. The theme is presented in the first section of the piece. Then, in all the other sections there are variations of that theme, each time speeding up the tempo. Rokudan has six sections. This is what it sounds like:

When the koto is part of a chamber ensemble, no instrument is supposed to outshine the others. They are supposed to blend together without losing any individual qualities. The heterophonic texture, as it's called, has a very mellow sound to it. Sometimes, however, when the individual instruments start drifting off in different directions, they start to create a polyphonic texture.

Ebay - 21-stringed Guzheng, a Chinese zither koto harp: $250.00. hmmm.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Enter - ShadowHawk

While selling some books on Amazon, I came across an old 90s comic book that my cousin had collected, called ShadowHawk. I opened it and began reading...

It was New York City in the early 90s.

Crime was everywhere.

Police were either lazy or prevented from doing their jobs by the silly court rules and bullshit watchdog services.

Paul Johnstone, the protagonist, was a good kid. He stayed out of trouble even though he lived in Harlem. As a good black kid in a bad black neighborhood, he wanted to do something about the distraught social forces he saw around him. What can he do about it? He became a district attorney.

But one night a group of thugs beats him up, steals all his money, and then injects a syringe with HIV into his arm. That's so fucked up! What's he going to do about it?

In the early 90s people thought HIV was the most contagious disease on the planet. Hence Paul Johnstone looses his job after altercations with co-workers over the condition. The comic's creator, Jim Valentino, spread HIV myths and misconceptions throughout the illustrations. Some issues of ShadowHawk were aimed at dispelling the myth that HIV only affected gays and IV drug users. The 'progressive' point Valentino was making was that it affects "innocent" people too.

Needless to say there were more myths about HIV that needed dispelling, but given the level of hysteria at the time I suppose all Valentino could do was point out the differences between guilty and innocent victims of HIV. But there is another hidden "narrative" I am trying to expose within this comic.

Back to the story: the courts had become an impossible environment to be in; Paul becomes severely depressed. While walking the streets to clear up his mind one night, gang-members jump him and steal all of his shit again. How fucked up can it get for this guy? When has he had enough?

He ends up in the hospital, where a friend from the police force comes to visit him. Christina, who was fired that day for "excessive force", conspires with Paul about justice. They're both fed up with the system, they can't take it anymore. Driven by their desire to see justice prevail, they design a super exo-skeletal system that Paul wears at night when he becomes ... "ShadowHawk"...

"You used to believe in the system.

You can't anymore."

"It has failed you."

"You feel a certain amount of satisfaction as his spine breaks."

"No matter what the courts decide...

You're ShadowHawk.
And you're taking back the night."

Okay, okay, wait a second. What is the difference between superhero and vigilante, really? What is the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist? What's the difference between ShadowHawk and Rudy Guliani?

This was the same time-period in New York City history when a new paradigm for crime intervention grew in support, the "zero-tolerance" policing that exists still today. Civil liberties were suspended and still are as the New York Police Department began a new campaign inspired by the "broken windows policing" theory. This was done under the reign of mayor Rudy Guliani.

In theory, by cracking down on all forms of "criminal" activity, such as j-walking, spitting, graffiti, ordinance code violations, littering, loitering, and the like, you would significantly decrease violent crimes and property crimes. The economic results are generally in support of the thesis and - whether causally-related or not - NYC has seen a decrease in crime since the early-90s. Sociological authors have cast serious doubt on the theory and its merits.

At the same time Rudy Guliani increased the number of police on beat patrol, the number of those working on the civilian complaint board decreased or were replaced by former police officers. Thus, the number of complaints and the number of cases brought against the New York Police Department have seemingly dropped. The police now enjoy superhero vigilante status, and with fewer oppositional forces within the city government, and less criticism.

Such that, when the NYPD see something they do not like in their city today, this is how they respond:

In Oakland last week - a white police officer is caught on tape executing an innocent black man, Oscar Grant. Several video angles of the shooting available on Indybay make it impossible to deny that the police officer in fact shot the man execution style. He was not resisting and was lying flat on his face.

These are the ShadowHawks of today: the spine-breakers who patrol the streets and are above the law. The courts and the system have "failed them", and no matter what judges decide, they are ShadowHawks, and they don't give a damn about "excessive force". They enjoy, through widespread propagandistic media, a blanket of support from bourgeois society.

I have more comics to browse through. Batman is another example of a superhero rogue cop who, when the Joker and his bad guys do not admit the truth, tortures the lunatic criminals until they make a confession - with plenty of parallels to the War on Terror.

One thing the ShadowHawk comic was did brilliantly, however, was disguise a racist and anti-social tendency as something that looked at the time like racial and gender equality. By having crime-fighting ShadowHawk be a black man and by having his brutal sidekick be a woman who worked a traditional male job, it would seem to make criticism more difficult. As if having a Jew play the role of the SS would make Nazi Germany seem any more just. (There always has to be a Nazi analogy.)

Surely we have already seen parallels with this and the Barack Obama presidency.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Warrior ethos

Robert Fisk, British correspondent for the UK newspaper The Independent and credited by the phrase 'fisking', has in his new book "The Age of the Warrior" brought attention to two separate and very distinct US Armed Forces creeds. The first was originally created after the My Lai massacre in Vietnam to encourage 'professional' conduct in war. The original was scrapped in 2003 and replaced with what the military calls The Warrior Ethos to encourage an abject obedience to the mission of the armed forces.

The original text can be found in the older versions of the Soldier's Handbook and also this Field Artillery NCO Study Guide.

I am an American soldier.

I am a member of the United States Army - a protector of the greatest nation on earth.

Because I am proud of the uniform I wear, I will always act in ways creditable to the military service and the nation that it is sworn to guard.

I am proud of my own organization.

I will do all I can to make it the finest unit of the Army.

I will be loyal to those under whom I serve.

I will do my full part to carry out orders and instructions given me or my unit.

As a soldier I realize that I am a member of a time-honored Profession, that I am doing my share to keep alive the principles of freedom for which my country stands.

No matter what situation I am in, I will never do anything for pleasure, profit or personal safety, which will disgrace my uniform, my unit or my country.

I will use every means I have, even beyond the line of duty, to restrain my Army comrades from actions, disgraceful to themselves and the uniform.

I am proud of my country and it's flag.

I will try to make the people of this nation proud of the service I represent for I am an American soldier.

This is the version that Donald Rumsfeld created to be the new 'Warrior Ethos', via The Independent:

I am an American soldier.

I am a warrior and a member of a team.

I serve the people of the Unites States and live the Army values.

I will always place the mission first.

I will never accept defeat.

I will never quit.

I will never leave a fallen comrade.

I am disciplined, physically and mentally tough, trained and proficient in my warrior tasks and drills.

I always maintain my arms, my equipment and myself.

I am an expert and I am a professional.

I stand ready to deploy, engage and destroy the enemies of the United States of America in close combat.

I am a guardian of freedom and the American way of life.

I am an American soldier.

The differences are obvious. The second version says nothing about disgraceful conduct. It says nothing about ethical standards. It emphasizes total obedience to the military chain of command. It lent itself to Abu Ghraib, to Guantanamo, and Bagram. It lent itself to war crimes.

The older version has problems too - the same problems are in the second version. In the My Lai version, for example, "greatest nation on earth" already shows signs of extreme nationalism. Both creeds reinforce subservience, domination, and unquestionable submission to hierarchy. Both appeal to professionalism, and easily give rise to the same problems that Hannah Arendt pointed out when it came to Nazi professionalism.

The second version certainly goes further than the first; Robert Fisk considers the first one acceptable, and the second one deplorable. But there is another creed that the Army has on hand, for civilians, called the Civilian Corps Creed. This creed is worse than the others in my opinion, because the civilian creed extends "Army values" onto civilian populations, and encourages the same hierarchical obedience to non-warriors. Perhaps in the wake of 9/11, everyone became an "Army civilian" and a member of the "Army team".

I am an Army Civilian - a member of the Army Team.

I am dedicated to the Army, its Soldiers and Civilians.

I will always support the mission.

I provide stability and continuity during war and peace.

I support and defend the Constitution of the United States and consider it an honor to serve the Nation and its Army.

I live the Army values of Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, and Professional Courage.

I am an Army Civilian.

Recorded speech - Robert Fisk in Seattle, September 2008.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Cathode Ray Mission

There is one short scene that I really like in Videodrome (1981). In David Cronenberg's alternate timeline universe there is a Catholic style inner-city "mission" called the Cathode Ray Mission. Its purpose is to help what looks like homeless people get reintegrated into normal, everyday working life. But you soon learn that the people go to the mission are not really without homes so much as without televisions. What possible reason could there be for that? In order to patch the "derelicts" back into the world of normalization, they must be treated by exposure to television. So they come to Cathode Ray for their TV "fix".

"You look like them, like one of father's derelicts," says Bianca O'blivion, the mission operator who is also the daughter of Videodrome's first victim.

"I think it's a style. It's coming back," says Max Wren, the main character.

"In that case, Mr. Wren, it's not a style. It's a disease forced upon them from lack of access to the Cathode Ray tube."

Wren - "You think a few doses of TV will help them?"

Bianca - "Watching TV will help patch them back into the world's mixing board."

"The world's mixing board" - what is that? A gigantic network of information and signals which inform the teeming masses with socially acceptable discourse. Getting patched back in is like reading up on the day's news in order to have everyday conversation with other people: what products are being consumed, what TV shows people are talking about, what political ideas should you be having, etc. The parallel today is like checking Facebook or Myspace in order to feel more connected to the drifting social discourse that takes place beyond real physical events. You can come back to the "real world" having felt as if you are completely informed, less naive about various aspects of social life.

But what is the real world? The "world's mixing board" is an arena that is more and more "realistic" everyday, and the video seers are saying that video reality is more real to them than reality in the flesh.

This Cathode Ray scene in the film is short, but provides a lot of background that helps you understand the hypothetical world that people live in, and David Cronenberg's social commentary. You notice that each derelict person in the mission is sitting alone in front of a television set, completely alienated from the rest of the world, detached from the other people who share the same class consciousness as they do. As an alienated force, they absorb a new form of 'classless' consciousness that imports the values and emotions they must have to survive in a rigorous environment. In Marx's term, an opiate of the masses.

Here's the other part. Massive doses of Videodrome's signal - a mind-altering television show that broadcasts unedited torture, and still being tested in a Pittsburgh laboratory - causes a tumor in the brain that brings about hallucinations when it receives the Videodrome signal. (This is the farfetched version of how the "society of the spectacle" works, but it isn't too far off.) These surreal hallucinations can be recorded, broadcast, and also controlled. It's the ultimate brainwashing machine.

Since the creators of Videodrome - a government-contractor - have 'benevolent' intentions they dreamed that Videodrome would supposedly bring about an ideal social situation for a new world order. And for the first time ever it is possible to exert political and social power over the proletariat without having to convince them by traditional means. The "disease" that is forced upon the proletariat by lack of access to television is their class consciousness, and the television, helping them consume imaginary commodities, is the cure. This will give them a false consciousness. In the mission Bianca remarks that Wren is beginning to "look like them." He is beginning to look more proletariat: someone who has no control over their own life.

The ability to exert the power is also, what I find interesting, a philanthropic mission with just one simple idea. Just as 19th Century philanthropist and philosopher Jeremy Bentham, convinced that his "simple idea in architecture", a panopticon, could solve the most vexing problems of Enlightenment social thought, so a Videodrome device could solve the most vexing problems of class struggle. By harmoniously coordinating self-interest with social duty in a capitalist system, Videodrome enforces as painlessly as possible a sense of social cohesion.

Video hallucination, and because the film has mild Cold War undertones, is the way to control the public mind away from the dangers of communism. "The battle for the mind of North America," says Brian O'blivion, a video prophet, "will be fought in the video arena." The company called Spectacular Optical - where Videodrome originates - also makes missile-guidance systems for NATO and products for use in the Third World. The interconnected interest between war with Soviet Russia, Third World dependence, and the need for greater public control in the liberal regimes is not something Cronenberg tries to disguise.

But Cronenberg's more obvious intention was to suggest something more along the lines of Baudrillard's simulacra. The transition of a society from industrialism to "hyperreality", marks a decisive turning point. Imagine, says Baudrillard, that a gigantic empire created a map of its own territory, and that map was so detailed that it was as big as the territory itself. When the empire eventually declined and disappeared, all that is left is the map. Baudrillard suggests that in the hyperreal transition, people merely live in the map. Beyond this horizon, value takes on a new meaning. In Baudrillard's object/value system - the sign value of an object can be considered more real than its functional, exchange, or use value. The real object, even if erased, is not as important as the sign.

Videodrome was designed to create this turning point in human history, to push us into the world of signs. The brain tumors caused by Videodrome would create a new outgrowth, a new evolutionary step in human history. Instead of being so enamored with reality in the flesh, humans will elevate their consciousness to a higher plane, the video arena. In Baudrillard's term, hyperrreality.

"Your reality is already half video hallucination," says Brian O'blivion in a video dispatch to Max Wren. "If you're not careful it will become total hallucination. You'll have to learn to live in a very strange new world."

This advice is not heeded. "Long live the new flesh!" is a slogan Max Wren starts saying once he is totally brainwashed by Videodrome. He is convinced, like others before him, that "public life on television" is more real than "private life in the flesh," in Bianca's words.

What I find the most creative on behalf of Cronenberg's vision was to use the Cathode Ray Mission as a way to explain the turning point from industrial to hyperreal forms of society. The fact that the derelicts in Videodrome's world are in need of objects that have greater sign value than functional values, describes with great surrealism the kind of warped and twisted place a late capitalist society is. Objects in the system of signs are fetishized to such an extent that they have more value than anything else.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Bamboo Garden

Probably one of the best vegan/vegetarian restaurants in Seattle is the Bamboo Garden. I was in that area eating with a friend not too long ago. When we first walked in and took a look at the menu, we get excited that literally everything on the menu is something we want to order. We're used to dismissing entres with words like "chicken" in them, and for at least the first minute we overlooked quite a bit. We had to remind ourselves that Bamboo Garden makes tofu imitations of everything: chicken, salmon, shark fin... it's very amazing and delicious.

Next time I go to Portland there are several vegan places I want to check out. Including the anarchist Red and Black Cafe.