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Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The day I stopped liking marzipan

I ran into someone I knew when I went to see The Girl Can't Help It at Film Forum this weekend, and he said, "This doesn't seem like your kind of movie..." I've linked to J. Hoberman's review from the Village Voice, where he notes that the satire of '50s celebrity culture and early rock and roll is made with really broad strokes ("even the sparkles have sparkles"). But I had a particular reference in mind when I saw it: the film was an inspiration for Francesca Lia Block's Weetzie Bat character from her Dangerous Angels series.

I loved these books when I was a teenager. Her lavish descriptions of food, flowers, and fashion were so sensuous that it almost felt like eating marzipan--too rich for large doses. Here's the description of Weetzie Bat, the heroine of the first book in the series:
She was a skinny girl with a bleach-blonde flat-top. Under her pink Harlequin sunglasses, strawberry lipstick, earrings dangling charms, and sugar-frosted eyeshadow she was really almost beautiful. Sometimes she wore Levi's with white suede fringe sewn down the legs and a feathered Indian headdress, sometimes old fifties taffeta dresses covered with poetry written in glitter, or dresses made of kids' sheets printed with pink piglets or Disney characters.

"That's a great outfit," Dirk said. Weetzie was wearing her feathered headdress and her moccasins and a pink fringed mini dress.

"Thanks, I made it," she said, snapping her strawberry bubble gum. "I'm into Indians," she said. "They were here first and we treated them like shit."

"Yeah," Dirk said, touching his Mohawk. He smiled. "You want to go to a movie tonight? Theer's a Jayne Mansfield film festival. The Girl Can't Help It."

"Oh, I love that movie!" Weetzie said in her scratchiest voice.

Weetzie and Dirk saw The Girl Can't Help It, and Weetzie practiced making siren noises all the way to the car.

"This really is the most slinkster-cool car I have ever seen!" she said.

The descriptions of the odd fashion and the slinkster-cool lingo are so unself-conscious and delightful. The dialogue about Indians is completely bizarre and kind of amateur-ish, but it's not out of place in the weird world Block has half-documented and half-imagined. (The Amazon CAPS give a good indication of the book's landscape: Secret Agent Lover Man, Slinkster Dog, Charlie Bat, Grandma Fifi, Jayne Mansfield, Charlie Chaplin, Hollywood Boulevard, Rubber Chicken, Jah Love.) Many of the descriptions of clothing--the dresses with pig patterns and the poetry written in glitter--show up in later books such as Girl Goddess #9, which makes me think a lot of the stories are partly autobiographical. The best books in the series are Witch Baby and Missing Angel Juan, which feature a cult of witches who worshipped Jayne Mansfield, sex, death, outsider culture, and descriptions of macrobiotic food which somehow make wheat grass juice sound like an utterly magical drink.

And yet... I stopped liking the books after a couple of years. Part of it was that the stories and the structural devices of fairy tales, movie scripts, zines, and Tarot cards began to seem repetitive. The books also began to seem too whimsical and precious. It's not like they weren't whimsical or precious before, but I had lost that taste for marzipan. I skimmed through her latest novel, Ruby, earlier this summer and was surprised to see that she's played down the lavishness of her descriptions. The plot and the Tarot-card structure are similar to an earlier novel, The Hanged Man, but this new one is almost a schematic version of that overheated yet intensely emotional book.

I was kind of sad to lose that taste for lushness. I feel the same odd nostalgia for overwrought imagery from the '90s when I watch "The Alternative" on VH1 Classic--and I know there are a few regular readers of this blog who watch it, too--and, I don't know, everyone's wearing heavy black eyeliner (the video for Nirvana's "Heart-Shaped Box" is the epitome of that '90s music video preference for Overly Significant Imagery and Color Enhancement). Even the black clouds have black clouds in those videos.

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Anonymous Brette on Wed Aug 30, 11:10:00 AM:
On a slight different yet related note, I lost the taste for Turkish delight on my visit to Ireland when I was 11. I saw it in a candy store near my cousin Joan's house and thought that if it was good enough for the Pevensies, it was good enough for me. I was wrong. It was bad, bad, bad. At least the Cadbury brand. And I've been to afraid to go near it since.
 
Anonymous Katy on Fri Sep 01, 09:56:00 AM:
Alice, I feel the same way about Francesca Lia Block. I really liked the Weetzie Bat books in about 8th grade, but when I revisited them later, they seemed contrived and predictable.

I love Turkish delight--especially the Cadbury kind. Whenever someone I know goes to the UK or Ireland, I make them bring back a supply of it for me. I've considered moving to Ireland just for the candy.
 
Anonymous Anonymous on Fri Sep 01, 06:24:00 PM:
Get back to work, McSweeney!
 
Anonymous Anonymous on Fri Sep 08, 01:53:00 PM:
Is today the day Alice stopped liking blogging? Also, McSweeneys never stop working.
 

Friday, August 25, 2006

I'm optimistic about the Kuiper Belt

The New York Times editorial board has taken the hard line on Pluto's reclassification. I've noted my scientifically unqualified, sentimental attachment to Pluto previously, but I'm psyched about this new classification for dwarf planets. If I were going to editorialize about the event, I'd say something like, "this is an example of how scientists can modify a classification system to account for new discoveries that contradict previous standards that had stopping being useful..." Caltech astronomer Mike Brown put it this way, "It takes guts to demote a planet that many people claim to love. But if the IAU had made this decision and stuck to it it would only take a generation for everyone to accept the idea. People would even learn that science is capable of correcting itself when it makes errors, which is a useful lesson to see in action."

I don't know what kind of an opinion a national newspaper is supposed to register at news like this, but this editorial suffers from some imprecise figurative language (can planets "catapult" or "swell" in our understanding; can Kuiper Belt objects be called "hordes"?) and a certain amount of 20/20 hindsight. The tone is more "We were fools for thinking it was a planet!" than "We're solving problems and looking forward to new discoveries!"
Pluto, with its small size and oddball orbit, should never have been deemed a planet in the first place. Henceforth there will be eight planets, at least three dwarf planets, and tens of thousands of “smaller solar system bodies,” like comets and asteroids. Our only regret is that the astronomers chose the name “dwarf planets” for Pluto’s new category instead of abandoning the word entirely when discussing these less-than-planetary bodies.

But there's a valid historical reason why Pluto was first classified as a planet: it was thought to be significantly larger than it's now known to be, and it's only after more research (done by people interested in finding more objects like it) that the definition stopped working. Pluto's former classification as a planet is a marker of how astronomers' understanding of the universe has changed. This is a great moment to consider how knowledge is classified and reclassified--not a time for "regrets."

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Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Paradox of Choice: one bad book too many

Depending on how you look at it, the popularity of Malcolm Gladwell and books like Freakonomics is either a good thing (a sign of a popular interest in ideas) or a bad thing (the appetite of the public for the oversimplified).

The bestseller Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz, an author striking for the same vein as Gladwell & co., follows the pattern of spreading twenty pages worth of fascinating material into 150 pages of pablum. Pop intellectualism has never been such a snoozefest.

The first lines of Schwartz's prologue are:
About six years ago i went to The Gap to buy a pair of jeans. I tend to wear my jeans until they're falling apart, so it had been quite a while since my last purchase. A nice young salesperson walked up to me and asked if she could help.

"I want a pair of jeans--32-28," I said.

"Do you want them slim fit, easy fit, relaxed fit, baggy, or extra baggy?" she replied. "Do you want them stonewashed, acid-washed, or distressed? Do you want them button-fly or zipper-fly? Do you want them faded or regular?"

I was stunned.
Who rattles off a speech like this Gap employee supposedly did? Anyone else want to wager that this account has been embellished in Schwartz's retelling?

Writing a memory like this with quotation marks is a common practice these days, but it wouldn't be allowed at a good newspaper. Maybe Schwartz has a preternatural memory, or was transcribing onto a notepad--making research his purpose, not buying jeans, and possibly prompting his subject to give a different, more detailed spiel than she otherwise would. But probably this account has more in common with autobiographical fiction than it does with serious inquiry.

Schwartz is on to something, of course. Whether the array of jeans choices was enumerated in sequence by an unprompted salesperson or just listed on the wall, a customer unfamiliar with the varieties is rightly overwhelmed. But "stunned"? What Schwartz needs isn't fewer choices (which is his book's general prescription) but a guide. A well-written pamphlet or five minutes with an intelligent salesperson could probably make Schwartz appreciate that the jeans he wants don't have to be designed to also accommodate the tastes of skateboarders, heroin-chic hipsters or cheerleaders.

Chapter one opens with the complaint that at Schwartz's "neighborhood supermarket", which is "not a particularly large store", there are no less than 85 different varieties of crackers on sale, 61 varieties of suntan oil and sunblock, 80 different pain relievers, and 285 varieties of cookies. At first I didn't believe him; then I went to my local supermarket, the Pathmark in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and counted cookie varieties; I lost count less than halfway through, at 100. (I still would wager that Schwartz's 285 varieties were found at a store that is, in fact, particularly large.)

It does bother me, though, that Schwartz doesn't seem familiar with the names of some of the items he claims to have counted. "Next," he writes, "in the snack aisle, there were 95 options in all--chips (taco and potato, ridged flat, flavored and unflavored, salted and unsalted, high fat, low fat, no fat), pretzels," etc. "Taco" chips? I think he means tortilla chips, a mistake that an old fogie sitting in his office can be forgiven for making, but which wouldn't be made by someone who actually spent hours counting bags of "tortilla" chips, precious few of which are taco-flavored. Sounds like an unpaid undergrad research assistant at Swarthmore did the legwork; I wonder if she, or Schwartz, rounded up in the process.

The despair of too many choices does not only apply to consumer items. Schwartz laments the loss of university core curricula, explaining that in his day, "You could be fairly certain, if you ran into a fellow student you didn't know, that the two of you would have at least a year's worth of courses in common to discuss." He has a point that there is a downside to the increase in student-directed choice of courses; I liked that at Columbia, I could always trust that other students had a vague familiarity with some of the very same books I skimmed. At the same time, however, I would have preferred to take actual art and music courses than the Columbia core curriculum's survey courses, which in my opinion fail at instilling any sense of love for their respective disciplines.

Schwartz has a point about education, but he's a bit of a stopped clock, correct twice a day but off the mark otherwise. He applies the same reasoning to television, complaining that the abundance of cable channels and VCRs has had the result that "the TV experience is now the very essence of choice without boundaries". I don't think it would be easy to find, among the world's many TV watchers, any who agree with Schwartz that this makes TV worse. If this trend continues, he warns "when folks gather around the watercooler to discuss last night's big TV events, no two of them will have watched the same shows. Like the college freshmen struggling in vain to find a shared intellectual experience, American TV viewers will be struggling to find a shared TV experience."

It gets weirder. "Think about what you do when you wake up in the morning. You get out of bed. You stagger to the bathroom. You brush your teeth. You take a shower... though it is logically true that you could have done otherwise, there is little psychological reality to this freedom of choice. On the weekend perhaps, things are different. You might lie in bed asking whether you'll bother to shower now or wait till later... But during the week, you're an automaton. This is a very good thing."

I'm certainly happy that I can walk down the street with my mind on other things, and breathe without having to will every breath, but is it so clearly great that society encourages me to spend 71% of my life as a robot? Hasn't much of the cultural turmoil of the last 40 years been an attempt of many to refuse to be such a cog, by "dropping out", choosing to pursue dreams instead of fitting in, embracing Eastern philosophies (and mystic philosophies within Western religions) that encourage you to act more willfully and consciously?

Schwartz doesn't think so. "The burden of having every activity be a matter of deliberate and conscious choice," he writes, "would be too much for any of us to bear." This is not a guy who has the same relationship to choice as most people.

I think the proper response to Schwartz's book would be to take its own advice. We already have Gladwell and Freakonomics; why not jettison the superfluous Paradox entirely?

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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

If only Spock had a sister...

I've had some beginnings-middles-ends problem with several books I've read recently: I've liked the beginnings, the middles, or the ends of the books, but other sections are less good. It's a weird problem to have; I'd rather recommend something than dissect it or complain about it, but here goes:

I've read nothing but rave reviews about Julie Phillips' biography of Alice Sheldon, who wrote science fiction stories under the pseudonym James Tiptree, Jr. (here's a good review from Bookforum that explains the Sheldon/Tiptree backstory better than I will in this entry, and here's the NYTBR's lead review). I was disappointed by the first few chapters, which detail every complaint Alice Sheldon ever had about her glamorous, globe-trotting mother, Mary Hastings Bradley, but I'm glad I stuck with it. The second half of the book is a fantastic critical biography of Tiptree's short stories and correspondence with other science fiction writers of the time, including Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Joanna Russ.

I was skeptical of the biography at first. Phillips' discussion of Alice's childhood tends to flatten every experience into a heavy-handed psychological diagnosis, so the narration reads like a therapist's notes:
Aggression, too, was a Bradley taboo. In any dispute, Alice wrote, "Mary is always for the underdog, but only as long as he is the underdog. The moment he gets on top, he had better watch himself." To Mary it was all right to kill lions, who were themselves violent creatures, but she went to great lengths to protect mice, chipmunks, anything that was small and weak. This might say something about the conditions on her love for Alice.

On a safari in Africa, nine-year-old Alice asks her parents if she can have a gun to shoot elephants, and her mother replies, "Don't be silly." Phillips assesses the situation:
But to call Alice's wish for a gun "silly" is an insult to her capabilities. Any kind of gun, even the kind of air rifle that is commonly given to small boys, would have made her feel more powerful against the dangers of Africa. ... [She] didn't have the one thing that would have made her feel like a real member of the party. When Alice drew the illustrations for Alice in Elephantland, she drew herself with a smoking rifle over her shoulder.

She's nine years old. What kind of gun capabilities do nine-year-old girls have? In these paragraphs, Phillips sympathizes with her subject so much that she treats the source material--usually Sheldon writing to a correspondent about her childhood as though it were the male Tiptree's childhood--as clear-eyed, accurate, and reliable. But her subject is obsessed with the complexities of self-presentation and narration of her life, and her accounts to her various correspondents contain discrepancies, elisions, exaggerations, self-deprectation, irony, self-administered psychoanalysis, and plenty of other features you'd expect from a gifted storyteller. Phillips' literary criticism of Tiptree's short stories accomodates these multiple levels of irony. That flexibility doesn't show up in the deterministic readings of Sheldon's stories about her childhood. Take this paragraph, for example, in which Alice Sheldon describes a later trip to Africa made when she was a teenager (the elisions are Phillips'):
You keep remembering the wildness, the freshness, the unknown ... now for the first time, never before this seen ... it's different from the land with the gasoline smells in the rainforest [...].

[On the plane] our fellow passenger was Major Grogan, who thirty years before had been the first white man to go from the Cape to Cairo. It took him 3 years, one whole year in the marshes of the Sudd; his two companions died. It is said he ate them; I think so. He looked like a sensible man. But the whole 3 days up in the old De Havilland he sat silent with his face pressed to the [...] porthole, staring down as we roared over the way it had taken him so long to go. Little lions scattered like grasshoppers under us. He turned a couple of times and gave us and the interior of the plane a look that was just cold death laid over us. If we had had any taste we'd have died. Instead, we and the Japanese marquis and his aide and his wild cat all vomited for three days.


This trip not only taught her what a girl stood to lose in growing up; it showed her that all the joys of childhood are fragile, vulnerable to time and history, about to be lost.

I'm not sure what's going on in Sheldon's narration: she's met an old, mysterious cannibal and she's airsick--which may be par for the course in her travels--but I don't understand Phillips' reading of that passage.

The biography gets much better when Sheldon gets older and begins writing as James Tiptree, Jr. Tiptree wrote and received a lot of fan mail, and these letters are funny, insightful, weird (there's a hilarious set of exchanges among several eminent science fiction writers about whether one of Tiptree's letters is infested with roach eggs, and whether freezing the letter, burning it, or keeping it in a plastic bag might be the best way to deal with the situation). Sheldon's writing becomes sharper when she's Tiptree, maybe because she's able to deflect and ironize her anxieties about loneliness, gender, and creative work. Phillips' writing becomes sharper, too; her analyses of Tiptree's stories generate richer possible interpretations than the flat psychological readings of Sheldon's narrations in the first half.

For sheer strangeness that's exemplary of the rich second half of the book, here's this awesome paragraph:
Around this time, Alli fell under the spell of a new story about exploration. She started watching Star Trek, and saw in the crew of the enterprise her childhood traveling party, crossing the great unknown. Kirk was the fatherly leader of the expedition, while Mr. Spock, with his pointy ears and rational reserve, fit Alli's dream of the unattainable alien. To her surprise, Alli developed a violent crush on Spock. As Tiptree, she wrote a long fan letter to Leonard Nimoy explaining Spock's appeal. Since humans were naturally exogamous, tending to marry outside of their own group, and xenophilic, or naturally attracted to foreignness, a crush on Spock was an instinctive and almost biolgical reaction to his alien appearance: "the touching shoulder-blades, the tremor, the shadowed and infinitely effective squint." To another correspondent] Harry Harrison, Tiptree sighed, "If only Spock had a sister..."

There's a wonderful weirdness to this story and many others from Sheldon-Tiptree's adult correspondence. Many of the ideas in the letters show up in Tiptree's science fiction; the experiments with narrative form and subverting a reader's expectations generate moments of unexpected insight and possibilities that don't need to be determined definitively. Phillips is at her best when she relates these moments but leaves some space for speculation, or when she reproduces Tiptree's correspondence with LeGuin and Russ to talk about gender and authorial presence. These moments are experiments in form and reader expectations in their own right (LeGuin and Russ didn't know Tiptree's identity until after it was publicized), and the results are wonderfully unpredictable and creative. Sheldon's life is an amazing story, but it's most enjoyable when the subject and the biographer don't over-think it.

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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Bit and the Pendulum: software development owns my soul

It's easy to avoid facing my dreams. There are always tasks handy to fill up whatever space I need filled--I spent three hours today on a whim writing a computer program that has no use, and another half hour digging behind the refrigerator for the lid of my popcorn popper.

Fred Brooks, computer scientist and author of the one nontechnical book all CS students read, The Mythical Man-Month (thesis: you can't make a software project finish sooner by adding more bodies) wrote, "How does a project get to be a year behind schedule? One day at a time."

Brooks wasn't talking about procrastination, but all of the ways he describes software projects failing seem to have analogues for common procrastination. Software teams fail, Brooks explains, because they put off troubling questions for later; because they get through what they know how to do, and assume that the rest, which they've been putting off, will be just as easy; because deadlines are formed as threats, rather than sober estimates; because anxious bosses know only how to demand progress, when they should be reevaluating their course; because meetings and arguments become a way for everyone to avoid facing the awful muck they're in.

The "sunk-cost fallacy" of economics points out that your decisions in the past shouldn't matter when you're deciding what to do next. Just because you've paid for the 2-pound steak that you've lost your appetite for doesn't mean you should eat it; just because you put $3000 into repairs on that car two months ago doesn't mean you should put in another $500 to keep it going; and just because you've spent six months and $250,000 developing a complex application one way doesn't mean you shouldn't scrap it and start from scratch. If you thought rationally about it you would change course (my friend Jenny says of such restaurant situations, "you paid for the pleasure, not for the pain"), but avoidance steps in and your brain can't abide it.

Conversely, just because you are probably wasting your time doesn't mean you shouldn't pursue a risky course like being an artist or writing software all by yourself in your 6'x12' closet home office in Brooklyn. If you're willing to spend hours every day reading about male monkeys who will pay to see pictures of female monkey asses on a computer screen, the only thing keeping you from charting that risky course towards your dreams is plain avoidance.

Here's Mark Twain on work and avoidance, as Tom Sawyer realizes the full implications of his whitewashing scam:
He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it--namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is OBLIGED to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. And this would help him to understand why constructing artificial flowers or performing on a tread-mill is work, while rolling ten-pins or climbing Mont Blanc is only amusement. There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger-coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work and then they would resign.
(By the way, I hear you can pay $50 to work as a boatman in St. Petersburg for a day. I would do that in a heartbeat.)

Software is an area that lends itself particularly well to avoidance. Some kinds of work are very linear. You wait tables for x hours per week, you get 15x dollars; you assess loans for y hours per year, you get $40,000y plus a $2000 raise if you do your job well. I loved bicycle delivery in the meatpacking district of Manhattan because of this; it required attention and competence, but no strategy. Teaching is like this too, which is one reason I love it, though there is a difference between Mr. Wheeler on a day I have been brainstorming ways to guide my students, and days when I'm just winging it. (Teaching doesn't stop when school is out, but grading homework is also linear, though thankless.)

I suppose why I love teaching is that even when I'm just winging it, I'm still pretty good. What I can't decide is if that is a good thing, or a dangerous one. My Georgian tutor (that is, the woman in former Soviet Georgia who was teaching me the beautiful and maddening Georgian language called "Kartuli", or "ქართული") needed one session to denounce me as a "typical lazy smart person".

On the other end of the continuum from linear jobs like teaching high school are things like art, leadership and running a business. A wonderful teacher is much better than a mediocre one, but in my experience the difference is greater between great and mediocre organizational leaders. Likewise for art.

Everyone has to put hours in, though. Zurab Zhvania, Georgia's former Prime Minister, used to tell a joke about a mother who comes into her son's bedroom in the morning to wake him up. "Time for school," she says. Her son pulls the covers up. "I don't want to go to school!" "Dear, you have to go." "But all the kids make fun of me!" "Still," she says, "you have to go." "But it's not as fun as it used to be!" Etc. Finally, the mom says "None of this matters. You have to go--you're the principal!"

Software development can be just another 9-to-5, but when it's in the context of a startup or small business, it's way over at the amorphous, business/leadership end of the spectrum, or as I like to call it, the "realm of terror and shame". It's up a ways towards linearity from writing, but like writing there is no limit to what you can create with programming languages, if you can only imagine it and struggle with it all the way through until it is realized. After all, Larry Page and Sergey Brin had an idea that seems pretty obvious in retrospect, and could be programmed by most CS master's students, if they had the inspiration and perspiration.

That's why nightmares come when I am taken with ideas for elaborate software projects. Any of the briefest imaginings could be real, and if I made myself my sharpest, I could finish most of them in four weeks. And yet I am so afraid of finding out that I cannot, that I do not.

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Blogger Kate on Wed Feb 20, 04:06:00 PM:
Well, at least the 30 minutes you spent not realizing software in favor of writing this post weren't a complete waste. I'd like to think that this wisdom, in some profoundly non-linear way, will make me a better writer... when I get around to writing.
 

Goodbye to Georgia

Former fellow Tbilisi, Georgia resident Sue has left Georgia:
One week and one day ago, it was my last day in Georgia. I spent it in the most perfectly Georgian way possible—neglecting the untended heaps of belongings loitering around my suitcases at home and instead accompanying my favorite Orthodox monk to visit his vineyards in eastern Georgia. Not the most responsible of tactics, but I can tell you that anyone who has spent time in Georgia and hasn't adopted "it'll all work out" as a personal motto, is probably nursing ulcers and anyway missing out on all the fun.
...
It was an idyllic afternoon, but too soon I was again in Tbilisi and back to the grim business of suitcase-stuffing and separating the necessities (plum sauce, wine horns) from the expendable (shoes, bathrobes, towels). Funny to see your shifting priorities in such material form, cluttering up your living room floor.
...
It's not so strange to be back [in the US]. I lived here for 26 years, and what's one away compared to all that? A few impressions stand out. How casually Americans dress. How strange it is to communicate so easily in English. How annoying it is the way we divide up checks so clinically and scrupulously.
It took me nine months and two logistics nightmares to adopt "it'll all work out" as a personal motto. I did nurse ulcers, but far more at the beginning of my time in Georgia than at the end. I like to think I'm a better man for it.

National stereotypes have been out of style since the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which casually described the character of millions of people, as in this passage about Egyptians:

Their affability, cheerfulness and hospitality are remarkable, as well as frugality and temperance in food and drink, and honesty in the payment of debt. Their cupidity is mitigated by generosity; their natural indolence by the necessity, especially among the peasantry, to work hard to gain a livelihood. Egyptians, however, are as a rule suspicious of all not of their own creed and country.

(An excellent condensed selection of choice 11th edition passages has been published, by the way; it is called All There Is to Know.)

With that disclaimer out of the way, I will say that Georgia seems to have the effect Sue describes on workaholic types--they (we?) get better at smelling the roses, etc. Conversely, I think many Georgians would do well to spend a year in headstrong New York, or to somehow be otherwise exposed to intrepidity, a quality sorely lacking in what the Britannica a century ago would have called the Georgian character. I fantasize about introducing "West Wing" reruns there, which would fit nicely between the popular Latin American telenovelas, though the large amount of rapid dialogue would be tough to translate.

Sue also writes:
Perhaps numbness explains how easily I moved from crawling about ancient mountain monasteries to attentively noting the attributes of the microplane grater at a Pampered Chef party in suburban Dallas. But somehow Georgia doesn't feel so very far away, or dream-like, so I don't feel too acutely the separation.
I made the transition back to the US easily, more easily than I would have liked. I felt, right away, as if I'd never left. It's disturbing how quickly routine can be revived. I don't feel too acutely the separation, and for me that means Georgia seems very far away, a distant memory of who I once was, as vague in my memories of day-to-day life as high school.

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Monday, August 14, 2006

Programming languages and the zealots who love them

In the magazine American Scientist, computer columnist Brian Hayes has a fun overview of the world's many, many computer programming languages and the zealots who fight over which is best. He seems to know the field, and himself favors the obscure language Lisp, so it's strange that he gets object-oriented programming so wrong:
In object-oriented programming languages the root idea is to bind together imperative commands and the data they act on, forming encapsulated objects. Instead of defining a procedure to manipulate a data structure, one "teaches" the data structure how to carry out operations on itself.
I won't get into details about why this is wrong, but only promise that this makes absolutely no sense.

For an even more esoteric, but fun, journey through the state of programming languages, try Amazon employee Steve Yegge's 2004 rant "Tour de Babel":

We have 50 million lines of C++ code. No, it's more than that now. I don't know what it is anymore. It was 50 million last Christmas, nine months ago, and was expanding at 8 million lines a quarter. The expansion rate was increasing as well. Ouch.

Stuff takes forever to do around here. An Amazon engineer once described our code base as "a huge mountain of poop, the biggest mountain you've ever seen, and your job is to crawl into the very center of it, every time you need to fix something."

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Blogger Jeff'y on Tue Aug 15, 09:03:00 AM:
Have you seen Execution in the Kingdom of Nouns? Some LISP folks at work (we have quite a few) were circulating that a while ago. It goes into (excruciating) detail on the noun-with-verbs indictment against object oriented programming, but I agree that the issue is overblown. Or maybe I just go out of my way to write functional Java code whenever I can.

Despite my (admitted) tendency to over-parenthesize my prose, everyone knows that Perl, not LISP, is the One True Language.
 
Blogger Ben on Tue Aug 15, 10:15:00 AM:
The noun-with-verbs quality of Object Oriented Programming (OOP) is one thing -- but the notion that somehow these objects float around independently and act as independent agents is another. When I was learning OOP, I found such metaphors to be overblown and actually a block to my comprehension of OOP concepts; why not just say that instead of defining a function called repeatUntilMatched anywhere, and then saying repeatUntilMatched(pattern), you make a file called pattern, put a function (why "method"??) called repeatUntilMatched in it because that's where it makes sense to go, and say pattern.repeatUntilMatched() ?

And talking about "teaching" objects to perform operations on itself is a fantasy at best. Nontechnical readers probably assume that Hayes is talking about some sort of artificial intelligence.
 

Friday, August 11, 2006

The pitcher whisperer

Katy sent me this item from the Gordon Edes' mailbag on Boston.com:

Q: Gordon, is the analysis a little overboard as to how much Sox pitchers miss Varitek behind the plate? Isn't it a disservice to any other catcher to act as if Varitek's game calling and presence is that much better than anyone elses as if these other guys are incompetent? Pitchers that were struggling when Varitek caught are still struggling. I don't buy the "Jason Varitek: Pitcher Whisperer" thing, do you?
Michael Cummings, Austin, Texas

A: Michael, that's one of the better lines in 'Bag history---the "Pitcher Whisperer.'' All I can tell you is that from Pedro to Schill to Lowe to Papelbon, they all swear by Varitek, his game preparation, etc. And as I'm hearing Dave McCarty say even as I'm typing this, there's a comfort level the pitchers have with Jason that can't be duplicated by a guy parachuting in in August. But I still love the line. People might be getting a little giddy.

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Thursday, August 10, 2006

Morgan Spurlock's "I Bet You Will": Does freedom of choice trump fast food regulation?

In 2000, I took a semester off from college and helped start up an internet company. My boss was Morgan Spurlock, later of "Super-Size Me" fame, and our main project was producing a web-based show called "I Bet You Will". Against my cynical predictions, it was an instant success and we were actually paid for it, first by Madison Square Garden and then by MTV, who aired the show for a long time.

(Mark "Money Mark" Gilson, a co-worker who lost one leg to disease as a teenager and carried our briefcase full of cash for paying contestants, used to joke that one day MTV would buy the show and their first command would be "lose the gimp!" Sure enough, MTV kept Spurlock but dropped Mark as his sidekick in favor of a Limp Bizkit-styled, tattooed piece of camera candy.)

Spurlock is not someone I ever expected would be known as a political figure, but he is hated at Michael Moore levels by right wing pundits. In my opinion "Super-Size Me" was certainly not balanced, but neither was it unfair. It was helped along by Spurlock's intention to find the worst and make a shocking film, but those doctors weren't cherry-picked and their analysis was honest. And Morgan was careful not to make too many pronouncements or prescriptions for policy or what others should do.

The response by Spurlock's self-appointed nemesis Radley Balko, who runs the Morgan Spurlock Watch website, is to build a straw man of Spurlock, and tear him down:
Ironically enough, Spurlock began his television career at MTV on a show called "I Bet You Will," in which he paid people to eat disgusting things on camera. He once paid a woman $250 to shave her head, then eat a giant ball of her own hair mixed with butter. He paid another man to eat an entire jar of mayonnaise. Still another to swallow dog feces. When asked if he felt his show was exploitive, he replied, "No way. Everybody knows what they're getting into. Everybody has a good time. If somebody walks by and doesn't enjoy it, hey, it's a free country. Just keep on walking, man."
Clearly, with fast food, not everybody knows what they're getting in to. If they do, it's thanks in part to muckrakers like Spurlock and Erick Schlosser. Balko's misdirection is almost as craven as a meat industry obfuscation site I have described here that discredits Schlosser by pointing out that he recommends legalizing pot.

I was there for the mayonnaise and the feces, by the way. The dog shit was really a concoction we created from chocolate, tofu, coffee and bread crumbs, but we didn't tell viewers that. The mayonnaise was real, though, and he threw it up on the street afterwards. I wonder if that was the worst $50 he ever made.

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Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Freaktrition: Seth Roberts' Shangri-La Diet

Seth Roberts, an autodidact experimenter who uses himself for one-sample studies into the effects of acne treatments and diets, has announced a diet so fantastic he calls it "Shangri-La".

Roberts claims to demonstrate, through research and the results of his own experiments with his diet, that the body has a genetic "set point" for body fat storage, and that traditional dieting cannot lower this. The only way to lose fat and keep it off, he says, is by tricking your body into thinking it's not time to stock up on fats by taking your calories in tasteless and even mildly nauseating ways: spoonsful of olive oil, and lots of water with fructose added.

At least one rave reviewer swears by Roberts' ideas:
It is the cheapest diet I’ve ever been on. Five dollars worth of extra light (not extra virgin) olive oil from Costco or SAM’S CLUB lasts you six months. I’ve probably eaten less than half the food I would have otherwise eaten in that time...

I’m healthier, I’m happier, and I’m grateful for the diet and for the book. I’m back to walking four or five miles a day as I did when I was first married, I’m enjoying judo again, and I sleep much more soundly and need less sleep.
This diet was featured in one of the Freakonomics authors' columns in the NY Times, which are much more interesting than their agonizingly repetitious book.

Roberts' paper "What Makes Food Fattening?" is a published survey of a half-century of diet research on animals and humans. It reports the following conclusions:
  1. Eat new foods. No food with a new flavor is fattening, the theory implies.
  2. Vary the flavor of foods eaten repeatedly. If products came with optional flavoring packets and consumers added varying amounts of the flavorings, this would produce variation in flavor...
  3. Consume calories with no flavor associations. Ingestion of calories with no flavor should lower the set point, the theory implies. The fructose-water results suggest that ingestion of a small fraction of one’s daily calorie intake this way may substantially reduce the set point. Flavorless vegetable oils (vegetable oils, such as olive oil, from which all flavor molecules have been removed) are a possible source of calories without taste.
He also addresses the famous dilemma of why East Asians, particularly Japanese people, are so seldom obese:
Japanese food has weaker flavors than other cuisines. As one cookbook
says, “Most Japanese cuisine is seasoned only lightly; strong spices are never used” (Suzuki, 1994, p. 8). Weaker flavors lead to weaker flavor-calorie associations, as discussed earlier (Figure 2). In addition, at the time of the data shown in Figure 7, Japanese cuisine was also low in high-GI foods, such as bread and potatoes. According to Barer-Stein (1980, p. 335), “the staples of the traditional Japanese diet are rice, fish and seafood, vegetables and tea.” This too should have reduced the strength of flavor-calorie associations, as discussed earlier. When Japanese emigrate to the United States and adopt an American diet, they eventually weigh as much as other Americans (Curb & Marcus, 1991), which supports this explanation. (p. 36)
In one study Roberts describes, lab rats grew fat on supermarket food but not on more tasteless lab
To make rats fat quickly, Sclafani and Springer (1976) placed supermarket food, namely “chocolate chip cookies, salami, cheese, bananas, marshmallow, milk chocolate, and peanut butter” (Sclafani & Springer, 1976, p. 462), in their home cages. Lab chow remained available. The rats could eat as much as desired. After eight weeks, they had gained over three times as much weight than rats not given supermarket food – far more weight gain than a high-fat diet produced under the same conditions (Sclafani & Springer, 1976)...

Why was supermarket food much more fattening than lab chow? As stated
earlier, supermarket food competes for shelf space. Foods that produce a strong flavor-calorie association will be preferred, other things equal (Sclafani, 1991). Supermarket foods are selected for this property, in the sense that foods with more of it are more likely to be bought; and foods that are not bought are no longer stocked. Lab chow does not undergo the same selection process. Rats are not given a choice between different versions of lab chow and how much tasty rats find a particular version has little effect on what is bought or made.
So far, little surprise. But here is what is promising, if it's true:
The supermarket food took one to two weeks to cause weight gain, which argues that learning was involved (Ramirez, 1990a). This is roughly the length of time required for flavor-calorie learning to become strong (e. g., Bolles, Hayward & Crandall, 1981).
Other explanations: Perhaps the supermarket food was more palatable than the lab chow. However, the delay in the start of this effect argues against this explanation (Ramirez, 1990a). Ramirez, Tordoff and Friedman (1989, p. 163) noted that “evidence for this hypothesis [that palatable food causes obesity] is particularly weak.”
It's hard to know what's more suspect: Roberts' claims of his own incredible results, or his enlisting medical research to assert that his messianic diet is supported by science. Dr. Atkins' confident summaries of human physiology, after all, have been called less than accurate by many doctors.

If Roberts is right, though, how would we know? This is a problem in the current system of strong peer-review in science. Those doing research outside of universities and not publishing in mainstream journals are so often con men or quacks that many promising thinkers among their ranks get painted with the same brush as charlatans.

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Anonymous Anonymous on Wed Aug 09, 10:53:00 PM:
Japanese eat a lot more than "Japanese food," and on the whole it's spiced along the lines of any other nation's food. For instance, curry rice is really common in "home cooking." It's not super spicy Indian curry, but it's as spicy as any American beef stew is. Fried foods are eaten with lots of gloppy "sauce" or "tonkatsu sauce" on it, a Worcestershire style, very sweet sauce. Fish is often salted when bought (for instance, the various mackerels and salmon/salmon-trouts), and soy sauce is used heavily. Even bland tofu is eaten with soy sauce, grated ginger, and chives on top. A lot of "Chinese" food is eaten in Japan, which is spiced with tobanjan, a sort of chile pepper-miso paste from China, as well as garlic, ginger. oyster sauce, etc. Food like sushi and sashimi is not eaten on a daily basis by Japanese.
 
Blogger seth roberts on Sun Aug 27, 08:42:00 AM:
"If Roberts is right, how would we know?" That's a good question. How about we begin to know by looking at what happens when people try the diet?
 
Blogger Ben on Mon Aug 28, 10:51:00 AM:
Absolutely. Just because most people who promise fantastic diet changes with less effort than the old excercise-and-eat-better method method are essentially conmen doesn't mean Roberts is. Any word on studies being done on the diet?
 

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Seen in the Times recently...

In a recent book review in the NY Times, critic Clive James settles once and for all that critics, at least in film, are extraneous:
The editor, Phillip Lopate, an essayist and film critic, has a catholic scope, and might not agree that the nontheorists clearly win out. They do, though, and one of the subsidiary functions that this hefty compilation might perform — subsidiary, that is, to its being sheerly entertaining on a high level — is to help settle a nagging question. In our appreciation of the arts, does a theory give us more to think about, or less?
...
Sometimes a critic persuades you to give an unpromising-looking movie a chance, but the movie had better convey the impression pretty quickly that the critic might be right. By and large, it's the movie itself that tells you it means business. It does that by telling a story. No story, no movie. Robert Bresson only did with increasing slowness what other directors had done in a hurry. But when Bresson, somewhere in the vicinity of Camelot, reached the point where almost nothing happening became nothing happening at all, you were gone. A movie has to glue you to your seat even when it's pretending not to.
Also seen in the Times recently: the story "Skyline for Sale", June 4 2006, states "It's also fair to ask whether Mr. Gehry and other gifted architects have made a pact with the Devil, compromising their values for the sake of ever bigger commissions." I love the balance of the meandering "It's also fair to ask" with the blunt mention of the Prince of Darkness.

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Wednesday, August 02, 2006

All roads lead to Lubbock

James Hynes' essay on West Texas books is my favorite installment so far in Salon's Literary Guide to the World series. It's funny, and it has an idea (who are the outsiders in West Texas?) that ties it together other than, "here are some books set in this location." Having driven through the area almost every Christmas on the way to Austin or College Station when I was younger, I have an odd attachment to West Texas. I've already noted my love for Larry McMurtry's bookstores in Archer City (indeed, I've eaten at the very Dairy Queen of his memoir, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen).

Or maybe I idealize it because it's so far away; the last time we drove through a couple of years ago, I'd grown tired of the long trip and grumbled about stopping at Lubbock Lake. "It's not like there's water or anything," I insisted. That's because it's a prehistoric lake!

In 2000, Texas Monthly's annual music issue featured a great story about the Lubbock music scene:
Yet when most outsiders use the words "beauty" and "Lubbock" in the same sentence, they aren't talking about the brown, blasted landscape. They're referring to something like Jimmie Dale Gilmore's high, lonesome voice, or Buddy Holly's deceptively simple rock and roll, or Terry Allen's elaborate story songs. They're talking about Lubbock music, and a beauty that, like the terrain's, is not typical. Indeed, the question Lubbockites get asked more than any other is. How could so much music come out of this windy wasteland? For two generations, Lubbock has produced an unsurpassed number of rock icons and country superstars, brilliant weirdos and working stiffs: Holly, Ely, Gilmore, and Allen, as well as Waylon Jennings, Natalie Maines, Butch Hancock, Tommy Hancock, Jo Carol Pierce, Norman Odam (a.k.a. the Legendary Stardust Cowboy), Delbert McClinton, Sonny Curtis, Mac Davis, John Denver (who went to Texas Tech) and Meat Loaf (who went to Lubbock Christian College). The common denominator connecting them all is "a reckless energy," says Don Caldwell, who owns Caldwell studios, a Lubbock recording complex. "Regardless of the style that's being played, there's an approach and an attack that comes with the players out here that's real identifiable."

How did such a gifted bunch happen to hail from the same place? One simple, unsatisfying reason is that all roads lead to Lubbock. Many musicians grew up on farms and in small towns in the Panhandle and moved to one of the biggest cities around. Long before, in the 1870's, millions of cows were driven through the area by thousands of cowboys, who wrote and sang songs that would become country music staples. As cotton emerged as a thriving industry in the thirties, Lubbock came to be known as the Hub City of the Plains, because of the four highways that intersect there.

Though the hub has its whimsical side -- Lubbock had a town band in the early twentieth century -- it is also a city with more churches per capita than any other in the country, one in which you couldn't buy alcohol until 1972 and still can't buy a beer in a grocery store. And so, for many musicians, all roads lead away from Lubbock too.

Musicians from the area speculated about the Lubbock mystique:
GUY JUKE: Alien implantation of fetuses from the Lubbock Lights is my theory. Aliens, in order to enter society, go through the pregnant woman. They send their mind through that. And then Butch Hancock is born.

DAVIS MCLARTY: My uncle Marvin actually saw the Lubbock Lights because he worked at the Circle Drive-In -- he guarded the exit to make sure no one was sneaking in. He said they weren't flying saucers; they were low-flying geese on one of those weird West Texas nights. . . you know the way the sky gets so weird and the light reflects funny?

DELBERT MCCLINTON: Hell, I don't know. I think maybe it was the DDT trucks that drove up and down the alleys we used to run behind. Maybe that's what caused it.

MCLARTY: The layout of Lubbock is kind of interesting. Everything either goes east and west or north and south. There's a fixed circle that goes around the whole city, and then on the inside, it's all squares. I don't know if that has anything to do with it, but it's sort of like sheet music.

NORMAN ODAM: Well, there was nothing else to do there!

MCCLINTON: You either go crazy or play music in Lubbock. There's not a hell of a lot to do.

CHARLENE HANCOCK: The energy behind Lubbock music, whatever style it is, seems to have a lot of force. I know it's because of that darn wind.

ANGELA STREHLI: You had to have an imagination to fill in the blanks.

JOE ELY: Every time I go back, there's something about that whole area that seems to want to turn into a song. There's something musical about that emptiness. I can't ever drive up there without music coming into my head. It helps fill up the space.

TERRY ALLEN: The isolation and the geography and the weather and the starkness -- all of these things play big roles. To this day, I love to see a flat horizon; there's something that makes me take a deep breath. And then, in those days, I think it was just the fact that you were completely surrounded by this horizon, that any kind of thing could come over at any minute, like a tornado or a killer or whatever. But your eye always went to it, and your imagination always went to it, because that was kind of the secret door out.

JO HARVEY ALLEN: There was this thing about the horizon in that flat country. When you were out playing, you loved to look and say "Oh, yeah, the earth is round." And you would be right in the middle of it. I've always thought that being in that spot gave you this feeling that you were the center of the universe, that you were really special, and at the same time you were just a speck of absolute nothing.

CONNI HANCOCK: When I was a little kid, I would go to my grandmother's house, between Lubbock and Amarillo, and a lot of times we would be coming back at night. Those cotton fields were so black, and really, there weren't many lights in Lubbock. I can remember looking at a speck of light and thinking, "That could be my house; that speck could be my whole world." I would contemplate perspective a lot because everything was so flat, and there was so much sky. I remember when they built the loop around Lubbock, the overpasses. It was a big deal. And when my dad would take me downtown to run errands with him, we would go to the cafe on top of the Great Plains Life Insurance building. I could just stare out that window for hours and hours because, for once, I wasn't just on flat ground. It was like becoming a living figure.

I love those last two quotes especially. One of the songs on the new Dixie Chicks album, Taking the Long Way, is called "Lubbock or Leave It" (there's little love lost, apparently). I was interested in Frank Kagan's review of the album in the Village Voice, especially as it dovetails with Hynes' thoughts on West Texas reading and outsider culture:
Country music itself has a double view: first, that the world is right and that our values are four-square, even if as individuals we struggle and cheat and damage each other and screw up; and second, that our world is going under, taken down by those who buy us out and belittle us. And we secretly buy into our own inferiority. The Dixie Chicks rose above this by representing a blonde girl-power glamour while playing a country music that felt liberated and guilt-free. 'Cept underneath this was the sense that they were just playing country rather than being country, and this was part of their appeal, representing country's noncountry urges. Now, in the statement that set the rage fires burning, the Chicks weren't literally saying they were ashamed of Texas, but that's what it comes down to: Texas is responsible for nurturing Bush, and Bush is something to be ashamed of. And with Texas comes the whole South, and the country audience in general, who took it personally and went nutso. Of course, that audience was being chickenshit for then ostracizing, rather than engaging, the Chicks. But to engage would mean acknowledging the insecurity and shame.

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Blogger Anna on Wed Aug 02, 06:56:00 PM:
I once almost missed my plane to Lubbock because the stewardess kept announcing that they were boarding the plane to Amarillo, which I had never heard of.