Archive for February, 2009

We were at one of the megalomarts in our neck of the woods this afternoon. Not a supermarket we frequent, since there are others in closer proximity, but one we visit on occasion when there’s something on sale, because this particular outlet has a vast section.

We were in the “ethnic foods” aisle, since C wanted some sort of taco seasoning, and she called my attention to a small display of soup mixes, asking if a packet labeled “Żurek” — and entirely in a non-English language she recognized as Polish —  was the same as the white barszcz (borscht) we had enjoyed in Kraków during our two trips there. I told here it wasn’t, even though it looked similarly white and creamy on the package, because it would just say barszcz on the package. And, lo and behold, the next box over had packets of barszcz biały (white borscht), along with the red variety (barszcz czerwony).

Taking a quick look around the shelf, C joked this must be the Eastern Europe section, and when I looked up I noticed the section did, in fact, have a sign that said “East European.”

Of course, looking more closely at the products, it became apparent that it was actually a Polish foods section, since everything was Polish. Polish mineral water, Polish drink syrup, Polish multivitamin juice, Polish pickled vegetables, Polish candies, Polish this, Polish that.

It was all Polish, it seemed, except for a stray couple of packages of Columbia-brand egg noodles that someone had carelessly thrown in with the Polish brand.

Until C spotted a small tin of Latvian caviar, which was literally the only non-Polish Eastern European item in the section.

I suppose this means that in the future, when I teach my East-Central European survey and do my introductory lecture for the course titled, “What the heck is East-Central Europe?” I can list all the historical, ethnic, linguistic and other criteria that define it, before qualifying this definition to explain that East Europe is Poland, with a few Latvian fish eggs thrown in for the sake of diversity.

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According to Michael O’Leary, CEO of Ryanair, the Irish-based discount airline may start charging passengers to use the airplane lavatories.

Nothing has been firmly decided, but evidently Irish aviation regulations don’t require carriers to provide toilets to passengers, so Ryanair would be well within its legal right to make passengers feed a coin slot before using the lavatory.

There are no “immediate plans” to proceed with the CEO’s off-the-cuff musing, but a Ryanair spokesman said the company has had internal discussions about this in the past with an eye toward cutting costs:

Ancillary revenues, all of which are avoidable, help to reduce the cost of flying Ryanair. Passengers using train and bus stations are already accustomed to paying to use the toilet, so why not on airplanes? Not everyone uses the toilet on board one of our flights but those that do could help to reduce airfares for all.

A few remarks are in order.

First, while many, possibly even most or all European train and bus stations have pay restrooms, the actual vehicles of transportation — the trains and buses passengers ride between stations — have free toilets, at least where they have toilets. Rationalizing a hypothetical (for the moment) decision to charge for airplane lavatories on the grounds that passengers only have access to pay toilets in train and bus stations is an apples-to-oranges analogy that doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s even stupider when you consider that every European airport I’ve ever encountered personally had free public restrooms, so not even the apples-to-apples argument makes holds water.

(And as an aside, I seem to recall that some bus and train stations in Ireland and Northern Ireland actually had free public restrooms, which makes this argument even shoddier.)

Second, I also find it dubious that charging passengers to use the lavatories will “reduce airfares for all.” It will probably serve the effect of cutting Ryanair’s operating expenses, since fewer people are likely to use the bathroom if they have to pay for the convenience. But I’m highly skeptical that those savings will get passed on to passengers in the form of lower fares. Realistically, how much money would I expect to save if I forgo a bathroom trip on a short to medium-length flight? Probably very little, and maybe not enough to offset what I’d have to spend for the privilege of not pissing myself mid-flight if my bladder couldn’t hold out.

No, this reeks of another transparent grab for cash from Ryanair, just another way they try to squeeze money out of passengers by making the flying experience as miserable as possible.

Granted, Ryanair is good at its game. I flew from Bratislava to Glasgow (via Dublin) and back (via London-Stansted) for just under $200 round trip. But I also had to utilize all sorts of chicanery to avoid violating its draconian carry-on policies in order to avoid having to pay richly for checking a bag. And because they’re evidently incapable of allowing non-EU passport holders to check in online, I got to pay an extra $15-20 for checking in at a counter. And that doesn’t even begin to consider how awful the in-flight experience is, between the incessant pre-flight advertising (I can still hear them in my head) and the utter lack of comfort. Having to pay for the toilet would’ve really capped the “experience” nicely.

The irony is, the inspiration for Ryanair, which easily offers the worst in-flight experience of any airline I’ve flown, supposedly came from Southwest, which consistently provides one of the best flying experiences and continues as a “discount carrier” to trump all the “legacy airlines” in terms of service.

Fortunately, even if FAA regulations didn’t require commercial airlines to provide in-flight lavatories for free, I have a feeling no U.S. carrier could get away with such a move for the consumer backlash it would generate. Time will tell whether European customers draw the line at paying for toilets in the skies.

(Yes, I, too, find it an odd coincidence that I’ve written two consecutive posts in as many days about toilets. And no, I’m not going to make anything of it.)

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By virtue of leaving Bratislava as my current location on my Facebook account, I get plenty of ads in Slovak. Mostly they’re for mundane things like nightclub events, Slovak e-tailers, books, and so forth.

But one ad that shows up regularly really stands out for its odd composition.


Guess what product or service this picture is advertising?

Care to guess what product or service this picture is advertising?

This is easy. You probably figured it out right away without being able to read Slovak. It’s staring you in the face.

You didn’t figure it out? Really? I would’ve thought the picture gave it away? “Toilet cleaning products” … are you serious?

All right, maybe I overestimated you. I’m feeling charitable, so here’s a hint. The ad’s headline reads, “Foreign visitors?”

There. I practically gave you the answer.

What’s that? You’re still stumped? Really, you think this might be an ad for “bathroom remodeling”? Are you tripping? Do pictures just cause your brain to string random words together that bear no relation to the sensory input? I suppose if it had been a picture of a telephone, you’d probably have guessed it was an add for a “purple monkey dishwasher.” You might want to see a neurologist about that.

Wait! Don’t leave! OK, OK, I’ll stop with the snarky comments and make with the answers. [Mutters under his breath] Like another clue would do you any good.

Here’s what it’s actually advertising:


Yeah, that’s right. It’s an ad for a travel site that specializes in lodging in Bratislava. Wasn’t that obvious from the picture? [To the audience] What’d I tell you? Cognitive dissonance.

Here’s a translation of the full text of the ad, for those of you who still don’t believe me.

Foreign visitors?

BratislavaHotels.com will help you find accommodations for them in Bratislava — we know more than 100 hotels, guesthouses and apartments.

I suppose the use of a bathroom toilet to illustrate the ad is an odd yet effective choice, since it clearly made some kind of impression on me, prompting me to write a short one-man play about the advertisement. I doubt the marketing team that produced this particular ad was going for that sort of approach.

But in any event, it’s an effective, memorable ad.

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Forget Rick Santelli’s “let them pay rent” diatribe on CNBC on Thursday.

The rant of the week belongs to Lansing, Mich., mayor Virg Bernero, tearing into Wall Street fat cats trying to punish labor, all the while leaving Fox News’ Gregg Jarrett flabbergasted.

Sure, Bernero basically disregards his interviewer’s questions to fly off the handle in outrage at Wall Street’s balking over UAW pay packages. But it’s also refreshingly gratifying to see someone race to the defense of beleaguered workers with such a visceral disgust for corporate suits. Plus, it has the added bonus of seeing Fox News get its comeuppance, however briefly.

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In an update to the NY Post monkey cartoon saga, the Post has offered a non-apology apology.

Here’s the cop out, in the form of an editorial to run in Friday’s editions:

Wednesday’s Page Six cartoon — caricaturing Monday’s police shooting of a chimpanzee in Connecticut — has created considerable controversy.

It shows two police officers standing over the chimp’s body: “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill,” one officer says.

It was meant to mock an ineptly written federal stimulus bill.


But it has been taken as something else — as a depiction of President Obama, as a thinly veiled expression of racism.

This most certainly was not its intent; to those who were offended by the image, we apologize.

However, there are some in the media and in public life who have had differences with The Post in the past — and they see the incident as an opportunity for payback.

To them, no apology is due.

Sometimes a cartoon is just a cartoon — even as the opportunists seek to make it something else.

Translation: Yeah, it caused an uproar, and we’re sorry for that, not because we actually feel contrite, but because it’s caused us a lot of hassle. But we’re still going to be jerks and take thinly veiled jabs at Al Sharpton and other people who’ve accused us of racism because we haven’t actually learned from this experience.


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Students’ sense of entitlement

The most popular story of the moment on the NYT is a piece about how students’ expectations that their hard work will earn them an A or B doesn’t always mesh with the reality of the grades they earn.

This is hardly news to anyone who has assigned grades at a university (or, I imagine, at lower levels of education). And it’s hardly surprising to me, as a sometime grade grubber in my own days as an undergrad.

What was surprising to me, however, the first time I graded midterms and returned them, was how the students who failed or nearly failed didn’t come storming into my office to raise hell. In fact, no one complained. My experience, and other TAs and faculty have said much the same thing, is that it’s the students who get pretty good grades (think A-/B+) are the ones generally grubbing for higher grades, while the ones who perform poorly generally know they did poorly and don’t question it.

In many ways, that’s the real issue. If low-performing students got outraged about their poor grades and came to talk about it, they might begin to work harder to improve.

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Taking a break from outlining a paper on political cartoons, I surfed to the NYT and discovered … a controversy about a political cartoon.

The offending image in question appeared in today’s New York Post, and tried to make a tawdry connection between the newly passed stimulus package and the pet chimpanzee that recently had to be euthanized after it attacked a human.


Shooting the chimp

Shooting the chimp

It’s easy to see that the cartoonist is trying to score a cheap though shameful laugh by referring to the pet chimp.

But it’s also apparent that the connection between an African American (in this case Obama) and a cartoon monkey is racist, and can only be seen as racist in light of a long, ugly history of American political cartoons that depicted blacks (as well as Irish and Chinese) as simian and apelike. Without that historical context, this cartoon might just be thought of as being in poor taste, since it makes light of an unfortunate incident to try to score a cheap political point.

But there’s no escaping that context. Surely the cartoonist in question, Sean Delonas, can’t have been unaware of this history, and he can’t have not known that the image of a monkey in connection with a black president was going to recall that history of racist stereotyping in political cartoons.

Al Sharpton has been vocal in his outrage over the cartoon, as he argues quite cogently on his web site.

The cartoon in today’s New York Post is troubling at best, given the racist attacks throughout history that have made African-Americans synonymous with monkeys. One has to question whether the cartoonist is making a less than casual inference to this form of racism when, in the cartoon, the police say after shooting a chimpanzee, “now they will have to find someone else to write the stimulus bill.”

Being that the stimulus bill has been the first legislative victory of President Barack Obama (the first African American president) and has become synonymous with him it is not a reach to wonder whether the Post cartoonist was inferring that a monkey wrote it?

New York Gov. David Paterson and Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand have also spoken out against the cartoon. But Col Allan, the Post’s editor in chief, is standing by his cartoonist in a pretty indefensible way.

The cartoon is a clear parody of a current news event, to wit the shooting of a violent chimpanzee in Connecticut. It broadly mocks Washington’s efforts to revive the economy. Again, Al Sharpton reveals himself as nothing more than a publicity opportunist.

The problem is, the parody isn’t so clear. If there weren’t that long history of cartoonists portraying African Americans as apes and monkeys, then the parody would be clear, and it would just be a question of taste. But this cartoon doesn’t exist in such a vacuum, and I just find it impossible to believe no one at the Post would be unaware of the hurtful history and racist connotations this image evokes.

It’s interesting, too, how commenters on the NYT story about the cartoon have largely expressed a sense of agreeing with Sharpton, often for the first time, which seems to be a clear indication that the cartoon has an unmistakably racist implication.

Of course, there are some who seem to side with the Post editor and prefer to keep bashing Sharpton, like one commenter who notes how cartoonists long depicted Dubya as a chimp. Once again, context matters. Sure, it’s insulting, and perhaps in poor taste, to suggest Bush is chimplike. But those cartoons don’t carry the same baggage because caricatures of Bush as chimp don’t evoke the same racial stereotypes.

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