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Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Short epistolary format at its best

This weekend I read Marjorie Williams' The Woman at the Washington Zoo, a collection of her profiles, essays, and other writing. Williams' husband, Timothy Noah, edited the book after Williams died of liver cancer in January 2005. The book is really, really good. My favorite political essays were "Thank You, Clarence Thomas" and "Bill Clinton, Feminist," but I was moved most by the personal essays about her son's fear of bugs and her cancer diagnosis.

My favorite part is the section of reprints from Williams' "Breakfast Table" feature at Slate. The pieces were printed as short letters between two authors about reading the daily newspapers over the course of a week. The short epistolary format works so well here: there's none of the high-minded, content-lite language of media criticism, just friendly, thoughtful conversation. Here's a selection from Williams (reprinted in the book) from March 1999:

Today's stinker is the New York Times' Page One story "One Precinct, 2 Very Different Murder Cases," which ponders the public treatment of two recent murders in Brooklyn's 77th Precinct. One, the unsolved stabbing of white graduate student Amy Watkins, got big play in the Times and all the other New York media; the other, the stabbing of Jamaican immigrant Marvin Watson, got no notice at all. Here at my actual breakfast table in majority-black D.C., when we see the Post showing the same egregious double standard the Watkins/Watson story addresses, we sing out, "When Bad Things Happen to White People!" But the Post is at least free of the Times' disingenuous self-consciousness. The Times story, by Jim Yardley and Garry Pierre-Pierre, does note that Watson's death "went unreported by the tabloids and the New York Times." But it presents this as just one of those unfortunate realities, folks--like the alignment of the planets; not as a failure the Times should perhaps be re-examining. Did this silence from the paper of record have anything to do with the fact that the city's finest assigned two dozen detectives to the first case, while handling the second as a routine homicide? The Times doesn't speculate. And the story re-commits the moral error it is supposedly exposing, noting, for example, that the white Kansan had an ex-boyfriend who now attends Harvard Law School (who cares?). Worst of all, it closes with a quote from the girlfriend of the dead man, in which the Times somehow gets her to ratify its original, brutal news judgment: "There are a lot of killings in New York, and I don't think all of them could be covered," she says. That's a relief. Whatever twinge of doubt caused some editor at the Times to assign this story is now assuaged.

Although Slate doesn't run the "Breakfast Table" feature anymore, they occasionally use the epistolary format in for the Book Club, Movie Club (scroll down to Scott Foundas's entry for 12-29 to read a smart critique of Crash), and other discussions (I linked to Katha Pollitt's and William Saletan's discussion of abortion).


The day of the love for many

Better late than never, here's the hilarious Georgian take on Valentine's Day:
Valentine’s Day is known to be a special day, an extraordinary one honoring love and lovers and is celebrated worldwide on February 14th. People believe it is the day of “Love” which encourages individuals to show their care and affection towards their dearest ones. Across the globe people celebrate this day by giving out gifts, flowers (mostly roses), special valentine’s cards, candies, chocolates, sharing intimate time with loved ones, hanging out in restaurants or clubs and a lot more interesting activities to express affection.
With special days like this, individuals (mostly boys) are opportuned to propose or express boldly what they feel towards opposite gender, they usually use the Valentine’s Day as a scapegoat to reveal their long time secret desires towards someone, Some girls surprisingly received roses from strangers and unexpected companions.

“He flipped out a rose and insisted it’s for me, I was shocked as it was unexpected and he’s my close friend” Ana, a student of Black Sea University, exclaimed.

Natia: my boyfriend invited me for lunch in a restaurant on Valentine’s Day; I never knew it will change my life as there and then he proposed to marry me which I willingly accepted.
Not only cards exchange is common on the Valentine’s Day. Other romantic stuff serve intimate Valentine’s day moments as well; Walking in parks, strolling in the moonlight, offering loved one’s pizza with shape of a heart, a letter or a gift inside the pizza’s box, Scattering rose petals on the floor to lead you to the person you love, Bunch of roses with a ring inside one of the flowers (suggested for those intending on proposing to their loved one), dining in deem lights and a lit colored candle, champagne toasts with soft romantic music (Jazz preferably).

It doesn’t necessarily mean we have to express our affection to each other only on Valentine’s Day; we can and should anytime possible, for the world needs care are affection of others to make it a better place. The world needs solidarity among individuals, peaceful living, interdependence among people, and excessive love for one another. Just like any other good day, the Valentine’s Day came and is gone with the wind, I wish you many happy returns, a wonderful time full of hope and love.


Blogger Jenny Davidson on Tue Feb 28, 11:02:00 AM:
That is hilarious--I want someone to make me a pizza in the shape of a heart!
Anonymous Anonymous on Tue May 08, 06:12:00 AM:
Papa John's in Muncie, Indiana, has a special on heart-shaped pizzas every Valentine's Day. Only 8 sold this time around.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Octavia Butler died

Octavia Butler died Friday. My girlfriend Kate was very inspired by a talk she gave at Columbia in 1998, and I used her excellent young adults' novel Kindred in teaching a summer program for high school kids.

From her AP obit:

Butler began writing at age 10, and told Howle she embraced science fiction after seeing a schlocky B-movie called "Devil Girl from Mars" and thought, "I can write a better story than that." In 1970, she took a bus from her hometown of Pasadena, Calif., to attend a fantasy writers workshop in East Lansing, Mich.

Her first novel, "Kindred," in 1979, featured a black woman who travels back in time to the South to save a white man. She went on to write about a dozen books, plus numerous essays and short stories. Her most recent work, "Fledgling," an examination of the "Dracula" legend, was published last fall.

Here's a link to Pam Noles' essay "Shame" about race in sci-fi, which Jenny Davidson pointed us to.

And here's an Amazon list/guide, So you'd like to... Read a Dozen of the Best Women Writing SF.

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Summers + Tina = Larry Brown?

James Traub on Larry Summers:
But Summers never came to grips with, or perhaps recognized, the special problem of the supremely self-regarding culture. As it happens, I have written about just such situations before, and have even, when Tina Brown was editor of The New Yorker, worked at one. (Full disclosure: I was not one of Tina's favorite writers.) One thing I've learned is that the wise steward of such majestic institutions says, or at least is understood to say, "I love this place so much that I will not accept anything less than the best."
Summers had a gift for arming, rather than disarming, his audience. One of his own aides described for me a famously contentious meeting with Law School faculty at which, he said, "Larry told them he wasn't going to pay any attention to their views, when in fact he was going to be listening to their views." Summers so offended his own preferred candidate to head the Graduate School of Education, whom he subjected to a withering cross-examination, that she changed her mind about taking the position until members of the school interceded.

You do, of course, have to wonder about professional intellectuals who get so wobbly under cross-examination. Harvard professors appear to be accustomed to a level of deference that few of us on the other side of those Ivy walls could ever expect. Clearly this had much to do with the fabled Cornel West affair, when the president grievously offended this overhyped superstar by tendering what Summers apparently regarded as delicate hints on matters such as grade inflation and the production of serious academic work. Summers was right, as he generally was. But he never intended to insult West. In fact, he had no idea that he had insulted West. Summers himself wouldn't have been offended, and it never crossed his mind that Cornel West might be made of different material than Larry Summers, or that West might need to hear some malarkey along the lines of, "I love your work so much that I don't want to accept anything less than the best."

Speaking of disappointing "fresh blood"-type recruited leaders, whoever expected that the only good thing to come of Larry Brown's first year as Knicks coach would be that short little Nate Robinson would win the slam dunk contest? ("Iguodala was robbed" is the new "Scorcese was robbed"--his finale dunk was just as bland as Leo's Howard Hughes!) The Knicks are currently two losses out of dead last in the league, on track to finish the season with 46 fewer wins than Brown's old Pistons (sorry for the math, ladies)--a failure on par with Talk Magazine!

Wow, that came together rather nicely.


Teaching in Georgia: the blank gaze

Blogger and fellow Tbilisi denizen SueAndNotU seems to be teaching at the same "university" where I taught 'The English Novel' (singular form especially appropriate, as the university posessed exactly one English novel in sufficient numbers to teach a small class) last semester.

Her account of teaching sounds just like mine. A tip, Sue: ask them to talk about sex and drugs. It's like magic!

She writes:

Essentially, I'm teaching English through the medium of history, using a primer published in the U.S. and intended for ESL students. I'm there, see, not so much to spread my revisionist politically correct propaganda, as to let them practice their English with a native speaker. I have high hopes that, by the end of the semester, they'll all be saying "like," like, waaaay more often.

This is a fine thing in itself, and I'm happy to serve the cause of greater English proficiency in my small way. But as long as the class is ostensibly about history, I still feel obligated to put up a fight. Look, I probably shouldn't use this forum to mock my students but a) I'm not exactly up for tenure here; b) believe it or not, I mock gently with affection, because they're pretty dear kids; and c) they don't use the internet; I checked.

With my least-advanced class, we read a chapter on the beginnings of World War I. It goes like this, for your information: the Archduke of Austria-Hungary goes to Serbia. He is shot. Austria-Hungary is angry! They declare war on Serbia. Other countries have agreements with Serbia and Austria-Hungary, and soon all of Europe is fighting.

Okay, class. Let's review what we read. What started WWI?

Blank stares. Eternal, uncomfortable silence. They stare at me with the empty eyes of those who know they will win this face-off.

Alright, let's back up. Where is the Archduke Ferdinand from? Feel free to look back at the text.


No. What happened to the Archduke?

He got killed in Serbia in the war?

No, the war happened after he was killed. Okay, how about this. What did Austria-Hungary do when he was killed?

Blank stares.

Remember, a Serbian has just killed a member of Austria-Hungary's royal family. What do they do?

Blank stares.

What happens next? What starts?

Blank stares.

Okay. True or false, everyone: as a result, Austria-Hungary... invites Serbia to a party?

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Sunday, February 26, 2006

Swelling heteronormative discourse

Two sentences from two articles from two different publications about sex at Barnard. Guess which one is from the Columbia Daily Spectator and which one is from the barnard bulletin:

"Nobody is quite certain where Barnard's swelling heteronormative discourse
comes from..."

"Barnard girls are easy, and they give good head, the stereotype goes."

The two articles are about a recent "fireside chat" between students and the dean and president of Barnard College about issues of sexuality on campus. The Spectator article focuses on a worry voiced at the event that Barnard students are stereotyped by Columbia students as either sluts or lesbians (in either case, they're inferior intellectually). The bulletin article is about whether the activities at Barnard's Sexhibition week contribute to a sex-positive environment or if they embarrass some students. Both articles made me think, something about being 18-22 years old and subject to a lot of emotional conflicts about sex makes for some truly terrible writing. Personal ambivalence gets turned into generalizations (sometimes hurtful, sometimes false), derogatory comments, misguided attempts at theory, pseudo-psychology, personal attacks, and a lot of [navel]-gazing disguised as transgressive philosophy.

I give lots of credit to the people at Take Back the Night and related organizations, who get flak for anything they do--either they yell too much or they're too open about different types of sexuality--but keep working creatively anyway.

I have to guess there's some amount of humor in this feature from this week's edition of the bulletin, a horoscope organized by icons of "'sexy' things":

Aries: leather jacket over bra
Taurus: condom, leather jacket, bra
Gemini: lacy underwear
Cancer: lilies
Leo: bra
Virgo: puckered mouth
Libra: woman's back
Scorpio: more underwear
Sagitarius: hands unhooking someone's bra
Capricorn: smiling mouth
Aquarius: underwear
Pisces: the word CONSENT

Oh, women's college! But why are there extra quotation marks around 'sexy'? And why are there so few "'sexy' things" that icons have to be repeated? Oh well, I'll take this feature over this apparently unedited column any day.


Analysis of Alice nothing but a house of cards

I've been reading the Penguin Classics collection of Lewis Carroll's Alice books, which is edited by a British scholar named Hugh Haughton. It's heavily annotated, but Haughton is no Martin Gardner. Here's Haughton on Alice's mushroom-induced growth spurt (the one that gives her a really long neck, making a pigeon worry she is a serpent):
'The next thing is to get back to that beautiful garden,' Alice decides at the close of the chapter and behind this scene may stand the first 'beautiful garden' and its 'serpent', as described in the book of Genesis: Alice finds herself treated as a serpent in the trees by a version of the sacre pigeon, who understandably sees her as a predator... William Empson remarks that the whole episode gives Alice a strangely phallic role and appearance. The pigeon is concerned with her eggs, and the following chapter takes up the idea of babies.
Haughton's notes are filled with pointless analysis like this, just the type of bullshit I like to think Dodgson would loathe.

I once read a similar analysis of Hitchcock's Psycho, the kind of book love to cite to prove that the ivy league teaches nonsense (it was assigned in a friend's film course). The author employed any and all possible evidence in her quest to prove that the movie is structured around anal fixation, including that the heroine is seen "sitting down, as though defecating", and that the film's title ends in the letter 'o', which should evoke for the reader the image of an asshole. (I'll say!)


The Truth About Celia

Kevin Brockmeier's new book A Brief History of the Dead has a cool cover. But what really catches my eye is that he's also written a book called The Truth about Celia that sounds even better. From the Publishers Weekly review:
In 1997, Christopher lives happily with his wife, Janet, and seven-year-old daughter, Celia, in a beautifully preserved 19th-century house in a peaceful small town. One morning, while Celia and her father are home alone, Celia vanishes from the backyard. There are no clues, no suspects. In successive stand-alone chapters, Brockmeier wanders ever further from a straight recounting of events. He describes the aftermath of Celia's disappearance from the perspective of the community at large, then turns Celia's story into a fantasy about an otherworldly green-skinned child, and finally imagines Celia in a new incarnation as a single mother called Stephanie. Christopher's and Janet's numbness--they show little rage, frustration or grief--is skillfully rendered, if sometimes oppressively subtle. Christopher lives in a hazy world of guilt, while Janet commits a few quiet acts of rebellion, disrupting the showing of a movie and finally drifting away from her husband. Brockmeier's prose is measured and lovely, and he sketches a number of eerie and compelling scenes, including those in which Christopher believes he receives telephone calls from the missing Celia on a toy phone that she treasured.
I'm an absolute sucker for this kind of Paul Auster formula stuff, but it does seem like the genre is running out of steam.

Anyway, the point of all this is: as anyone familiar with Alice should know, the real truth about 'Celia' is that Celia, the main character in Columbia University's 2004 Varsity Show (an annual student-produced musical comedy), is just a thinly-veiled Alice Boone, complete with an anagrammed first name. Celia was a badass editor in chief. Celia would never write the kind of drivel that passes for campus editorial leadership today!


Saturday, February 25, 2006

Reasons to live, but no reasons to steal

My friend presented the following ethical dilemma to me: She was sort of considering stealing a copy of Amy Hempel's At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom from the public library. The used book prices on should give some indication of how rare this book is. I must be the luckiest girl in the entire world, for I found a copy of the book a few years ago at a used bookstore in Albuquerque. Aware of its scarcity in the used book world, I was excited to find it on the top of a stack of books someone had just sold, so I tried to play it cool when I asked about the price: one dollar. It is the best thing I've ever found at a used bookstore. Even though I'm well known to be the least responsible library patron of all time, I couldn't take her plan into consideration. "Think of how many people want to read that book! Think of how many people need to read that book!" We decided she could photo-copy it.

I'd recommend reading Hempel's Reasons to Live before At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom because it contains my favorite contemporary short story, "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried." I do a little homage to "The Most Girl Part of You" (from At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom) every time I drink hot tea and ice water at a meal.


Anonymous Anonymous on Sat Feb 25, 08:13:00 PM:
i don't think a day goes by where i don't think about that story, some part of it -- the "tell me things i won't mind forgetting, make it useless stuff or skip it" -- or the part about the chimps...i think it changed my life, but in untenable ways. i mean i just haven't been the "same" since, but i don't know what's different. it doesn't have anything to do with treating people in my life differently, and to think about it too deeply scares me. so i don't think that deeply about it beyond recanting chunks of it in my head when i am deeply, deeply sad. it's so good. but i'm with you on not advising stealing a book from the library. stupid chuck palahniuk talks about buying it for $75, you know, because "you will never write this well." he definitely won't.
Blogger Meg Lyman on Tue Feb 28, 04:40:00 PM:
Speaking of reading... I finally read the book you gave me years ago "The Djinn in the Nightengale's Eye" by the same author as Posession. I really enjoyed it. Sorry it took me so long to read.

Joystick Jabberwocky

How do you translate a poem like Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky"?

Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach offers a French translation he calls "Jaseroque", which includes stanzas like

Garde-toi du Jaseroque, mon fils!
La gueule qui mord; la griffe qui prend!
Garde-toi de l'oiseau Jube, évite
Le frumieux Band-à-prend!
...That would be the Jubjub bird and the frumious Bandersnatch, shown at right.

So how does this translation do? The Babelfish translation of "Jaseroque" doesn't quite return us to the original. The stanza

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.
One two, one two, by the medium,
The sword vorpal makes stalemate-with-side!
The demolished animal, with its head,
It returns gallomphant.
Not bad, but "stalemate-with-side" is disappointingly literal.

I imagine that no other poem has been rewritten for satire as many times as "Jabberwocky". (There's a whole page of such poems, though the page incorrectly calls them "parodies".) I first learned of the poem when I was in grade school because of a brilliant satire in MAD magazine, written by veteran Frank Jacobs. Here it is, annotated with inspiration from Martin Gardner's The Annotated Alice:

You've just wound down nineteen straight hours of Nintendo. Your brain is totally waxed, and as you crash you find yourself mumbling incoherently verse after verse of MAD's...

"Joystick Jabberwocky"
by Frank Jacobs

'Twas Billy, and the Shyguy Clones [hero of Double Dragon; common enemies in Super Mario Bros. 2]
Did Grax and Grumple in the Kraid; [evil emperor in 3D Worldrunner; Bubble Bobble final boss; Metroid boss]
All Lizzie were the Hanger Zones, [Godzilla lookalike in Rampage; penultimate level of Contra]
And Phanto Renegade. [mysterious face that chases you in Super Mario Bros. 2; awful early Nintendo brawler]

"Beware the Shadow Boss, my son! [final enemy in Double Dragon, who turns out to be your brother, a poor excuse for making game only single-player]
The Killer Clams, the Mummy Men! [Karnov; Castlevania]
Don't Goombah with a Neul, and shun [mushroom enemies in Super Mario Bros.; Solomon's Key enemy]
The Death Breath known as Ken!" [boss in Kid Niki: Radical Ninja,; hero of Street Fighter: 2010]

He Holtzed at Zigmos from afar, [Metroid flying enemy; Hudson's Adventure Island enemy]
Dodged Zombie Slime with lightning scroll, [combination of two Dragon Warrior enemies; not sure, but such a scroll appears in Domino's Pizza-licensed game Yo! Noid]
While Zelda in her Mamda Jar [Solomon's Key]
Made Yuki with a Troll. [evil samurai in Legend of Kage; various, including Joust, Shadowgate]

And as he Beaked for Pyradoks, [Alfred Chicken, others; pyramid enemy in Arkanoid]
The Shadow Boss Twinbellowed through, [Kid Icarus enemy]
Backed up by Pengs, Chicago Ox, [Mega Man ice enemies; ridiculously named Double Dribble basketball team, often beaten by the Boston Frogs]
Twelve Ninjas and McGoo. [various; Kid Icarus enemy]

Dagoom! Dagoom! Zabs met their doom! [two kinds of Gradius enemy]
And when the final Folfu fell, [Alpha Mission enemy]
Lay Bloopered ranks of Battletanks [squid enemy in Super Mario Bros.; Battle Tank]
And Mario as well.

"And hast thou zapped the Shadow Boss?
Well, spike my Foss! No Sniffit thee! [unknown; actually 'Snifit', a shyguy with gun mask in Super Mario Bros. 2]
Kello! Kello! O Porcupo!" [frog in Hudson's Adventure Island; porcupine in Super Mario Bros. 2]
He Dakkered in his Skree. [cannon in Gradius; spinning enemy in Metroid]

'Twas Billy, and the Shyguy Clones
Did Grax and Grumple in the Kraid;
All Lizzie were the Hanger Zones,
And Phanto Renegade.



I just started reading Padgett Powell's Edisto, a 1983 coming-of-age novel set in South Carolina in what seems to be the '50s. It's great so far.
I call them rat palms because we were pulling them off, the dead butts of branches, one night for a fire, and because you must pull very hard to rip them loose, I learned the hard way that whatever is betwen the husk and the coconut-hair bark of the tree comes down on your arm, and that night in the dark my whatever-in-between was no drowsy rumpled sparrow or polite silken tree frog but a rat about the size of possum and texture of armadillo, and it landed all over my arm from hand to shoulder in one shuddering rush, and I nearly shook my arm out of socket and got a chronic case of girls' fear of rats from that and still have it, and you would too.

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Friday, February 24, 2006

It's only logical

With my math students in Brooklyn, I would often use the following logical proof to drive them crazy and motivate them to pay attention.

Start with a simple "or" statement, where the first clause is clearly true, and the second clause is clearly false:

Either the sky is blue, or Mr. Wheeler can shoot lasers with his eyes.

Now take any false statement--a student's casual lie, perhaps, or a presidential quote that was patently dishonest, or the spurious proof that 1=2--and use its logical opposite, which is true, as in "1 is not equal to 2". Substitute this for the true part of the earlier "or" statement:

Either 1 is not equal to 2, or Mr. Wheeler can shoot lasers with his eyes.

Using disjunction (if memory serves), you next show that if the first clause was false, then the second clause would have to be true:

If 1 is equal to 2, then Mr. Wheeler can shoot lasers with his eyes.

Now you bring in the earlier false statement:

But according to my earlier proof, 1 is equal to 2!

And conclude the supposedly false clause must be true:

Therefore, Mr. Wheeler can shoot lasers with his eyes.

Other favorite conclusions have been:

  • (Since Iraq has WMDs,) Bush listens to Kanye West
  • (Since Sean "did" his homework but "just forgot it",) Sean is a visitor from another dimension
  • (Since Cherie "never" said Kamrin was gay,) Cherie eats slugs for dinner



Green with envy?

Another great cover for Soft Skull Press, which is on a roll.

Kirkus Reviews says Manstealing for Fat Girls is "Sure to be shoplifted by teen delinquents".


Blogger Jenny Davidson on Sat Feb 25, 03:25:00 PM:
It's a great cover, and the book is even better--I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Oh, the places you'll go

Paul Graham, whose summer venture capital program I applied for, is a popular essayist for the tech geek crowd. I especially like the speech he wrote to give at a high-school (the invitation was vetoed):
People who've done great things tend to seem as if they were a race apart. And most biographies only exaggerate this illusion, partly due to the worshipful attitude biographers inevitably sink into, and partly because, knowing how the story ends, they can't help streamlining the plot till it seems like the subject's life was a matter of destiny, the mere unfolding of some innate genius. In fact I suspect if you had the sixteen year old Shakespeare or Einstein in school with you, they'd seem impressive, but not totally unlike your other friends.

Which is an uncomfortable thought. If they were just like us, then they had to work very hard to do what they did. And that's one reason we like to believe in genius. It gives us an excuse for being lazy. If these guys were able to do what they did only because of some magic Shakespeareness or Einsteinness, then it's not our fault if we can't do something as good.

I'm not saying there's no such thing as genius. But if you're trying to choose between two theories and one gives you an excuse for being lazy, the other one is probably right.
The best protection is always to be working on hard problems. Writing novels is hard. Reading novels isn't. Hard means worry: if you're not worrying that something you're making will come out badly, or that you won't be able to understand something you're studying, then it isn't hard enough. There has to be suspense.


Porportional paradoxes

Speaking of ranked porportional representation (which Katy points out is used in Ireland, and is also used for city council elections in Cambridge, Mass, my hometown), an amazing book that deals with the game theory of voting systems is Paul Hoffman's Archimedes' Revenge.

A credo of porportional representation is that voters don't have to vote strategically, because each voter maximizes his or her satisfaction with the electoral outcome by simply ranking the candidates in honest order of preference. Hoffman points out that this isn't true: it is possible to worsen the voting outcome by voting for a candidate you support rather than omitting that candidate or placing them lower than you really feel. In fact, he demonstrates that there can be no voting system that does not create cases where a voter can benefit from voting against his or her own preference.

He also talks about the seemingly simple system of apportioning numbers of Congressmen to different US states, which, like porportional representation, creates some confounding situations. Apparently in the early 1900s one state realized that if there were any other number of total House members from 300-400 (instead of the actual number at the time), they would be given one more representative under the system. That is, if there were fewer total Congressmen, they would get one more. Hoffman also shows how this case is also inevitable under any conceivable apportionment system.


Tuesday, February 21, 2006

A nice cuppa

My friend Marina invited me over yesterday for "mystery tea." She hails from England and brought a lot of tea back after winter break, but she rearranged the cartons of tea to fit in her suitcase and now doesn't have labels for the teabags. She gave me some PG Tips tea to take home, and I'm delighted by the advertising on the packaging. PG Tips tea celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2005, so the company printed on the box a timeline of the tea's popularity over the years. The greatest sips:

The 1950s was the decade of the famous 'Matthews Final' which saw Stanley Matthews' team, Blackpool, recover from 3-1 down to win 4-3 in the 1953 FA Cup Final. Footballers were paid nothing like the amounts they earn today and the half-time cuppa was seen as a valuable bonus...

The big news in the early 60s was the introduction of the PG tea bag. A stunned nation grappled with the new-fangled way of making their favourite brew, but it caught on quickly and there were reports of mass hysteria. Other news: a pop group called the Beatles had a few hit records.

During the 80s Boy George, the Karma Chameleon himself, made the news when he claimed that he'd rather have a pot of tea than go to bed. To drinkers of PG this was an understandable reaction!

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Gaming Parliament

The Council of Europe is angry with Georgia's government for their electoral law which states that a party must receive at least 7% of the vote to gain porportional representation in Georgia's parliament. The CoE wants the number lowered to 5%, so that there will be a wider spectrum of political representation. President Mikheil Saakashvili and his ruling coalition say no.

I had lunch with an American political philosopher the other day, who said that Saakashvili was right. Party list-based porportional representation, he said, is more prone to party-based corruption than systems of single-mandate/majoritarian parliamentarians, like the United States Congress. In both cases, businesses attempt to purchase political favors by sponsoring candidacies; but majoritarians are only beholden to their few sponsors, while party-listers are beholden to their party apparatus and thus corrupt on a national level. As a consequence of this difference, so I'm told, party discipline in the US is nothing compared to that of Europe, Israel, Georgia, and most of the world, which rely mostly on party lists to fill their parliaments.

A by-product of the majoritarian/party-list difference is that if a system has a mix of the two types of seats, the balance will usually shift over time in favor of more party list seats. After all, the parties have an incentive to unite on legislation to increase their power, while many majoritarians don't have a similarly strong reason to protect the status quo.

A mix of majoritarian and party-list seats means that voting schemes are more complicated in the rest of the world than they are in the US. The game theory implications of some of these voting and appointment schemes are Gordian and labyrinthine and esoteric and krazee. Here's a description of New Zealand's system, for example, from Philip Dorrell's amateur science site:

The MMP ("Mixed Member Proportional") electoral system gives each voter two votes – a party vote and an electorate vote. The party votes determine how many parliamentary seats from a total of 120 seats are allocated to each party. Every voter belongs to an electorate, and electorate votes are used to vote for a choice of electorate MP within each electorate.
The 69 electorate MPs and the 120 party MPs are not separate sets of MPs. 120 is intended to be the total number of MPs, which means that the 69 electorate MPs must be a subset of the 120.
We can think of electorate MPs as replacing hypothetical list MPs. For example, if party X receives 25% of the vote, they will have 30 MPs in parliament. If there were no electorate MPs, then the first 30 members of party X's party list would become MPs. But if party X also has 25 successful electorate MPs, then those 25 electorate MPs replace 25 of the list candidates, leaving just the top 5 list candidates to receive seats.
The system is so confusing that the government conducts regular polls to monitor whether or not voters understand the system by which they vote. But on the surface, the system seems fair, despite being confusing.

But there's a problem: what happens if a greater number of electorate (at-large) candidates from a party win than are accounted for by the party list vote that the same party receives?

If the number of electoral seats won by a party is more than the number of seats allocated to that party according to their share of party vote, the excess of electoral seats is called overhang. The rule for dealing with overhang in New Zealand's MMP system is to increase the total number of seats by the size of the overhang, giving each party that has an overhang its correct number of electorate seats, while continuing to give other parties the same proportion of the original 120 seats as determined by party votes. [emphasis added]
In other words, if party X split into two parties--Y and Z--where Y only runs majoritarians, and Z only runs party-list candidates, and if voters who formerly voted for X now voted a ticket of majoritarians from Y and the party list of Z, then party X could nearly double its representation!

I don't see why every country doesn't do the following: let at-large seats make up a majority of the seats (perhaps 2/3) in the House, and fill the remaining seats, according to porportion, by a vote on a separate place on the ballot. That way, if you're a Democrat who hates the local Democratic candidate, you can vote against him/her while still affecting the representation of Democrats in the House. And if you're a Green Party or Reform Party (Right-to-Life Party, for that matter) supporter, you can vote for the local Rep/Dem, and still vote in a national representative or two from your fringe party. Yes, it could elect another Hitler. But the third-directioners would be worth it.

Speaking of stupid electoral systems, it seems that bloc voting, used in Palestine, Spain and elsewhere, is a big part of the reason why Hamas won the recent parliamentary elections. Bloc voting basically means that each district elects some number of parliamentarians n, with each voter getting n votes and the top n vote-getters winning seats. This is a nominally porportional system--a popular candidate from a fringe party can get elected, etc.--but it actually strongly benefits the ruling party or coalition, who can run exactly n candidates and use their plurality to get all n elected. And if the ruling party is (like Fatah) disorganized and cannot keep its factions from running too many candidates, a more disciplined minority party (like Hamas) which runs n candidates (or even better, a few less than n) in each district can win sweeping victories without even having a plurality of support among voters!


Anonymous Anonymous on Tue Feb 21, 04:35:00 PM:
Disclaimer: I'm a nerd, and I wrote my thesis on this.

The recent Palestinian election makes me think of the 1932 Irish general election (for political reasons, although they do have a strange voting system there). The radicals who won that election are now the (very established) establishment, and they do not, to my knowledge, still think the state they run is illegitimate.

Q & A-hole

How does this woman still have a job?

From Deborah Solomon's interview with the BBC's David Frost, who is moving to the new Al Jazeera offshoot, Al Jazeera International:

Q. Will you be lining up interviews with the leaders of Hamas? What do you make of their election victory?

A. On the surface, this looks like a blow to any hope of an ongoing dialogue in the Middle East. On the other hand, if you are trying to be optimistic, you can say that people with an extreme position can sometimes make more concessions than people from nonextreme positions.

Q. What are you saying?


Monday, February 20, 2006

The pointing tip

Speaking of Malcolm Gladwell (Blink! Have you already decided if you'll read the rest of this post?), there's a very good essay he wrote in 1997 about racial and gender differences in sports. I like him alot, despite his inevitable pithy codas (which sometimes take over the whole piece).

Gladwell is something of a cultural shibboleth, I think, especially with his books, which go further than his New Yorker pieces in making clumsy generalizations. I'll bet most people feel the same way about The Tipping Point as they do about Tom Friedman's columns, American Beauty, and Crash. If you dislike reading columns that end "Sure you do, Yassir, sure you do", I'll bet you also dislike the cinematic lines "Man, oh man, oh man" and "You think you know who you are? You have no idea."

A few more pieces from the irie Canuck: on college admissions; on plagiarism of himself; on regulating menstruation; on Melrose Place; on Ritalin; on Atkins. Blink! Which of these are worth reading?


Aslan Tsitaishvili, Georgian lithographer

The following is taken from New Images, a blog by a German in Tbilisi:

Aslan Tsitaishvili from Tbilisi [is] a great lithography master, wonderful teacher and thrilling story-teller, despite his age of 83 years he can be found working every day in his studio...

[Right: Caucasian shepherd litho by Aslan Tsitaishvili]

Aslan told me this story of one day at the Battle of Kursk.

One day in the summer 1943 his platoon found an shortly abandoned position of a German unit in a dry river bed with high shores on each sides, where had been digged caves for hiding inside. The pretty hungry Soviet soldiers found cans of superb German army food in this caves, like bread wrapped in blue color plastic, butter in cans, Cognac and other. The remains of the German campfires had been still hot. The soldiers made their rest, stove the fires and had some good time. Aslan had been a little away, above the shore, when two visibly unarmed bold German soldiers walked straight to the sitting Soviets. The first was an Officer, hiding his right hand in his pocket. When coming close to the astonished Soviet soldiers, this Officer threw over a hand grenade in the middle of the circle of sitting soldiers, wich blew up and wounded them severely. The Germans ran away, while Aslan took his gun up and aimed at them, it could had been an easy shot, as he was pretty close and a very good shooter from his childhood. But he didn't pull the trigger and the two Germans made their way up the shore into a field of rye and escaped. He said, he is very happy until today, that he didn't shoot, and that none of his officers noticed his chance to shoot. The whole war was not worth a single man's death, was his summary.

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Sunday, February 19, 2006

hitch gets weirder every year

Like a piece of fruit sealed in a plastic bag, Chris Hitchens is getting more and more rotten in his political isolation. Like Bizarro Superman, weird Hitch has conquered regular, impulsive, iconoclastic Hitch.

His latest is a takedown in Slate of Garrison Keillor, for Keillor's takedown of Bernard-Henri Levy, which Hitch could have easily have written himself.

Which of these is civilized offense?


In New Orleans, a young woman takes off her clothes on a balcony as young men throw Mardi Gras beads up at her. We learn that much of the city is below sea level. At the stock car race, Lévy senses that the spectators "both dread and hope for an accident." We learn that Los Angeles has no center and is one of the most polluted cities in the country. "Headed for Virginia, and for Norfolk, which is, if I'm not mistaken, one of the oldest towns in a state that was one of the original 13 in the union," Lévy writes. Yes, indeed. He likes Savannah and gets delirious about Seattle, especially the Space Needle, which represents for him "everything that America has always made me dream of: poetry and modernity, precariousness and technical challenge, lightness of form meshed with a Babel syndrome, city lights, the haunting quality of darkness, tall trees of steel." O.K., fine. The Eiffel Tower is quite the deal, too.
Hitch, in response to that specific paragraph:
Well, take that, you baguette-brandishing poseur! You and your high-falutin' ways ain't wanted here, see, and some of us fellas figger we know how to deal with outsiders. If we want someone praising Seattle, we got plenty of fine locals to do it for us, you hear?
Anyway, this is my favorite part of Keillor's piece:
...when, visiting Cooperstown ("this new Nazareth"), he finds out that [baseball] Commissioner Bud Selig once laid a wreath at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington, where Abner Doubleday is also buried, Lévy goes out of his mind. An event important only to Selig and his immediate family becomes, to Lévy, an official proclamation "before the eyes of America and the world" of Abner as "the pope of the national religion . . . that day not just the town but the entire United States joined in a celebration that had the twofold merit of associating the national pastime with the traditional rural values that Fenimore Cooper's town embodies and also with the patriotic grandeur that the name Doubleday bears." Uh, actually not. Negatory on "pope" and "national" and "entire" and "most" and "embodies" and "Doubleday."


Blogger Alice on Sun Feb 19, 04:30:00 PM:
The copyeditors at Slate go easy on Hitch, apparently. "High-falutin'" isn't standard punctuation or spelling of the term; many publications, including Slate, use "highfalutin" in their style guides.
Blogger Ben on Tue Feb 21, 08:39:00 AM:
I pity the machiatto-drinking fool who corrects Hitch's mocking of the elite. "Mr. Hitchens sir, I believe that's spelled rather less anatomically as 'V-O-L-V-O'." WHAM! Fist to the face! Spinning star kick! Tyrants everywhere are getting what's coming to them!


A few notes on Jim Holt's piece in the New Yorker about the new pro-gay take on Alan Turing:
  1. As amazing as Turing's work on the Enigma was, it was not pivotal to
    the war effort. By the time it was broken, other methods were being used by the Nazis. In fact, to avoid making it clear that the code had been broken, the Navy was forced to withhold information from many officers so that they would still lead their men and ships to their deaths. And the communications within British intelligence and the Allied command were too poor to make use of what good information did get collected.

  2. Even though Holt's review specifically deals with Turing's homosexuality, Holt glosses over the big boy crush of Turing's youth (he didn't reciprocate, at least not physically). Turing declared to others that his boyf, who died young, spoke to him from beyond the grave.

  3. It bears mentioning that Turing's mother was wonderful, was pretty much cool about him being gay, and drew endearing pictures of him being unlike the other boys--for example, him playing field hockey, wandering away from the goal to smell the flowers.

  4. Holt shouldn't note Turing's chess playing without mentioning one of Turing's favorite games, a variation on chess that he invented in which each player must run around the perimeter of the house between moves, and can take a turn after each loop regardless of who moved last.

  5. Holt should mention that the "Turing test", which asks that computer programs fool human users into thinking that they are conversing with a human instead, has been administered in an annual competition for twenty years, and has been passed by numerous programs. (Humorous and absurdist conversationalists seem to be the easiest to convincingly emulate.)


Saturday, February 18, 2006

I am my own grandpa

My mother keeps me updated about my grandfather, a former glazier and cantor (a "cantor" is a Jewish singer for religious services -- he still sings a mean Yiddish operetta) who lives in an apartment complex for the old outside Ft. Lauterdale, Florida. From her emails:

September 23, 2005

I am trying to find a way to get Grandpa to stop driving. His license has expired and he failed his eye test and can’t get it renewed. He insists on driving even without a license and I am extremely worried. The police said that there was nothing they could do.
October 30
Grandpa went without electricity of food for about 3 days last week when a hurricane pulled wires down in Plantation. He was pretty ok eating peanut butter and drinking Sprite. He had a flashlight and walked around Hamilton House in the dark.
December 1
He told me last week that he was in China, then stopped, and said I probably saw China on the tv, don’t think I’ve actually gone there, don’t remember eating Chinese food in China.
December 8
Paul and I met with the staff of Hamilton House and worked out a way to handle the car. We will go through the state officials and they will tell him he no longer can drive. We are issuing an anonymous complaint about his competency to drive. I hope it works without him being furious at his daughters. We shall see.

I did several loads of laundry and tidied up his apartment. He was rebuffed by a woman who lives on his floor and was quite distressed about that. He started buying her oranges, peanut butter, etc and totally overwhelmed her with his neediness. She handled it very graciously –- I found the notes she sent him. Still, he was hurt. Poor guy.

January 13
Your grandpa went to buy a new jacket and drove “200 miles” to find Walmart (which is down the street from him). He got tired and the car started overheating so he left the car and then had to figure out how to get home. He saw a cop and asked him to drive him home, which he did.

The next day he called tow companies until he found one that would come to pick him up and help him look for the car which he had no clue where he left. Grandpa said that they drove around for 2 hours (probably 20 minutes) found the car which the tow guy towed back to Hamilton house. The next day when Grandpa went to try it out, it started up perfectly.

It is amazing how resourceful he is. Too bad when the cop tested grandpa and grandpa could not remember who the president was, the cop didn’t say to himself –- this guy should not be driving.

He just doesn’t want to give up his independence and his image of himself as fully competent – which I both understand and feel furious about. What will you guys do when I refuse to stop cooking but leaving the burners on, putting hot pots on the counters and burning them, etc. Hope that doesn’t happen. Got to be hopeful.

January 27
The place where he lives is now 100% occupied so they added 2 more seatings at dinner. Grandpa was assigned to the earliest time which was a different time given to the 3 women he has been sitting with for the last 6 months. He could not deal with this change and has been eating at restaurants instead of going to the dining room for dinner. Not such a good idea since he is driving without a valid license.

I really get how he cannot absorb changes. When he goes to Denny’s –- his new dining place –- he orders the same thing he always orders there: pancakes, french fries and coffee. It’s as if these foods and only these foods are connected to Denny’s. He doesn’t order at Denny’s the same meal he eats at the dining room at the Hamilton: chicken, salad, coffee ice cream. So interesting.

I have called several people who work there to help him sort this out and eventually something will be arranged that he can accept. He counts on certain routines being unchanged and when an unexpected change happens, he falls apart = a similar process to a severely autistic child.

I expect if Grandpa comes here for Passover he will cry the first day (as he did last year) and want to go home. He was terrified by the changes, by not knowing where the bathroom was, by the cold...

As with autistic kids, it makes it so clear how difficult change is for everyone. Most of us muster the strength to incorporate the change without too much distress, but still it takes some work. So just note this when you make any change –- that there is both excitement and anxiety about change, that you may need time to adjust, that it is normal to have some stress in any adaptation.


Johnny being Manny

I'm troubled by Jim Caple's column on about Johnny Weir's Olympic collapse. Weir was in second place in the men's figure skating event after the short program, but he skated badly in the long program and took fifth overall. Weir flaked out and missed the bus to the practice arena on the day of the event and blamed his poor performance on feeling unsettled by his lateness: "I never felt comfortable in this building ... I didn't feel my inner peace. I didn't feel my aura. I was black inside."

That Weir gives hilarious, sometimes baffling interviews is no surprise to anyone watching the Games. That Weir is gay is also no surprise. I'm troubled, though, by Caple's condescending comments about Weir's flamboyant behavior:

"Yes, Johnny's a real beauty. He makes Dick Button seem like Tony Soprano.

"His favorite male singer is Justin Timberlake and his Web site also lists his favorite fashion designers (Balenciaga), boutiques (Barneys), models (Kate Moss) and teams (Gordeeva and Grinkov, Berezhnaia and Sikharulidze, and -- surprisingly -- the Boston Red Sox). He wears costumes that Elton John might wear for Mardi Gras, including a red glove in Tuesday's short program that he named Camille. He used the phrase "I did a little hoppy-hop like a bunny" while describing Thursday's performance, which is something you rarely hear from say, Brett Favre.

"And he owns not one, but two Chihuahuas."

What's wrong with Justin Timberlake and Balenciaga? What does it have to do with his poor performance?

The comparison to Brett Favre makes no sense and is made in poor faith. Figure skaters aren't like football players; unlike football players, they actually get points for doing bunny hops. Later in the article, he invokes another (surprising!) sports figure Weir would appparently do well to emulate: "Curt Schilling would have shaken off the bus problem and skated out there with bloody sequins. Johnny, however, missed jumps, skipped a combination and performed several elements awkwardly." They don't play the same sport. The judges wouldn't have let Schilling out on the ice with bloody sequins, anyway.

Is Caple really asking, Why can't Johnny Weir be more like Brett Favre or Curt Schilling? Why does he have to be? Weir has a lot of fans--gay and straight--because he's a great skater and a sometimes delightful interview (actually, he's a lot like Schilling in his lack of verbal censor). So he screwed up: plenty of other skaters fell or tripped that night, too. And if you want to compare him to anyone on the Red Sox, it's obviously Manny Ramirez, who's missed the bus more than once, I believe.


Anonymous Anonymous on Sat Feb 18, 03:41:00 PM:
Alice, I truly do hope that someday soon I am able to read you in one of the main periodicals of this country. We need to read more people who think like you and who write like you.
Your friend Copo.
Blogger Ben on Tue Feb 21, 08:32:00 AM:
Manny has said plenty of things along the lines of "I did a little hoppy-hop like a bunny" when describing his own grand slam baserunning. Weir may name his red glove, but he never had a midget totem.

By the way, I'll root for any athlete who loves both the Georgian national dance troupe (Sikharulidze) and the Sox.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Archive fever, vol. I

Last week, I attended a fantastic conference at Rutgers devoted to Jonathan Swift's A Tale of a Tub (1704). I was especially interested in the panelists' discussion of how Swift responds to the developing public sphere of print commerce. The restrictions on how many printers could exist in England ended after the lapse of the Licensing Act in 1695, and printed material soon glutted the marketplace. A Tale of a Tub satirizes the influx of persons with vested interests in the publishing industry: there is a dedication to a lord, a dedication to Prince Posterity, a postscript, a booksellers' note, a preface, an introduction, and an apology in which the speaker insists that he hasn't read everything that's attributed to him in the text. It's hard to sort out what's Swift and what's Swift's satire on others, and a few people at the conference wondered why we were trying to pin down an author function on a text that's all about the instability of authorship in a time when print was displacing manuscript circulation as main way to circulate writing.

I've noted previously that Swift's concerns from the early eighteenth century about the effects of mass circulation on writing bear some resemblance to contemporary fears about how blogging, text messaging, and the Internet will change communication. I think you can track cycles of fear-mongering (no one will be able to communicate anymore!), gestures to nostalgia and preservation, high-flying hopes, and experimentation at any times of technological change. That's why I love the eighteenth century! I'd recommend the essays in Regimes of Description: In the Archive of the Eighteenth Century for some valuable perspectives on the issue.

I was led back from the eighteenth century to today with a few reminders of how those cycles are functioning in the debates about how to digitize archives. This article from Wired about digitizing the National Archives is a departure from what I usually see in the magazine in its reactionary tone about nostalgia and removing the human from the archival system. Libraries and private digitizing services are dealing with huge questions about cost and how to maintain and update digitized archives--and the author wants to mention four separate times that the archivists are socially awkward?!

Why, let's turn to Swift's dedication to Prince Posterity:
What is then become of those immense Bales of Paper, which must need have been employ'd in such Numbers of Books? Can these also be wholly annihilate, and so of a sudden as I pretend? What shall I say in return of so invidious an Objection? It ill befits the Distance between Your Highness and Me, to send You for ocular Conviction to a Jakes, or an Oven; to the Windows of a Bawdy-house, or a sordid Lanthorn. Books, like Men their Authors, have no more than on Way of coming into the World, but there are ten Thousand to go out of it, and return no more.

(in case the language is too arcane: that's an outhouse, an oven, a whorehouse, and a lantern as possible ends for the books)

And here's a rambling column by Jeanette Winterson about digitizing books. Some of the points are interesting possibilities, but others aren't properly explained:
"Too much is being published. It is time to use new technology to slim the bloat. It is no shame to find other formats for publications that should not be books at all.

"And then I have to argue against myself and realise that censorship and the rewriting of history will be much easier when books are no longer books."

Here's Swift worrying about Prince Posterity:

'Tis not unlikely, that when Your Highness will one day peruse what I am now writing, You may be ready to expostulate with Your Governour upon the Credit of what I here affirm, and command Him to shew You some of our Productions. To which he will answer, (for I am well informed of his Designs) by asking Your Highness, where there are? and what is become of them? and pretend it a Demonstration that there never were any, because they are not then to be found: Not to be found! Who has mislaid them? Are they sunk in the Abyss of Things? 'Tis certian, that in their own Nature they were light enough to swim upon the Surface for all Eternity. Therefore the Fault is in Him, who tied Weights so heavy to their Heels, as to depress them to the Center. Is their very Essence destroyed? Who has annihilated them? Were they drowned by Purges or martyred by Pipes? Who administered them to the Posteriors of ------? But that it may no longer be a Doubt with Your Highness, who is to be the Author of this universal Ruin; I beseech You to observe that large and terrible Scythe which your Governour affect to bear continually about him. Be pleased to remark the Lenghth and Strength, the Shaprness and Hardness of his Nails and Teeth: Consider his baneful abominable Breath, Enemy to Life and Matter, infectious and corrupting: And then reflect whether it be possible for any mortal Ink and Paper of this Generation to make a suitable Resistance. Oh, that Your Highness would one day resoulve to disarm this Usurpation Maitre du Palais [Swift's note glosses this term as Comptroller], of his furious Engins [sic], and bring Your Empire hors de Page [Swift's gloss: Out of Guardianship].

But the real source of my ire is Russell Baker's review of Nicholson Baker's new book of prints of nineteenth-century American newspapers, The World on Sunday: Graphic Art in Joseph Pulitzer's Newspaper (1898-1911), in the New York Review of Books. I'm expecting The World on Sunday to be a fascinating look at what Pulitzer and other American newspaper publishers could do with innovations in printing presses and typesetting. I'd love to read about that. But Russell Baker in his review takes a tired tack of focusing more on a negative comparison to contemporary changes in reading practices. This is nostalgia disguised as argument:

"The CBS show Sunday Morning is network television's one attempt at an electronic version of calm, old-fashioned Sunday journalism, and an elegant show it is. Little else, however, varies from TV journalism's routine daily style in which the usual suspects are rounded up again and again until the mind goes numb. With news channels running ceaselessly, journalism becomes as omnipresent as wallpaper. Tirelessness is its strength and monotony its style, though sometimes it does something absolutely irresistible.

"An assassination occurs. The World Trade Center falls. War begins. A mountain explodes. The Indian Ocean rises up in boiling rage. Then things grow calm.... Police helicopters pursue a stolen car. Missing Girl is found dead. The President arrives, departs, declares, challenges; earthquake kills thousands; raid nets millions in cocaine. It fills you up while leaving you famished."

This argument is in full force in Nicholson Baker's Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper. Some of Baker's points are useful critiques of some library disposal practices, but I'm not sure how he wants to make compromises. Russell Baker calls Nicholson Baker "a warrior in the struggle against America's throwaway culture" for his dedication to preserving old newspapers that libraries had thrown out because they were shifting their attention toward digital and microfilmed collections. Librarians are seeing a huge shift in technology and have many concerns about how to finance, maintain, and make accessible these collections, but I don't think hectoring them is the best way to engage in a productive discussion. I hope those quotations from Swift demonstrate that worries about throwaway culture are nothing new. But just in case, here's one more about how a glut of books turns them into disposable items:
To affirm that our Age is altogether Unlearned, and devoid of Writers in any kind, seems to be an Assertion so bold and so false, that I have been sometime thinking, the contrary may almost by proved by uncontroulable Demonstration. 'Tis true indeed, that altho' their Numbers be vast, and their Productions numerous in proportion, yet they hurryed so hastily off the Scene, that they escape our Memory, and delude our Sight. When I first thought of this Address, I had prepared a copious List of Titles to present Your Highness as an undisputed Argument for what I affirm. The Originals were psoted fresh upon all Gates and Coners of Streets; but returning in a very few Hours to take a Review, they were all torn down, and fresh ones in their Places: I enquired after them among Readers and Booksellers, but I enquired in vain, the Memorial of them was lost among Men, their Place was no more to be found. [the notes to the edition edited by Claude Rawson note that the Hack is here referring to John Dryden's "Discourse on Satire," in which Dryden tells his rivals they won't be around for long.]

I'm certainly not advocating ignoring Baker, Winterson, or the archivists at the National Archives--but let's separate the anxiety and the heady nostalgia from a genuine discussion about how reading and writing may change over the next several years and beyond.


Measure your racial bias!

Slate writer Jay Dixit has a piece on a clever way that psychologists have devised to measure bias. The best part is that you can take the tests yourself online--they're only about 5 minutes long, and they cover the whole spectrum of prejudice: racial bias, gender bias, age bias, sexuality bias, and more!
In the test's most popular version, the Race IAT [Implicit Association Test], subjects are shown a computer screen and asked to match positive words (love, wonderful, peace) or negative words (evil, horrible, failure) with faces of African-Americans or whites. Their responses are timed. If you tend to associate African-Americans with "bad" concepts, it will take you longer to group black faces with "good" concepts because you perceive them as incompatible. If you're consistently quicker at connecting positive words with whites and slower at connecting positive words with blacks—or quicker at connecting negative words with blacks and slower at connecting negative words with whites—you have an implicit bias for white faces over those of African-Americans...

The elegance of Banaji's test is that it doesn't let you lie. What's being measured is merely the speed of each response. You might hate the idea of having a bias against African-Americans, but if it takes you significantly longer to group black faces with good concepts, there's no way you can hide it. You can't pretend to connect words and images faster any more than a sprinter can pretend to run faster...

Banaji, now a social psychologist at Harvard, has found that 88 percent of the white subjects who take her test show some bias against blacks. The majority of all subjects also test anti-gay, anti-elderly, and anti-Arab Muslim. Many people also exhibit bias against their own group: About half of blacks test anti-black; 36 percent of Arab Muslims test anti-Arab Muslim; and 38 percent of gays show an automatic preference for heterosexuals...

People with high racial bias scores are more likely to choose a white partner to work with and more willing to cut funding for minority student groups. They're also more likely to judge minority suspects guilty in ambiguous situations and assign longer prison sentences to suspects with minority names...

The test isn't a perfect predictor, and it may be possible to beat it. Those are good reasons to limit the test's uses. But they don't justify never using it at all.

Consider Juries. Since studies show that people with high bias scores judge minorities guiltier than whites, people who test as highly biased against minorities shouldn't serve on juries in cases involving minority defendants...

In a lot of jobs—judges, police officers, welfare officers, hiring managers, and others as well—biased people can do real harm. On the other hand, if a test shows an applicant is biased, but you have no evidence that he has actually discriminated against anyone, would it really be fair not to hire him?

Before you get to the tests themselves, you must click to agree to the statement, "I am aware of the possibility of encountering interpretations of my IAT test performance with which I may not agree. Knowing this, I wish to proceed." I had an ongoing argument with a sociology teacher in college about Stanley Milgram's "tolerance for electrocuting others" test, which she declared ethically unacceptable because of the dismaying information it revealed to its participants; the bias test offers similar dangers. But isn't the point of social science to teach us more about ourselves?

As for my results, I show a moderate bias against blacks, a moderate preference for Judaism compared to other religions, and a moderate association of males with science and females with aiberal lrts versus the other way around.


Thursday, February 16, 2006


The NY Times has a story discussing FX channel's new reality show where a white family wears black makeup, and a black family wears white makeup:
"Black.White.," a six-part documentary that makes its debut on March 8, follows the race-swapping experiment of two families. The white Wurgel-Marcotulli family of Santa Monica, Calif., (along with Rose Bloomfield, the 17-year-old daughter of Carmen Wurgel) and the black Sparkses of Atlanta, including Mr. Sparks's wife, Renee, and 16-year-old Nick, undergo a racial transformation through the magic of sprayed-on color, wigs, contact lenses and other makeup tricks. The whites appear black; the blacks appear white.

The Wurgel-Marcotullis and the Sparkses, as they normally appear

The Wurgel-Marcotullis and the Sparkses, transformed

This obviously follows on John Howard Griffin's Black Like Me experiment in racial crossing over, which I always forget about. I'm surprised there hasn't been a more recent serious attempt to recreate Griffin's experiment. Has Black Like Me been discredited? I wonder why I never heard it discussed during college by my many classmates and friends studying ethnicity and the construction of race.

The show could be better than White Chicks (which I liked), but it can't be as entertaining as Eddie Murphy's hilarious experiment living life as a white man:

[ cut to Eddie, in white makeup and wig, talking to a black Loan Officer ]

Loan Officer: Now, let me get this straight, Mr., ..uh.. Mr. White. You'd like to borrow $50,000 from our bank, but you have no collateral, you have no credit. You don't even have any I.D. Is that correct?

Eddie Murphy: That's right.

Loan Officer: Mr. White, I'm sorry. This is not a charity. This is a business!

White Loan Officer: Uh, Harry, why don't you, uh, take your break now? I'll take care of.. uh.. Mr. White.

Loan Officer: Well.. okay. Thanks, Bob. [ exits ]

White Loan Officer:
[ laughs, then sits ] That was a close one, wasn't it?

Eddie Murphy: It certainly was.

White Loan Officer: We don't have to bother with these formalities, do we, Mr. White?

Eddie Murphy: What a silly Negro!

White Loan Officer: Just take what you want, Mr. White. Pay us back anytime. Or don't. We don't care.


Dead horse, etc.

Andrew Sullivan, disingenuous as usual, on the Muhammad cartoon saga:
Others have claimed, in contrast, that the cartoons are tame and cannot even faintly be described as offensive — certainly no more offensive than any number of other cartoons that are published all the time.

That’s my position, by the way. I think that much of the “offence” is contrived, that it has been manipulated by Islamists and the Syrian and Egyptian governments to advance their own agendas...

I think he's absolutely right. The cartoons are surprisingly tame.
In New York the editors of a free alternative paper, the New York Press, decided they wanted to run the cartoons so their readers could have a grasp of what this huge story is about. The owner refused.
I think he's absolutely full of shit. The editor in chief called printing the cartoons an issue of "courage" and "Western civilization", not informative reporting.


10 reasons why blacks avoid journalism

Following up on our recent posts about blacks in journalism at Columbia University and beyond:

There are many reasons I can think of why black students might be underrepresented in the managing boards of the Columbia Daily Spectator. Here is a list of possible causes, meant to be exhaustive rather than accurate.

  1. The porportion of blacks within ivy league colleges who are very smart is lower than the porportion of whites who are very smart, whether because of nature or nurture. (I'm not sure if this is true, but it is often assumed.) For instance, a higher porportion of black students are in the remedial Logic & Rhetoric class (Columbia's freshman-year writing course) than white students. Black students benefit from affirmative action and just aren't as likely to be good writers, or to be confident in their writing abilities.
  2. Black students are disporportionately likely to be athletic recruits, and on average athletes in colleges perform below average academically. (Though on the other hand, white students are disporportionately likely to be legacies, who also perform below average.)
  3. No.s 1 and 2 both lead to the same conclusion: the objectively best writers on campus are white (and Asian), and so there's really no way except for explicit affirmative action that blacks would make up a representative porportion of members of managing boards of campus newspapers.
  4. Black students are not culturally drawn to journalism because there is no prominent black myth of the crusading journalist with rolled-up sleeves sending in his latest missive that will shake the thinking world. Without that vision, who wants to work their ass off for little money like most journalists do?
  5. Black students are not culturally drawn to journalism because there are just other things blacks like to work on more. You don't see hand-wringing about the lack of white representation in the hip-hop club, or in ethnic studies activism.
  6. Black students, for cultural and economic reasons, tend to view school more as preparation for a career than white students do, and less as a time for intellectual exploration. The last time I saw numbers on Columbia's departments (around 1998), black students were overrepresented in high income-generating majors like economics, computer science and biology/pre-medicine, and underrepresented in English, philosophy, classics and sociology.
  7. Most people aren't interested in spending lots of time in a place where there aren't already people who they know, or at least people of a type they are already frequently friends with. It's not that a black writer would loathe being "the black guy at the Spectator", but that becoming "the black guy at the Spectator" requires a more willful decision on his part than a white counterpart must make, because of the likelihood of being lonely, attracting attention and having the burden of representing others.

    (This kind of claim is made often and is hard for me to truly understand. But living in the nation of Georgia now and working in a building where there are 400 Georgians and perhaps 4 Americans and Brits, I can see how unlikely I would be to try to work here if I hadn't been specifically invited.)

  8. Culturally, white students, and particularly white male students, are encouraged to think that they can speak with authority on various topics, in a way that black students, and white female students, are not, especially at the young age of high school and college. White men are also encouraged to relish aggressive debate in a way that blacks and white women are both not, though of course there are differences there as well.
  9. Black students considering journalism might be asked to focus, or feel they would need to focus, on topics of race, poverty, and local government, which become tedious quickly.
  10. Perhaps the case is not that black students are not represented in the Spectator's managing boards, so much as that a certain segment of white intellectuals, many (like me) Jewish, are. White students are a heterogeneous group, and there are many white students who are interested in student government, or involved in various clubs, or not really involved in any official extracurriculars, but who are simply not interested in journalism and wouldn't be good at it. These white students are also poorly represented, but is that a problem?
With all that said, I can sympathize with former Spectator Editor-in-Chief Mike Mirer, who says there just weren't many black writers interested in journalism. The fact that an institution like the Spectator is more or less a meritocracy--and certainly, I assume, any outstanding editor can make it to the managing board--is what makes the absence of blacks in leadership positions interesting. It's a stand-in for our opinions about the nation itself as a meritocracy, where anyone can succeed with lots of drive and competence, but the system doesn't succeed in evening things out for those in the middle.

(Also in Spectator-related news, the requisite annual article about "Miss Dee", Columbia's eccentric essay-helping fixture, is in the current issue.)


Blogger mifaha on Thu Feb 16, 11:37:00 AM:
Ben, I think the implication in your third point that only the best writers at Columbia (and Barnard) work at and become editors at the Spectator is false. I don't think that was true when I was a Managing Editor at the Spec, and now as a professional journalist, I don't think that is true at most newspapers.
Journalism does not necessarily attract people who love and excel at writing -- on the contrary, the time and form constraints of journalism discourage many excellent writers.
Blogger Alice on Thu Feb 16, 10:06:00 PM:
It's worth noting that writing isn't the only way to contribute to Spectator. The current editor-in-chief was the production editor last year.

I had forgotten about this 2004 staff editorial re: race relations at Columbia, but wow:

"But in their efforts to achieve a more racially whole university, this week's protesters should consider that Columbia is probably among the least racist campuses in America. … We're glad students' racism sensors are on a hair trigger—-this country's racial past is abominable, and we want to explode slavery's legacy with all speed. But in students' zeal for a more perfect university, they should remember that Columbia is more perfect than most."
Blogger Ben on Fri Feb 17, 06:21:00 AM:
Miriam, I think you're right.

And let me distance myself from my own writing by saying that I don't think the reasons I listed are true, just that they are possible explanations people might think.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Diversity at Spectator

I gave a really long interview to the Blue and White about the "up or out" system at the Spectator(and the B&W, where the pattern I pointed out is even more obvious). My main point was that if you want to have a diverse staff (in terms of race, gender, schools, ideology, skill sets), you have to have a diverse set of ways to succeed there that will attract different types of people. If you count membership on the managing board as the main indicator of success (which is, essentially, what the author did in the article), then you're only counting 12-18 people of a considerably larger staff. Is the associate board more representative of student demographics than the associate board? Is the staff as a whole? What's happening as people move up the hierarchy? In many (but not all) cases, managing board members have been tracked through a system of associate and deputy positions oftentimes from their first year at the paper, and lateral moves from one section to another are rare. The result is a relatively small pool from which to draw leadership positions and relatively few ways to enter it if you haven't been tracked through that insular system. If they're serious about diversity, they should look at retention, because the recruitment pushes may not work as well as intended when the institutional procedures are set up to winnow people out.

Having a managing board position isn't the only way to get journalism job after college (also, my Spectator experience was a huge influence on my professional development even though I'm not in journalism anymore), so why not present attractive alternatives to being a manager at the paper? Managing board positions shouldn't be the only place for visibility and attention at the paper. Some people don't want to attend meetings every day of the week; can't fit it into a part-time job schedule; don't want to be a manager and would rather write, take photos, design graphics and layouts, or work on programming. Their contributions are an important part of the paper, and Spec needs to find other incentives for contributing to the paper and remaining a staff member than gaining a title. What are other rewards to being on Spec staff that aren't being on the managing board? The annual photo contest drew a huge interest from the photo staff and outside the staff when Cory, Steve, and Rob initiated it in 2002. Having a sports, opinion, or A&E column is another alternative to being an editor or an associate, although many associates often have columns or started there. The addition of news columns in the past few years has been a reward for news staffers who stick around for a long time, including former editors. How do you retain copy and layout staff, where experience is a major boon but rewards are few?

I've thought a lot about this issue--particularly in the past couple of weeks, since a couple of Spectator editors are furious with me for phrasing an obvious point in such a sharp way (they insist the culture has changed since I was there)--and I've started wondering how to denaturalize the managing board experience as the only way to show commitment to Spectator. I cared about Spectator more than I cared about myself. I believed every single typo reflected on me personally. I micromanaged. I hurt people's feelings sometimes. But what about people who have different priorities? Most people who join the staff don't achieve membership on the board. Is one reason for Spectator's "sameness" the insistence that people have a relatively confined set of priorities and commitments, so that people become more and more like the institution as they move up the hierarchy? Just thinking here.


Anonymous Anonymous on Fri Feb 17, 10:47:00 AM:
i know you're distrusting of theory, but i was thinking. when i read your post, i thought of structural homologies. that's what i'm working on and thinking about right now actually. in the way that i'm working on it, it comes from bourdieu (theory of practice and then in distinction a little). but it's like...the structural characteristics/attributes of the cultural institution/object under scrutiny corresopnd to proximate and distant social groups. hrm.

it's worth putting out into the universe! despite my brain fartage.

Blue & White and read all over

With apologies to Alice, whose comments to the author were reduced to a single quote, I'm linking to Columbia student Josie Swindler's essay about the dearth of blacks in campus journalism.

It's a bit clumsy, and Swindler entertains the idea of purposeful discrimination a bit too much (a sure way to turn off the whites in question), but it asks lots of good questions.

Javonni Judd, C '09, who is black, came to Columbia from a mostly-white boarding school in New Hampshire, after attending middle school at an almost all-black school in her hometown of Newark, New Jersey. The newsroom was a familiar environment for Judd—like her high school, it is almost all white and she had to find her way without a role model or a critical mass. And though it may not register with white students, Judd definitely noticed the lack of diversity in the newsroom. She dismissed it as "odd" before finding her niche at the Spectator —with the beginning of the semester she begins a yearlong commitment as an associate photo editor.

Judd said that Spec kids are so enthusiastic at times, so pro-Spectator, that it's easy to get lost in the cliquishness. "Sometimes you don't feel comfortable if you're not in the loop." She hasn't seen racism at Spec; what has turned her off is the cliquishness, the insularity, and the false authority of certain editors, but she still calls the experience a positive one—and she doesn't even want to become a journalist.


Blogger Unknown on Wed Feb 15, 07:35:00 PM:
I certainly can't argue with the point the author makes in this piece, although I can't help but feel chapped.

Back in the pre-broadsheet days, the dominant line of thinking was that minority students didn't join (and stay) on the newspaper because it was too much of a time commitment for people who might have needed to have paying jobs. Some board or other started a finanical aid program to help take away that excuse, and I remember sitting in a meeting and awarding money. It might have been a little bit cynical, but it was something. And the program had no effect on minority participation. We were generalizing then.

I have a lot of thoughts on this, but perhaps I'll post them on my own blog. Probably not though. Instead I'll just post a link to this article, which tackles some of the same issues

Tawdry tawdry

I'm mildly embarrassed to be posting this, but here's some America's Next Top Model gossip from the Blue & White blog, clevely titled "the Bwog."

Spectator has blogs up now, too.


Spam poetry: "Do I Feel it, Sir?"

More spam poetry, this one excerpted from spam I received from a "Jewell Mel". It seems to be made of scattered passages of David Copperfield, mixed in with other text I can't identify. My only edits were to omit passages and make punctuation and capitalization consistent.

Do I feel it, sir?

I assure you, I returned.
The candles were burning down
induced in some anxious moment to guard her
and surround her
It was one of the irons I began to heat
for I had laid them on the table.
I made myself very ridiculous
but I know I was resolute.

Pray believe me, I
a gnarled oak in the forest of difficulty
I went on;
there then appeared a procession
of new horrors, called

He carried his head with a lofty air
French songs about the impossibility
of ever on any account leaving accidental Miss Murdstone,
by an expressive sound,
a long drawn respiration.


Auto-translating "La Madrastra"

Daytime TV in Georgia consists almost entirely of telenovela imports, dubbed over in what is obviously one take by an acting team made up of one woman and one man. The dubbing doesn't replace the original soundtrack (it's easier than rerecording the music and effects), just talks over it, so I can still make out the Spanish, barely.

My office mate is responsible for producing a digest of television and print news for the president, so he has the TV on all day long. This is how I've fallen in love with a Latin American telenovela called "La Madrastra" ("The Stepmother") and, more specifically, its heroine, played by glorious Victoria Ruffo.

Don't fuck with La Madrastra.

I've watched this out of the corner of my eye for the past eight weeks, and finally, unable to stand not knowing what the fuck is going on, went in search of an online synopsis.

First of all, I learn that telenovelas are commonly remakes of early versions. Apparently they play a role for women like sports plays for men: a boy can talk to his father about the same team that his father once followed, and a girl can talk to her mother about the same drama that her mother once followed, in each case with updated uniforms and soundtracks. "La Madrastra" is a remake of the 1996 telenovela "Para toda la vida", which itself is a remake of 1989's "Vivir un poco", which is a remake of the original 1981 "La Madrastra".

As for the plot, thanks to Google's translator and, "the biggest Mexican telenovelas database", I learn the following:

A terrible tragedy ends the trip of pleasing of a group of friends. Maria hears a firing, finds her dead Patricia friend and, in his confusion, imprudently she gathers the weapon. Maria is blamed of the murder and the condemned to life imprisonment. His husband Esteban, an important businessman, does not believe in his innocence; one divorces of her when returning to Mexico, he buys the silence of those who went with them to the trip, and says to his children who her mother died in an accident.

Twenty years later, Maria is set free by good behavior and returns to Mexico in search of revenge. She is determined to discover the true culprit and to face Esteban. But what she wishes more she is to recover his two children, Héctor and Star. All are surprised when seeing it to enter, and Maria seeds in them the doubt and the fear when informing to them that, during twenty years, the true assassin of Patricia has lived among them.

Maria returns to marry with Esteban to recover affection of his children, but this not him will be easy, since their children consider one madrastra that has come to usurp the place of a died mother to which they adore by means of the picture of another woman.

Little by little, Maria is gained the love of her children without revealing the true bow that unites them and her husband falls again in love with her. But now she must choose between to tell her kids the truth and to have the family she always wanted or to find the real killer of her friend.

I love this woman.

Okay, what the fuck!? Is that not the most compelling setup you've ever heard? Since I read that, I've been staring at each character, who is usually crying and shouting in both Spanish and Georgian, speculating about which character he is, and what is the source of his angst. "That must be her son, learning that she is his mother," I will decide. "She is crying because she has held the truth back so long-- just so that she can see him grow!" Then they start to have sex and I realize I was probably wrong.

Apparently, the finale involves a simultaneous wedding
of no fewer than four couples.

Google's translation also provides me the following comments from Spanish-speaking visitors to the alma-latina website about their love for "La Madrastra":

1) I from Chile hope that the soap opera manages to hit so much as 'aqui' did in ours pais. the teleserie was an absolute fenomeno, I even superswim the 80 points of rating. all pais asked myself who killed patricia... espeoro with anxieties.

2) I want to offer MY RESPECT to Mrs. Victoria Ruffo to have accepted this role, specially because today in day the mature actresses are put under 40 cirugias to be able to play roles jovenes and the truth sees ridiculas enough.

("Sees" for "seems"--an unlikely holdover from the Spanish, "la verdad se ven".)

To shift gear, isn't there something wonderful about these poor translations? I try not to enjoy them because, I tell myself, they were not really written, but merely assembled by accident. But there is something sublime about the way the hasty original Spanish mixes with the auto-translation mistakes, almost like they were made on purpose, in just the right clumsy combinations.

I feel the same thing from the text of some spam I receive, which contains automatically generated phrases and words designed to fool my spam filters. Allow me to present direct quotes of spam emails I have received, adulterated only to provide line breaks and spacing:

"Last chance for lowest rates" by "Esmerelda Dunlap"

but luminescent!
the stephens
may celibacy be

and melbourne
in offshore

may irs it
and chute a
tonal a flux
on tuition.

"Lowest rate approved" by "Vera Fischer"

a mast

some lager,

some antiquity on
but gouda

a errantry try charles
it millet not

despise not
brine or eerie

it's requited

Or maybe not


Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Tbilisi: the city observed

Great photoset of Tbilisi by Geir Engene:
View of Tbilisi's Old Town and Metekhi Church. The photo was taken from on top of the city's centuries-old fort walls.
View to the other direction, showing the botannical gardens
Metekhi Church on the Mtkvari river (that's two syllables: "mtkwa-ri")
Old town architecture

Tbilisi's old town is famous for its rickety balconies and horizontal extensions
The metal market
The grand bazaar. Alleys like this wind infinitely in every direction.

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