20 August 2008

Language and Religion

In the leadup to the Olympics, I read a lot of articles about how English is rapidly changing and being appropriated into new dialects, especially in China and India. I read another one today, via the Neuroanthropology Wednesday Round Up. All of the stories I have read tend to take the same attitude, namely that this is the normal evolution of a living language, these offshoots are valid and may eventually evolve into fully legitimate dialects or separate languages, rather than just mistakes. And that seems like a very reasonable stance, given what we know about the past evolution of language.

Anyone who has studied the history of religion (or, heck, even watched the History Channel) knows that a similar process has gone to work in that realm. Judaism has produced two full-fledged offshoots, and each of the three has multiple sects within the wider umbrella. Similarly, Buddhism mutated as it spread across Asia, into forms that more suited the history and practices of each region. Which brings me to another article, found a few clicks away from the same Round Up, on the modern westernized version of Buddhism. In The Buddha according to Brooks, Donald S Lopez, Jr (and many of the commenters) discount what they call Buddhist Modernism as somehow less authentic than those variations which evolved earlier in the East. This is a position I just can't understand. Either religion evolves like language and branches are just as valid as the trunk, or religion is The Truth and all variations from the original are invalid. You can't have it both ways and demarcate with terms like "colonial" and "elites" just to coincide with yoru own favored version.

15 August 2008

Boston Should be More like Budapest: Part II

So, my second suggestion for Boston to shape up and act more like The Best City On Earth involves a confluence of our strange, puritanical ideas and insane property values. Specifically, outdoor drinking and eating. This summer has really felt like a renaissance for Boston in that regard, with the opening of Charlie's Beer Garden and the deck at Deep Ellum. There's always been sidewalk dining on Newbury & Boylston streets as well as some roof decks here and there, but they are plagues by the crazy laws that a) require patrons to order meals, not just drink and b) requires the outside to close early. It really lacked a lot of the charm of european street cafes in Paris and Amsterdam, since the servers were always hurrying you along to turn over the table.
Deep Ellum and Charlie's Kitchen seem to have circumvented these restrictions by putting the outdoor seating in the back. And it's awesome. Deep Ellum's deck is vastly superior to Charlie's Beer Garden, though I hesitate to say that and drive more folks their way, since overcrowding is one of the problems at Charlie's. the Deep Ellum deck is a leafy, woody oasis of relaxation, great drinks and food. It's the closest think I have seen in the US to Budapet's Kerts.

Kert is the hungarian word for garden and is applied to venues that are entirely or mostly outdoors, often taking over a courtyard garden for just a summer before the building is demolished/renovated. The good ones tend to pop up every year, moving from available location to available location and advertising mostly by word of mouth. A few of them have settled down into permanent or semi-permanent digs. They range from simple beer gardens that serve no wine or liquor and have mismatched second-hand furniture to trendy hotspots with overpriced specialty cocktails and well-known DJs. And they all rock.

These places can afford to serve a few mugs of cheap beer and let folks linger and talk for hours in part because of the great deal they must be getting on these otherwise-vacant lots (some of the earlier ones were actually illegal squatters) and the European idea that cafes and bars are places for people to meet and spend time with their friends, not just money-making machines that should push the patrons out as soon as the coffee is served.

Boston Should be More like Budapest: Part I

I love Boston, it's one of my Top 5 favorite cities. I love that it still has neighborhoods with individual character, that it's a public transport-oriented city, that it is filled with students and academics, and I am even charmed by many of the quirky provincial/puritanical vestiges in our laws and customs. But I love Budapest more. Budapest is my Number One city and I think there are so many things we could learn from them to make our own city better.

The first is how to handle your bankrupt public transportation system. While the MBTA is experiencing record numbers in terms of ridership, their hands are tied and they can make no improvements to service (As an aside, if they just didn't waste all that money on the quickly aborted Radio T and the GPS tracking that doesn't actually accomplish anything, they could probably manage to add a couple more drivers/buses to routes 1, 86, 66 and 39, where they are desperately needed). All the T can seem to do is make excuses, predict fare hikes, and beg for a bailout. In fairness to the T, when I ride the subway, I tend to get where I am going in a reasonable amount of time with only minimal frustration. The bus system is a lot worse, but I am still grateful that this isn't LA and I have the bus option.

In contrast, the Budapest transport agency (BKV) is in pretty dire financial straits, but appears to actually be improving service. It definitely helped that the government offered a bailout, but the BKV didn't just sit back and continue business as usual. They have been selling off non-core parts of the business (such as a tourist funicular), selling older trams and trolleys to collectors, and working to cut down on fare dodging. Back in April, they announced there would also be service cuts & changes rolled out in September, and the details of this plan were announced today. As I began reading the document, I rolled my eyes at what I assumed was euphemistic language about "harmonizing" and "efficiency" But then I read the details of the changes. In some cases, yes, routes were cut back or combined to result in less service than before, but on the subways and major buss/tram lines, there seem to be only improvements, including:

  • Subways running from earlier in the day through later at night
  • Schedules for intersecting routes have been aligned to cut down on transfer waiting times (and, as the BKV actually uses its GPS system, this isn't just hot air)
  • Many major tram routes running more frequently
Why can't the MBTA do this sort of thing?

13 August 2008

Stupid Men & Hot Women: TV

(I recently got push-polled in a good way. I regularly read feministing and they conducted a reader poll. A majority of the questions were about the new Community blogs area, an idea that many sites are now doing to capture the power of user-generated content. I had pretty much ignored this new development, but ended up adding the Community RSS feed to my Reader after the poll. I've been rewarded with at least one really interesting post per day [though, that is out of dozens of kind of 'meh' ones] and that's how I came across this post on a totally other blog. So, now to the meat)

First, it's true, all awesome women I know and love dream of being crotchety old ladies who don't have to conform to any expectations. I hope to do this myself, though sans cats.

And I definitely agree that TV tends to portray competent and responsible women as nags and killjoys, but I've spoken to a lot of men who feel stung by the "King of Queens" paradigm as well. After all, there are only a few kinds of men on sit-coms - shlubby dufuses and hapless pitiable man-whores tend to be the majority. Even the supposed everyman heros, like Ross on Friends or Ted on How I Met Your Mother are pretty annoying and lame. While I guess there may be some lazy idiots sitting around wondering when that hot babe of a wife they are entitled to is going to show up, most smart men I know are just as offended by the gender stereotypes as we are.

Makes you wonder who, exactly, they make these shows for anyway?

05 August 2008

The Simplest Explanation

Late last week, I heard a followup to an earlier story, commenting on the big flap caused when a reporter revealed a trend among teenagers, namely that forgoing condoms during sex is considered a step on the commitment ladder. Adults were appalled and outraged and let NPR know. Meanwhile, the reporter said she had not expected such a sharp reaction. Now, part of me says "Come on, get real teenagers + sex = angry, angry parents and you must know that" but the other part of me can see exactly where she is coming from. I was reminded of this story again today by Feministing (includes link to original story), which offered up an odd, half-hearted explanation/endorsement "I do think this is one of those work arounds to heteronormativity."

I think both Feministing and the angry parents are missing the simple point that the NPR reporter probably got (thus her surprise). These teenagers are simply modeling adult behavior. After all, how many serious adult couples do you know that use condoms? Hormonal birth control or a vasectomy are far more effective, so the condom's only role at that point is disease prevention. And, one of the hopes in a committed, long-term relationship is that there is no outside sexual activity, so no new infections.

Don't you remember when you were a swoony teenager and thought you were with The One? Or, really, think about college. Many couples were engaged before or just after graduation, so the idea that you had found your life partner seemed even more realistic. While we can all look back now and realize that each of these relationships was just a temporary step along our road of growth and development, they didn't feel that way at the time. In fact, having been through few or no serious break-ups, don't you recall having a much stronger faith in the permanence of those early couplings?

Of course, I would warn any 15 year old I know against this plan because I know from experience that there's a high probability this relationship will end and/or someone will be unfaithful along the way. Also, teenagers have much less access to alternative forms of birth control and are fairly unlikely to be getting a full STD test battery at the start of each new relationship. But I think if we take the simple step of looking at it from their perspective, it becomes a much more manageable situation.