Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Someone photoshop this red out of my eyes

Sorry for the long absence. I had eye surgery last week and am still having some trouble focusing, so staring at computer screens is not advised. One compensating fun thing: I am quoted in the Atlantic by my friend Alyssa Rosenberg in her piece on influential books. Whee!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

College students are not blank slates

Julian Sanchez on the influential books meme and what "influence" means:
Suppose I say I was influenced by Ernest Hemingway’s books. If I’m an aspiring novelist, I probably mean this in the formal/practical sense: I want to write novels like his, and will probably turn out a lot of painful stuff full of terse declarative sentences. But I might have a more substantive influence in mind: I’ve adopted a particular kind of vision of masculine virtues with a premium on physical courage, “grace under pressure” and so on. Where that falls on the theoretical/practical dimension depends on whether I actually take up bullfighting or enlist in someone else’s civil war.
The theoretical/practical dimension is especially fuzzy for writers and academics, for whom there’s not as clear a division between “what you think” and “what you do.” But even for us, I think there’s a rough distinction between adopting a belief and adopting a habit of thought.
This is in part what I found dissatisfying about many of these lists and something of what I was getting at when I expressed skepticism about so many of the books being high-minded works of philosophy that the bloggers encountered in college or even graduate school. I'm not usually interested in learning when and how someone adopted a particular belief. You can usually determine the content of a blogger's important beliefs without recourse to a book list with biographical descriptive interludes. Even the "habit of thought" distinction is not really that interesting, as those are also fairly evident from reading the blog in question. Has "learning to think like a lawyer" (perhaps the most well-known "habit of thought") really influenced me? Am I a different person now than I was before law school? What I do is not necessarily who I am. And influence in the substantive/practical sense can also be somewhat dull, unless the blogger's personal history is particularly interesting to you.

What's most revelatory about some of these lists is seeing what books formed the character of the person writing. I think your character is unlikely to change dramatically after a certain age, and even with the content of your views. What speaks to you? The idea that influences consist chiefly of books that taught a mature you some mechanistic system for analyzing the world is somehow impoverished. There was a you who selected that book in the first place. Who is he?

Monday, March 22, 2010

The books to blame for what you see

X. Trapnel suggested the most influential books meme, so here goes. The trouble with answering this honestly is that I have to list a bunch of stuff read at very young ages. I suppose there are people whose character and values are relatively malleable until college or graduate school, but I am not one of them. Not to say that my values haven't changed over time, but my way of looking at the world has remained fairly constant, regardless of what conclusions I draw from that perspective. Part of me wants to call bullshit on the idea that all of one's most influential books could possibly be those you encountered at age 18 or 20, but I suppose the sad fact that many young boys do not read fiction is to blame.

In order of exposure:

1. The Wizard of Oz: I'd read all the Baum books by age five or six. My first exposure to an immersive fantasy world. My parents eventually took the books away because I ate, slept, and breathed Oz. Probably all my years of reading speculative fiction are based on a subconscious yearning to return to this original state of blissful wallowing.

2. Mythology: The beginnings of an obsession with ancient Greece and Rome that led me to spend a birthday in Delphi, a week hiking Hadrian's wall, and years writing bad poetry with classical themes. I read this countless times. Anything with a mythic theme or allusion will strike a chord with me, and it's all because of this book.

3. The Lord of the Rings: Another immersive fantasy world, but one I was self-aware enough to manage my engagement with.

4. Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: An introduction to the absurd, to the concept of probability, to the immensity of the universe, and to the idea that it's not about us.

5. Watership Down: It's the Aeneid, with rabbits. And it's a beautifully written piece of literature.

6. Gone With the Wind: I read this one summer in middle school when I was babysitting two rambunctious boys and two giant, flea-ridden hound dogs. The only escape was when the boys were napping and I could retreat to the formal living room, where the dogs had been trained not to go, and read about southern belles and yankee soldiers. This book is a baneful and horrid influence on a developing romantic psyche and reading it may result in doomed yearnings after pale, cerebral, ineffectual men, or alternatively for someone bold to take you firmly in hand. Which leads to ....

7. The Fountainhead/Atlas Shrugged: As I have previously noted, reading Rand at a young age does weird things to your brain, especially if you're a girl. You should be incredibly brilliant, you see, or you're a gutless parasite that deserves to starve, and your ideal romantic partner is an even more incredibly brilliant asshole, and to fully respect your values it's necessary to find that brilliant asshole and fall at his feet. Because it's not self-abnegating if the dude is really, really smart. Or something. This and GWtW are influential primarily in the sense that I've spent a lot of time getting over them. Nobody actually wants to date the unholy fusion of Scarlett O'Hara and Dagny Taggart.

8. Stranger in a Strange Land: An interesting and even necessary counterpoint. If Rand is the left brain's idea of love, Stranger in a Strange Land is the right brain's. Nobody can grok John Galt, missy. There's nothing to grok, for one thing, and you wouldn't want to if you could. His mind would taste like metal alloy. But this does suffer from the common Heinlein weakness of being a little too in love with men and maleness.

9. Atheism: The Case Against God: I needed something to kill off the lingering aftereffects of weeks of foot-washing by well-meaning Baptists in central Texas. This did the trick neatly.

10. The Handmaid's Tale: The catalyst for a feminist consciousness that's persisted to this day, although Atwood kind of gets on my nerves by this point. The logical endpoint of too many people's ideologies, even if being confronted with the conclusions that follow from their premises baffles and upsets them.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Your turn

I'm sort of tapped out for blogging ideas, so why don't you show me something interesting?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Random Roundup: Our Bodies, NO REALLY, OURS Edition.

- What happens when gals act like dudes: Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together... mass hysteria!

- When men act like predators: Bridenapping in Ethiopia. How this sort of thing is not a human rights outrage is beyond me. We're talking about kidnapping and rape that leads to a lifetime of slavery.

- Kissing: Still against the law in Dubai.

- You can't do that on television: Say "vagina," that is. Although I call BS on some of these period "facts." Blood has a smell.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

You just lost the game.

The Fugitivus blog is back up and rolling with a post about, among other things, her test for friendship. I think she's really onto something with this:
[O]f all the friends I’ve ever made in my life, from the most brief of acquaintances to the closest of friends, I can only think of nine that pass my only test. Here it is:

You can only be my friend if you will not tell me that I wasn’t raped, and if I was, it was my own fault.

That’s it. That’s my only requirement, and it’s been responsible for the loss of 90% of my friends.

I used to believe that this requirement necessitated me disclosing my rape. I mean, how can a person pass my test if I never tell them I was raped? The incident that triggered me starting this blog made me realize that if I don’t want to tell you about my rape, you have already failed this test.
In my experience, intuitions about things like this are usually sound. If you never ask for something important because you know your friend or partner couldn't be counted on to provide it, then it's already over. It's a corollary to my advice column rule: Nobody actually needs advice from advice columns. You can tell from the letters that the person knows the right thing to do and that that isn't what they want to hear---otherwise they'd have already done it. Just the process of writing the letter, on paper or in your head, will tell you the right answer.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Why I did not like District 9 (long)

Things we are asked to believe in District 9:

1. That rich, beautiful, affectionate Tania would or should have ever fallen in love with Wikus in the first place, since he is a contemptible weasel and remains one throughout the film.

2. That a piece of machinery could fall off a spaceship that is hovering over a major urban center and presumably under nonstop surveillance by both governments and media, plummet to earth (straight down or nearly so, because, you know, gravity), and yet somehow disappear from human knowledge.

3. That alien rocket fuel is also, coincidentally, a powerful mutagen that converts humans it comes in contact with into aliens.

4. That a systemic conversion of a human organism to a completely alien one would not kill the original human organism and would leave the brain sufficiently untouched to preserve personality, knowledge, and intelligence (seriously, this is on par with the Independence Day “let’s upload a virus!” gag).

5. That the aliens, who are sufficiently concerned with other species’ use of their technology to make all weapons genome-specific and unusable to humans, would allow the Achilles’ heel of this mutagenic rocket fuel to exist.

6. That millions of aliens, whose leadership caste appears to have disappeared, would develop no alternative hierarchy for interacting and communicating with the human world.

7. That aliens, who are oviparous, and who according to the special features are hermaphroditic, conveniently have physical features compatible with human genitals that enable them to receive pleasure from female prostitutes.

8. That cat food, which is made of meat and meat by-products, is uniquely appealing to alien palates, so much so that it trades at a price an order of magnitude higher than plain old meat. Because we couldn't just have the aliens eat plain meat, that's not "ew-gross!" enough.

9. That aliens capable of interstellar flight are incapable, even over a 20 year period, of being conditioned to interact non-violently and productively in human society.

10. That these same aliens can be conditioned to engage in market transactions and comprehend spoken and written English.

11. That aliens whose language is comprehensible to humans would nonetheless be a completely otherized mystery to outside academics, researchers, and aid workers, such that no clear account of their history, goals, social structure, or needs would be conveyed.

12. That a spaceship full of aliens and vastly powerful alien technology, if parked over South Africa, would somehow be controlled by South Africa, with no intervention or horning-in by the USA, China, India, Russia, or other foreign governments, such that the only foreigners trying to sneak alien technology would be Nigerian crime lords.

13. That aliens incapable of conditioning to nonviolence, but in the possession of said vastly powerful weapons, which only they can use, and not inhibited by any kind of social structure, would confine themselves to fisticuffs.

14. That an alien who has demonstrated strength, speed, and reflexes far in excess of human limits can be confined and immobilized by a single human mercenary, if he is the really mean boss-man. (Also seen on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.)

What is “Christopher Johnson”? A former pilot or engineer? A self-taught scientific genius? Is it of the same caste or subtype as the “worker bees” that form most of the District 9 population? Why has it or another similar alien not made contact with any human agency? Is it really possible that the evil South African government could so effectively vet access to aliens that no outside contact could be made? Why is it attempting to accomplish the massive project of recovering potential or actual alien rocket fuel with such limited assistance? Are any other aliens than those we saw aware of this project? If not, why not?

If the aliens are both male and female, why do they take masculine (human) names and pronouns, even when conversing privately? Is there any reason why this movie could not have been about a female alien and her daughter? Or even a non-gendered being and its offspring? Why impose a “father/son” dynamic for no reason?

I spent most of the film hoping Wikus would kill himself and save everyone else the trouble.

Often SF movies or books are the product of someone who had a great what-if idea. What if alien refugees came to earth and we treated them like the most despised of human refugees? But the what-if is useless if the premises keep changing. The concept of the alien needs to be internally consistent and make sense, otherwise the intellectual, emotional, and political reactions to the events unfolding are less a natural outgrowth of the situation and more obviously driven by conventional moviemaking needs, i.e. we want some stuff to blow up real good and for the aliens to be intimidating at first but then sympathetic, etc. Most of the parts that don't jibe are obviously present so the director can hew more closely to the apartheid parallel. Combining didacticism and disrespect for your audience's intelligence is a sure-fire way to tick me off.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Johnny Depp does NOT look sexy in this.

So I'm hoping that after my final eye surgery I will be able to see 3-D movies. Is Alice in Wonderland worth watching?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Everything's bigger in Texas

How famous authors' papers and archives end up in Austin.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

White Girls With Asian Guys

Over at Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog, they're talking about interracial dating from the perspective of Asian-Americans.

Only in a relationship with a South Asian guy have I been told that I had to be hidden from his family at all costs due to the interracial aspect. There was tension in various relationships with Jewish guys about my failing the religious/ethnic requirement, but never flat-out hiding.

Resisting SF Ghettoization

My local library has separate areas for shelving genre books. This is sort of annoying, insofar as it makes me pay visits to three or four discrete areas of the library (mystery, SF/F, general fiction).

The library in the town where I grew up didn't shelve separately, but they did mark all the genre books with colored stickers on the spines. That was great---it allowed you to browse the maximum amount of variety but still quickly zero in on genre books if desired. It also prevented the need to speculate as to where something like a detective story set in a multidimensional alternate Europe would go.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Unfamiliar family

ETA: This post is cursed.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, 23andme says I am not related to Jonathan Zittrain. But it did find a third cousin with Haplogroup L1c1b that I'm curious about.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Thinking about Linking

I often want to respond to a comment thread on another site at greater length than would be appropriate for a reply comment, or in such a manner that it would derail the original discussion. But often people say things in comments that they might not say in a front-page post (I certainly have) and so I refrain. Of course, we don't need permission to link to anyone, but what do you think of promoting a comment to post-status elsewhere?

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The name is silly.

This reminds me of my college roomie's stint in the Peace Corps, in which she assisted with construction of public restrooms for slum dwellers, so they could avoid using ditches and contaminating the surroundings. As I recall, she said the restrooms were trashed and broken within a short time and people went back to using the ditches. It's a bit harder to vandalize a plastic bag. And the idea that the used bags could themselves be valuable would encourage centralized collection.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Fat is relative.

Now I haven't seen the latest episodes of 30 Rock, and not to defend use of old, worn out jokes, but the "Liz Lemon eats too many donuts" gag is getting attacked for some of the wrong reasons. Yes, Tina Fey is pretty skinny, so the idea that she's actually a disgusting glutton is unbelievable and even annoying. But I always interpreted this joke as related, in part, to the jokes in the "Cleveland" episode, where Fey is repeatedly praised by flyover country Americans for her model-level looks and figure.

Insofar as the message of New York City is "Be thin, be rich,"* we are in part laughing at Fey for her Homeresque consumptive habits, but also at the (absurd) idea that in her environment, Fey IS fat. Her level of indulgence, perhaps unremarkable in other locales and not inconsistent with her relatively slim body, is striking in contrast with the ultra-disciplined eating habits and lean lines of other New York women in the TV/film industry, which is the specific setting for the show. Even the more petite of us can be made to feel piggish in certain circumstances.

* I just read this quote somewhere and the original Paul Graham link is all I found. Anyone?

Should I blame the iPad for muddying the waters?

So I went through airport security the other day with my Kindle in my purse, as I have at least a half a dozen times before. But this time, the screener snatched up the tray with my purse and shoes, asked me if I had a Kindle inside, asserted that it had to be screened separately, like a laptop, and did the chemical wipe, rerunning of the whole tray, etc. as I stood there in my socks. Now according to the TSA website, the following things have to be screened separately, or in bags that allow them to be exposed with no additional layers of items:
  • Laptops
  • Full-size video game consoles
  • Full-size DVD players
  • Video cameras that use video cassettes
  • CPAP breathing machines

They note that "[s]mall and portable electronic items do not need to be removed from their carrying cases." A Kindle is not a laptop. It is quite a bit thinner than a netbook, although it is rather larger than a PSP.

They do not pull this nonsense at DCA, which I consider the standard for airport paranoia, nor was it part of the zealous security I encountered in my most recent overseas trip, which involved x-rays of all carry-ons, manual bag checks before boarding, and pat-downs of all passengers. (As well as x-rays of carry-ons after arriving in the country, which I found baffling, and not just because using that machine for departures would have increased their total processing capacity by 50 percent.)

I have heard of four US airports doing this: Bainbridge blogged about his recent experience at LAX. As laptops become smaller, does the scope of what's considered a "small and portable electronic item" become narrower? The whole thing is ridiculous. Some have suggested rebellion against the TSA.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Small victories

Yay, the snow is almost all melted!