Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Harry Potter and the Whole Megilah

The NY Times's Motoko Rich has a great line today:
While fans take endless delight in spinning their own theories, bringing Talmudic fervor to the analysis of clues dropped throughout the previous books and in interviews with Ms. Rowling, they tend to oppose spoilers violently.
She's not the first to make the Harry Potter-Talmud connection. Here's About.com's Jewish editor Bruce James:
On a very simple level, Orthodox Jews can find many similarities between J.K. Rowling's wizarding world. Not only do we have a unique culture, although often blending in with the muggle/non-Jewish world, we have our own laws and schools. We even have our own shopping districts -- in Cedarhurst its Central Avenue; in Teaneck its Cedar Lane; in the wizarding world its Diagon Alley.
...
The Talmud tells us the story of Abbaye and Rava who go to a dream interpreter named Bar Hedya on several occasions. Each time the two rabbis pose identical dreams and seek an interpretation. One consistently gives Bar Hedya a tip, and the other pays him nothing. Not surprisingly, Bar Hedya gives the generous rabbi favorable interpretations, which all come true, and the other interpretations of disaster, which also come true. The Talmud teaches us a lesson similar to Dumbledore -- if one never had the dream interpreted, chances are it would not have come true at all.
Blogger Ben on Mon Jul 30, 10:02:00 PM:
Today I had a classic moment of infatuation with New York... on the subway, a group of teenagers traded freestyle verses, a church group chatted boisterously (while the minister meticulously read a Spanish-language newspaper article with steamy photos of Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek), a subway musician played the saxophone and a Hasid read a Talmud page even more labyrinthine than the one pictured above.
 

Monday, June 25, 2007

Nancy Drew nostalgia

I know Nancy Drew can solve any mystery, but she also has the bizarre ability to inflict nostalgia on any woman, regardless of age. Lately I've read lots of (similar-sounding) articles about how everyone from Ruth Bader Ginsburg to, oddly enough, Mariane Pearl looks up to the Stratemeyer Syndicate heroine. I guess I'd count myself among her fans. I taught myself how to speed-read on Nancy Drew novels when I was little--I'd read a couple each night and sometimes refused to come to dinner until I finished one--so Nancy taught me more about patterned reading than she did about examining every last detail. (This habit will have come back to haunt me by the end of the post.)

I ended up sitting in front of a row of 13-year-old girls at a recent matinee screening of the new Nancy Drew movie. They were adorably self-conscious about their own nostalgia, as each advertisement and preview brought on another giggled chorus of memories. "I went to Build-a-Bear for my eleventh birthday, but I'm too old for it now," one of them said about the advertisement for the stuffed animal store. She added, "They're so cute, though!" They sang along to every lyric in the Hairspray! movie preview--itself a mishmash of all sorts of nostalgia for the 1960s, John Waters and the '80s nostalgia for the '60s, and, apparently, last spring's trip to Broadway for someone's twelfth birthday party. When the preview for the new Harry Potter movie appeared, one of them exclaimed that she wished she could go back to the time when there were still more Harry Potters to look forward to.

I caught my breath at the first shot of the movie, a picture of all the blue and yellow spines of the first series of Nancy Drew books (the first 56 in the series). I still have some of my old Nancy Drew books, although I bought most of them used. As such, Nancy has a fierce-looking anarchy tattoo on the cover of the The Secret of the Old Clock. The movie isn't very good because it can't decide what it wants to do--be a teen movie or a straight-faced Nancy Drew story. The detective story isn't compelling, and the teen movie stuff is stale and forced. I'm not sure that the lurches in tone and style can be called post-modernist (as this reviewer does), but the movie ends up thematizing itself in all that self-conscious nostalgia for old movie stars, old girls' detective novels, and fantastic vintage clothing. I desperately want the polka-dot and stripes dress she wears to her birthday party.

I laughed at Anthony Lane's review of the film in the New Yorker, which takes the form of a dialogue between Julia Roberts and her niece, Emma, who plays Nancy in the film. It's written like the old Nancy Drew stories:
“It was splendid,” replied Emma, pausing to adjust the headband on her fine reddish hair. “The story begins in River Heights, a town full of delightful white people. I am motherless and my father is a lawyer, so both of us are rather sad! For a treat we move to Los Angeles, where the girls at my new school say I remind them of Martha Stewart. They are so ‘right on,’ it really is a joy!”
“And what happens next?” asked Emma’s aunt, her excitement mounting.
“Well, the house the Drews are renting once belonged to a movie star—you know, one of the super-old ones.”
“Like Lana Turner?”
“Who?”
“Skip it. Who plays the part of the actress?”
“The beautiful Miss Laura Elena Harring. After some ace detective work, I discovered that she was in a film called ‘Mulholland Drive,’ which dealt with similar material. Isn’t that coincidence just a little too suspicious? And the plot leads Nancy to a resort by the name of Twin Palms. Another clue! To sum up, a friend of mine said the film was like Lynch without the lesbians or the dwarves. What are lesbians, Aunt? Are they friends of Snow White’s, too?”
“More than you will ever know, dear.”

That note about David Lynch reminded me of my own mortified nostalgia--that's one of the driving forces of Mulholland Drive, right?--at re-encountering Nancy Drew when I was eighteen years old. One day at school I saw a girl holding a book with the title The Good-for-Nothing Girlfriend. Ever humorless and vigilant about addressing problematic gender roles, I pursed my lips and asked if I could see the book. The cover illustration of a 1950s titian-haired ingenue looked like a Nancy Drew cover, but the cover said it was a Nancy Clue book. Who was perverting the feminist legacy of Nancy Drew?! I took up the case with equal parts puzzlement and self-righteousness. The girl said she had gotten it from the library, so I stalked up to the front desk and asked the librarians why they had ordered such a sexist book. Were there more of these inappropriate knock-offs in the library? They gave me the call number for The Not-So-Nice Nurse. I flounced to the stacks to get it.

I took the book from the shelf, sighed dramatically at the confines of the gender role in the title, and began to turn the pages angrily. The first few pages read like an alternate universe of the books I had grown up reading: Nancy Drew was named Nancy Clue; the housekeeper Hannah Gruen was Hannah Gruel; and River Heights was named River Depths. I stopped speed-reading for sexism and started to pause at the sexual innuendoes in the book. I turned the book over to look for clues in the mysterious volume.

It was a lesbian satire of Nancy Drew. The two books by Mabel Maney are really funny send-ups of the old books. Nancy Clue is a drunken flirt who needs Cherry Aimless (a joke from the old Nurse Cherry Ames books from the Stratemeyer Syndicate) to bail her out. River Heights changes location from state to state in each chapter (like Springfield on The Simpsons).

I told this story when I was at Barnard and laughed about all that flouncing and pursed lips about problematic gender roles; I realized I'd become a more low-key and thoughtful feminist since high school. Much to everyone's relief. So, thanks for making me a better feminist close reader, Nancy Drew (and Nancy Clue).
Blogger Jenny Davidson on Wed Jun 27, 12:24:00 PM:
Great post.

When I was five and six I obsessively read those Nancy Drew books--in fact I can close my eyes and visualize the particular shelf on which they sat in the public library we went to in Wilmington, Delaware--we moved to Philadelphia the summer I turned seven, and I think I was pretty much done with Nancy Drew after that, but I still think fondly of the whole ridiculous strawberry-colored hair thing & the other charming formulaic features--I think even a quite small child can pick up on the absurdity of how much all the books are like each other!
 

Thursday, June 14, 2007

When polygamy reigns, women gain

Undercover Economist Tim Hartford on polygamy:
After more than a decade of war between separatist rebels and the Russian army, there are not many marriageable men to go around in Chechnya. So, acting Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, probably not a feminist, proposed a radical step: "Each man who can provide for four wives should do it."
...
It's natural to assume that polygyny is bad for women, partly because most of us would rather have our spouse to ourselves, and partly because we look at a place like Saudi Arabia, where polygyny is not uncommon, and note that women aren't even allowed to drive. I'm not quite so convinced.
...
In a society with equal numbers of men and women, each man with four wives gives women the additional pick of three men—the poor saps whose potential wives decided they'd prefer one-quarter of a billionaire instead. In the Sahel region of Africa, half of all women live in polygynous households. The other half have a good choice of men and a lot more bargaining power.
...
In a society such as Chechnya, where there is a shortage of young men, we would expect the reverse effect: Men get to pick and choose, playing the field, perhaps not bothering to get married at all. We don't have good data on Chechnya, but we have excellent information about an unexpected parallel.

A little over one in 100 American men are in prison—but there are several states where one in five young black men are behind bars. Since most women marry men of a similar age, and of the same race and in the same state, there are some groups of women who face a dramatic shortfall of marriage partners.

Economist Kerwin Charles has recently studied the plight of these women. Their problem is not merely that some who would want to marry won't be able to. It's that the available men—those not in prison—suddenly have more bargaining power. Goodbye to doing the dishes and paying the rent; hello to mistresses and wham, bam, thank you ma'am... finding a surfeit of marriage partners, [the men] suddenly seem in no hurry to marry. And why would they?
...
The reverse is probably true, too... In China, the policy of one-child families coupled with selective abortion of girls has produced "surplus" males. Such men are called "bare branches," and China could have 30 million of them by 2020... these lonely, wifeless men will end up sleeping with a relatively small number of women—prostitutes—with severe risks of sexually transmitted disease all around.

Beirut, according to the NY Times, has been experiencing the opposite: because so many men emigrate to work abroad (or fight and die in violence that erupted since the publication of this article), there is a shortage of men--which means men are in demand, and women have little bargaining power:
The country’s high rate of unemployment pushes the young men to seek work elsewhere, sometimes in Western countries like France and Canada, but mainly in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and the other oil states on the Persian Gulf. The women, inhibited by family pressures, are generally left behind.

“The demographic reality is truly alarming,” Professor Khalaf said. “There are no jobs for university graduates, and with the boys leaving, the sex ratios are simply out of control. It is now almost five to one: five young girls for every young man. When men my sons’ age come back to Lebanon, they can’t keep the girls from leaping at them.”
Stories like this fascinate me because they poke holes our complicated and passionate personal stories, about what we believe, who we like and why we act as we do. I suspect that straight women in a place with a shortage of men would rate a picture of man X more highly than women around a glut of men.

Much of the explanations we make for our decisions are little more than ex post facto decoration, added so that the context makes sense to us or so that we appear less craven. I love that this is true, and that we're so transparent. Knowing that we are all base creatures and servant to our genes makes me feel closer to other people; if we're all apes struggling to wear human clothing together, then we are more like each other than we realize.

Others often feel the opposite way, that studies like these strip away the value of human relationships and implicitly justify selfish and indulgent behavior. I can certainly relate; I feel a twinge of horror at our lost innocence when I read in the Times, for example, that in Europe "a 5-foot-0 guy would need to make $325,000 more than a 6-foot-0 man to be as successful in the online dating market".

I sense a difference in gender perspective here, but I could be making that up. As an anecdotal example, it seems to me that today, more men of the '60s (to borrow a phrase that really refers to the 1860s) than women see a connection between political conservativism and sexual conservativism as damaging ideas; I have heard women of that experimentally libertine subculture talk of the damage of promiscuity and extramarital affairs in a way that the men don't. Even looking at such a phenomenon as this different in perspective in terms of gender and evolutionary psychology is something I suspect men are more interested in doing than women. Is that because it reduces us to animals and points out our natural distance from each other? Is it because we need to maintain our cultural mortar of beliefs and practices to hold families, and our civilization, together? Is it because such stories about evolution allow men to justify reckless behavior?

Monday, June 04, 2007

Menand explains it all

In an essay on Michael Ondaatje, in the June 4 2007 New Yorker, Louis Menand writes:
There is a method of story writing that involves stripping the tale of every extraneous detail plus one, so that the non-extraneous bit becomes, in the reader's imagination, the piece that might explain everything. It's a formula for ambiguity. Kipling was expert at this; so was Hemingway.
This observation may be old hat to Alice and fellow lit scholars, but it feels revelatory to me. That's precisely how my mind works when reading a story.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Explainer, explain thyself!

Why be a one-trick pony if you're going to flub your one trick? A column of advice on tricky ethical questions is a great idea for a trick, but Randy Cohen botches it as "The Ethicist" every week, next to fellow NY Times Magazine regular Deborah Solomon, who believes that interviewing "requires no special talent".

I love Slate's multi-author column "The Explainer", which does the answer-anything format better than it's ever been done. Mostly this is because they choose questions that are interesting and risque, rather than standard fodder like "What are Israelis and Palestinians fighting about, anyway?" or "How rich is the richest man in the world?".

Some recent Explainer topics have been, What should you do when confronted with a gun-toting madman?, What's the smell of burning human flesh?, How does God reward a female suicide bomber? and, Is it dangerous to snort your dad's ashes?

But I disagree a bit with three recent Explainer answers.

First there is the question, At what point does compressed music really sound worse than a CD? It's silly to attempt to answer this question, as one Explainer does, without mentioning the open-source music file format called "Ogg Vorbis". OGG files sound much better than mp3 does at the same file sizes. Mp3 at 128 mbps (the most common compression level) is definitely distinguishable from CD quality if you use headphones. OGG at 128 mbps is not, and even sounds great at 80mbps. The iPod doesn't play OGG files, but Apple could change this in an instant if consumers wanted OGG support.

Next is a great question: What's the Christian doctrine on bong hits? To my surprise, the Explainer leaves out the speculation by archaeologists that cannabis oil may have been a common anointing oil in Jesus's age. To be fair, that's not a question of doctrine, but it is a crucial, and amusing, bit of context.

Last, there is the question, Is it a good idea to invest in forever stamps? ("Forever stamps" are the Liberty Bell-adorned stamps the Postal Service is selling for 41 cents, which will never expire or require you to buy a sheet of 2 cent stamps every time the first class mail rate goes up.) The Explainer says it's not worth the investment, because postage increases don't keep pace with inflation.

But this ignores the practical aspect of the question. The reality for most people that they'd only be investing to the tune of, say, a hundred bucks. $100 would buy you 234 forever stamps, which you could use for years. Let's say that, in this email age, you use two stamps per month; your $100 purchase would last you ten years. If the rate of increases in the last ten years holds, by that time stamps will be 53 cents, which means the average price during that ten year period would have been 47 cents, which, adjusted for predicted inflation, is 40 cents in today's money. You will be paying, on average, a one-cent premium per stamp, totaling $1.

Now consider the inconvenience of buying stamps in the future. In the past ten years, I have spent several hours--let's say two--standing in line at the post office to buy sheets of 2 cent stamps or other small amounts. Would I exchange the $1 lost on forever stamps for having these two hours back over the next ten years? Absolutely. You might get up to a two- or three-cent premium per stamp if you buy stamps for the next 30 years instead of just 10, but it would still be well worth the money.

So no, Warren Buffet shouldn't invest in forever stamps. But you should.