Happy 90th birthday, mama-papa!

_MAL0210.jpg, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

My grandfather Lorn Lambier Howard turns ninety today. As far back as I can remember, my mama-papa and I have had a special connection. If I had to guess, I’d say that we owe this connection to our shared scientific worldview and love of music — jazz in particular.

We had a fun party for Lorn last Friday in Dallas. Members of the family met for lunch and then assembled in the theater at Edgemere for a presentation. Tom talked about what was happening in the world the year Lorn was born. My cousin Lowry sang some songs for him. Lindsey performed her own interpretive dance routine based on a dozen or so words describing the family — words she had solicited from all of us by email weeks earlier. Hayden and Mark put on a great slideshow of photographs from Lorn’s life. And then Lorn’s myriad offspring gathered on stage to sing a special birthday song of my mom’s composing. After all the presentations, we mingled and had some delicious chocolate cake with coffee. It was a lot of fun and I hope we can do it again next year.

Photos from the get-together in Dallas are online now, including ones from Lorn’s party. All the photos are in my Thanksgiving 2007 photo set.

For a more detailed biography of my grandfather, see Lorn’s faculty page at SMU.


Me and my niece Evelyn

_MAL0194, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

I'm back from a busy and eventful weekend in Dallas, and I have a bunch of photos to go through and post. In the mean time, here's a good one from my trip to California a couple of weeks ago.


Uncle Billy’s Brew & Cue

Tonight I had dinner with Warren and Janice at Uncle Billy’s Brew & Cue down on Barton Springs Road. That was some darn good food! We had brisket, jalapeño & cheese sausage, baby back ribs, macaroni & cheese, and green beans. The brisket was great — almost as good as the County Line’s. The sausage was quite good too. The best part of the meal though had to be the green beans. They were crispy and spicy, just like homemade. I tried a couple of beers there, including Uncle Billy’s own Hefeweizen and a pint of Live Oak Octoberfest.

Afterward we went to Amy’s Ice Creams on 6th Street, where Warren treated us to some delicious desert. I had the Jamaican coffee ice cream — a creamy coffee-flavored ice cream spiked with Jamaican rum. Yum!

Tomorrow I'm heading up to Dallas for a few days with family. We will celebrate my grandfather's 90th birthday and Thanksgiving together.


No Country for Old Men

Yesterday evening I went to the Arbor Cinema in Northwest Austin and saw a matinée* of the latest Cohen Brothers film, No Country for Old Men. The film is a good one, but damn — uplifting it ain’t.

The film is beautifully shot, and expertly acted. I especially liked Tommy Lee Jones’s performance. It’s also and wonderfully written. Delightful and often funny dialogue and exquisite cinematography are interspersed only occasionally with brief sequences of action. And even these action sequences proceed at a measured pace, echoing the methodical determination of the story’s villain. His presence is felt throughout the film, even when he’s not in the scene. Even though the film is slow, it is never boring. The tension is maintained from start to finish.

The film’s violence is shocking not so much for its graphic nature but for its cruel pointlessness. Numb incomprehension in the face of heartless cruelty is a theme revisited many times, in the words of one character after another. Love and bravado aren’t enough to win the day; just when you think there is some fateful justice in the world, you watch as the wicked walk free. The story is a cautionary tale, blasting at once our culture’s slow decline into apathy, and the often simple-minded reactions this descent elicits from everyday people. I wonder how the average person reacts to this film: is it a call to action, or a reminder that life is pointless?

If you have a strong constitution and want to see a great film, No Country for Old Men fits the bill. I’m glad I saw the film, but I still hope the next Cohen Brothers movie is a bit more lighthearted.

* The practice of pricing matinée performances lower than evening ones has not made it to Sweden, where the state-subsidized company SF holds a near monopoly on cinemas. Yesterday’s ticket cost me $6.50, equivalent to 40.60 SEK — less than half the cost of a movie ticket in Sweden.


The Iraq war gas tax

If the president had decided to pay for the war in Iraq through a tax on gasoline, how much would that have cost the U.S. consumer?

The Iraq war is costing U.S. taxpayers around 229 million dollars per day.

U.S. drivers purchase about 400 million gallons of gasoline per day.

By my calculations, this means if Bush had had the guts to actually pay for the war from the outset, he could have done so with a tax of 67 cents per gallon. It would have been a bitter pill to swallow, but he could have called upon Americans to bear the burdon as necessary sacrifice at a time of war.

Unfortunately, Bush gave his cronies a tax break instead, and paid for it and the war by mortgaging our children's futures.


Swedish breasts in the news

The story about the young Swedish women fighting for the right to bare their breasts at swimming pools made it to the top three on digg today. As my friend Lisa pointed out, the story's popularity is in agreement with the axiom:

Sweden + breasts = lots of hits.

The movement certainly has a catchy name: Bara Bröst. It's a clever a play on words because it can mean just breasts but also bare breasts. Some of the brave women have begun to document their thoughts and experiences online: KristinK, Bara Badare.

One of the arguments for allowing women to go topless is that men and women should be treated equally, and that if men are allowed to swim without wearing a top, so should women. In a liberal democracy like Sweden, it's hard to argue against equality. The law is pretty clear too: it is illegal to put in place a policy that treats people differently on the basis of their gender.

Some of the activists pushing this agenda have also made the point that people are only upset about seeing breasts because breasts have been sexualized by society and popular culture. These young women would like to foster a society in which people are a bit more desensitized to the sight of breasts in public. I'll agree with this argument.

Swedes are the Puritans of Western Europe.

With respect to how much they cover up, Sweden has moved a lot closer to America in recent years. Women go topless seldom in Sweden, even though there is no law against it. Compared to bathers in Holland, France, Germany, or Italy, Swedish beach-goers are prudes. Where it is customary to go naked, such as in the sauna, there are almost always separate facilities for men and women. The main Swedish television channels show very little nudity. And it's forbidden in Sweden to display a woman's breasts in any advertising (although men's chests are OK for some reason). The argument behind that policy was that women's bodies should not be used to sell things. Women who referred to themselves as feminists were responsible for that law.

So it is gratifying, if a bit surprising, to see Swedish women standing up for the right to show their breasts. It is a fitting tribute to the true spirit of feminism.

What I do find odd is that some of the women involved in fighting for the right to bare their breasts are doing so in the hopes of desexualizing women's bodies. This effort will meet with limited success.

Women's breasts are inherently sexual in nature.

Evolutionary psychologists have argued convincingly that the human female evolved breasts specifically for the purpose of attracting men. The argument goes something like this: when our ancestors began to walk upright, females needed to evolve a means of attracting males that differed from those sexual signals that are useful only among species that walk on all fours. Something showy in the front, perhaps? Yeah, that works. No other primate species displays such a great degree of sexual dimorphism in breast size. No other primate species stores such a large amount of fat in the breasts; this fat doesn't seem to be needed to for strictly functional purposes, and is there whether or not the woman is nursing. The human female's unique breasts are a primary sexual trait of her gender. Along with other attractive traits like curvaceous hips, clear skin, and symmetrical faces, men are going to find breasts attractive.

That said, I think over-sexualization and over-sensationalization of the human body is damaging too. Forcing women to cover their breasts in a way draws more attention to them. What is customarily hidden from view will naturally be all the more intriguing for its scarcity. In Victorian England, even the sight of a woman's ankle was considered scandalously provocative. Obviously things are a bit more relaxed today, but we still have our own form of Puritanism; we've only moved the line a bit between what's no big deal and what's scandalous. Imposing the most conservative standards of modesty on everyone doesn't make sense, but that's what we'd have to do to please anyone who might be offended. Prudishness is not just a harmless bit of cultural baggage though. It is psychologically demeaning to people, because ultimately, it aims to convince them that they should be ashamed of their own bodies. I find it much more offensive that some people believe it's their duty to impose their prudishness on others.

Although women are no doubt sexual creatures, it is surely frustrating for some women who feel that their value is diminished by right of the fact that some men view them primarily as objects of sexual desire. However, the respect these women seek cannot be codified into law. Prohibiting bare breasts in advertising, for example, will not cause men to stop finding women (or their breasts) desirable. Nor is this what most reasonable women want. What they want is to be seen as whole people, with more to offer the world than just their bodies. Of course we are animals, but we are also uniquely capable of rising above our baser instincts. The way to do this is not to deny these instincts, but to accept them — both the strengths and the weaknesses. So the solution is not to deny that breasts (or hips, or whatever) are sexual in nature; but to accept the fact, and move on. Respect doesn't mean ceasing to be a sexual creature. Respect means caring about others and taking their views into account. What seems like flattery to one person might be insulting to another though, so one size definitely does not fit all.

I've been to nude beaches in France and to nude bathhouses in Germany. I've also seen the many Muslim women in Sweden who out of modesty chose to wear the veil or burka when in public. It's clear that there is a great deal of variability in cultural standards when it comes to what parts of their bodies people are comfortable showing in public. The world is full of people who accept without question their own particular prejudices and reject with equally unquestioning moral indignation the differing views of others. Prudishness with regard to nakedness is a good example of this sort of fundamentalism. When people of different cultures come together in the same bathhouse, you can imagine that not everyone is going to be completely comfortable with the clothing choices made by everyone else. It can be a challenge to make rules that foster an environment in which most people can feel comfortable.

It's also often the case that some people will have to be made uncomfortable, at least for a while, in order to bring about a justified change. The end of racial segregation in the U.S. was just such a period of uncomfortable transition. Changes that grant new freedoms to one group of people inevitably impose some uneasiness in other groups of people. So it is with topless women in Swedish bathhouses.

The women swimming topless in Swedish bathhouses are evidently willing to make some of their fellow bathers uncomfortable in the name of exercising their freedoms. I wonder if they would also support allowing men and women to bathe naked. Or would that make them uncomfortable?


Back from the Bay

_MAL0256, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

I'm back in Austin after a lovely time with my brother's family in Santa Clara. I took quite a few photos while was was in California, and have now posted a few of them.  Here’s one from my sojourn up the peninsula to San Francisco. Take a look at my Flickr photostream for more photos, including several of my adorable new niece Evelyn.


Radiohead’s experiment a success

A few weeks ago, the band Radiohead released their new album on their website. Fans of the band were allowed to download the album and requested to pay what they thought it was worth. A lot of fuss is being made over the fact that many of the people who downloaded the album paid nothing for it, and those who did pay something paid an average of only six U.S. dollars.

I'd like to see some analysis of how much the band is making on sales of the album, and how this profit compares to what they might have made if they had gone through the traditional channel of selling CDs through a major recording studio label.

In the media frenzy about how greedy people are to download the album without paying for it, what's getting overlooked is that the band is likely making more money on this album anyway. The band is not paying a red cent to a recording studio or publisher, so they get to keep all the profit for themselves. Considering how small a cut artists typically get in contacts with the major labels, Radiohead’s experiment has to be considered a success.


One day by the Bay

This morning I awoke around 8 o’clock and fixed a pot of coffee in Ethan & Kelly’s percolator. Ethan headed off to work at Apple and I stayed behind to enjoy my coffee. Kelly and I watched a bit of television until it was almost time for Evelyn's check-up appointment. She got a clean bill of health. I dropped Kelly and the baby off at home and then joined Ethan for lunch at the Apple campus. We ate at “Macs Café,” the main company cafeteria. I had a delicious barbecue chicken burrito with black beans and guacamole. Oh, and I saw Steve Jobs in the burrito line. It took him a while to place his order. He is particular with details when it comes to burritos too, apparently.

Speaking of attention to detail, I picked up some goodies at the Apple company store, including the exquisitely designed Apple keyboard.  The thing looks like it's made from a solid piece of aluminum. Simply brilliant. The wireless one is even prettier. Unfortunately, it's not available in a full-sized version.

After lunch, I drove up to San Francisco for a few hours. I took some photos of the Golden Gate Bridge, took a walk on Baker Beach, and then took a drive through downtown. After I came back to Santa Clara, we ordered a pizza for dinner and watched “The Producers” on TV.

Evelyn was a little angel the whole night, mostly sleeping or nursing. Now it's time for bed. It's been a full day and I'm flying back to Texas around lunchtime tomorrow.


Uncle Mike

PICT0456, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

Here I am holding my niece. She's a sweet baby but only for a few minutes at a time. Then she gets hungry and only mommy will sate her cravings. I'm sure she'd like me more if I gave her milk. Today was a busy day and I've been awake for a long time, so I'm looking forward to a long rest. I'll get it too.

We're setting our clocks back to standard time tonight too. The time change and the time zone change mean that for me, tomorrow morning will seem to come three hours later than this morning did.

Signing off from California.

First night in California

Greetings from Santa Clara! I flew into San Jose airport earlier this afternoon. Ethan picked me up and drove me to his home, where my parents and Kelly were waiting. Of course, I got to meet my lovely new niece Evelyn too. She was mostly asleep, but for a few minutes I held her in my arms. I also helped change her diaper — Fun!

After a while we all started to get a bit hungry, so we went to the Trader Joe’s store in Sunnyvale to buy some groceries, including a few bottles of “Two Buck Chuck,” a California Chardonnay I've tasted and that's quite okay. I also threw a tub of Ben & Jerry’s chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream in the shopping basket. I'll enjoy that later.

Now I gotta run. Evelyn is awake and in good spirits. It's time to go introduce myself!