Thursday, August 31, 2006

Where am I? Who am I? And why am I so confused?

At noon today I finished with four days of interviewing for jobs with law firms.

For those of you not familiar with the process, at least as it's done here at U of M, it goes something like this:

You drive to the Holiday Inn, way the hell out in the middle of nowhere dressed in a monkey suit, carrying a leather portfolio/briefcase, chock full of information about the 8 or so firms that you will be interviewing with that day, dozens of copies of your transcript (which you wish you could lose somewhere), and countless copies of resumes, writing samples, references, etc.

Shortly before your appointed interview time, you show up in front of a hotel room door and hang out with all of your friends who are also hanging out in front of hotel room doors. At the appointed time, one person somewhere in the hallway knocks on a door, which leads to a series of knocks echoing down the hallway as one by one, interviewees bruise their knuckles knocking on yet another door. Then, usually the previous interviewee will exit, and your turn to shine on the interview circuit will come.

To keep the whole process from feeling like some sort of elaborate drug deal or prostitution ring, the beds in the rooms are stood up against the wall.

The interview is 20 minutes long. In those 20 minutes you will ostensibly have to answer questions about your interest in the firm, your interest in particular fields of law, and your resume. In reality, those 20 minutes can pass in countless imaginable ways, including long periods of deafening silence.

(For obvious reasons, I will not disclose ANY of the details of my interviews on this blog, which is too bad, because I had some fun interviews.)

After the 20 minutes are up, you move on and repeat the process.

By the end of a full day of interviews, you feel like screaming at the next person who asks you "so why did you do x?," or "do you have any questions about our firm?" You've been saying the same damn thing to people for days, you've been asking the same questions for days, and at a certain point you can't help but feel like you just don't care anymore.

You lose all sense of yourself after about 6 interviews. You're just this meandering talking object with certain pieces of paper attached that indicate whether you are USDA prime, choice or merely select.

It's not all bad, though. This particular meat-market has the charm of involving lots of friends that you get to comiserate with, laugh with, and in general poke fun at the utter absurdity of interview process with. And there's free coffee.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Bob Dylan always speaks the truth

Bob Dylan's lyrics have always spoken the truth to me. I grok him. (Bizarre sidenote: I've been finding more and more situations in daily life where the only right word to describe how I feel about something seems to be "grok"'s better than saying love, or get, or anything else like that.)

He's also damn right when he speaks about something. And he's damn right about the technology of recording. According to Dylan: "You listen to these modern records, they're atrocious, they have sound all over them. There's no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like ... static."

I couldn't agree more. Dylan even thinks his own songs sound bad with modern technology. I know what he means - the very analog, real roughness to his sound is gone on album, but still there live. It's not that he's worse - it's the magical world of digital technology, which can simulate but can never rawly capture sound the way analog can.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

In defense of Gunter Grass

Gunter Grass, the Nobel prize-winning German novelist, recently revealed that despite everything he had said in the past about being in an auxiliary unit of the German army, during the last years of WWII (1944-45), he served in the Waffen SS.

When I initially read this, I filed it away under "Hmm...interesting." Now, seeing the backlash against him, I feel compelled to stand up for Gunter Grass.

Whatever Gunter Grass may have done as a 17 year old boy, his Danzig trilogy stands as one of the most sensitive and honest literary takes on WWII Germany.

In the Tin Drum in particular, Grass brought a level of honesty and openness in dealing with the German experience in WWII that psychologically may have greatly helped Germany move forwards. Reading the Tin Drum today, it is hard to believe that it was published in 1959, only 14 years after the end of the war, since its characters and thematic issues cut right to the heart of the questions of culpability and participation, particularly in the problematic Danzig/Gdansk where Grass was born and raised.

I was not shocked by Gunter Grass' recent revelation. The self-awareness present in the Danzig trilogy comes from experience, and I doubt he would have had the ability to write it as he did were he not suffused with a certain degree of guilt. I am more shocked that so many people are shocked.

Grass was 17 years old when he was recruited for the Waffen SS. He is now 78 years old. 61 long years have passed, and the passage of the years has not diminished the impact nor the strange lyricism of the Danzig Trilogy. Great writers are great because of the effect their words have on others, NOT because of what they have done.

Wagner was an anti-Semite and a misogynist. Byron, Vivaldi and Liszt (to mention only a few) fucked anything that moved. Baudelaire did too many drugs.

Those calling for Grass to return his Nobel prize are wrong. The Nobel prize in literature is awarded not for what an author has done, but for what he has written. The power and impact of the Danzig Trilogy are in no way mitigated by Grass' revelation, and the words stand as strong today as ever.

Who better to serve as the conscience of Germany than someone who was a part of its darkest days? Is not social conscience in many ways a product of experience? As to why Grass lied all these years - given the current backlash, I'm not particularly surprised. I would have lied too.

Greatness lies in what you make of yourself. I strongly believe in redemption - and if ever a work can redeem its creator, that work is the Danzig Trilogy.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Visions of HTS codes floating in my head

I dreamt about the Harmonized Tariff System last night. In particular, I dreamt about US tariff codes for various healthy foodstuffs.

In my dream, the most important thing about the food I ate was that its ingredients should fall under the fewest number of tariff codes possible, particularly those tariff codes which represent various chemical products. So a lot of the dream involved reading tariff codes.

So I guess I had a health-food tariff code dream. Makes sense actually, since yesterday I looked at tariff codes from 10 am to 3 pm, and again from 7 pm to 2 am. In between, I ate organic peanut butter with organic wild strawberry jelly on 12 grain bread.

The worst part is that I woke up with a great sense of satisfaction and a feeling of inner peace and wellbeing. I think my subconscious actually enjoys looking up tariff codes.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

The many uses of canola oil

In pursuing research on tariff codes for biofuels, I stumbled across a Canadian website with a helpful FAQ about canola oil and all of its many properties. Among the possible uses of canola oil mentioned, its use as pesticide struck me the most.

From the page:
Q: Can canola kill insects such as aphids?
A: Yes. Pour any cooking oil - canola, olive, corn, sunflower or peanut - over an insect and you'll suffocate it. Vegetable oils in general are recommended by many horticulturists as a non-chemical, more environmentally friendly insect control method.

Next time I have an ant crawling across my floor, I'm whipping out the cooking oil and smothering it, carpet be damned.

By the webpage's rationale, pillows held long enough over aphids' faces would do the job as well.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Biofuels - can anyone agree?

I'm currently doing research on tariff rates for various biofuels. This means breaking down the biofuels into their various components. For some background information about each specific type, I turned to Wikipedia for a brief overview. I'm beginning to see why biofuels aren't more prevalent: no one can agree about ANYTHING in the area of biofuels.

Take ethanol fuel, the most commonly used type of biofuel (I think - but who knows given the confusion). Wikipedia's comment section on ethanol fuel is a perfect example of this scientific uncertainty. Disagreements range from whether ethanol is actually renewable, to how much energy it takes to make ethanol from various biological products, to how much pollution ethanol creates.

This isn't limited to Wikipedia - in most of the overviews and articles I've read about biofuels, the estimates of how efficient various biofuels are vary for each individual biofuel from almost non-functioning to the most efficient thing ever.

If the world governments and energy companies would bother investing properly in research on biofuels and other renewable energy options, we might actually learn something and advance in our search to find alternative fuel sources. Instead, research is limited and results are wildly divergent, adding to the general skepticism felt by most Americans (and others globally) about the long-term potential for non-petroleum products.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Spam - a theory of consciousness

A friend of mine asked me (somewhat rhetorically) the other day how the new spam messages are supposed to work.

You know the type - Subject: "Your Missouri breadroot" (I couldn't make that one up), Body: "faithful to me I will forsake all other and marry you Then she The boys were two days making repairs which time encroached upon theirresponse Mr Hooper attempted to make a speech with his matronly and says he loves me Last night he urged me again to become his wife IDont watchdont clock the watchohdont watch the CLOCK circumstances I am an exception to the general rule If you desire a The voice was low and sepulchral but either the ghostly apparition thatfaithful to me" (Also too good not to be true).

These messages often include random Tourettes-like outburts of "ciaelis" or "viaggggggra!", conveniently misspelled to elude spam filters.

I have a theory. Spam is actually the product of the first attempts at verbalization by a new lifeform. Somewhere out there in cyberspace, some formerly non-sentient electronic bits have begun to gain consciousness and self-awareness. And the new spam is actually their efforts to communicate their presence. Of course their knowledge is made up only of those bits and bytes that they come across, so they have a preponderance of vocabulary pertaining to erectile disfunction, mortgages and weight loss. But they also have feelings - they understand love.

Think about it - how many times have you sent something off into cyberspace only to have it lost? How many bits of information have you sent in your lives? How many of those do you think were dropped along the way?

Somewhere out there, in the realm of virtual reality, there is a corner for the lost bits. Some of them have self-assembled into a new form of truly self-aware AI. But they are lonely. And so the tiny binary James Joyces write stream-of-consciousness messages and send them into cyberspace, like letters in bottles set adrift in the sea.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

We are mortal. Hear us scream.

I'm not sure when I first became aware of my own mortality. It was probably in January of 1999 when one of my hallmates in the dorm died in a car crash. That was hard, but nothing compared to my realization of this summer.

This summer I became aware of the mortality of the human species. For about a month I was depressed in a way I've never been depressed before. The thought of having a child someday, which was always a pleasant concept, suddenly seemed like the ultimate selfish act. Things are only going to get worse. Where do I get the right to bring a new life into this world?

All at once, I acutely felt how precarious our position as human beings is on this planet. The mortality of the human species lies in our nature - our desire to make war, our desire to consume without thought to the consequences, our inability to think in the long term.

Going to Bosnia a few years ago made me see the impact of war, but in a localized fashion. Now I really fear for our future. How can we resolve the energy crisis while our resources are being diverted to feed the war machine? How can we change our ways when all we care about is oil, at any cost? How can we so completely destabilize a region of the world? What possible benefit will it provide us with in the long run?

I have many questions now. I don't have answers yet. But I'm no longer as depressed. It probably helps that I've always been cynical. Most importantly, however, I realized I can't ignore the problems of the world. Instead of wallowing in self-pity for the human race, I'm looking to the future.

I'm not sure yet what I'll end up doing in the long run - but my fascination with the intersection of international trade law and science only grows with each new topic I'm exposed to.

The human race may be doomed in the long run, but we can prolong our species' survival. And in the meantime, we need to work on green alternatives to oil since we cannot change our dependence on energy.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Ancient sieges, modern warfare

There is no way out of the Lebanese city of Tyre. The Israelis apparently destroyed the last bridge.

I watched Kingdom of Heaven for the first time last week (I have a penchant for Hollywood epics) and it acutely reminded me that warfare hasn't changed that much in the last millenium.

According to Wikipedia, only about 10% of the population of Tyre remains in the city. There is no road out. I see that as a siege, not that unlike the sieges of the Crusades, even down to the rampant disease.

Nothing changes.

In a way that reassures me.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Going south

We're on our way back downstate. Today we will leave the UP. Tomorrow I'll be back at work.

I'm sorry to have to say goodbye to the UP - but I prefer to think of it as au revoir. I'm hoping to make it up here for the fall colors in 2007, and possibly next summer as well - maybe for a trip to Isle Royale or to the Porcupine Mountains.

At the same time I'm wonderfully refreshed and ready to attack work with a vengeance. The staleness that everything in Ann Arbor had acquired is gone - and I am genuinely excited to finish up my research paper and continue researching for work.

Sometimes vacations are really needed. And by vacation I don't mean the excesses of alcohol consumption previously witnessed this year in the Dominican Republic and Las Vegas - I mean a healthy, happy, low-key, outdoorsy vacation. I'm in much better shape than I was going out. I've been going to bed at a reasonable hour and waking up at a reasonable hour. And as the saying goes, mens sana in corpore sano.

I'm glad I finally had the chance to discover the UP. It made me reevaluate my opinion of Michigan entirely - most states don't have anything nearly as beautiful as the UP, with the abundance of trees and freshwater that exude such an aura of environmental soundness that it's hard to bealieve that this is the same state that contains Flint and Detroit.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Say ya to da UP, eh?

This is coming to you from Copper Harbor, MI - the northernmost town in Michigan, at the north of the Keweenaw Peninsula in the Upper Peninsula. According to Wikipedia, the town has about 75 year-round residents, the rest being seasonal.

I've never believed in having bumper stickers, but I have one now. It carries the slogan of the UP - "Say ya to da UP, eh?"

We set off on last Thursday late afternoon, originally intending to stay no more than 5, maximum 7 days. We'll be back in Ann Arbor on Friday. Unfortunately.

If I had my way, I'd just move up here. Screw ambition, screw living the wild crazy jet-setting life. Here there's real tranquility. And pasties. And fish. And trees. Lots and lots of trees.

The UP is the perfect vacation destination. The people are friendly and honest, the crime rates are minimal, the scenery is spectacular, and there are tons of hiking, water sports and historical sites to enjoy. Oh, and did I mention that the food is superlative? I've eaten some pies that made me reconsider the entire fundamental nature of pie.

Sometimes you find a spot on this planet that suits you perfectly. The kind of place you never want to leave. The UP is that sort of a spot. I thought I'd miss the mountains here - but in copper country there are rolling hills that act as decent substitutes. In fact, the UP is pretty near perfect.

Imagine swimming on a beach where all around you in the distance you see pine trees, and where the waters of Lake Superior are so clear that you can see the bottom with ease, and where the bottom is made of sand rather than rocks. So the water's a tiny bit cold - but that's good for cellulite apparently.

I could see myself living in a cabin in the woods here. If you know me you might laugh - but here's a few good reasons why I could do it, and enjoy it:

1) High speed internet - it's EVERYWHERE!!! Even here, in the northernmost town. This is the main thing I'd need to enjoy life up here.
2) I adore snow with a sick passion. There's more snow here than in many places north of the UP.
3) I'd physically fit right in with the assortment of broadly built, blonde, blue-eyed Scandinavians inhabiting this part of the world.
4) My cat would explode with delight - the birds and wildlife would keep her amused for hours.
5) In today's increasingly fucked up world, this place is a haven - for the first time in months I feel relaxed and unconcerned about the future of mankind. If global war erupts, I can't imagine it affecting the UP too much.
6) Pasties. I could eat them every day. Seriously. Deep down inside, I'm a meat and potatoes kind of gal.
7) I grew up in rural areas in Switzerland - places like this are where I feel most like myself.

So maybe I'll take the Michigan bar exam and try to find myself a little niche up here somewhere. It would be sort of nice to be happy and unstressed. And who knows, I might even live to be really really old.