December 27, 2009

Sweet and Low, A Family Story

A Jewish family from Brooklyn; a charismatic grandfather who started from nothing on the Lower East Side and lifted himself out of poverty; a daughter disinherited for no reason; an author who writes bluntly about his family, at the risk of infuriating some.

All this reminded me remarkably of something: my own family.

In the case of Rich Cohen's family there was also a successful company, fraud and a criminal investigation, unlike in mine - as far as I know - but for the rest, the parallels are striking.

It's really easy for me to identify, the names almost match: "[Benjamin Eisenstadt]'s mother's name was Rose", Cohen writes - and two of my great-aunts were named Rose; "Ben's father was named Morris" - Morris was a great-uncle of mine.

So I had high expectations: reading Rich Cohen's book would enlighten my roots in Flatbush, make me understand how people could be so skilled at lifting themselves out of poverty and so prone to mismanaging the emotional ties in their families.

The result was uneven. Cohen's style was not my cup of tea but I still gathered a few valuable hints in my quest.

Cohen bored me with his constant digressions from the subject which interested me, especially when he undertook a history of sugar and sweeteners or described in painstaking detail the criminal investigation against his Uncle and the company. As Kate Zernike wrote in her review for The New York Times:
The problem, of course, is that he can't avoid reaching for the Big Sweep. Into family history he weaves the history of sugar since 8000 B.C., and of slavery, packaging, dieting, Jews in New York, dangerous drugs and artificial sweeteners (with a cameo by Donald Rumsfeld, hired in 1977 by G. D. Searle & Company in part to get aspartame approved by the Food and Drug Administration). In some places, this flows naturally. In others, you get the sense that he's done his homework and wants you to know it. When he starts into the history of insurrection in Haiti, you wonder how you got there from Brooklyn.

By the way, Cohen tried to convince us that "The Age of Exploration [...] was actually a quest for a way around the Muslims, who clogged the trade routes and blocked the way to the sugar of the East." Well... Stefan Zweig made a much more convincing point that it was the quest for spices which drove the explorers - with style and in a much more relevant context (Conqueror of the Seas - The Story of Magellan, it does makes sense.)

But let's get to the good aspects of Cohen's work: how was my quest rewarded?

Well, for one, I realized how the trauma of immigration and deep poverty marked the first and second generation immigrants:
[Benjamin Eisenstadt's] parents had emigrated to America from a god-awful Polish town. [...] When Ben was eight years old, his father, just thirty-two, was rushed to the hospital with chest pains [and died].

So begins the actual childhood of Ben, the city as a maze of charity wards and relief agencies. His mother did not have the resources to raise three children. Because Ben was the oldest, he was sent to live with his uncles.
At the end of his life, Ben told one story again and again -- his mind kept returning to it. "We had Christmas dinner at Christian Relief. We had to stand for hours with the bums and drunks, listening to the prayers. Then, at the end of all that, we were finally given Christmas dinner. It was a single piece of desiccated chicken."
Cohen remarks that "This word, desiccated, and the way Ben said it, seemed to sum up his entire childhood." A desiccated childhood is indeed a good recipe for later lacking empathy and for the incapacity of instilling love in family relationships.

It was at the time I was reading this book (but, to be precise, while watching The Fiddler on the Roof) that I grasped suddenly the meaning of the word "pogrom": two million Jews didn't immigrate from Eastern Europe to the U.S. between 1880 and 1925 just in search of a better livelihood! They fled something much more traumatic than mere poverty. While it may not apply directly to my grandfather and may be only a speculation regarding my grandmother's family, it does shed a different light on their story: the weight of the past they or their family carried with them from Europe and the hardships they endured until the end of the Great Depression, are something I cannot ignore.

(In The Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye and Lazar Wolf, with their bags on their back, part company:
Tevye: Where are you going?
Lazar Wolf: Chicago. In America.
Tevye: Chicago, America? We are going to New York, America. We'll be neighbors.
Sorry, couldn't resist the temptation. I think it's hilarious.)

The second aspect which struck me in Rich Cohen's account came toward the end, and I was waiting for it avidly. With the death of the patriarch, his elder daughter finds a culprit: her sister, the younger daughter. Obviously she's responsible for his death: she recommended the doctor who recommended the doctor who performed the operation which killed him... The fact that he was ninety years old had obviously nothing to do with his death.

Cohen annoyingly keeps alluding to and postponing the revelation of this episode which led to his mother being disinherited by her own mother. I found in the story, when it was eventually revealed, all the ingredients I've discovered recently in my family's story: people unable to grieve without looking for a culprit, old people being manipulated, vital family ties (between parents and children, brothers and sisters!) sacrificed for the sake of unimportant considerations, rancor settling in for decades.

Past suffering cannot be undone but we can avoid repeating these mistakes in the future and savor, in the meantime, the opposite image, Cohen's description of his paternal grandmother:
[...] when I was getting ready to graduate from college, my sister called me and told me that Grandma Esther was going to give me a check for a thousand dollars. My sister called this "the big check." I said to myself, "Maybe I will travel to South America with this big check, or maybe I will start a magazine." But the big check was more than money. It was a legacy. It was Esther blessing me. It was Esther telling me that I counted as much as my brother and sister and cousins. I was her sixth-born grandchild, but Esther did not judge by birth order. She arranged it that, when I hit certain life markers, big checks would be issued even after she died. (A family joke had me getting five hundred bucks when I got married, a thousand if the girl was Jewish.) A few hours before the ceremony, Esther said, "Come, I want to give you something." I followed her into a hallway. She smiled. I could see loved me. As she reached into her purse she said, "At a time like this, you can forget to eat," and handed me a bad of American Airlines peanuts. (The check came a few weeks later by mail.)

'Sweet and Low: A Family Story,' by Rich Cohen

December 25, 2009

Jesus H. Christ

Dear all,

First of all, for those of you who read French, I posted an article on my friend Tom's blog. The article deals with the recent revelations that the H in "Jesus H. Christ" stands for "Hussein" and how it proves that Jesus was a hidden Muslim.

I want to recommend indeed the best research ever done on the subject of the H (until the recent aforementioned revelations): Tenser, said the Tensor: What Does the H Stand For?

I'll let you read but I have to disclose my favorite (after Hussein of course):
"'Hallmark', because He cared enough to send the very best."

That article provided me, when I stumbled upon it in Cambodia a few years ago, with the best laughs in my life to date.

Since then, I've owed my best laughs to Sarah Palin and to Fox News.

But today I've discovered what is going to become my homepage: Conservapedia, "a conservative, family-friendly Wiki encyclopedia", meant to offset Wikipedia's bias against "the achievements of Christianity and conservatism".

The article on Barack Obama is indeed my favorite. It starts with this paragraph:

Barack Hussein Obama II aka Barry Soetoro[1] (allegedly[2][3][4][5][6] born in Honolulu Aug. 4, 1961) is the 44th President of the United States, and previously served as a first-term Democratic Senator from Illinois (2005-2008). Obama and his running mate Senator Joseph Biden won the presidential election[7] after 23 months of campaigning that spent over $700 million,[8] much of it raised from undisclosed or fraudulent donors.[9] Obama spent far more per vote than McCain did: Obama spent $7.39 per vote, while McCain spent only $5.78 per vote.[10]

And the table of contents is hilarious:
Section 13 - "Quotes", retains only one quote from the 44th President:
"I'm a Christian. And so, although I try not to have my religious beliefs dominate or determine my political views on this issue ... my religious beliefs say that marriage is something sanctified between a man and a woman."[258]

Is Conservapedia a joke? A threat? A project with qualities? Well, the answer is complex.

Some articles (or some parts of them) sound like jokes, like parodies of Wikipedia. They remind me of a magazine of the early 1990s in France which, I believe, was called "News of the World" and ran eccentric stories about a man whose tongue was hairy, a woman whose G-spot was in the ear (together with a hilarious picture of her husband fingering her ear with his pinky while reading the newspaper in bed) and so on. A few s:
A liberal (also leftist) is someone who rejects logical and biblical standards, often for self-centered reasons. There are no coherent liberal standards; often a liberal is merely someone who craves attention, and who uses many words to say nothing.
Jesus Christ is the person who changed the world forever with teachings of love and faith, using logical parables like the Prodigal Son that flow from the existence of God.
[Article entitled Liberals and friendship] Liberals often make approval of liberal values a condition of friendship.
Hollywood values are characterized by decadence, narcissism, rampant drug use, extramarital sex leading to the spread of sexually-transmitted disease, lawlessness and death.
Other articles are just like the Wikipedia, just lower quality, like the articles on Bayes Factor or Burkina Faso.

Is Conservapedia a threat due to its mixing bias with apparent factualness, like Fox News? Unlike Fox News, Conservapedia doesn't claim to be unbiased. The term "Conservative" is in the title, so let them have fun!

Long live freedom of speech!

December 22, 2009

My top two Mac annoyances... and workarounds!

Since I bought my Mac, several months ago, I've had trouble getting used to the Finder. Coming from Windows and Linux environments, I've had to learn to replace Enter by Cmd+O, Alt+Enter by Cmd+I, Backspace by Cmd+(, etc.

I will get used to all this, no doubt. But two things I miss dearly. And all over the Internet, people complain about these two things:
  • No way to cut and paste files and folders with the keyboard: I'm used to cutting files (Ctrl+X) where I think they don't belong, then navigate through the folders to the place they should go and paste them there (Ctrl+V). As simple as that: that's the way I'm used to doing it. Finder doesn't allow this and, especially on my laptop, I hate having to drag and drop with the mouse (the trackpad in that case).
  • No way to suppress a file directly: it is only possible to sent it to the Trash. And no way to delete individual files from the Trash.

For the first annoyance, workarounds used to be available in the form of plugins for Finder but they were not adapted to Snow Leopard. There is PathFinder but it costs $40 and it means using an additional application. I've also tried using Konqueror/Dolphin, the KDE tools which were now ported to Mac, but I didn't like that solution either.

Here and there on Internet posts, I saw that writing a Service with Automator and assigning it a keyboard shortcut was a solution, but I didn't find specific instructions on how to do that.

So today, as I was sick and couldn't go to work, I worked on that and after some painful hours navigating through Automator, the shell and AppleScript, I got to the point where I have something satisfying - to me at least.

So here's my solution. In Automator, create three services for I gave them the following names:
  1. Prepare to move the selected files and folders...

  2. Paste the files and folders here...

  3. Delete selected files and folders without moving to trash...
The first and third services need to be defined to operate on files and folders as input, the second is defined as without input.

In Services Preferences, I gave them the shortcuts Shift+Cmd+X, Shift+Cmd+V (for cut and paste) and Shift+Cmd+- (for delete).

Each of these services is made of a single action, an AppleScript and here's the code for each one. I'm sure that a lot that can be improved, but that's a basis and I give explanations for each.

The first script, the "cut" script, receives the list of selected files and folders as a list of strings. After displaying a message (which you can remove if you prefer), the list of files and folders is written, one by line to a file called /private/tmp/move_me_next. This script only writes the list of files/folders to the temporary file, it doesn't do anything else. The file will be read by the "paste" script. For some reason, I've had problems reading the file when I named it with hyphens "move-me-next", but no problem when it has underlines "move_me_next". Also note that a good programmer would have given the temporary file a safer name and/or implemented some kind of locking on the file.

on run {input, parameters}

if (class of input) is not equal to list then set input to {input}
if input = {} then return

set textList to ""
repeat with a from 1 to length of input
set textList to textList & return & item a of input as string
end repeat

tell application "Finder" to display dialog "The following files and folders will be moved when you paste them: " & textList

do shell script "rm -f /private/tmp/move_me_next"

-- Create a text file with newline-separated list of files to be moved
set moveFileDescriptor to (open for access (POSIX file "/private/tmp/move_me_next") with write permission)
repeat with a from 1 to length of input
set filename to POSIX path of item a of input as string
write filename & linefeed to moveFileDescriptor
end repeat
close access moveFileDescriptor

end run

The second script, the "paste" script does not receive any input but it reads the file /private/tmp/move_me_next and moves each file or folder mentioned there to the current location called "insertion location" by the Finder (the location where it would create a new folder for you if you pressed Shift+Cmd+N). This is not exactly the Windows behavior (if a folder is selected, then the files should be pasted inside that folder), but it's good enough for a start. I haven't implemented special treatment for the cases where a file with the same name exists. In that case, since each file is moved individually, an error message will be displayed for the conflicting file and it will not be moved. The list of "cut" files, i.e. pending move is not deleted nor updated.

on run {input, parameters}

set moveFileDescriptor to (open for access (POSIX file "/private/tmp/move_me_next"))
set fileNameList to (read moveFileDescriptor as list using delimiter linefeed)
close access moveFileDescriptor

set fileNameListString to ""
set fileList to {}
repeat with filename in fileNameList
set fileNameListString to fileNameListString & return & filename
set end of fileList to POSIX file filename
end repeat

tell application "Finder"
set myDest to insertion location
display dialog "The following files and folders will be moved now to " & myDest & return & fileNameListString
end tell

repeat with myFile in fileList
tell application "Finder" to move myFile to myDest
on error m number n
tell application "Finder" to display dialog "Encountered error number " & n & ":" & return & m
end try
end repeat


end run

The third script, the "delete" script looks closely like the first one. The principle is really the same, but instead of writing the list of files/folders to a file, we run the command "rm -rf" on them. A file with the delete commands is written but it's not used (it could either be removed or expanded to a logging mechanism).

on run {input, parameters}

if (class of input) is not equal to list then set input to {input}
if input = {} then return

set textList to ""
repeat with a from 1 to length of input
set textList to textList & return & item a of input as string
end repeat

tell application "Finder" to display dialog "Are you sure you want to delete the following files and folders: " & return & textList

do shell script "rm -f /tmp/delete-commands"

repeat with a from 1 to length of input
set filename to POSIX path of item a of input as string
do shell script "echo 'rm -rf' " & quoted form of filename & ">> /tmp/delete-commands"
do shell script "rm -rf " & quoted form of filename
end repeat

return quoted form of textList

end run

Code beautifying courtesy of