Archive for November, 2006

House Envy

Posted: November 24, 2006 in Consumerism

I’ve been embroiled that past month and a half in too many things to blog much, the primary thing being finding a new apartment and moving. This weekend is the move, and I’m taking a break from carting boxes. I used to move a lot more frequently and got in the habit of saving original boxes, which come in real handy when actually moving, but they also put a real crimp on things in terms of space. A friend gave me no end of grief over that, but I suspect he’s secretly jealous that most of my stuff fits the box it’s in.

Actually, I began about one year ago looking at condos with the idea that it was high time I built some equity with my housing dollars. I’ve only ever rented. Part of the reason behind that is that I chose a career path that is knowingly difficult and unremunerative. Things have changed in the past few years, and I’ve finally climbed above median income (which one is not significant). So the house envy I felt as a young adult has reasserted itself as I near middle age (some 20 years later).

However, despite changes in my circumstances, I couldn’t bring myself to triple my monthly housing expense to get what I wanted. (And besides, as this blog establishes, it’s probably not a good time to be buying.) Admittedly, my housing bill is/was low for the market I’m in (Chicago), especially since I was living in a studio with only about 350 sq. ft. So for not much more money, I’m moving up to a 2-bedroom with about 1100 sq. ft. I haven’t yet spent a night in the new place, but even as I’ve gotten a few things unpacked, it’s odd to discover how much more padding around I’m doing to get from room to room. In the old place, all my stuff was basically stacked up on the walls around me, and getting from side to side or end to end would scarely take a dozen steps.

I had the occasion earlier this month to stay in another city with some people who offered housing in support of the work I was doing (being purposely cryptic here). In their early to mid-60s and recently retired, their home has 5-6 bedrooms (can’t be sure), three living rooms and a sun room, and gads of space, while overlooking a small, man-made lake built for the houses in this development to nestle around. The kitchen alone was bigger than my old apartment. I certainly don’t begrudge people the fruits of their labors, and this couple have an admirable open door policy, with children, grandchildren, and strangers (such as me) flowing in and out regularly. What’s remarkable to me is that without it being extraordinarily opulent, it was still so far out of my reach that I had some mixed feelings of envy and disappointment.

I’ve been reading about the housing market and can’t quite imagine how folks pay what they do. The median price in many markets is above $250k, which is probably acceptable if you’re rolling equity from a previous home into the new purchase. Since I would be a first-time buyer (I’ve never owned a couch, either — how sad it that?), the initial purchase pretty much looks insurmountable. Of course, it would be helpful if I were sharing housing costs with a significant other, or if my parents were helping with the down payment (sorta like those parents — not mine — who buy the kids a new Beamer for the sixteenth birthday). Absent those things, I’m sitting it out for another few months at least, or until I win the lottery.

It would be characteristic of me to dissaprove of our housing choices and the excessive amounts we typically spend not only on the purchase but the furnishings — well beyond anything we really need. But I’ll hold back, as on this particular score I admit to being envious of what I haven’t yet been able to afford myself. I’ve been seduced a little bit. But I also know that I’ve no complaints when so many folks both in the U.S. and abroad are sleeping on the streets.

Murderball Meets Jackass

Posted: November 6, 2006 in Culture, Taste

I rented the movie Murderball recently, which got high praise by most reviewers. The guys featured in the movie are a bit gonzo for me, but they appear to be having a hell of a lot of fun.

I see most movies on DVD these days, which loses the theatrical audience response but offers bonus features and is a lot cheaper. I was intrigued to find among the Murderball extras some material featuring a couple of the guys from the Jackass movies, which I have avoided seeing, interacting with the guys from Murderball. I described the stunts and games I saw to a friend who sees nearly every movie, and he said that the full-length Jackass movies were pretty much the same nonsense.

So imagine my surprise when I found myself laughing out loud (which I rarely do in response to a movie at home — at the theater it’s much easier) at what I saw them doing, things like The Black Eye Game and Wheelchair Jousting. It was so predictably base and senseless, but funny.

My sense of humor runs high and low with very little middle ground. I love subtley and wordplay, but I howl at fart jokes. (I had tears streaming down my cheeks in the theater when I saw Eddie Murphy’s version of The Nutty Professor.) Go figure. So although I won’t exactly be rushing off to see Jackass, I guess it’s fair to say I laugh at that sort of nonsense, at least in the small dose I got in connection with Murderball.

Ligers and Tigons and Bears, Oh My!

Posted: November 1, 2006 in Ethics

I’ve known for some time about cross-breeding lions and tigers (among others) to create “ligers” and “tigons.” Those two species don’t mate in the wild, but we humans saw fit to put them together. This reminds me vaguely of dog breeding, which is practiced for purely venal purposes and is widely known to produce nasty effects for the animals themselves. Yet our demand for pure breeds continues unabated.

We’ve gone well beyond mere breeding, though, or the famous square watermelons grown in a glass box (to better fit in a fridge). Our new technique, genetic engineering, was prophesied by no less than Winston Churchill in 1932, when he proclaimed that “Fifty years hence we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.” (What makes growing chickens or corn for food absurd, I wonder?) In Britain, which appears to be on the leading edge of this biotechnology, The Guardian reports that a new process for growing “cultured meat” (without the rest of the animal) in a laboratory setting is getting closer to reality. There have also been reports of attempts to genetically engineer chickens that have no heads, which are a far cry from Mike the Headless Chicken but which would solve handily some vegetarians’ objection to eating anything with eyes. The GEO-PIE Project at Cornell University dispels the myth that KFC, among others, has been using a sort of frankenfood, a “nonchicken,” in its restaurants. (Other genetically engineered foods — all vegetables, at least so far — are already used heavily in the food industry.) GEO-PIE has a far amount of useful information regarding the ethics of genetic engineering.

I recently learned about a new abomination: hypoallergenic cats. These are created by a company called Allerca, which calls its creation “lifestyle pets” (I’ve also seen them called “designer pets”), which are engineered at the genetic level to have lower dander levels and thus ease the suffering of cat owners who react to feline dander. Like dog breeding, this goes so far beyond any real need we humans have and is just plain offensive to the sensibilities.

It’s been centuries now since we adopted the idea that all of nature is out there for humans to use and exploit at will. We can rape and pillage the earth, blasting the tops off of mountains to get at coal seams, or open up holes in the ground the size of an airport for open-pit mining, or razing and clear-cutting millions of acres of old-growth forest to grow tobacco. These are all obvious enough examples of our hubris. But tinkering now at the genetic level — especially when it’s so unnecessary as in the case of the designer pet — raises things to a new and dangerous level.

Fiction, playing the role of the philosopher, often presents cautionary tales of science run amok. The two most popular and enduring are probably Frankenstein’s monster and the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Both demonstrate that for all our technological prowess, the fullness of complexity found in the natural world is as yet still so hidden from us that our knowledge is insufficient to be able to control our manipulation of it — to avoid creating or indeed becoming monsters. That insufficiency used to command some respect, meaning that scientists would abjure playing god by refusing to do such things as designing new lifeforms. In contrast, the rosy view is that if we are to learn more about that complexity, then we need to break things down and apart, work with them, and build up our knowledge and mastery bit by bit. There’s little doubt which is the prevailing view these days. But do we really need designer cats and purebred dogs? Do we really need chicken meat that comes from something that we can’t really even call a chicken anymore? Do we really need to inadvertently unleash a deadly new genetically altered bacterial strain that wipes out huge numbers of fish, fowl, plants, and probably humans? Because as long as we continue to tinker with things, it’s virtually inevitable that we will lose control of something that becomes a modern-day Frankenstein’s monster.