Calexico and Iron & Wine record an EP together, plan tour. I do believe I just wet my pants in excitement.
Calexico and Iron & Wine record an EP together, plan tour. I do believe I just wet my pants in excitement.
Week one has ended, and quite frankly, it couldn’t have come at a better time. My head was near explosive levels by Friday afternoon, packed with enough irregular verbs to fuel a dozen Hiroshimas. (Verbs are extremely volatile chemically, particular the ones with -ir root endings.) My handy dandy flashcards tell me I’ve learned 162 verbs so far. Of course, “learned” is being used here in the “they’re in my notebook somewhere” sense, so I’d hold off on asking me to distinguish sentir and sentar were I you.
And that’s just the verbs! Let’s not even get started on para versus por! It’s like a bad sequel to Ser vs. Estar: The Wrath of Moctezuma.
Thoughts from my first week in Morelia:
- This place makes me feel old. I’m probably the only student at my language school who has to pay full price at the movies. About half are high school students; another 40 percent are college students from Minnesota and Illinois seeking January warmth. Then there are the AARP couples who, while nice, seem more interested in learning new enchilada recipes than in learning Spanish.
I’m also just about the only person here on my own — everyone else comes with a built-in network of dorm dwellers and wives and secret boyfriends and fellow softball outfielders. A reasonable person would try to ameliorate said situation by taking action — meeting people, seeking new friendships. I, in contrast, have funneled my energies into heroin.
- Down the street from my school is a ferreteria. Upon seeing the sign, I imagined the most wonderful place in the world: a place for Morelians to purchase pet ferrets. Or perhaps to bring them in for cleaning and servicing. Or a sort of ferret social hall, for young ferrets to mingle with their furry peers. I can’t tell you how sad I was to learn it’s just a hardware store.
- Favorite Spanish word so far: “semaforo,” meaning traffic light. I tell more jokes with semaphore flags in their punch lines than any human should, and I’m glad to know the people of Latin America will be prepared.
- Favorite indie-rock discussions with confused instructors (tie): explaining the existence of New York rock combo Yo La Tengo when we got to the verb tener on day two; explaining the wonders of Calexico when discussing the word guero — in particular, its use in the song “Guero Canelo.” Which apparently means something along the lines of “Cinnamon Honky.”
- Favorite instructor vs. dictionary disputes: The article of clothing that covers my legs — is it “el pantalon” singular or “los pantalones” plural? The pant or the pants? Similarly, should the existence of my native land be discussed as “los Estados Unidos es” (singular) or “los Estados Unidos son” (plural)? (Didn’t we fight a civil war over that last question?) In both cases, el diccionario says plural; Jaime, my expert grammarian, insists on singular.
- Relationship thoughts disclosed by one of my teachers (who, for his own protection, shall go unnamed — it ain’t the pantalon-crusading Jaime, don’t worry): American girls are friendly and easy. Mexican girls are snobby and unapproachable. There’s nothing wrong with going after high school sophomores when you’re in your mid-20s. You have to treat women poorly if you want them to like you. Canadian women are waaay hotter than American women, particularly the ones from British Columbia.
- What’s the best way to deal with a big fat blister on the sole of one’s foot? Seeking reader advice.
- My rolled “r” shows no sign of improving. May even be getting worse. I think I injured a passing bird Wednesday when I tried to conjugate reir in third-person plural preterite and accidentally produced a lung bolus big enough to dam a river. Jaime keeps telling me to hold back, to “stop sounding so French,” and to practice. It’s no use. I am immune to instruction at this point — the tongue trill just isn’t in my vocal toolbox, no matter how precise the advice and instructions I am given. I haven’t been told where to put my tongue this often since freshman year of college.
(Boom! The jokes keep on coming!)
- There’s no disappointment quite like meeting someone you think might be cool to hang out with over the next few weeks — then hearing her say her favorite bands are, in order, Bush, Silverchair, Korn, and Jimmy Buffett.
Just finished Into the Heart of Borneo, Redmond O’Hanlon’s classic Brit travelogue about tracking a wild rhinoceros through deepest Malaysia. It’s really terrific, and a quick read. O’Hanlon has the eye of a naturalist and serious writing chops — in spots, it’s one of the funniest books I’ve read in years. I’ll certainly track down his No Mercy when I get back to the states, although his newest book Trawler (out just a couple weeks ago) seems a bit off. Here’s a great old interview with O’Hanlon from ‘97.
Next up on the reading list is Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory — fitting for a Mexican journey, I imagined — to be followed by my long-delayed conclusion of Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia. There’s something about being on the road that makes me crave Granta-style British travel writing.
The good news is that I’ve never spoken so much French in my life. It was my family’s native tongue growing up, and I took five years of it in junior high and high school, but I’ve let my French grow rusty with time. Now I find myself speaking French all the time — a word dropped in here, a full sentence blurted out there.
The bad news is that I’m supposed to be learning Spanish.
I’m staying with a family, Norma and Joel, who live in what I suppose would be Morelia’s suburbs. Seem like nice enough folks, and they’ve got two cute grandkids who pop in and out — one of whom, Eddie, is always dressed up as Spider-Man and tries to play cowboys and Indians with a bottled-water dispenser as a gun. Their house is a 30-minute walk from my language school, which means I’m getting a nice workout. Particularly since Norma insists I come home for lunch — something I’ve tried to fight with little success — which means I’m walking a good two to three hours every day. The health benefits of walking should nicely make up for the health drawbacks of walking — namely, the exhaust-thick air I have to breathe while hitting the sidewalks.
Morelia is really a lovely town. Its center is 20 or 30 blocks of old stone buildings from Spanish colonial days, which look lovely and old. The exteriors are pleasant, but it’s the dramatic interiors that really hit you — they add a sense of theater to the lowliest bodega. Once you get past the center, the next concentric circle is still centuries-old, but more commercial — narrow streets, buildings flush to the traffic, and a real small-town Spain feel. Then, beyond that, you get unspectacular tract homes (like Norma and Joel’s) and, finally, the malls, where you can Pizza Hut to your heart’s content.
School is going well. I’m in class four hours a day, all of it one-on-one with a teacher. They rotate the teachers each hour so you can’t get too bored with any of them. The first day felt like a cruel joke — I’m all for immersion, but not understanding a word your teacher says for minutes at a time isn’t heartening. But I’m picking things up quickly. (Damn those irregular verbs! Almost makes you understand the desire for Esperanto.) Tonight was “conversation club,” in which we pale Americans are teamed up with Morelians who are learning English and chat in both languages. Strangely, I fared better in the English-speaking portion of the conversation.
My teachers view me as equal parts imbecile and prodigy. Okay, maybe 70 percent imbecile. The prodigy part comes up when they ask me to read stories in one of the Morelian newspapers — without fail, I can understand and summarize everything in them. Sometimes I can even critique the quality of the editing. They think this makes me a genius. In fact, it just means I’ve spent the last seven years newspapering — and that newspaper writing is so predictable, so standardized in structure, that it could be in Martian and I’d still get the gist of it.
The imbecile stuff stems from my ignorance of the Spanish alphabet, the days of the week, any number past 10, and all the other things that six-year-olds learn in preparation for their classroom’s Cinco de Mayo celebration. Oh, that and my complete inability to roll an “r” without summoning the phlegm of a thousand emphysemics. I swear, a nice name like “Herrera” trips off the tongue just fine in the States; here, I get sucked into the drama of the moment and start a series of tongue-and-throat spasms — haaiRRRRerrrRRRrRrRrrrrrahhhh. I sound like an agonized daschund with a bone stuck in its throat. I’m a dipthong away from choking on my own tonsils. It’s embarrassing, and I’m not easily embarrassed.
Even if I don’t learn 10 words of Spanish in Morelia, I hope I can come away from this trip with a half-servicable command of all the language’s consonants.
Hola, senores y senoras. I am in lovely Morelia, Mexico, after a trouble-free trip, advanced negotiations with an ATM machine, and some tasty arrachera last night. I believe I have scoped out a wireless connection that may make my laptop happy, which is all to the good. And I’m having a grand old time wandering the zocalo’s streets, reading every sign I see aloud in a quest to make my rolled r’s less embarrassing.
One note: It appears I may not have access to my work email account for the next four weeks. (That would be jbenton at dallasnews dot com.) So if you would normally get in touch with me there, use the old standby, jbenton at toast dot net.
One other note: My cell phone works here, if you need to reach me. I will warn you in advance, however, that the roaming charges are such that I won’t be in the mood for a two-hour leisurely chat.
Best letter-to-the-editor ever. “Many of us find momentary reprieve from the world’s turmoil by enjoying simple things such as word puzzles…The Jumble would be much more enjoyable if it could omit such despicable reminders of the world’s chaos and insanity.”
Have I mentioned I’m flying to Mexico for four weeks in 48 hours? My Shiznit To Do list is looooong.
Mike Doughty, former frontman for Soul Coughing, has a blog. And it’s pretty good, too. “When I was 5, my family moved to Kansas from New York. 1975. We crossed a river and the sign said WELCOME TO INDIANA. ‘Are we really in India?!’ I asked. Yes, my distracted parents said. I spent the next hour staring out the window, spooked, worried about cobras.”
And: “I keep seeing Scarlett Johansson on TV, promoting that movie with John Travolta. I met her at the first celeb 24 Hour Plays, in 2001. I was backstage tuning an acoustic guitar, she was waiting for her entrance. I was talking to her in that kind of nervous, inadvertantly hostile way that you speak to a crushable someone. I said, in an attempt at being flirty that I think came out sounding just ambiguous, ‘I could just whip out “Stairway to Heaven” on you right now.’ Scarlett Johansson said: ‘So do it. Play “Stairway to Heaven.”’ And I then had to admit, mortified, that I was among the tiny minority of acoustic guitar owners in the world who did not know how to play ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ Have you ever met a celebrity, maybe had a moment’s casual chat with them, and from then on you feel a warm bond of friendship with them when you see them being interviewed on the Today show? That’s how I feel about Scarlett Johansson. Also Griffin Dunne.”
FYI, Dallasites, the Inwood Theatre reopened last Friday. All new and renovated. The attached bar is neither new nor renovated.
Also FYI, Dallasites, The Decemberists will be in town on March 31 for a show at Trees. For those of you who have not yet gotten your filthy, nautical-song-loving hands on a leaked copy of their new album Picaresque, I can assure you: It kicks ass. Substantially better than their last two albums, both of which inspired great affection.
(It’s due out March 22, so you’ll have time to memorize the lyrics to the euphoric “We Both Go Down Together” before the Portlanders hit the stage.)
How powerful is the new Mac Mini? Charles Jade has run the benchmarks, although I believe the yellow and blue bars in the chart constitute unsanctioned use of benchmarking software.
When my progeny eventually arrive on this earth — and during that brief window of time before they summon up their superpowers, no doubt inherited from their mother’s side, and conquer the known world — I am so going to teach them Baby Signs, just like Eric Meyer has.
Why is HIV/AIDS more prevalent in Africa than in America? This paper argues, based on statistical models, that it’s because of differences in how difficult it is to transmit HIV to a partner. All else being equal, an American who has sex with an HIV-positive American is much less likely to get infected than a Zambian who has sex with an HIV-positive Zambian. Therefore, the number of positive Zambians can increase at a much more rapid rate than the number of positive Americans.
There are a variety of reasons why. Poor nutrition weakens the typical African’s immune system and makes it harder for his/her body to prevent the virus from invading cells. The STDs of Africans are less likely to be treated, leaving them more likely to (grossness alert) have lesions or other unnatural openings down south. And there are a variety of other illnesses in southern Africa that impact the urogenital system — I’ve long suspected bilharzia is an HIV risk factor.
The strange thing about HIV is that it’s actually pretty hard to get if you’re healthy and having traditional heterosexual sex. Heterosexual transmission is rare: “Per-act infectivity in two studies was found to be low: 0.0005 and 0.0009 for male-to-female transmission, and 0.0003 and 0.0001 for female-to-male transmission.” In other words, it takes between 1,100 and 2,000 incidents of a healthy woman having unprotected sex with an HIV-positive man for one woman to be infected. The reverse path is even more rare: on average, it takes between 3,300 and 10,000 unprotected sex acts with an HIV-positive woman for a healthy man to be infected. But with STDs in the picture, those per-act infection rates skyrocket.
(Strangely, even with the gold standard of sexual transmission — receiving unprotected anal sex — it’s pretty hard to get HIV. “One recent study estimated the per-act risk of HIV infection from [unprotected receptive anal intercourse] with a partner who is HIV-positive at 0.82% (82 in 10,000).” Different studies produce different numbers, but they’re all in the same general ballpark.)
Anyway, all this is to say that if you can explain the geographic infection gap away just by looking at transmission rates, it’s awfully strong evidence that more focus should be put on remedies that can cut that transmission rate: better nutrition, aggressive STD treatments, etc. The good news is that a lot of that work is relatively cheap — cheaper than even the rapidly dropping cost of protease inhibitors and other anti-AIDS drugs.
More controversially, putting the blame on transmission rates also argues that changing sexual behavior isn’t nearly as useful as you might imagine. See page 55 of the paper, which compares American HIV infection rates (about 0.2 percent of adults) to sub-Saharan African rates (about 12.7 percent). If the U.S. suddenly had the same transmission rate as Africa — that is, if getting infected were as medically easy in America as it is in Africa — the U.S. infection rate would rocket up to 12.2 percent. But if U.S. patterns of sexual behavior were suddenly the same as Africa’s — which generally means more extramarital sex and less condom use, but less premarital sex — the American infection rate would barely budge. Or look at page 60, which models what African infection rates would do if you were able to reduce the ease of transmission by 20 percent versus what would happen if you could reduce all sexual activity by 20 percent. Transmission means more.
An enormous amount of the funding that goes into fighting AIDS in Africa is about behavioral change — primarily towards encouraging condom use and abstinence. Behavioral change is really, really hard to do — even just moving the needle on condom use a few percentage points. But this research would seem to indicate that money might be better put toward treating gonorrhea and chlamydia.
(Apologies to those of you who come to crabwalk.com just for the fart jokes.)
Joseph Forte tries to clean up his act. I’ve never seen an athlete plummet so quickly. He was the man at Carolina.
People with sexy voices have sex earlier and more often with more people. Also, they’re more likely to have pinky fingers of roughly equal length. Poor Diane Rehm — she must have horribly uneven fingers.
I owe you guys some good posts. Much exciting stuff going on in my life, workwise and otherwise, but I shan’t go into too much detail. Random thoughts:
- Am I the only person who, when seeing Paul Giamatti in a movie, thinks of Wallace Shawn? And vice versa? Not because of physical resemblance, although there’s some there. Primarily because they’re both sons of men who you might imagine expected non-Hollywood careers for their offspring. (A. Bartlett Giamatti, former president of Yale, and William Shawn, legendary New Yorker editor and man quoted on this site’s About page.)
- I know I’m more likely than most to get excited about the release of 544-page, lengthily-subtitled history books about obscure moments in Atlantic Canadian history. But I’m really excited about next month’s release of A Great and Noble Scheme: The Tragic Story of the Expulsion of the French Acadians from Their American Homeland, by Yale history prof John Mack Faragher. I’ve been interested in the 1755 expulsion for years (for obvious personal reasons, since it was my ancestors who were expelled), but I really look forward to a historian of Faragher’s rank cutting through some of the self-serving mysteries that cling to the events of 250 years ago.
- Mac geeks like myself are always trying to figure out what’s coming up from our favorite company. That’s mostly done through rumor sites — a dozen or more sites that chronicle leaks from Cupertino on what new products are coming down the pike. The best of these has long been Think Secret, which seems to clearly have the best sources and generally nails its predictions — so much so that it’s currently the target of a trade-secrets lawsuit by Apple.
Anyway, I mention all this because it turns out the guy who runs Think Secret is a 19-year-old kid. Who has been running Think Secret since he was 13. Sign this manchild up, news organizations of the future! (By the way, Apple’s lawsuit is bullshit and will go nowhere. Journalists can’t go to jail in this country for asking questions, thank heavens.)
- Heartaches of Journalist Bloggers, in Wired. Exhibits A through L of why I don’t blog about what I write about (other than to link to my stories).
- MP3s of live Neutral Milk Hotel from 1998. Sound quality’s okay, but it’s hard to remember sometimes how amazing NMH was there for a while.
- Vaguely ludicrous covers of the Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat by someone named Ergo Phizmiz.
- Random MP3s: Keleya, a kick-ass ’70s funk number from a West African James Brown disciple named Moussa Doumbia; The Muppet Show theme music sung in Hebrew; Bill Hicks railing on (the first) George Bush in 1992.
This story, from today’s front page, is in some ways the climax of all the other ones I’ve written lately:
AUSTIN – The Texas Education Agency will begin analyzing test scores for unusual gaps and swings, modeling the effort on a Dallas Morning News investigation that found suspect scores at nearly 400 Texas schools.
The state’s education commissioner, Shirley Neeley, also announced Monday that the agency will hire an outside testing expert to improve procedures for preventing and detecting cheating on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test.
“The whole situation is so embarrassing,” Dr. Neeley said at an Austin news conference called to address the News investigation. “The vast, vast majority of teachers are professionals who would never think of doing anything like this.”
There’s also this quote from perhaps the most powerful man in Austin when it comes to education policy:
“This is no different than the Enron scandal in our public schools,” said Rep. Kent Grusendorf, an Arlington Republican and chairman of the House Public Education Committee. “TEA is not doing a good enough job.”
Another story on today’s front page:
The Dallas and Fort Worth school districts are investigating dozens of their schools for possible cheating on the TAKS test.
The schools were identified by a Dallas Morning News investigation that found suspect scores at nearly 400 schools statewide – schools where test scores swung unexpectedly from poor to stellar.
I swear, some day I will post about things other than my stories. Then again, that would require me to have time to do something other than write my stories.
One other note: Props to the Dallas Observer for writing about Crabwalk in this week’s issue. Not this web site — the song for which this site is named, which someone named Jordan Harper says is one of the greatest-ever songs about “getting drunker.”
In case you’re wondering what the impact has been of my recent cheating stories, here’s my story from today’s front page:
HOUSTON – Houston school officials will unleash an army of test monitors to make sure their teachers and principals aren’t helping students cheat on the TAKS test, the district’s superintendent said Thursday.
The move is a response to a Dallas Morning News investigation that found strong evidence that educators in Houston and elsewhere were giving students answers or altering test documents to improve student scores.
“The most important thing we have as a school system is our integrity,” Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra said.
The district will also create a department, the Office of the Inspector General, to do a better job detecting and pursuing educators who cheat.
Meanwhile, the Dallas Independent School District is considering creating its own team of monitors who would watch for TAKS cheating by test administrators.
At the risk of being self-congratulatory, I’ll highlight two quotes from the story (hey, that rhymes!):
The first is from Saavedra, who called Thursday’s press conference “one of the most important press conferences our district will ever have”: “It is not acceptable to our board or to me or to anyone here that HISD should have to rely on the media to point out anomalies in test scores. That’s our job.”
The second is from the school board member in whose district many of the suspected cheaters reside: “As awkward as this sounds, I want to thank the Morning News for bringing this to our attention. It’s unfortunate that our district officials weren’t able to find these anomalies on their own.”
Finally, major congrats to the Houston Chronicle, who’ve hit upon a nice way to make it seem like they broke this story. They’ve stopped noting in their followups that the Dallas Morning News had anything to do with the exposure of the cheating. They twist and turn every which way to avoid mentioning why, exactly, these reforms are being put into place. You don’t hear anything about the cause until the 24th paragraph, where we hear: “Questions first were raised about the validity of spectacular TAKS gains at four HISD elementary schools: Sanderson, Wesley, Osborne and Highland Heights.”
“Questions first were raised”? Note to media consumers: When you see awkward passive voice like that, it’s sometimes because the writer doesn’t want to say who did the acting upon the subject of the passivity. As in, “The Dallas Morning News first raised questions about…” Very cagey, Chron!
I guess I haven’t mentioned it here yet, but crabwalk.com will be going global in 18 short days.
Well, hemispherical. Or at least continental.
From January 22 to February 19, I will be in Morelia, Mexico. I’ll be trying my durnedest to learn Spanish at the Baden-Powell Institute, which to my knowledge was not founded by the man who started the Boy Scouts and often did spywork among the Zulu while disguised as a butterfly collector. (Of course, he was also a pedophile who dug Hitler and tried affiliating with Hitler Youth groups. But never mind that.)
No plans to shutter crabwalk while I’m gone or anything, don’t worry. But I may throw in a little espanol for fun now and then.
And for anyone who’s been to Mexico (or, more doubtful, Morelia): Any advice? The sum of my Mexico experience consists of a couple hours in Juarez one night in 2002.
Joshua Benton is the director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University, among other things. Before that, he was a staff writer and columnist for The Dallas Morning News. (More.)
Any opinions expressed here are solely mine, and not those of my employer. In many cases, they may not even be mine.