oh the humanities.

Pockets of this country – and I live in one of them – are full of people skeptical of a liberal arts education. They’ll pit the humanities, for instance, against more practical fields of study like business or engineering. For them, weighing the merits of these respective disciplines is a no-brainer.

I mention this because I’m reading a book review on the state of our universities. Anthony Grafton writes that “In Academically Adrift, Arum and Roksa paint a chilling portrait of what the university curriculum has become. The central evidence that the authors deploy comes from the performance of 2,322 students on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized test administered to students in their first semester at university and again at the end of their second year… an ingenious exercise that requires students to read a set of documents on a fictional problem in business or politics and write a memo advising an official on how to respond to it.

“Their results are sobering. The Collegiate Learning Assessment reveals that some 45 percent of students in the sample had made effectively no progress in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing in their first two years.

“… Two points come through with striking clarity. First, traditional subjects and methods seem to retain their educational value. Nowadays the liberal arts attract a far smaller proportion of students than they did two generations ago. Still, those majoring in liberal arts fields – humanities and social sciences, natural sciences and mathematics – outperformed those studying business, communications, and other new, practical majors on the CLA. And at a time when libraries and classrooms across the country are being reconfigured to promote trendy forms of collaborative learning, students who spent the most time studying on their own outperformed those who worked mostly with others.”

The review adds that today’s students spend fewer hours studying and more hours socializing, exercising, and gaming, which detracts from the college experience. “For most of them, in the end, what the university offers is not skills or knowledge but credentials: a diploma that signals employability and basic work discipline… Our great, democratic university system has become a pillar of social stability – a broken community many of whose members drift through, learning little, only to return to the economic and social box that they were born into.”

My son will enter college next year and it’s a safe bet we’ll use this piece and others to set expectations. A major in business? I’ll ask him to think that one through carefully. It’s not that I’m biased against business. I’m just being practical.


war and peace.

-+- $500,000: Amount the Iraq war costs per minute, according to a joint analysis by a Nobel-prizewinning economist and a Harvard scholar, who noted that the amount spent on the war each day could pay for health care for 423,529 children.

From the October 8, 2007 issue of TIME

from demokratia to dermokratia.

The New Yorker reports that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (The Gulag Archipelago) recently told Der Spiegel, “If you take an unbiased look at the situation, there was a rapid decline of living standards in the nineteen-nineties, which affected three-quarters of Russian families, and all under the ‘democratic banner.’ Small wonder, then, that the population does not rally to this banner anymore.”

In that same article, titled The Tsar’s Opponent: Garry Kasparov takes aim at the power of Vladimir Putin, David Remnick writes, “Who can prove to (Putin) that stability and prosperity demand democratic politics? Without the trappings of democracy, China is hoping it will become the world’s biggest economy. Oil-rich and liberty-poor Iran and Venezuela are ascendant. And Russia itself is growing richer; with the foreign debt gone, a multibillion-dollar stabilization fund has been established as a hedge against lower oil prices. For the first few years of Putin’s reign, there were several liberal advisers in his retinue, but once oil prices began to rise, from around twenty-five dollars a barrel to more than three times that, and analysts determined that such prices were sustainable, a more assertive statist policy took hold. Liberal advisers were fired or marginalized, kept on only as decoration for Western eyes. And few complain.”

Finally, there’s this ignominy: “In today’s Russia, demokratia as it emerged in the nineties has been derisively called dermokratia: ‘shit-ocracy.’ The notion of liberalism, too — a belief in the necessity of civil society, civil liberties, an open economy — has been degraded.”

Clearly, much has changed since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Nor do recent developments — the Iraq War and the US’s go-it-alone approach in the world, as symbolized by John Bolton’s combative UN tenure, our failure to ratify or improve the Kyoto treaty on climate, and our renouncement of the World Court — bode well for the spontaneous blooming of democracy.

Democracy is in need of a make-over, and Americans can lead in this by practicing what we preach. This means conducting elections in which the results are undisputed (a paper trail is required). Ridding ourselves of the outdated and anti-democratic electoral college (popular vote = president). Less corruption and more accountability in our government (jail-time usually gets people’s attention). And true campaign finance reform (either public financing of elections, or anonymous donations to eliminate any quid pro quo).

We’d also do well to address the growing divide between rich and poor in this country. One percent of Americans now hold 40 percent of the nation’s wealth. If Americans truly believe in democracy, we’ll find ways to rebuild our middle class. We’ll either lead by example or watch democracy continue to become marginalized both here and abroad.

living in a box.

Cardboard “housing,” Tokyo, late 1990s



I lived in Japan during the boom times and left before the bust. And bust it did. The photos here paint a depressing picture of just how bad times became for some Japanese in the 1990s. Recession brought with it a seismic realignment in the relationship between workers and employers. College recruitment slowed to a trickle, women were discouraged from entering the workforce, and lifetime employment began to be phased out. Suddenly millions of Japanese became “arubaito” — part-timers.

Tokyo is not a city in which one wants to be without a steady income. At the recession’s inception, the city remained the most expensive in the world, and before long blue- and white-collar workers alike found themselves struggling to pay their bills. The most unfortunate of these, primarily day laborers, a.k.a. construction workers, lost their jobs and then their homes. Increasingly, Japanese commuters began encountering these unfortunate souls in their subway stations. One of the largest of these stations, Shinjuku, became home to several hundred of the newly dispossessed living in cardboard boxes. These elaborately painted boxes and the suspicious fire that eventually destroyed them — killing four — are documented at the links below.

I read about the Shinjuku box-dwellers from time to time throughout the 1990s, but I remained unaware of their fate until stumbling across the story on Pink Tentacle recently. Coincidentally, I now live close to a city that’s engaged in its own initiative to roust the homeless from public spaces. Housing costs in northern California are on a par with those of Tokyo ten years ago, and safety nets are no more adequate.

There’s no one solution to homelessness. Good people inside and out of government continue to look for answers. Our media tell us that Americans don’t want or can’t afford a safety net on the scale of what northern Europeans offer. Some still revel in the image of Americans pulling themselves up by the bootstraps, assuming that everyone has boots to begin with, and no demons or addictions to overcome.

You can find more photos of Shinjuku Station’s cardboard house paintings here and here.

An explanation of the effort to paint and photograph the structures is available on artist Take Junichiro’s website. Excerpt: “A group of painters painted them. Leading the group was Take Junichiro, who is also the person who made this website. Once during the painting process Take was arrested and forced to spend 22 days in jail. The painting continued even after his arrest, but finally came to an end when the underground kingdom was destroyed in a huge fire. After the fire, the authorities started reconstruction on the tunnels so that the homeless could never occupy them again. They succeeded in kicking the homeless out of the west exit underground. This website was made to call attention to the paintings on the cardboard houses… The photographs here are the work of photographer Sakokawa Naoko and others who sympathized with what we were doing.”

More on the homeless in Tokyo is available here, in an article from the period of the cardboard house paintings. The fire and its aftermath were the subjects of this article in The Japan Times.




the atlantic’s food for thought.

Brilliant issue of The Atlantic this month (October). Pressed for time and with so much to do, I meant to just skim it and chuck it, but was foiled by one great article after another. From efforts to influence the weather (Riders on the Storm), to the role of genetics in producing kindness (The Selfless Gene – see excerpt under World tab), to the spoils awarded the Pakistani military (After Musharraf), to an evaluation of social-networking media (About Facebook), there’s enough here to keep one engaged the better part of a day. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. I came for a snack and was treated to a banquet.

I’ve been subscribing to The Atlantic for seven or eight years now. In contrast to other periodicals I receive, I’ve never given any thought to letting my subscription lapse (on the contrary, I’ve given subscriptions as gifts to family). Writers I’ve enjoyed reading in the magazine’s pages include William Langewiesche (now writing for Vanity Fair), Joshua Hammer, Christopher Hitchens, and James Fallows. There’s often a long, fascinating piece set in a developing nation. This month it’s Pakistan, while previous months have included China, The Philippines, and Nigeria. Every issue is then topped off with a clever full-page homage to language by Barbara Wallraff.

You can check out The Atlantic at its website. There you’ll find the stories I’ve mentioned and many more not found in the October issue. Bon appétit.

transbay terminal conclusion.

I can’t work up much enthusiasm for the Transbay Joint Powers Authority’s decision Thursday, so this could be my last post on the subject. As expected, the TJPA went with the jury recommendation and selected the Pelli Clarke Pelli obelisk design. They also heard the developers speak of a fast-track effort to construct the 1200-foot tower. Not surprisingly, a number of interested observers weighed in with comments on the TJPA’s decision.

My previous posts listed several perceived flaws in the selection process and the Pelli design, all of them raised by SF Chronicle readers. That paper’s urban design writer John King touched on these same points in yesterday’s fast-track article, specifically the impact of money on the decision, the accessibility of a park 70 feet above ground level, and the lack of any housing in the proposed tower.

Regarding the tower’s proposed 80-stories, King points out that any reduction in height will likely cause the developers to reduce the amount of money they’re willing to offer. So while there may be revisions to the design and even its proposed inhabitants (from offices-only to mixed use), don’t expect the tower to be brought down to the Transamerica Pyramid’s 853-foot height. This design, or something quite like it, will become the new focal point of San Francisco’s skyline.

Chronicle readers looking for a silver lining in Thursday’s TJPA decision found it in the realization that at least a new public transit hub will be constructed. As reader rs1009 said in the Chronicle’s reader comments, “… the proposal to improve the terminal I am all for. A major public transit hub and improved transportation options (see: high-speed rail) will do more to move this city forward than any number of giant skyscrapers.”

High-speed rail: now there’s a subject a lot of folks could get excited about. Would that we had the political will to make high-speed rail happen.

eat your vegetables.

Something that escaped my notice recently didn’t slip past the editors of Harper’s Magazine. As reported in their August 2007 Findings, “A federal judge ruled that a small meatpacker must be allowed to test all of its cattle for mad cow disease; the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which insists on testing less than 1 percent of slaughtered cattle for the disease, said that it will appeal the decision because of the high likelihood of false positives, which would harm the meat industry.”

My curiosity piqued, I looked into this further and learned the following. In justifying the desire for comprehensive mad cow testing, Creekstone Farms Premium Beef CEO John Stewart said 18 months ago, “Our customers, particularly our Asian customers, have requested it over and over again. We feel strongly that if customers are asking for tested beef, we should be allowed to provide that.”

Stewart can point to Japan, the most lucrative foreign market for American beef until the first U.S. case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow) prompted a ban in 2003. Stewart says the ban cost Creekstone Farms nearly a third of its sales and led the company to lay off about 150 people.

Tadashi Sato, agricultural attaché at the Japanese Embassy in Washington, said after the 2003 scare, ”We want to see the U.S. government introduce the same system for beef safety, or at least an equivalent system, that we have in Japan. We test all slaughtered cattle, regardless of age.”

Instead, the USDA appears to be heading in the opposite direction. After testing just 1 percent of the 35 million head of cattle slaughtered annually through 2005, last year the USDA announced plans to scale back mad cow testing even further, from 1,000 tests a day to 100.

The USDA says that in opposing Creekstone Farms, it is sticking up for larger companies, who worry that a suspect result might scare consumers away from eating beef. They claim that testing rarely detects the disease in younger animals, the source of most meat.

queued and viewed 2.

My last twelve Netflix rentals, beginning with most recent.

  • The Sand Pebbles
  • The Battle of Algiers
  • The Terminal
  • Deadwood: Season 3, Disc 1
  • The Bridge
  • Spanglish
  • Bobby
  • Pan’s Labyrinth
  • Nixon
  • Big Love: Season 1, Disc 1
  • The Queen
  • Children of Men

when moo means moola.

-+- Head of cattle that Fidelity Investments keeps on a portion of its corporate campus near Fort Worth: 25

-+- Amount in taxes it thereby saves each year through a Texas agricultural exemption: $328,000

From the Harper’s Index™, October 2007

transbay terminal revisited.

Transbay Terminal Tower, San Francisco (proposed)

Two International Finance Centre, Hong Kong (existing)

The seven-member jury overseeing selection of San Francisco’s Transbay Terminal project made its recommendation Monday, and the early reaction is trending negative. Criticism of the recommended proposal includes the following:

» The tower is too conservative for San Francisco.
» It contains only office space, no housing.
» The five-acre park offers limited access.
» The building has been done before, in Hong Kong.
» Money, not design, dictated the selection.

It is the final point that discourages this from being a true design competition. As the SF Chronicle’s urban design writer John King points out, the developer behind the Pelli Clarke Pelli design offered $350 million for the land, more than $200 million above the price offered by the other two design-development teams. Only if the design were impractical or an eyesore might we expect the jury not to select Pelli’s obelisk, and it is neither. On the contrary, it is prudent (for an 80-story building) and reasonably attractive. It will also do little to enhance the skyline of San Francisco and is unlikely to elicit more than a shrug from most viewers. Think of it as One Rincon Hill West.

While I like the idea of a five-acre park, I think the detractors are correct in saying that it is too remote to receive significant numbers of visitors. At seven stories above street level, who can argue? Aside from the jury, who claim that “the park would add much-needed green space to the neighborhood for a growing number of residents and would be an exciting and unique new destination within the city.”

I’ve said before that I favor the Skidmore Owings Merrill design. The tower has character, and I’m intrigued by the dramatic entranceway and community spaces (here and here) depicted in the renderings. SOM isn’t infallible — see the world’s biggest peace sign — but has acquitted itself well.

Tuesday’s press coverage stresses that the jury’s recommendation isn’t the same as a final decision, but acknowledges that getting the Transbay Authority’s board of directors to choose one of the other designs will be an uphill battle. Already one of the board members, SF supervisor Chris Daly, has said he’ll support the jury’s recommendation.

The public is invited to comment on the designs through September 17 by emailing D&DComment@transbaycenter.org. Comments will be forwarded to the TJPA board with the jury’s recommendation at the September 20 board meeting.

More about the Transbay Joint Powers Authority and funding of the project is reported by Robert Selna.

Tranbaycenter.org has additional information, including more on the environmental and civic impact of all three proposals.

happy birthday, pop.

I’ve been thinking about my dad much of today. If he were alive, we’d be celebrating his birthday. Wish you were with us, pop.

reading, writing, and arithmetic.

-+- Number of the five directors of a No Child Left Behind reading program who had financial ties to curricula they developed: 4

-+- Average amount each of these directors has received from the publishers of reading materials sold to schools: $727,000

From the Harper’s Index™, August 2007

(no longer) blinded by numbers.

Cans Seurat, 2007 – 60×92″
Depicts 106,000 aluminum cans, the number used in the US every thirty seconds.


Detail (click to expand)

From Chris Jordan’s Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait

You can choose to either say something or show it. In an exhibit opening next week in Los Angeles, photographer Chris Jordan clues us in to which approach he favors. The Seattle-based Jordan uses photographs to offer viewers an arresting take on contemporary American culture.

“Each image,” Jordan explains on his website, “portrays a specific quantity of something: fifteen million sheets of office paper (five minutes of paper use); 106,000 aluminum cans (thirty seconds of can consumption) and so on.

“Statistics can feel abstract and anesthetizing, making it difficult to connect with and make meaning of 3.6 million SUV sales in one year, for example, or 2.3 million Americans in prison, or 426,000 cell phones retired every day. This project visually examines these vast and bizarre measures of our society, in large intricately detailed prints assembled from thousands of smaller photographs.”

A few thumbnails of Jordan’s prints are available here. However, Jordan cautions that the prints must be seen in person to appreciate their full impact.

The exhibit opens September 8 at the Paul Kopeikin Gallery. For more on Chris Jordan and Running the Numbers, visit chrisjordan.com.


Ben Franklin, 2007 — 8.5 feet wide by 10.5 feet tall in three horizontal panels
Depicts 125,000 one-hundred dollar bills ($12.5 million), the amount our government spends every hour on the war in Iraq.


Detail (click to expand)


Prison Uniforms, 2007 — 10×23 feet in six vertical panels
Depicts 2.3 million folded prison uniforms, equal to the number of Americans incarcerated in 2005.

Installed at the Von Lintel Gallery, NY, June 2007

Detail (click to expand)

and next we’ll do jackson pollock.

Because my wife is Japanese, we eat a lot of rice in my family. We’ll go through a 20-pound bag of Hikari Imperial Quality in a month. Until recently, I thought rice was simply for eating. I was wrong.

Take a look at what some rice farmers in Aomori prefecture — the region at the very north of Japan’s Honshu island — are doing with the grain. Ignore the few skeptics in the comments section at Pink Tentacle claiming the images are photoshopped. They’re real. More images can be seen on the town of Inakadate’s official website and on a blog kept by one of the town’s information officers.

Here’s an image of the different strains of rice alongside each other. Click to expand.

Is this Japan’s answer to crop circles? Who knew there were so many creative ways to play with food?