Shared posts

16 Apr 19:45

"All roads lead to good intentions": Meet the Crossed Proverb, or "Perverb"

by Jia Tolentino
by Jia Tolentino

The Paris Review has a little teaser up about perverbs, a term invented by Maxine Groffsky for the result of split-and-crossed proverbs. Harry Mathews makes terrific use of the exercise:

All roads lead to good intentions;
East is east and west is west and God disposes;
Time and tide in a storm.
All roads, sailor’s delight.
(Many are called, sailors take warning:
All roads wait for no man.)

All roads are soon parted.
East is east and west is west: twice shy.
Time and tide bury their dead.
A rolling stone, sailor’s delight.
“Any port”—sailor take warning:
All roads are another man’s poison.

I love this. [Paris Review]

14 Apr 17:30

"What is the probability, given that Ross painted a happy tree, that he then painted a friend for that tree?" (93%)

by Jia Tolentino
by Jia Tolentino

This is the happiest that Five Thirty Eight could ever make me:

Based on images of Bob Ross’s paintings available in the Bob Ross Inc. store, I coded all the episodes using 67 keywords describing content (trees, water, mountains, weather elements and man-made structures), stylistic choices in framing the paintings, and guest artists, for a grand total of 3,224 tags. I analyzed the data to find out exactly what Ross, who died in 1995, painted for more than a decade on TV. The top-line results are to be expected — wouldn’t you know, he did paint a bunch of mountains, trees and lakes! — but then I put some numbers to Ross’s classic figures of speech. He didn’t paint oaks or spruces, he painted “happy trees.” He favored “almighty mountains” to peaks. Once he’d painted one tree, he didn’t paint another — he painted a “friend.”

Read on for an exhaustive chart and a particularly delightful section on conditional probabilities:

What is the probability, given that Ross painted a happy tree, that he then painted a friend for that tree?
There’s a 93 percent chance that Ross paints a second tree given that he has painted a first.

What percentage of Bob Ross paintings contain an almighty mountain?
About 39 percent prominently feature a mountain.

What percentage of those paintings contain several almighty mountains?
Ross was also amenable to painting friends for mountains. Sixty percent of paintings with one mountain in them have at least two mountains.

[Five Thirty Eight]

13 Apr 14:00

Sunday Fun: Girl Pants

by Lisa Wade, PhD

No pockets, no justice.

Click to embiggen.1 (2) - Copy
Visit Dumbing of Age.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

(View original at

13 Apr 11:32

So appealing

by Mark Liberman

A few days ago, (someone using the initials) C D C commented:

I get so annoyed when I hear sloppy English on the news.
Today I heard that one of the killers of that soldier in London was going to "appeal his sentence" instead of "appeal against his sentence"!

This was a free-floating peeve, completely unrelated to the content of the post  ("The case of the persevering pedestrian", 4/7/2014) or to any of the previous comments — C D C apparently mis-interpreted our discussion of grammatical analysis as one of those articles meant to stir up "Angry linguistic mobs with torches" that the media, especially in Britain, features from time to time.

And as usual for peevers, C D C was not at all curious about the nature and history of the usage in question, and was therefore soon exposed as ignorant as well as intolerant.

As I and others pointed out in subsequent comments, "appeal his sentence" is the normal way to express this concept in American English. Thus in the NYT since 1/1/2000, I counted

"appeal the sentence" 86
"appeal his sentence" 31
"appeal her sentence" 1
"appeal against the sentence" 0
"appeal against his sentence" 0
"appeal against her sentence" 0

And in the Washington Post:

"appeal the sentence" 70
"appeal his sentence" 44
"appeal her sentence" 2
"appeal against the sentence" 2
"appeal against his sentence" 0
"appeal against her sentence" 0

(One of the WaPo's two "appeal against the sentence" usages is in a reprint of a Reuters wire story about a German case, written by a British journalist; the other one is in an opinion piece written by a Kenyan journalist.)

In contrast, the counts for the same period from The Times of London are:

"appeal the sentence" 27
"appeal his sentence" 7
"appeal her sentence" 2
"appeal against the sentence" 111
"appeal against his sentence" 49
"appeal against her sentence" 15

And in the Telegraph:

"appeal the sentence" 38
"appeal his sentence" 14
"appeal her sentence" 2
"appeal against the sentence" 61
"appeal against his sentence" 33
"appeal against her sentence" 15

Thus elite British usage, pace C D C, is mixed, though favoring against, while elite American usage seems to be uniformly against against.

Plots from the Google Books ngram viewer suggest that

  • American usage of "appeal against <SENTENCE>", never high, has recently declined;
  • British books have been using "appeal <SENTENCE>"  for a long time, although at a lower rate than "appeal against <SENTENCE>".
American English:
British English:

(There are all the usual reasons to take such inferences and the plots themselves with a large grain of salt — for example, American authors and quotations from American sources are published in Britain, and vice versa.)

In any case, there's clearly a trans-Atlantic difference. And even in British English, the OED indicates that the pattern "appeal <SOMETHING> to <HIGHER_AUTHORITY>" goes back to 1481, and continues at least through 1900:

1481   Caxton tr. Hist. Reynard Fox (1970) 71,   I appele this mater in to the court to fore our lord the kyng.
a1593   Marlowe Tragicall Hist. Faustus (1604) sig. A2,   To patient Judgements we appeale our plaude.
1900   Westm. Gaz. 22 Aug. 2/2   Possibly the case will be appealed.

The American usage appears in the 19th century, continuing to the present day:

1828   Webster Amer. Dict. Eng. Lang. (at cited word),   We say the cause was appealed before or after trial.
1870   J. R. Lowell Among my Bks. (1873) 1st Ser. 178   To appeal a case of taste to a court of final judicature.
1932   E. Wilson Devil take Hindmost xvii. 192   The defense will appeal the case to the Supreme Court.

So perhaps the American "appeal his sentence" usage continues the original British tradition, and the British "appeal against his sentence" usage is an innovation of the past century.

If so, then C D C would not even have the excuse of complaining about an Americanism — the "sloppy English" in question is actually traditional English, as established by Caxton and Marlowe, before the reckless linguistic innovation of 20th-century British jurists.



13 Apr 10:35

Coma alarm dreams

by vaughanbell

Intensive Care Medicine has published a wonderfully written and vivid account from a teenager who spent time brain injured and hallucinating in an intensive care unit.

The writer describes how he was admitted to intensive care at the age of 15 after suffering a head injury and had intense and bizarre hallucinations which are, as we know now, surprisingly common in critical care patients.

My experience of the time under sedation can be split into two. There was what I could perceive of the real world around me, and then there was my dream world.

In the real world, the most constant feature was sound. I could hear the nurses talking, understanding everything they said. They always spoke their names. They were always kind, conscious I think that I might hear them. They helped me to relax. I could hear the noises of the ward, tones of voices and alarms. The alarms made me tense. I can remember Mum talking to me a lot and Dad reading me ‘The Hobbit’, although I still can’t remember the names of all the dwarves. Mum and Dad’s voices always came from the left.

My other senses were not wholly switched off either. Things were put in my mouth: tubes, sucky things, wet watery pads and a toothbrush. Someone moved my hair about. I felt furry and silky toys placed under my fingers. My brother and sisters had brought a knitted tortoise and a horse for me. My feet were moved about and stretched, which felt really good. I remember that the rolled-up bed sheets were uncomfortable.

Other sensations were less good. The constant, repetitive shining of a bright light in my remaining eye really annoyed me – I am sure I can remember every single time.

Then there was my dreaming. I lived in the dream world nearly all the time and it went on and on. The dreams were vivid, terrifying and very disturbing. There were some good ones but unfortunately for me a lot of really bad ones. I can still remember most of them even now, more than a year since.

At the sound of an alarm, a giant monster appeared with a meat cleaver and pursued me around the sports hall. I had to protect a girl and prevent an army from crossing a river. The whole river and hall were aflame. I was burning from the heat.

In another I had to stop an alarm-driven colossal centipede from crossing a bridge. I could see the shadow of monsters looming towards me behind a curtain. I knew the monsters were there and about to consume me, but I lay transfixed, unable to move, and I remember feeling myself sweating with excruciating fear. I was then on the bridge of a nuclear submarine with maniacs trying to blow up the world, there was a huge explosion. Then it ended.

I was aboard a flying craft. I was there to stop green-coated aliens from creating human missiles. The aliens were forcing people into missile tubes. They were going to drop the human bombs from the aircraft.

Then there was a shape-shifter leopard beast chasing me and my friends. We were working in a fast-food place on a ship. It cornered us, and the Kentucky Fried Chicken sign burst into red lightning.

But I knew when something really nasty was going to happen. I could always hear the same alarm going off. It was a signal for the monsters to appear, for the centipede to attack, for bombs to be dropped, I would be sacrificed…I was very afraid. Tension would build to some hideous climax. Looking back, I suspect the pressure in my brain was causing both the nightmares and the alarm to go off.

I have made a great recovery from my injuries due in large part to the excellent care that was taken of my brain in intensive care. I have been into see the team a few times but I never stay too long. Those alarms still make me feel nervous!

As I noted in a recent article, these sorts of hallucinations were thought to be a distressing but ultimately irrelevant part of recovery but more recent studies suggests that have longer-term psychological impact that can be problematic in its own right.

Link to locked article ‘Coma alarm dreams on paediatric intensive care’

10 Apr 18:17

'How to Make Magic' from 1974. A children's handbook of the occult. No, really.

I have many evocative memories of the house my brothers and I lived in in the winter of 1976. The smell of the kitchen - kerosene and chilblain ointment, and the underlying taint of damp mould. The creaky old sofa. The little round hole in the upstairs window. The thin polystyrene layer on the bedroom walls that made for laughably poor insulation. And, of course, the time I tried to conjure spirits into a crude Solomonic circle.

'You have to get in the circle with me,' I told my younger brothers. 'The book says so!'

They refused.

I clutched my cut-out cardboard pentagram in my fist and cursed their recalcitrance.

This all sounds like the prelude to a horror story - early Stephen King perhaps - but it actually happened. I was eight or nine at the time and had recently found a book that told you how to do magic. Unlike the Puffin Book of Magic, a manual of conjuring tricks which explicitly warned you that it was not going to give you special powers, the book I'd found was far more encouraging.

The Puffin book's back cover read 'This book will not teach you how to make palaces appear, or turn your teacher into an ice-cream frog.' (Ever since, I have wondered what an ice-cream frog was.) Depressing news for a skinny young boy in National Health glasses. Imagine my delight, then, when I read quite a different message on the back of my new discovery, How To Make Magic:

'There is more to magic than magic tricks. First make your own magic wand, then learn how to do mind reading and fortune telling, how to weave spells, brew magic potions, summon spirits and hunt ghosts.'

AWESOME. None of the Puffin book's limp disclaimers here. This was the real stuff. Proper magic. Weave spells! Brew magic potions! SUMMON SPIRITS!

In later life, I sometimes wondered what on earth had been going through the minds of whoever wrote that book. I didn't doubt my recollection of it, much less that of the spirit-summoning fiasco, but I did wonder just how much of it I'd recalled correctly. Surely, even in the 1970s, people didn't write occult handbooks for kids?

And then I found it again.

The front cover tells us right away that something is deeply amiss here. This is a children's book, one of many in the 'How To' series. It is the only children's book I have ever seen that has a goat skull on the cover. Look carefully in the bottom right hand corner. That's a dagger. Possibly even a Wiccan 'athame', by the look of it. And I have no idea what is going on with that disembodied head, or mask, or whatever the hell it is. I will say this, though: the front cover of what's supposed to be a children's book features an altar setup that puts the likes of 'Teen Witch' to shame.

Just look how innocuous the other titles in the series are! 'How to make presents from odds and ends' 'How to sew presents from scraps'. It were the 1970s, you know. Winter of discontent. Make do and mend.

The introduction. 'Perhaps you are one of those rare people gifted with real magical powers, as well as having a few baffling tricks up your sleeve.' The implication is clear: there is stage magic, and then there is real magic. It's basically encouraging the kids of 1974 to believe in the occult. As a kid in 1976, I thought this was the coolest thing ever.

One of the book's stage magic sections, this section is relatively innocuous. I say 'relatively' because it still recommends that the child reading the book should pop along to the chemists and BUY SOME FUCKING SALTPETRE. Oh for the lost days of our youth when a small boy could come skipping out of a chemist's shop with a manual of witchcraft in one hand and a bag of bomb ingredients in the other.

Note the mention of an adult figure, whose sole function is to provide a lighted cigarette. This, I think, shows the authors' overall regard for adult responsibility here.

Savour, if you will, the chilling sentence 'You might like to write a special chant to help create the right sort of atmosphere.' The atmosphere in question presumably being pant-crapping terror with a lingering aroma of tobacco, adult indifference and gunpowder.

And now the wrongness begins in earnest. (We're still in the stage magic bit, remember. We haven't even STARTED on the occult stuff.) Look at that picture. Reflect that the book not only encourages you to stick a burning flame in your mouth, it manages to make that even worse with the accompanying photo.

Here's a fun crafting project, kids. Make your own ouija board!

The observant among you will note that cutting a hazel branch at sunrise to catch the sun's new light and power is something actual witches were believed to do. Not a joke, not stage magic. Actual witchcraft for kids. Or what people thought witchcraft entailed in 1974, anyway.

Ask a kid to magic a wart away nowadays, and they'll just look at you funny...

('Horsehair from an old mattress'? Horsehair? Just how old would a mattress need to be to have horsehair in it?)

Always remember to collect your herbs when the moon is waxing, children.

'Ask an adult to singe the ends of the paper with a lighted cigarette.'

Evidently this book's idea of an ideal parent is someone who constantly smokes and doesn't ask awkward questions about what you are up to in the attic with the herbs you gathered at full moon and the wand you cut at sunrise. We'd be straight on the blower to social services today, of course.

'Remember to carry your spell scroll with you on all magical occasions!' Magical occasions? It's beginning to look like the reader can expect to be invited to a Sabbat just as soon as they've finished the basics.

Put them into the bottle. Leave for three days in the sun. Shake them daily. Listen to your parents anxiously telephoning the doctor.


'Has your teacher, or a friend, made you a little angry lately?'

'Yes, magic book. They have. Will you help me to hurt them, magic book?'

'Of course, my child. Of course...'

I bet this is how Ginny Weasley felt when she first picked Tom Riddle's diary up.

And that wonderful little disclaimer: 'They may not have much effect.' Not MUCH effect. Why, I wonder, did the book not just say 'Of course, magic isn't real and this is all for fun'?

'Ask your parents if you can bewitch a corner of your garden at home. The centre piece should really be a tree around which you should plant a circle of white flowers - snowdrops or daisies, perhaps - in honour of the moon goddess.'

What do you mean, you don't remember agreeing to worship the moon goddess? Tough shit, kid. You want to work real magic instead of that make-believe stuff, you honour the moon goddess.

... yes, folks, this is it. This is the very double page spread that led to me attempting ritual magic before the age of 10. Even now, I am staggered that a book would recommend this. The circle and triangle diagram are based on a genuine grimoire of demonology, the Goetia or Lesser Key of Solomon.

And this, of course, is the most memorable line from the whole book:

'Be careful not to put the pentagrams upside down because they look a bit like the Devil with his horns and you don't want him turning up.'

How exquisitely English is that? Like a brusque nanny being strict about the rowdy boy from the council estate who you aren't allowed to have at your party. We don't want HIM turning up.
12 Apr 19:27

This is how stigma works

by vaughanbell

Sussex Police issue a statement about ‘Concern for missing Chichester man’, ITN News report it as ‘Police warn public over missing mental health patient’.

Sussex police:

Police are appealing for information about missing 43-year old Jason Merriman, who left The Oaklands Centre for Acute Care in Chichester on unescorted leave at 12.45pm on Friday 11 April. He was due back the same afternoon but has so far failed to return.
There are concerns for Jason’s welfare as he has mental health problems, and police advise that he is not approached by members of the public.

ITN News:

A mental health patient who has been missing from a care unit in Chichester for more than a day should not be approached by the public, police have warned.

Amazing really – (via @Sectioned_)

11 Apr 17:30

Cancel "What Americans Will Look Like in 2050"

by Jia Tolentino
by Jia Tolentino

So there's this pretty dumb PolicyMic thing up right now showing "the lovely faces of our nation's multiracial future." The headline—National Geographic Concludes What Americans Will Look Like in 2050, and It's Beautiful—is like the title of a term paper written by the Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation With At a Party. "It's no secret that interracial relationships are trending upward, and in a matter of years we'll have Tindered, OKCupid-ed and otherwise sexed ourselves into one giant amalgamated mega-race," writes the author. Word? It is also no secret what else is always trending upward: "shareable" ideas that appear researched and progressive while actually eliding all of the underlying structural concerns that will always influence what race (and attendant opportunity) means in America far more than the distracting visual pleasure of a girl that looks like Rashida Jones.

It's the rhetoric that matters here, the unplumbed fetish for these faces and what they can be forced to represent. I admit that I am sensitized on the basis of my everyday life. I sometimes read as biracial (which, if these photos are any indication, many still envision as "white" + "person of color") and sometimes people sort of act disappointed to find out that I'm just plain whatever, and much more often are quite ready to express an interest in the somewhat inevitable byproduct of my long-standing habit of contributing to the "mega-race" (boning white guys). God, those kids would be good-looking! Here we go, riding the swirl into a fully equal future, in which all of our faces will glow like one giant Instagram and the filter is white, white, white!

Demographics are changing, attitudes about race are changing, yes; and I am glad for it. And maybe it's good that people keep writing pieces like this, so impossibly shallow and shortcut-minded that the subtext is clear as anything: look how nice we look, as a people, when white gets to be more interesting and minorities get to look white. Look at this freckled, green-eyed future. Look at how beautiful it is to see everything diluted that we used to hate.

08 Apr 20:15

Adventures with UPS Man

by Roxane Gay
by Roxane Gay

N.B.: My beloved UPS Man is very good at his job and represents his company very well and he brings me things and I love him.

I have a very special, very intense, very secret, very unrequited and ongoing relationship with the very attractive UPS Man who brings me packages nearly every day. I love UPS Man most during the spring and summer when he wears his brown polyester shorts and he speeds up the hill toward my building, music blaring—often classic rock. When he steps out, his thigh muscles flex and I think, “What can brown do for you?”

I have many answers to that question. Most of said answers involve horizontal surfaces.

I love UPS Man during the winter, too, when he wears his brown slacks. The slacks always look neatly pressed, and he wears no winter coat because he doesn’t need any protection from the elements. UPS Man is an active and hot-blooded man. He has nice boots, too. They leave footprints on the walkway and when he is gone. Sometimes, I put my feet in his footprints and it’s like we’re connecting in a very special way.

To be fair, I receive a significant number of packages—mostly books—on a daily basis. I also live on the second floor. I am not easy to love. Sometimes, I think this affects my relationship with the UPS Man, but I believe we will make it through the fire.

On a good day, the UPS Man drops off the packages and pounds on my door or rings the bell to let me know a bounty awaits. His loud knock often startles me, but I’m pretty sure the force of his knock is his way of letting me know he loves me too. I run to the door and watch through the glass of my front door as he mounts his mighty brown steed—I mean, truck—and drives away from me until the next time. Parting is sweet, sweet sorrow. If I’m feeling cute, I open the door (probably not wearing a bra) as UPS Man lingers in the driveway. I lean down to get my packages and grin at him.

I do this to let him know, “All this could be yours.”

There are times when the UPS Man doesn’t knock or ring the bell so that when I open the front door, there are surprises waiting. This is so charming. It’s as if UPS Man wanted to brighten my day with a lovely surprise and instead of flowers, he offers polyurethane envelopes and cardboard boxes. I find these packages to be nearly as romantic as flowers.

Other times, UPS Man is in a hurry and he basically launches packages at my front door as he runs by. This is exciting because I never know how the packages will be splayed at the front door. I study the patterns like tea leaves, trying to discern the future and past through this passive aggression. When he does this, I wonder what he is like when he has angry sex. I bet he’s really good at that.

When I travel, which is often, UPS Man makes little art installations with my packages. He is a very talented artist. He is good with is hands, is what I am saying.

Once in a while, the UPS Man is out sick or taking a vacation day. Or cheating on me, I don’t know. There are many possibilities. The substitute is nothing like UPS Man. He or she often won’t leave my packages the way the UPS Man does. Instead, UPS Sub leaves that impersonal sticker, informing me that they will be back at a later date. The only consolation I take from this is the possibility that it might be UPS Man bringing my packages to their rightful place.

I have loved him for years now. I often document our love on Twitter. The narrative follows.

August 2011

Thought the UPS Man was bringing me zappos. The world is a little hollower because it was some other package.

March 2012

My UPS guy BLASTS his music in his sexy van and his sexy uniform and he brings me things. I love him.

April 2012

Lord y’all. The UPS Man(hot) is training a another UPS Man(hotter), and they just came to bring me something.

May 2012

UPS Man is a. looking spectacular and b. rocking some serious Eagles.

It is like UPS Man gets hotter every day. Bless summer for those adorable brown shorts.

Things started getting tense as review copies began pouring in, but my love was unwavering.

December 2012

I forgot mail was delivered on Christmas Eve. My mail and UPS guys are getting cranky though. I get… a lot of books in the mail.

May 2013

I think the UPS guy is sending me a message here.

July 2013

Between the mailman and the UPS man, I am not sure who is saltier about the number of packages I get.

Hahaha UPS guy just LAUNCHED some packages at my front door. I love him.

August 2013

Also, today, the UPS guy left the book packages about five feet from the door. His animosity grows but his thighs are still amazing.

September 2013

Hahahaha yessss, the UPS guy strolled by the door, whistling, and LAUNCHED the book packages at the glass. I see you, bro. I see you.

Our relationship continues. Our future is swollen with possibility. I continue to come up with answers to the question, “What can brown do for you?”

March 2014

Feel like things are getting extra tense with hot UPS guy. I was getting in my car when he arrived this morning. He gave me a long stare.

Who knows what the next package will bring?


Previously: Interview With My Mom, One Who Stayed Home | Adventures with Gym Man

Roxane Gay is the author of An Untamed State, out this May, and Bad Feminist, out this August. The UPS Man will bring you a copy of both or either—and yes, she is a little shameless.

08 Apr 20:00

The "Real" Rosie the Riveters

by Emma Carmichael
by Emma Carmichael

I come across these "real" Rosie the Riveter photos from the Library of Congress on Flickr about once a week, and I'm almost always tempted to use them in every Hairpin post, regardless of the topic—but now I don't even have to, because they're all in one place, thanks to Stuff Mom Never Told You.

07 Apr 14:47

TELETUBBIES – “Teletubbies Say Eh-Oh!”

by Tom

#778, 13th December 1997

ehoh My main point last entry was that “Perfect Day” saw the BBC applying its gift for pop spectacle to the demands of a more curatorial time. This would become – on broadcast TV particularly – an era of tighter demographics and multiplying niches, and the BBC would respond. BBC3, BBC4, 1Xtra, 6Music, CBBC, and in 2002 CBeebies, its channel for the under-6s, anchored for years by Teletubbies reruns.

In the old TV model, Top Of The Pops and the charts had enjoyed a happy symbiosis. With that show well along its slow decline, the charts were left without a centre. Instead they had new outlets – the supermarkets, and Woolworths, increasingly determined what reached No.1. As James Masterton pointed out in the comments for “Perfect Day”, this meant a dramatic broadening of the singles audience – the number of people visiting Tescos or Asda dwarfed the HMV or Our Price customer base, and included millions of musical impulse buyers. Put a tempting single in front of them and your sales could be colossal.

“Teletubbies Say Eh-Oh” is where these trends meet. It’s plainly a niche record with barely an eye or a furry antenna on wider accessibility. But there are enough people in that niche (parents of pre-school kids, basically) to give it seven figure sales. An awful lot of Number Ones are loved by children – the playground reception of a song has always been crucial – but this is the first number one designed for infants.

Which is entirely in keeping with its show’s aggressively radical spirit. Teletubbies was hugely successful and immediately controversial – a clean break from how pre-school TV had been done. It ditched the reassuring adult presenter in favour of a toddler’s perspective on pacing and action. In practise this meant very little explicit education or storytelling: replacing it was scripted babble-talk from the four tubbies, long sequences of dancing and messing about, cutaways to pieces of real-world play, and stories based on endless repetition of simple actions. The formula of younger kids’ TV, with its avuncular bumblers and well-scrubbed ladies telling stories and stacking up bricks, had been torn up. In its place was a show parents might find agonisingly boring but that one- and two-year olds quickly found magical.

The Teletubbies were at once the Beatles and the Pistols of pre-school TV – dramatic commercial success, remarkable innovation and a scorched earth attitude. It’s notable that none of their successors has been as extreme as they did – to take the inheritor shows on when I was the Dad of very young kids, In The Night Garden reintroduces the gentle adult narrator, and Baby Jake keeps the baby-first action but within a stronger story structure. The Teletubbies went further than anyone, first.

Squeezing that radicalism into a pop single was tricky. The writers’ solution is to structure “Teletubbies Say Eh-Oh” around a sped-up take on the theme tune, and break it up with incident – the gurgling and squelching of tubby custard, or a drop-in of “Baa Baa Black Sheep” with a baaing, mooing barnyard orchestra. The vibe is benign chaos.

But even within this single, their abandon is bounded. Teletubbyland is a carnival space, a world to play with but one policed by the movement of the sun (voiced by Toyah Wilcox!) and by abstract, unseen authorities. “Teletubbies Say Eh-Oh” ends as it begins, with peace, quiet and gentle chuckles. As a parent, I wouldn’t have it any other way, but as a piece of children’s culture muscling into the semi-adult world – the charts – it becomes vulnerable to other interpretations. Not just the “is Tinky Winky gay?” faux-controversy, or the show’s being dragged into the recurring debates around ‘dumbing down’, but more playful parallels. The screen-bellied tubbies drew comparisons to Cronenberg, and their life in a kind of kindergarten holiday camp (and their habit of playing with a giant beach ball) recalled The Prisoner. My own contribution to this disreputable canon is that the male voice (“Time for Teletubbies!”) massively reminds me of Tony Blair.

But you don’t need these extra readings to find subtext in this record. Towards the end, where a middle eight might go, some flowers give a very pert take on “Mary, Mary Quite Contrary”. This is where the song tips its hand, giving two pudgy plush fingers to the kids’ TV Teletubbies usurped. The flowers, in their Received Pronunciation mimsiness, very obviously represent that didactic tradition of rhymes and stories, and after singing they tut at the Tubbies and their “racket”.

Which – of course – starts right up again with the series’ catchprase (and parents’ bane) “Again, again!”. If “Teletubbies Say Eh-Oh” is annoying (and it is, a bit) it’s the deliberate, confrontational annoyance of “Mr Blobby” turned to a more specific end: to tell adults that this isn’t for you. And in doing that it drives home Ragdoll’s point in making the show in the first place: Teletubbies isn’t for you because toddlers aren’t like you. They are not best served by culture that treats them as latent schoolchildren or adults but by culture that takes their play and their desires seriously as they are. If this song’s presence at #1 is a sign of nicheification, its content and success is a good advert for it.

03 Apr 22:44

The Heinlein Hormone

by Peter Watts

You all remember Starship Troopers, right?

That slim little YA contained a number of beer-worthy ideas, but the one that really stuck with me was the idea of earned citizenship— that the only people allowed to vote, or hold public office, were those who’d proven they could put society’s interests ahead of their own. Heinlein’s implementation was pretty contrived— while the requisite vote-worthy altruism was given the generic label of “Federal Service”, the only such service on display in the novel was the military sort. I’ll admit that thrusting yourself to the front lines of a war with genocidal alien bugs does show a certain willingness to back-burner your own interests— but what about firefighting, or disaster relief, or working to clean up nuclear accidents at the cost of your genetic integrity? Do these other risky, society-serving professions qualify? Or are they entirely automated now (and if that tech exists, why isn’t the Mobile Infantry automated as well)?

But I digress. While Heinlein’s implementation may have been simplistic and his interrogation wanting, the basic idea— that the only way to get a voice in the group is if you’re willing to sacrifice yourself for the group— is a fascinating and provocative idea. If every member of your group is a relative, you’d be talking inclusive fitness. Otherwise, you’re talking about institutionalized group selection.

Way back when I was in grad school, “group selection” wasn’t even real, not in the biological sense. It was worse than a dirty phrase; it was a naïve one. “The good of the species” was a fairy tale, we were told. Selection worked on individuals, not groups; if a duck could grab resources for herself at the expense of two or three conspecifics, she’d damn well do that even if fellow ducks paid the price.  Human societies could certainly learn to honour the needs of the many over the needs of the few, but that was a learned response, not an evolved one. (And even when learned, it wasn’t internalized very well— just ask any die-hard capitalist  why communism failed.)

I’ve lost count of the papers I read (and later, taught) which turned a skeptical eye to cases of so-called altruism in the wild— only to find that every time, those behaviors turned out to be selfish when you ran the numbers. They either benefited the “altruist”, or someone who shared enough of the “altruist’s” genes to fit under the rubric of inclusive fitness. Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene— which pushed the model incrementally further by pointing out that it was actually the genes running the show, even though they pulled phenotypic strings one-step-removed— got an especially warm reception in that environment.

But the field moved on after I left it; as it subsequently turned out, the models discrediting group selection hinged on some pretty iffy parameter values. I’m not familiar with the details— I haven’t kept up— but as I understand it the pendulum has swung a bit closer to the midpoint. Genes are still selfish, individuals still subject to selection— but so too are groups. (Not especially radical, in hindsight. It stands to reason that if something benefits the group, it benefits many of that group’s members as well. Even Darwin suggested as much way back in Origin. Call it trickle-down selection.)

So.  If group selection is a thing in the biological sense, then we need not look to the Enlightened Society to explain the existence of the  martyrs, the altruists, and the Johnny Ricos of the world.  Maybe there’s a biological mechanism to explain them.

Enter oxytocin, back for a repeat performance.

You’re all familiar with oxytocin. The Cuddle Hormone, Fidelity in an Aerosol, the neuropeptide that keeps meadow voles monogamous in a sea of mammalian promiscuity. You may even know about its lesser-known dark side— the kill-the-outsider imperative that complements love the tribe.

Now, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Shalvi and Dreu pry open another function of this biochemical Swiss Army Knife. Turns out oxytocin makes you lie— but only if the lie benefits others. Not if it only benefits you yourself.

One of several illustrations which are  clearer than the text.

One of several illustrations which are clearer than the text.

The experiment was almost childishly simple: your treatment groups snort oxytocin, your controls snort a placebo. You tell each participant that they’ve been assigned to a group, that the  money they get at the end of the day will be an even third of what the whole group makes.  Their job is to predict whether the toss of a virtual coin (on a computer screen) will be heads or tails; they make their guess, but keep it to themselves; they press the button that flips the coin; then they report whether their guess was right or wrong. Of course, since they never recorded that guess prior to the toss, they’re free to lie if they want to.

Call those guys the groupers.

Now repeat the whole thing with a different group of participants— but this time, although their own personal payoffs are the same as before, they’re working solely for themselves. No groups are involved.  Let’s call these guys soloists.

I’m leaving out some of the methodological details because they’re not all that interesting: read the paper if you don’t believe me (warning; it is not especially well-written).  The baseline results are pretty much what you’d expect: people lie to boost their own interests. If high predictive accuracy gets you money, bingo: you’ll report a hit rate well above the 50:50 ratio that random chance would lead one to expect. If a high prediction rate costs you money, lo and behold: self-reported accuracy drops well below 50%.  If there’s no incentive to lie, you’ll pretty much tell the truth.  This happens right across the board, groupers and soloists, controls and treatments. Yawn.

But here’s an interesting finding: although both controls and groupers high-ball their hit rates when they stand to gain by doing that, the groupers lie significantly more than their controls. Their overestimates are more extreme, and their response times are lower. If you’re a grouper, oxytocin makes you lie more, and lie faster.

If you’re a soloist, though, oxytocin has no effect. You lie in the name of self-interest, but no more than the controls do.  The only difference is, this time you’re working for yourself; the groupers were working on behalf of themselves and other people.

So under the influence of oxytocin, you’ll only lie a little to benefit yourself. You’ll lie a lot to benefit a member of “your group”— even  if you’ve never met any of “your group”, even if you have to take on faith that “your group” even exists. You’ll commit a greater sin for the benefit of a social abstraction.

I find that interesting.

There are caveats, of course.  The study only looked at whether we’d lie to help others at no benefit to ourselves; I’d like to see them take the next step, test whether the same effect manifests when helping the other guy actually costs you.  And of course, when I say “You”  I mean “adult Dutch males”. This study draws its sample, even more than most, from the WEIRD demographic— not just Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic, but exclusively male to boot. I don’t have a problem with this in a pilot study; you take what you can get, and when you’re looking for subtle effects it only makes sense to minimize extraneous variability. But it’s not implausible that cultural factors might leave an imprint even on these ancient pathways. The effect is statistically real, but the results will have to replicate across a far more diverse sample of humanity before scientists can make any claims about its universality.

Fortunately, I’m not a scientist any more. I can take this speculative ball and run with it, anywhere I want.

As a general rule, lying is frowned upon across pretty much any range of societies you’d care to name. Most people who lie do so in violation of their own moral codes— and those codes cover a whole range of behaviors. Most would agree that theft is wrong, for example.  Most of us get squicky at the thought of assault, or murder. So assuming that Shalvi and Drue’s findings  generalize to anything that might induce feelings of guilt— which, I’d argue,  is more parsimonious than a trigger so specific that it trips only in the presence of language-based deceit—  what we have here is a biochemical means of convincing people to sacrifice their own morals for the good of the group.

Why, a conscientious objector might even sign up to fight the Bugs.

Once again, the sheer abstractness of this study is what makes it fascinating; the fact  that the effect manifests in a little white room facing a computer screen, on behalf of a hypothetical tribe never even encountered  in real life.  When you get down to the molecules, who needs social bonding? Who needs familiarity, and friendship, and shared experience?  When you get right down to it, all that stuff just sets up the conditions necessary to produce the chemical; what need of it, when you can just shoot the pure neuropeptide up your nose?

It’s only the first step, of course. I’m sure we can improve it if we set our minds to the task. An extra amine group here, an excised  hydroxyl there, and we could engineer a group-selection molecule that makes plain old oxytocin look like distilled water.

A snort of that stuff and everyone in the Terran Federation gets to vote.

02 Apr 21:22

Geekological Determinism

by LP

Wil Wheaton’s career has described a curious arc around the atmosphere of pop culture.  He came to fame starring as Wesley Crusher in Star Trek:  The Next Generation, a teenage prodigy and transparent Mary Sue figure; though nerd culture was still a fringe activity and not the dominant force that it is today, Trek fans, then as now, were an unforgiving lot, and Wesley became one of the most despised fictional characters since Scrappy Doo.  What this must have done to the psyche of young Mr. Wheaton, who was then only 15 years old, is hard to imagine, but to his credit, he seemed to emerge from the hailstorm of hatred relatively unscathed.  Even more to his credit, he did not let the experience sour him on his passions; indeed, he grew into what he is today:  one of the most outspoken and enthusiastic advocates of nerd culture.  He is a ceaseless defender of the once-obscure habits and hobbies of his youth, and it is his curious good fortune that he has become widely beloved by the same sort of people who once so reviled the character that made him famous.

Recently, a video has achieved virality that features Mr. Wheaton answering a question from a young girl about whether he was called a nerd as a young boy.  His response has become widely circulated because Wheaton turned it into a commentary about something called ‘anti-nerd bullying’; that alone is a subject worth exploring, but it is not what I want to explore now.  Before I begin, because I am going to settle into what is clearly a comfortable seat for me, attacking the highly praised but slackly investigated utterances of the well-meaning, I should make the following qualifications:  I have no problem with Wil Wheaton.  I find his public persona as an advocate of the joys of nerdery inoffensive and charming, if not particularly to my taste.  It certainly does hurt to be called names when you are a child, and there is nothing wrong with seeking to put an end to bullying and cruelty of any sort.  When Mr. Wheaton says that you should never let someone “make you feel bad because you love something”, he is not only right, but he is right in a very straightforward and admirable way.  He is generally correct in identifying self-loathing as the proximate cause of much bad behavior, and even if the whole encounter was contrived — and I have no reason to believe that it was — if all he did was encourage a little girl to not let the careless words of a bully destroy her self-esteem, then he has unquestionably done a fine thing.

What troubles me is this curious statement, which appeared in the middle of Wheaton’s speech, and which cast a cloud over it to my hearing:  “It’s never okay when a person makes fun of you for something you didn’t choose,” he said, apparently referring not to blindness or cerebral palsy but to enjoying science fiction.  “We don’t choose to be nerds.  We can’t help it that we like these things.”

Surely not.

Nature and nurture once had a “vs.” between them, I know, and if we have wisely decided to place them on a continuum rather than as binaries in opposition, it is still true that many things about that most vital of issues, human behavior, are difficult to definitively attribute to either genetics or environment.  I will not argue that it is still little-understood why we turn out one way and not another.  But surely we are not arguing that, like  albinism or the length of one’s fingers, an affinity for comic books is bred in the bone.  Are we really to believe that we are born with an inherent proclivity to dress up in a Darth Vader costume?  What possible use is it to teach a child that she “can’t help it” if she spends all her money on Magic cards?

The language is easy enough to recognize.  Its familiarity comes from the fact that it is the exact same language of those who use the ‘biological determinism’ argument to defend the rights of homosexuals.  Gay people “didn’t choose” to be gay, this argument goes; given the torment attached to such behavior, who would?  Instead, they are “born that way”, as if made so by a capricious god, and it would be wrong to punish someone for something that they “can’t help”, just as it would be wrong to push a cripple down the stairs.  It’s a compelling argument, and one can certainly see the rationale behind it, especially as its formal qualities appeal to those who think of human behavior exclusively in moral and spiritual terms — the very people most likely to condemn homosexuality and other perceived forms of social deviance.  There’s just one problem with it:  it’s wrong, it’s false, and it’s harmful on almost every conceivable level.

For one thing, science — you know, that thing so beloved of self-identified nerds — is hardly conclusive on the question of whether or not homosexuality is an inborn quality.  The study of genetics, as deep as it has become, is still in its infancy, and the question of what “causes” homosexualty is fraught with difficulty — not least because the most informed consensus is that “homosexuality” is not a trait, but a behavior.  This is a subtle but crucial difference.  Certainly there is some evidence that genetics play some part in homosexual behavior, but what that part is has not been answered in anything like a definitive way.  And it is also true that one does not “choose” homosexuality, as such; but the very formation of the concept of sexuality as a “choice” is deeply flawed, as is the notion that it is absolute and diametric.  It seems much more likely, the more one studies not only genetics but history, sociology, psychology, zoology, and anthropology, is that sexual behavior is not always located at an absolute of same-sex or opposite-sex affinity; rather, it is located on a spectrum, and can move towards one end of that spectrum or away from it over time and in different situations and environments.  It is certainly indisputable that in the animal kingdom, homosexual behavior is found all over the place, and becomes more common the more the object of study resembles humans; it is also true that human beings are perfectly capable of evincing straight, gay, or bisexual behavior at different times in their lives.  What this means is still very much in dispute, but what is clear is that the idea of homosexuality as a strictly deterministic dichotomy is rather unlikely.

It is in this way — by using an argument that plays into a moralistic model constructed by its enemies — that the gay community does itself a disservice.  For the very arguments they use to defend themselves against oppression are the most likely to be turned against them.  If homosexuals are born that way, after all, might not homosexuality itself be viewed as a flaw, a genetic mistake, a birth defect to be isolated and eliminated like harelips or spina bifida?  If homosexuality is a condition and not a behavior, then it is subject to a cure.  Claiming that same-sex relationships are something its participants cannot help and did not choose frames them as a moral failing, a biological horror, something shameful that its participants would just as soon be rid of if they had any say in the matter.  It is not just a failed defense, it is a dangerous one; for not only does it play into the moralistic worldview of its opponents, but the more sophisticated among them will seize on its error, leading to an intolerable situation where we’re hearing the truth about something from the last people you want in possession of that truth.

All these things apply just as much, if not more so, to Mr. Wheaton’s strange claim that nerd-culture affinity is unchosen, inherent, unbidden.  While it is not a scientific impossibility, the idea that one’s personal tastes in art is simply the manifestation of a genetic code is even less supportable than the idea the vast spectrum of human sexual behavior is attributable to fate in the form of a stray gene.  Even if it were true, which it isn’t, it would paint a pretty dismal picture, even from — perhaps especially from — the viewpoint of people like Wheaton.  If one does not choose one’s tastes in art, what does one choose?  If aesthetic tendencies are genetic, they are also, therefore, objective, and it’s just a short step to Zhdanovite thinking or Ayn Rand’s preaching that some composers are just definitively superior to others.  Believing that you can’t help your preferences for art, music, film, and other manifestations of culture robs you of your specialness; who wants to be a nerd if being a nerd is just some biological manifestation you had no more say in than you did your height or your hair color?  Why be enthusiastic about the books you love if your love of them is just a genetic proclivity?  Why be proud of the hard work you did learning science and math while the other kids were playing softball, if your aptitude in science and math was going to express itself anyway with the relentless inevitability of a receding hairline?  Better, surely, whether the subject is same-sex marriage or a love of Star Wars, not to say “I cannot help this; I was born this way”, but rather “Whether I chose this or not, this is who I am and what I want to do, and you have no right to judge me, because what I am doing is not wrong.”

Worse still, the idea that our cultural beliefs are nothing more than the emergence of a pattern laced into our brains at birth enforces one of the most noxious aspects of nerd culture:  it destroys the possibility of the fan as creator, the reader as writer, the audience as actor, and relegates the entire relationship between artist and art to that of consumer and consumed. What hope have we to take an owner’s view of culture when we are merely eating things that we were born to have a taste for?  If you didn’t choose to participate in the culture you are drawn to, how could you possibly choose to take it any further, to turn it into something more than what it already is?  When you cannot help the culture you belong to, you cannot change it, and you certainly cannot turn it into something different.  You are not a participant in your art (or your sexuality, or your society, or your gender, or your race, or any of the other arbitrary constructs so eagerly forced on you by people who want to stop you from questioning them; you are merely a part of it, and bound to conform to the contours of what other people say it is.

I honestly believe Mr. Wheaton is sincere in what he says, and that he was doing his genuine best to help that girl, and to help other people who were like the child he once was.  But he can help even more by shedding this notion of culture as a deterministic straitjacket, and by telling the next girl he talks to that she is not a born expression of factors she cannot change, but a free mind who can make of her culture and anyone else’s whatever she likes, and that she need not apologize for the choices she makes.


04 Apr 15:15

It Sometimes Gets Better

by Jia Tolentino
by Jia Tolentino

I take a deep breath. I check the bathroom once, twice, three times. I know that if I check it three times, everything will be fine. Everything will go well that day. I look at myself in the mirror. I make eye contact.

“I love you,” I say. If I don’t do this, the day will go badly. If I do do this, the day will go fine. I have to do this every time I look in the mirror, or something bad might happen. Will happen. Or something good won’t happen. I’m not sure which. I’ve never been sure which. I just know that I have to do it.

Sara Benincasa's new essay up at Medium, called "High School Is Forever," is very, very good: an exposed zig-zag through time, functionality, mental illness, anxiety and peace.

03 Apr 16:45

Happy Birthday, Jane Goodall

by Emma Carmichael
by Emma Carmichael

Q: Eighty years old. It seems a good time for looking forward.

A: [Laughs.] Somebody asked me the other day at a lecture—they said, "Your life has gone into these neat phases. What do you think the next phase is?"

What do you think the next phase is?

I said, "Well, I suspect it's death."

Jane Goodall is 80 years old today and AS REAL AS EVER. You are also invited to stream her birthday party at 2 p.m.? Cheers. [Screengrab via]

07 Apr 15:15

"The debt that leads many women to egg donation is a result of the elite education that makes their eggs desirable"

by Jia Tolentino
by Jia Tolentino

At the New Inquiry, an essay by Moira Donegan on egg donation:

In the 1970s, Italian feminists sought to attack characterizations of women’s domestic activities as naturally preordained by assigning them monetary value. “Wages for housework,” went one slogan. “Every miscarriage is a work accident,” was another. At the time, this was all just theoretical; more than anything, the demand to conceive of reproduction as work was a rhetorical device aimed at destroying habitual patterns of thought. Money is transformative that way. It can change an act of love into an act of work, and it can also change an infertile woman into a mother-to-be, or a promising student into a woman injecting her abdomen with hormones.

She presents a sort of twinning I'd never thought about before:

It is not hard to understand that having a degree is no longer any guarantee of a livable income… What’s more confounding is the way that the student debt burdens that lead many women to egg donation are the result of the same elite educations that make their eggs desirable, and the way that many egg donors, in their aspirations and experiences, so closely resemble the people who are purchasing their services.

But what shows up on the donor profiles (“I am a model and often am stopped in the street and asked about whether I do modeling or not,” says #60395. “I want to bring happiness to others. It’s so heart-warming to see a family completed") is slightly different, and Donegan talks about egg donation being "happiness work, the job of being happy for the successes of other people."

Donors do not say, at least not out loud, that they want to donate “because I need the money.” It would be professionally dangerous to do so.

The rest of it is here, and now I'm rereading this great little piece from 2011, "Four Good Reasons to Donate Your Eggs & A Couple Dozen Reasons Not To."

04 Apr 17:00

Jesus On The Main Line

by LP

“Well, how’d you know it was Him, Jimmy, is my question.”

“I just knowed it.”

“Now, how’d you ‘just knowed’ somethin’ like that? You don’t ‘just know’ that somebody’s the Lord Jesus Christ returned to Earth.”

“Some things you just know, Clint. Like, instinctually.”

“What’d He look like?”

“About what you’d expect, really. Beard, white robe. Belt made out of a piece of rope. Sandals. Kind of a short fella. He didn’t look too good, to tell you the truth.”

“So where’d you run into Him again?”

“Out on the side of the road, by US 385.”

“Over acrost from the Peach Tree?”

“That’s the one.”

“What was He doin’, headin’ over there for a cup of coffee or somethin’?”

“Now, see, that’s what I figured. I reckoned He was a hitchhiker or similar, and I was God’s honest truth gonna tell Him to move right along because we didn’t want nobody in the Peach Tree puttin’ the touch on us. But as soon as He opened his mouth, I knowed he was the Savior.”

“And how’d you know that? On account of He told you so?”

“Well, on account of He spoke Aramaic, for one thing.”

“Arawhovic? You mean like an A-Rab? I thought you said it was Jesus, not Moo-hammed.”

“No, that’s Arabic, you numbnuts. This was Aramaic He was speakin’.”

“And how in the hell do you come to speak Aramaic, Jimmy? You don’t even talk English good.”

“You know how I got that little teevee out in the barn, and I watch it when I’m milkin’?”


“Well, all that’s on in the early morning save for them damn woman shows is Home Extension University on the public television channel. So I just picked it up.”

“All right, all right. What’d He say?”

“As you might ‘spect, it was His second coming. Only He was havin’ all kinds of problems.”

“Problems? What you mean, problems? He’s the son of God, for corn sake, Jimmy.”

“Now as it happens, Clint, that’s one of the problems. The way He tells it, the Old Man don’t keep too much up on current affairs. He’s too busy watchin’ every sparrow fall and what have you. Don’t even own a dish or nothin’. So has far as the Old Man’s concerned, ain’t nothin’ changed for two thousand years.”

“You’re shittin’ me.”

“Don’t kid a kidder, Clint, is what I always say. So God sends Jesus down here, don’t give Him no cell phone, don’t give Him no blue jeans or walkin’ shoes, don’t give Him no car, don’t even teach Him to speak English. Kid looks like a rat’s nest and don’t smell so good neither. And he’s out here, in Dalhart. God just plunks Him down any ol’ where, figures He’ll get to where He needs to be. Poor kid ain’t got no road atlas or GPS or nothin’. Hell, if I hadn’t come along, He mighta run into Bert Klum down at the Lions Hall, and then He’d be in a right mess. Bert probably shove a pool cue up His ass thinkin’ he’s a crankhead.”

“So…so what happened?”

“Well, it turns out He gots all these speeches He needs to deliver, right? Sermons and whatnot. So as to save the world, I guess. And He tells me He needs to get to where all the action is, so He can get peoples’ ears. So He asks me if I know how to get to Jerusalem.”

“Oh, Lord.”

“You said it.  I told him I don’t think that’s really the right place for Him right now. I didn’t go into much detail, understand me. I just suggested He oughtta think about maybe Hollywood, or at least Nashville.”

“Good thinkin’.”

“Well, He wasn’t havin’ none of it. He said it had to be the Holy Land or at least the greatest city in all the world, which He didn’t know what was what. He kept talkin’ about places like Antioch and Thessalonika.”

“So what’d you do?”

“Well, what could I do, Clint? He’s Jesus. I can’t just disobey Him, now, can I?”

“Oh, Jimmy, you didn’t.

“I drove Him down to Dallas and took Him to Love Field, and got Him a ticket for…”


“…New York City.”


“What other choice was there, Clint?”

“Jimmy, do you know what deicide is?”

“A little bit.”

“Do you know what punishment that feller Danty prescribes for deicide?”

“I can’t rightly remember, Clint, now you come to mention it.”

“You better hope Satan brushes his teeth regularly, Jimmy, is all I can say.”



“I reckon.”

31 Mar 14:20

"How do you give these survivors of the drug wars, who are at the bottom of every statistic, hope?"

by Jia Tolentino
by Jia Tolentino

One of the center’s most important functions is also its simplest: It gives men a safe spot to hang out in West Baltimore. Most of the workforce-training graduates who still visit the center—watching the classes, meeting with counselors, using the computers—told me they come because being there keeps them out of trouble. “There aren’t too many places in Baltimore where men can be positive together,” says one Strive graduate.

This Monica Potts piece in the American Prospect is so well-reported and so good.

04 Apr 13:30

Ever Feel Like You Were Born in the Wrong Era?

by Jia Tolentino
by Jia Tolentino

"While books bound in human skin are now objects of fascination and revulsion, the practice was once somewhat common," writes Heather Cole, assistant curator of modern books and manuscripts at Harvard's Houghton Library. "Termed anthropodermic bibliopegy, the binding of books in human skin has occurred at least since the 16th century. The confessions of criminals were occasionally bound in the skin of the convicted, or an individual might request to be memorialized for family or lovers in the form of a book." Quick: better or worse than the Permanent Retweet? [Atlantic]

02 Apr 14:30

A Poem a Day for National Poetry Month: "Tim Riggins Speaks of Waterfalls"

by Jia Tolentino
by Jia Tolentino

One of my favorite places on the internet is this Tumblr, which posts one wonderful poem for every day in April, and at this point has a really lovely backlog from the last 9 years. You can also sign up to receive a poem a day by email or follow the project on Twitter or look through the index in a more organized fashion, but maybe let's start with this year's first poem, Nico Alvarado's "Tim Riggins Speaks of Waterfalls."

You want to know what it was like?
It was like my whole life had a fever.
Whole acres of me were on fire.
The sun talked dirty in my ear all night.
I couldn’t drive past a wheatfield without doing it violence.
I couldn’t even look at a bridge.

The rest is up at April Is. Happy National Poetry Month!

29 Mar 15:36

Bomb disposal for the brain

by vaughanbell

New Statesman has an excellent profile of the wise, funny and acerbic neurosurgeon Henry Marsh.

Marsh was the subject of the fantastic 2007 documentary The English Surgeon but he’s now one year away from retirement and has clearly decided that diplomatic responses are no longer a tactical necessity.

The piece also gives a vivid insight into the working life and daily challenges of a consultant neurosurgeon.

It’s also wonderfully written. This is pure joy:

When he finally went to medical school, at the Royal Free Hospital in London, he wasn’t sure about his choice. “I thought medicine was very boring,” he says bluntly. Henry is not a man to refrain from speaking his mind. “I didn’t like doctors. I didn’t like surgeons. It all seemed a bit dumb to me.” In Do No Harm he writes of his revulsion at what much surgery generally entails: “long bloody incisions and the handling of large and slippery body parts”.

But while working as a senior house officer, he observed a neurosurgeon use an operating microscope to clip off an aneurysm – a small, balloon-like blowout on the cerebral arteries that can cause catastrophic haemorrhages. It is intensely delicate work, using microscopic instruments to manipulate blood vessels just a few millimetres in diameter. It is also, as Henry says, like bomb disposal work, in that it can go very badly wrong – with the crucial difference that it is only the patient’s life at risk, not the surgeon’s. If this or any other kind of serious neurosurgery goes right, however, the doctor is a hero. “Neurosurgery,” he smiles, “appealed to my sense of glory and self-importance.”

Marsh has just written an autobiography called Do No Harm which I’ve just started reading. I’m only part way through but it’s already gripping and wonderfully indiscreet.

Link to New Statesman profile of Henry Marsh.

28 Mar 13:50

"Now I understand completely. Winter gives me Old Testament vibes"

by Jia Tolentino
by Jia Tolentino

Alissa Nutting, author of Tampa, wrote a lovely piece for the New York Times about her SAD lamp. "How bad could winter really be?" she'd thought, as a kid living in Florida, seeing families on vacation get giddy from the sun.

Now I understand completely. Winter gives me Old Testament vibes. Every morning over the past few months I would look out my window and think, “What else could this be but a punishment?” I saw the invigorating effect winter had on some members of my community — they were out sledding, throwing snowballs, using the cold to work up an endorphin rush. I watched the Winter Olympics. I observe it all and yet I fail to comprehend. Winter just makes me want to see how compact of a fetal position I can ball into beneath a down comforter after guzzling cough syrup. The only physical activities I can seem to manage are throwing the remote control at the wall after seeing the weather forecast and learning to program my space heater with my socked toes.

So, at my psychiatrist’s urging, I decided to try out a happy lamp for seasonal affective disorder this past January. I plugged it in at my office and sat in front of it as if I was a bed of hydroponic lettuce. My expectations were high. I wanted to get wasted on light. I wanted to get stupid. I wanted to get an unstoppable urge to go sing karaoke.

But of course it didn't quite work like that. "Substitution can increase longing even more than deprivation can," she writes. Is anyone here a SAD lamp enthusiast? I am perpetually tempted, and the way Nutting describes her grudging, half-hearted affection for hers ("Like a human-size moth, I submit daily to its glowing gravity… the moment I turn on the lamp and light floods throughout the room, I can’t help thinking, Something is happening in here!") still has some appeal. Or maybe I'll just move back to Texas and embrace another set of seasonal problems. [NYT]

02 Apr 17:18

10 Things Nigel Farage Hates #NickVNigel

by Alex Wilcock

With less than an hour to go before the second debate between Euro-realist Nick Clegg and Europhobe Nigel Farage, people all over Britain are asking: what’s on the other side? But some are also asking, will Mr Farage succeed this week in his attempt to make his face go not just pale, red and purple but the full red, white and blue he was aiming for? Will he be wrapped in a Russian flag as part of a new Putin-funded UKIP war chest? And will he find the same ten things – or more – to hate as last week?

Do you remember he had a little list, if you were watching or listening this time last Wednesday?

1 – Europe


2 – Immigrants

In his opening statement, Mr Farage attacked the EU mainly because – 485 million people had the right to come over here, and that terrified him!

Even though it’s not true, because there is no “open door” right.

Even though that counts everyone born and bred in Britain, because Mr Farage is actually terrified of the sixty-odd million of us who aren’t him.

Even though that includes every child in the EU, suggesting that as well as all the safety and unfair dismissal and environmental and all the other common regulations that Mr Farage said in passing he hates, he’d get rid of all the child labour laws too and get over the problem of lost British jobs by making us the world’s magnet for underage wage slaves. Result!

3 – Immigrants

In his answer to the third question, Mr Farage again raised the spectre of millions of British people staying in Britain, and millions of European babies coming over to steal the jobs he wants to inflict on British babies.

And he defended the UKIP leaflets that said that 29 million people were poised to invade from Romania and Bulgaria, even though that’s actually more Romanians and Bulgarians than there are.

4 – British Industry

In his answer to the seventh question, Mr Farage said that actually we would have more negotiating clout on our own than as part of the world’s most powerful trading bloc, because they need us more than we need them – they make things that people want to buy, so they need us to buy them, whereas nobody wants to buy our stuff because it’s shit. Of course they’ll accept any terms we want, because we’re so rubbish that we can only be passive consumers!
“We sell a million cars a year to the European Union, but they sell us 1.8 million cars a year of much higher quality… The German car market needs the British far more.”

5 – Human Rights and Everything About Britain Since the Thirteenth Century

In his eleventh answer, the most recent human rights legislation Mr Farage was prepared to accept was the Magna Carta – in the Thirteenth Century. Just so you got the point, he talked about “Common Law for 800 years” and “forget all these human rights”.

He said that all the politicians – especially, we have to conclude, Winston Churchill, who ordered the British lawyers to draw up the European Convention on Human Rights, and who signed us up to it – should be saying “I am very sorry”.

6 – The European Arrest Warrant

Mr Farage went on to say in his desperate dogma that he was 100% against the European Arrest Warrant.

He’d rather every type of criminal went free than ever pool our law-enforcing resources with the hated Europe.

7 – British Tourists

Mr Farage went on to say in his desperate dogma that he was 100% against British tourists locked up in EU countries getting the right to legal and translation help.

He’d rather every innocent Briton was banged up – by going to Europe, they’re damned anyway, aren’t they? – than ever make sure everyone has the same basic legal rights across the hated Europe.
“I’ve been in the European Parliament for 15 years and I have never once voted”
As Mr Farage admitted, he has one of the worst voting records of any elected European politician. He’s taken more than £2 million of our money in those 15 years, but he never turns up.

8 – Happy Gays

In his twelfth answer, Mr Farage was given the opportunity to clear up his position on same-sex marriage. Did he think it brought about floods and the end of civilisation, as UKIP spokespeople have said? Did he still oppose it tooth and nail, as he did when it was being voted on? Was he now in favour of it, as his spokesperson said last week and then hurried said, ‘Kidding!’?

Mr Farage said that he was absolutely dead against Richard and me getting married on our twentieth anniversary this year – perhaps he’s frightened that because we want to get married once, and he’s been married twice to show how much he believes in it, there may be a finite number of marriages to be had and he might not be entitled to a third one.

Well, he didn’t mention Richard and me by name, but it’s hard not to take it personally.

So was he against, dead against, against for fear of the gaypocalypse, or in favour for another two minutes before changing his mind again?

Mr Farage said that even the years of negotiations that would involve leaving the EU wouldn’t be enough – no, we’d have to leave Winston Churchill’s European Court of Human Rights, too, “then we’d look at it again.”

‘Leave the EU and all our international agreements – or your marriage gets it!’
‘I want to roll back all our freedoms to the Thirteenth Century and “forget all these human rights” and then, all you gay and lesbian and bisexual people, you can trust me with your interests even though I won’t commit…’

Thanks, Mr Farage, but fuck right off and die no thanks.

Nick Clegg, by contrast, the first Leader who supported equal marriage from the first party that supported equal marriage, doesn’t have the same maniac anti-EU dogma or closet homophobia about two people who love each other, so simply said:
“It’s just unalloyed great news that love and marriage will be recognised, a great step forward.”
And got the biggest cheer of the night.

9 – To Be Honest I Don’t Want To Sully A Headline With This One

In his thirteenth answer, Mr Farage attacked everyone who wasn’t “Anglo-Saxon” for not believing in the rule of (Thirteenth Century Barons’) law, and sneered by name at everyone from the “south of Europe” and “Mediterranean” people who never follow the rules.

Well, no wonder the racist gobshite boasted this week that he’s taken all the BNP’s votes. I wonder how that could be?

10 – Immigrants

In his summing-up at the end, Mr Farage spent his entire time on a completely new subject – immigrants.

In case you missed it.

485 million potential child labourers, including British ones, to threaten our British child labour! Many of them poor people (who he also hates)!

Again. In case you missed it.

He also mentioned immigration briefly in several other answers, but I’ve only mentioned the major ones.

It’s pretty clear that the other thing Mr Farage hates is Number 11 – FACTS.

But Mr Farage doesn’t hate everything.

Not Vladimir Putin. Ukraine provoked him by liking the EU.

‘WTF, Ukraine? I hate the EU! You provoke me too! How dare you like the EU? I’d have declared war on you too. Vlad, Vlad, you’re my best mate, you are…’
01 Apr 12:58

Does the unconscious know when you’re being lied to?

by tomstafford

The headlines
BBC: Truth or lie – trust your instinct, says research

British Psychological Society: Our subconscious mind may detect liars

Daily Mail: Why you SHOULD go with your gut: Instinct is better at detecting lies than our conscious mind

The Story
Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have shown that we have the ability to unconsciously detect lies, even when we’re not able to explicitly say who is lying and who is telling the truth.

What they actually did
The team, led by Leanne ten Brinke of the Haas School of Business, created a set of videos using a “mock high-stakes crime scenario”. This involved asking 12 volunteers to be filmed while being interrogated about whether they had taken US$100 dollars from the testing room. Half the volunteers had been asked to take the $100, and had been told they could keep it if they persuaded the experimenter that they hadn’t. In this way the researchers generated videos of both sincere denials and people who were trying hard to deceive.

They then showed these videos to experimental participants who had to judge if the people in the videos were lying or telling the truth. As well as this measure of conscious lie detection, the participants also completed a task designed to measure their automatic feelings towards the people in the videos.

In experiment one this was a so-called Implicit Association Test which works by comparing the ease with which the participants associated the faces of the people in the videos with the words TRUTH or LIE. Experiment two was a priming test, where the faces of the people in the videos changed the speed at which people then made judgements about words they were then given related to truth-telling and deception.

The results of the study showed that people were no better than chance in their explicit judgements of who was telling the truth and who was lying, but the measurements of their other behaviours showed significant differences. Specifically, for people who were actually lying, observers were slower to associate their faces with the word TRUTH or quicker to associate it with the word LIE. The second experiment showed that after seeing someone who was actually telling the truth people made faster judgements about words related to truth-telling and slower judgements about words related to deception (and vice versa after a video of someone who was actually lying).

How plausible is this?
The result that people aren’t good at detecting lies is very well established. Even professionals, such as police officers, perform poorly when formally tested on their ability to discriminate lying from truth telling.

It’s also very plausible that the way in which you measure someone’s judgement can reveal different things. For example, people are in general notoriously bad at reasoning about risk when they are asked to give estimates verbally, but measurements of behaviour show that we are able to make very accurate estimates of risk in the right circumstances.

It fits with other results in psychological research which show that over thinking certain judgements can reduce their accuracy

Tom’s take
The researchers are trying to have it both ways. The surprise of the result rests on the fact that people don’t score well when asked to make a simple truth vs lie judgement, but their behavioural measures suggest people would be able to make this judgement if asked differently. Claiming the unconscious mind knows what the conscious mind doesn’t is going too far – it could be that the simple truth vs lie judgement isn’t sensitive enough, or is subject to some bias (participants afraid of being wrong for example).

Alternatively, it could be that the researchers’ measures of the unconscious are only sensitive to one aspect of the unconscious – and it happens to be an aspect that can distinguish lies from an honest report. How much can we infer from the unconscious mind as a whole from the behavioural measures?

When reports of this study say “trust your instincts” they ignore the fact that the participants in this study did have the opportunity to trust their instincts – they made a judgement of whether individuals were lying or not, presumably following the combination of all the instincts they had, including those that produced the unconscious measures the researchers tested. Despite this, they couldn’t guess correctly if someone was lying or not.

If the unconscious is anything it will be made up of all the automatic processes that run under the surface of our conscious minds. For any particular judgement – in this case detecting truth telling – some process may be accurate at above chance levels, but that doesn’t mean the unconscious mind as a whole knows who is lying or not.

It doesn’t even mean there is such as thing as the unconscious mind, just that there are aspects to what we think that aren’t reported by people if you ask them directly. We can’t say that people “knew” who was lying, when the evidence shows that they didn’t or couldn’t use this information to make correct judgements.

Read more
The original paper: Some evidence for unconscious lie detection”

The data and stimuli for this experiment are freely available – a wonderful example of “open science.”

A short piece I wrote about how articulating your feelings can get in the way of realising them.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

31 Mar 13:45

How to Bake a Planet

by Jia Tolentino
by Jia Tolentino

Here is a video tutorial about making layer cakes that are also "scientifically accurate representations of the subsurface on Jupiter and Earth, right from the outer atmosphere down through the crust, mantle, and inner core." The video is sort of mesmerizing, and there are also step-by-step instructions here.

Alternately, legalize itetc. [Via]

29 Mar 14:00

Where Did “Hispanics” Come From?

by Claude S. Fischer PhD
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U.S. Army celebrates “Hispanic Month” (source: wikimedia)

One may well wonder where the term “Hispanic,” and for that matter, “Latino,” came from. The press and pundits are all abuzz about the Hispanic vote, Hispanic organizations, and Hispanic cultural influences. Back in the mid-twentieth century, however, they wrote about Mexicans or Puerto Ricans or Guatemalans, not about Hispanics. Of course, people of Latin American origin have become far more numerous in the United States since then and the immigration itself brings more attention. Nonetheless, the labels have changed. Starting in the 1970s, the media rapidly adopted the “pan-ethnic” term Hispanic, and to a lesser degree, Latino, and slowed down their use of specific national labels.*  So did, organizations, agencies, businesses, and “Hispanics” themselves.

As recounted in her important new book, Making Hispanics, sociologist (and my colleague) G. Cristina Mora tells the story of how people as diverse as Cuban-born businessmen in Miami, undocumented Mexican farm workers in California, and third-generation part-Puerto Ricans in New York who do not even understand Spanish were brought together into one social category: Hispanic-Americans.

Politics, Business, and Government

Mora describes an alliance that emerged in the 1970s among grassroots activists, Spanish-language broadcasters, and federal officials to define and promote “Hispanic.”

Activists had previously stressed their national origins and operated regionally – notably, Mexicans in the southwest (where the term “Chicano” became popular for a while) and Puerto Ricans in the northeast. But the larger the numbers they could claim by joining together, the more political clout, the more governmental funds, and the more philanthropic support they could claim. Pumping up the numbers was particularly important given their latent competition with African-American activists over limited resources and limited media attention. Some pan-ethnic term promised to yield the biggest count.

Spanish-language television broadcasters, notably Univision, looked to expand their appeal to advertisers by delivering them a national market. Although the broadcasters faced obstacles in appealing to Spanish-language viewers across the country differing significantly in programming tastes and dialects, they managed to amalgamate the audiences by replacing content imported from abroad with content developed in the United States. They could then sell not medium-to-small Mexican-, Cuban-, or Puerto Rican-American audiences to advertisers, but one huge Hispanic-American audience.

Making the term official as a census category helped both activists and entrepreneurs. Previously, the Bureau of the Census classified Latin Americans as whites with distinct national origins, usually poorly measured. The activists pressed the census bureau, as did some politicians, to provide as broad a label as possible and count everyone who might conceivably fit the category, including, for example, the African-origin Dominicans (although not the French-speaking Haitians nor the Portuguese-speaking Brazilians). This pressure led to the 1980 formulation, used ever since, in which the census asks Americans whether or not they are “Hispanic” separately from whether they are white, black, Asian, or Indian.

Univision social media ad (source):

Univision-Social Media Ad

The three interest groups worked together to publicize and promote the idea and the statistical category of “Hispanic.” As Mora explains, leaving the label’s meaning somewhat ambiguous was useful in both expanding the numbers and in selling the category – as a large needy population to the government and as numerous, affluent consumers to advertisers. The three parties also campaigned to get other institutions, such as state vital statistics bureaus and big businesses to adopt Hispanic as an official category. Many so-called Hispanics preferred and still prefer to call themselves by their national origins; Mora quotes a 1990s bumper sticker, “Don’t Call Me Hispanic, I’m Cuban!” But the term has taken over.

And, so Hispanic-Americans matter a lot now.


Categories of people that we take to be fixed – for example, our assumptions that people are old or young, black or white, male or female – often turn out to be not fixed at all. Social scientists have documented the way the definition of Negro/African American/black has shifted over the generations. There was a time, for example, when the census bureau sought to distinguish octoroons and a time when it could not figure out how to classify people from the Indian subcontinent. In Making Hispanics, Mora lets us see close up just how this new category, Hispanic, that we now take to be a person’s basic identity, was created, debated, and certified.

Direct Marketing Ad

One lesson is that it could have been otherwise. If the pace and sources of migration had been different or if the politics of the 1970s had cut differently, maybe we would be talking about two separate identities, Chicano and “Other Spanish-speaking.” Or maybe we would be classifying the darker-skinned with “Blacks” and lighter-skinned with “Whites.” Or something else. Making Hispanics teaches us much about the social construction of identity.

* Based on my analysis of statistics on New York Times stories and the nGram data on words in American books. Use of “Chicano” surged in 1960s and 1970s, but then faded as “Latino” and, especially, “Hispanic” rose.

Claude S. Fischer is Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley and the author of Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character.  This post originally appeared at his blog of the same name.

(View original at

28 Mar 20:30

It Was Really Lovely Meeting You

by Rachel Friedman
by Rachel Friedman

I slid into my assigned window seat and closed my eyes. Dear airplane gods, I silently prayed, please, please, please leave the middle seat empty for the next 15 hours. I was still begging the universe for this travel favor when I felt someone settle in beside me. Too bad, I thought. Then I opened my eyes on my dreamy new neighbor.

“Hey there,” he said. He had an Australian accent. His blue eyes and unkempt blond curls were coupled with the kind of three-day old scruff that makes me want to move somewhere mountainous populated by men who chop their own kindling.

“Hi,” I said.

While two flight attendants prepared us for impromptu water landings and oxygen mask use, he told me his name was John and that he was on his way home after six months in the U.S.

“I was working on a farm,” John said. “My family owns one in New Zealand and I was doing a sort of apprenticeship in Missouri.”

“You’re a Kiwi?” I said.



“Uhh, pretty certain,” he said.

“It’s just that you seem so… Australian.” I’d spent a lot of time around Australians and New Zealanders and prided myself on being able to tell them apart through subtle differences ranging from the linguistic (fact: Kiwis pronounce the vowel “e” so it sounds like “i,” which makes for really entertaining conversations about anything deck-related) to the stylistic (observe: Aussies generally have shaggier haircuts and deeper tans).

“How many Kiwis do you know?” John said.

“Well, I just got done being married to one, so quite a few.” I tried to keep my tone light. 

“I’m sorry to hear that,” John said.  “Even our glorious country produces a dud here and there.” Then he actually winked at me.

The comment should have made me cry. Martyn and I had only been separated for a month and I felt like I’d spent that entire time in tears. Instead, I laughed. It was an unexpected relief to let a stranger dismiss the last five years of my life because he knew nothing about them. I had gotten used to being treated like I was fragile as old bones—and I was–but John didn’t know that.

Martyn and I had met eight years earlier in an Irish pub in Peru. I was a 22-year-old backpacker just returned from a trip into the Amazon. My Australian friend Carly and I had been traveling for four months and so I was in that unique open space engendered by constant exposure to new experiences. Yes I will bungee jump into a canyon. Yes I will eat that questionable street meat. Yes I most definitely will fall in love with a New Zealander on his way to live in London.

Martyn was blue-eyed and blond-haired, like John. He was tall and funny and emanated an easy-going confidence. He asked me what I knew about New Zealand.

“Not much,” I admitted.

He took my left hand in his and turned it wrist side up, then gently bent my ring and pinky finger back into my palm.  He touched my two extended fingers. “Up here, in the north, is Auckland. It’s our largest city,” he said. “A little below that is Hamilton, where I’m from.” He drew a line to my wrist. “Here’s Wellington, the capital.”

He moved down my arm into the South Island, tracing cities as he went: Nelson, Christchurch, Queenstown, Invercargill. It was the best geography lesson I’d ever had.

Once my first unexpected laugh burst out with John the Kiwi dairy farmer, there were more behind it. We talked about family and work and travel. We talked about everything but what mattered most—that I was escaping to Australia for six weeks to grieve for my failed marriage. I was going to live with Carly, the same friend who had been with me when I met Martyn. She was four months pregnant but her Colombian fiancé was stuck in his home country awaiting a visa. We both desperately needed a distraction.

As we talked and read, John kept touching my arm flirtatiously. Once he playfully squeezed my knee. “You’re awfully forward,” I said, setting my magazine down and raising an eyebrow in mock admonition.

“I think you want me to be,” he said. “Do I make you nervous?”

“What? No! Of course not!” I said.

“You haven’t turned the page in 15 minutes,” he said.  It was true. I had been reading the same sentence over and over again, my eyes zoning out on black ink while my brain indulged in less high-brow material than The New Yorker offered.

“So you’re a writer,” he continued. “You must be pretty clever then.” He caught my gaze and held it. “I’m pretty clever, too.” My cheeks flushed but I didn’t look away.

The first time Martyn and I had sex was in a grimy Peruvian hotel where Carly and I were staying. We’d been hanging out nonstop for three days and I’d been trying to get him into bed that entire time. I’d never had a guy refuse my advances but Martyn politely did.

“I like you,” he’d said. “But I’m moving to London. If I sleep with you I’ll like you even more and I’ll still be moving to London.” A day later he solved the dilemma by asking me to come to England with him. “Yes, yes, yes,” I said, peeling off his ugly alpaca sweater.

On the plane I tried but could not fall asleep next to John. I was too wired from talking and flirting. In the midst of all the crying these last months, I’d forgotten that some fun might actually be waiting for me on the other side of my sadness.  I tucked myself up, knees to chest. John offered his shoulder and I settled into him, my racing heart eventually slowing down as I dozed off.

Martyn and I went from a weeklong romance in South America to declarations of love and me moving to England. Because we were from different countries and neither of us could work where the other was living, we spent a lot of our time on planes. The whole first part of our relationship felt like an extended vacation. We were great travelers together: calm, open-minded, and endlessly curious. It was only after getting settled on the ground that we found ourselves in trouble.

We probably married too quickly. Martyn needed an American work visa because we had run out of money and patience for hopping back and forth between countries. Despite knowing each other for several years, we’d only spent around six months in the same physical location before getting hitched. Only after we’d said our vows did we realize how different our ideas were about relationships and kids and money—and that was just for a start.

When we landed in Sydney, two airport signs pointed John and me in different directions. I was headed for customs and he was catching a plane to Auckland.  He pulled me into his arms and I stayed there for what felt like a very long time.

“Can I…?” he said.

“It was really, really lovely meeting you,” I cut in.

Was he going to ask for my email? My last name? To kiss me? I ran off before finding out. Despite its ultimately PG rating, the 15 hours John and I spent together had been intense and intimate. I knew I wasn’t ready for anything more just yet. I needed to be on my own these next six weeks and possibly for a long while after that.

A part of me wonders what would have happened if I had walked away from Martyn like I did from John. What if we had chalked up our international romance to a wonderful fling, the kind of encounter one reflects fondly upon later in life with a wistful smile?  Still, I’m not sorry I took the leap because I know for certain that I would have regretted it if I hadn’t. We took a risk and we failed, but there was plenty of joy on the way down.

I know John wasn’t my next great love, just a flirty pick-me-up possibly sent by sympathetic airplane gods who couldn’t deliver an empty seat.  Yet I know, too, how easily a chance encounter can become a life together. But getting divorced has made me stop treating love like it exists in limited supply, and at 32 I’m willing to do something I never could in my impatient twenties when I was determined to experience everything life had to offer all at once: I’m willing to wait.


Photo via sergeyalifanov/flickr.

Rachel Friedman is the author of The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost: A Memoir of Three Continents, Two Friends, and One Unexpected AdventureShe’s written for The New York Times, BUST, and Bitch, among others.  She’s a contributor to The McSweeney’s Book of Politics and Musicals and The Best Women’s Travel Writing, Volume 9

28 Mar 14:00

Snickers Mocks the Idea that Men Can Respect Women

by Lisa Wade, PhD

This is one of the most demoralizing ads I’ve seen in a long time. It’s an Australian ad for Snickers in which construction workers on a busy city street yell pro-feminist comments at women, like “I’d like to show you the respect you deserve” and ”You want to hear a filthy word? Gender bias” and “You know what I’d like to see? A society in which the objectification of women makes way for gender neutral interaction free from assumptions and expectations.”

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The construction workers are actors, but the women on the street are (or appear to be) real and their reactions authentic. The first thing women do is get uncomfortable, revealing how a lifetime of experience makes them cringe at the prospect of a man yelling at them.  But, as women realize what’s going on, they’re obviously delighted.  They love the idea of getting support and respect instead of harassment from strange men.

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This last woman actually places her hand on her heart and mouths “thank you” to the guys.

And then the commercial ends and it’s all yanked back in the most disgusting way. It ends by claiming that pro-feminist men are clearly unnatural. Men don’t respect women — at least, not this kind of man — they’re just so hungry they can’t think straight.

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The twist ending is a genuine “fuck you” to the actual women who happened to walk by and become a part of the commercial.  I wonder, when the producers approached them to get their permission to be used on film, did they tell them how the commercial would end? I suspect not. And, if not, I bet seeing the commercial would feel like a betrayal. These women were (likely) given the impression that it was about respecting women, but instead it was about making fun of the idea that women deserve respect.

What a dick move, Snickers. I hope you’re happy with your misogynist consumer base, because I don’t think I can ever buy a Snickers bar again.  What else does your parent company sell? I’ll make a note.

A petition has been started to register objections to the commercial. Thanks to sociologist and pro-feminist Michael Kimmel for sending in the ad.  Cross-posted at SoUnequal.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

(View original at

25 Mar 15:00

Happy Birthday, Flannery O'Connor

by Emma Carmichael
by Emma Carmichael

Red Sam came in and told his wife to quit lounging on the counter and hurry up with these people's order. His khaki trousers reached just to his hip bones and his stomach hung over them like a sack of meal swaying under his shirt. He came over and sat down at a table nearby and let out a combination sigh and yodel. "You can't win," he said. "You can't win," and he wiped his sweating red face off with a gray handkerchief. "These days you don't know who to trust," he said. "Ain't that the truth?"

"People are certainly not nice like they used to be," said the grandmother.

"Two fellers come in here last week," Red Sammy said, "driving a Chrysler. It was a old beat-up car but it was a good one and these boys looked all right to me. Said they worked at the mill and you know I let them fellers charge the gas they bought? Now why did I do that?"

"Because you're a good man!" the grandmother said at once.

"Yes'm, I suppose so," Red Sam said as if he were struck with this answer.

HBD, Flannery. A Good Man Is Hard To Find is online here; Good Country People is here; her (paywalled) letters to God are here; her cartoons (!) are here. What else should we be reading today?

24 Mar 19:00

On Lena, On Rihanna, On Kimye: The Very Necessary Death Of "Vogue"

by Haley Mlotek
by Haley Mlotek

The idea that there is an appropriate subject for a Vogue cover is a concept that Vogue invented. The years and years of white, able-bodied, skinny and young models and actresses have trained us to instinctively notice what is and isn't Vogue. There is the occasional diversion if the Academy Awards/Grammys/culture demands; but often when Vogue puts aside its insistence that only one kind of beauty exists in order to recognize a different kind of beauty, they do something worse, like the LeBron James cover with Gisele, which was maybe not an overtly racist decision, but certainly an editorial decision that reflected implicitly racist beliefs about the way a black man looks with a white-looking woman. Even (Vogue cover star) Beyoncé fired shots at Vogue on her latest (perfect) album, talking about their impossible standards of beauty on "Pretty Hurts" ("Vogue says/thinner is better," she sings, and the first time I heard that I got REAL CHILLS).

Vogue wants us to believe that their publication is merely a reflection of cultural values, and not one of the most powerful shaping tools for those cultural values. When they insist on yet another Blake Lively or Gwyneth Paltrow cover, they are, they silently protest, just giving the people what they want—whether they like it or not. I feel confident in asserting that no one was pounding down Vogue's door for a Blake Lively cover—and it certainly turned out that no one was desperate for a Taylor Swift cover either—but rather that Vogue wanted its readers to want Blake Lively, the way they'd like them to want the Clarins family, or Lauren Santo Domingo, or a similar blonde socialite born into money and status, because it is good for Vogue's business if they are pushing something that can literally never be obtained by 98% of their readers. It's aspirational, is the argument, but really it is the opposite. The Vogue mentality is a crushing, totalitarian, all-encompassing binary of right and wrong, and good bad, and no one can ever really obtain it. The best case scenario is to get rich and die buying. 

I work for a fashion magazine. Because I work in fashion, that means that I am constantly in the process of explaining myself, defending myself, trying to prove that I belong at certain breakfasts and lunches and talks and panel discussions. And because we are a "small" publication, we have to explain ourselves as well—and I hate defining my publication by negations. We're "not" a lot of things, of course: not stupid, not trying to sell you something, not focusing on chasing trends, and, most of all, we're Not Vogue. This is a question so frequently asked I would add it to the frequently asked question section of our site if it would not feel like a dagger through our sensitive well-dressed hearts. We've been asked, on multiple occasions, if we are like Vogue, if we hate Vogue, if our publication is the anti-Vogue, which are ludicrous questions.

But the question has had its desired effect on us, and for the last few years, we've kind of adopted it as an informal slogan; when we do something ridiculous, like handwrite and mail every single one of our subscriptions, or fill our fridge with water bottles and Diet Coke, or delay a meeting because the associate editors haven't returned from our local discount grocery store (No Frills) with our favorite off-brand potato chips (World Of Flavours Poutine Flavour Rippled Potato Chips, what’s up, Galen Weston Jr.), we'll say to each other, "Just like at Vogue!" Because, as we are supposed to understand, no one at Vogue would ever sully her hands with an actual envelope; no one would grime her manicure with a potato chip; fine, they may love bottled water and aspartame-based soft drinks, but that's where the similarities end.

We're not really talking about Vogue, the magazine. We mean Vogue the idea. Vogue the magazine is really a front for Vogue the institution, a facade that allows casual readers and people breezing by in grocery stores to understand what Vogue means. Which is: that wealth is good and necessary, a cleansing tool that keeps your wardrobes, cars, and homes fresh and current; that trends are the creation of single thoughtful humans, the result of pure effort by lone genius artists; that the pursuit of thinness is worthwhile and not some gauche game but a pleasant activity that above all benefits your health and mind; and that finally, the people that you, the reader, want to see are already in their pages, because no one in or on Vogue does not deserve to be there.

And yet, I don't hate Vogue. I actually love Vogue, and buy it every month, because it satisfies a need I have for a certain kind of mainstream fashion publication—even as it provokes me to a dark rage about its deeper failings.

In all its twists and turns since 1892, Vogue has published some of the greatest writers of our time, with some of the greatest works of their careers, and when people write off Vogue I have to assume they are probably misogynistic idiots. For every article on which $125 bottle of sunscreen you simply must take to St. Barth's this winter, there's Joan Didion publishing "On Self-Respect" (June, 1961). To say that Vogue is all fluff, and destructive fluff, is just a lie—it would be like saying that Vanity Fair is not an exceptionally well-bred tabloid.

So I have a baby here and I have some bathwater and I only want to get rid of one of them. And really that thing is the idea that fashion writing is inherently stupid, and that real fashion writers must transcend this stupidity in order to write about what really matters, or that all fashion magazines must be destroyed before they infect the real (or at least, men's) publications. (Way too late, by the way; check the April Details cover profile of Nikolaj Coster-Waldau for the ultimate in fluff, running alongside photos of him shirtless in sweatpants—Diesel sweatpants. Or this trailer for the new Esquire.) The people who believe this are the people on my news and Twitter feeds who are currently performing similar, but opposite, rants about what I think is the most glorious magazine cover of 2014 and possibly my life, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian on Vogue, hashtag the most talked about couple in the world. These people—amongst them Nikki Finke, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and fashion blogger BryanBoy because, sure, why not—are upset that Vogue has stooped so low, are indulging the masses, playing to the lowest common denominator, and then some of them are upset that people even care one way or the other about a Kim Kardashian and Kanye West cover, and they are all wrong in such a deep and disturbing way that I would happily throw a baby out a window just to get rid of their bathwater.

February, March, April 2012


February, March, April 2013


February, March, April 2014


For the last year or so, there’s been a rumor that Anna Wintour has enforced an “over my dead body” policy about featuring Kim Kardashian on the cover of Vogue. Now, in her April issue editor’s letter, Wintour talks about how much she always wanted Kim in Vogue, and so I’ll take her at her word—it’s probably not as simple as Anna Wintour just didn’t want Kim, and it’s even more likely it’s a complete lie. Whether or not Anna Wintour really was deliberately trying to keep Kim out of Vogue is mostly irrelevant—it's one of those tabloid lies that speaks to a truth that people feel about Kim, that she doesn't deserve what is a totally meaningless and arbitrary status symbol like a Vogue cover, because she or what she stands for is somehow unworthy.

I rather feel like a Kimye apologist, because I have actually kept up more with Vogue than I ever have with the Kardashians; I primarily know Kim through her social media accounts, and through the GIFs popping up on Tumblr now and then, so I've just decided to like her. She seems really funny, and fun, and I think she knows exactly what she's doing at all times, and that often the arguments I hear people make about her are tied up in their overall feelings about women—that she's stupid, or trashy, or whatever word they prefer meaning "too sexually available"—all subtext for a grown woman who does whatever she wants, who likes her body, who spends lots of time and energy looking a certain way and is happy with what she sees in the mirror. These are crimes against humanity according to the people who would like Vogue to retain their, I don’t know, journalistic integrity or whatever. And I love Kanye West beyond all reason, which has a lot to do with the fact that The College Dropout came out when I was in high school and so is burned into my brain as the soundtrack of my teenage years, but I do really think he's one of the smartest and most talented people working in music today, and that everything he says is genius. "Everything is exactly the same," he told Seth Meyers, and he was so right I could have tattooed that statement on my body right then and there. Everything is the same—fashion and music and art and writing and all modes of creativity we want to use to express ourselves, they are all just mediums, and Kanye West is just not interested in forcing himself into narrow categories because it makes you feel more comfortable about what a singer or rapper or musician should be.

There is little that Kim Kardashian and Kanye West could do or say, at this point, that would make me feel anything bad towards them, and there is very little that Vogue can do to convince me that it is not the enforcer of those narrow categories that all humans are supposed to fit in or GTFO. So now I am in a precarious position. Do I support Vogue for making this choice, and hesitantly make my peace with the publication, keeping my rage to a discrete eyeroll every now and then, or do I choose to see this as opportunistic—a bone thrown to bitches like myself with an opinion on just about everything?

This cover comes as a what-the-what trilogy: Lena Dunham, Rihanna, and now Kanye and Kim, hashtag the world's most talked about couple, a three-month stretch of people who are actually very zeitgeist-y (Dunham) and very popular (Rihanna—in her third cover appearance since 2011) and mostly very young—for young readers as well as young themselves. (For reference, the February, March and April Vogue covers ten years ago were Natalie Portman, Angelina Jolie and Gwen Stefani.) The Lena Dunham cover is in no way as important to me as the Kanye and Kim cover, but it was definitely the first thing about Vogue that has made me sit up and take notice in a long time. The Lena Dunham cover was, I thought, financially risky—I do like Lena Dunham and "Girls" quite a bit, in case you care about my opinion, which of course you don't—but in purely practical terms, she is not exactly famous enough to warrant a Vogue cover. The season three premiere of "Girls" had 1.1 million viewers, an all-time high for the show and basically the amount of dollars Rihanna makes every time she posts a photo on Instagram. At the time, I raged at the Lena Dunham cover not because I hate Lena Dunham, but because in pure practical financial and cynical publishing terms, Kim Kardashian is guaranteed to move more units of any magazine than Lena Dunham is—even if Kardashian sales are apparently down for Us Weekly, they were reportedly only down to 400,000 copies per issue, newsstand numbers I can only have tear-soaked dreams about. Vogue too, actually: their single-copy sales were down 20% in 2013, down to a number well south of Us Weekly's. There's a reason that Vogue is taking chances.

Jezebel, as they will, asked for unretouched photos of the Lena Dunham photo shoot because they believed that Vogue would do what Vogue does often and unapologetically—flatten a human being into a 2D object of their own making, force someone to fit inside those narrow categories. It was fair for Jezebel to assume that Vogue would Photoshop Lena Dunham into oblivion, although I do believe it was tacky and mean to offer a bounty for those images; but this is what I mean when I talk about doing Vogue's work for them. Vogue did not really retouch those images any more so than was appropriate—Dunham looked like a more Annie Leibovitz-version of herself, which is a mostly pleasant experience that I think any of us should insist upon, should we be featured in Vogue (lol). When Jezebel offered cash to prove that Lena Dunham IRL would not look like Lena Dunham in Vogue, they were reinforcing the Vogue ideal of beauty that even Vogue had disregarded for this particular photo shoot—because Lena Dunham has always shown her naked body, Vogue could not really deviate far from the reality of how Dunham looks. We would’ve had a weekly reminder that Vogue was fucking around with her image. This is what real power, and real privilege looks like. I wish Jezebel had focused less on priding themselves on knowing what a Vogue woman should look like and instead realize that we were watching Vogue completely renegotiate their place in a post-"Girls" (I'm so sorry) world. Lena Dunham has an HBO show for a lot of reasons—both talent and perseverance, for starters—but she is also in a unique position, a beloved battleground for thinkpieces and essays, particularly among the young. Vogue actually couldn't airbrush the reality of her body away, and that's real power. Not even Oprah fucking Winfrey got that level of respect—Anna Wintour famously asked her to lose weight before her 1998 cover. Let's take a moment and think about that. Oprah fucking Winfrey, one of the rare women who has more wealth, power, and fame than Anna Wintour (particularly at this time, which was both pre-The Devil Wears Prada and pre-September Issue image reboot for Wintour), allowed a Condé Nast publication to tell her what sort of body she needed to have before she could be considered Vogue material. Jezebel wasn't wrong to assume that Vogue would do something similar to Lena Dunham, but they were wrong to underestimate how much Vogue was willing to concede for a certain type of privileged person.

Then came the Rihanna cover, with an accompanying feature by Plum Sykes that made me cringe in a very adolescent way—it's one of those stunt profiles, where Plum Sykes and Rihanna go to the Alexander Wang store for a makeover montage, so Sykes can become more like (read: dress more like) Rihanna, and the whole experience had the distinct feeling that my parents were embarrassing me in front of my coolest friend. This is ridiculous, given how involved Rihanna is with fashion. But it was there: a cover that reflected not just a trend, but a pop star of epic, untouchable proportions, a woman of limitless talent and wealth and power in an absurdly difficult industry. The writing, the Plum Sykes-ing, was just the internal mechanisms of old Vogue not catching up to the new Vogue.

Because it's that Vogue tone that many people respond to negatively, I think, without even consciously realizing they're rebelling against it. It's the tone used to encourage fur-lined Birkenstocks and pajama pant suits with total seriousness and reduces First Ladies and Secretaries of States to Oscar de la Renta mannequins. I'm exaggerating, but only mildly. Really, it's that tone that encourages you to see all fashion and all clothing as good or bad, right or wrong, worthy or garbage, and it's a tone that's easy to rebel against. That tone is responsible for the unbelievably misplaced backlash against last month's normcore article by Fiona Duncan, an essay that was an absolutely perfect piece of fashion writing, which anyone who read past the title and who wasn't permanently trapped in a snark-feedback loop would have realized. Fiona's article was exploring an emerging trend, who was wearing it and why, their inspirations and their motivations, and the trend's place in this fashion wheel we're all on whether we like it or not. I think people are so used to the kind of tone that Vogue has propagated and benefited from, the tone that says all clothing is just another capitalist trap to keep the masses down, that they expected the article to be "ten chinos for your summer normcore look" or some similar shit and reacted accordingly.

Great fashion writing doesn't reduce everything to what is for sale, what's hot and not. Great fashion writing looks at clothing and the uses of clothing with the same amount of cultural reverence we give a Lars von Trier movie or the U.S. Open, as something that exists, and it asks why it exists, and how it fits into its larger culture. Vogue can do this when they want, and can do it well, but it is often buried between hundreds of pages of Plum Sykes talking about how standing next to Rihanna makes her feel ("Rihanna looks brilliant, and so original, 'Rhianna,' I tell her, 'I feel drab, frumpy. I feel mommy-ish and totally uncool in every fashion way possible.' The intensity of these feelings increases with every second I spend with Rihanna." Sadly, this story does not end with Rihanna confirming that yes, Plum Sykes is majorly basic, and then Rihanna gets into a hovercar with Drake and flies away, like my latest fan fiction. Instead Rihanna just gives her a leather jacket to try on). So let me say that no one cares how normcore makes you feel, if you would wear it or not wear it; it exists, and it matters, because the way we wear and use clothing always matters, as Kanye West knows better than anyone else; everything is exactly the same, indeed, and that there are ways we can look at clothing that do not have Vogue’s fingerprints on them.

But with all this combined—Jezebel insisting that Lena Dunham couldn't possibly be up to Vogue's impossible standards of beauty, comments and tweets deriding the integrity of a Vogue cover now that #Kimye has graced it, backlash against the mere implication that clothing is a perfect tool for looking at a community and contemporary mindset and can be more than just something to be bought and traded for cultural capital—it leaves us doing the devil's work of enforcing Vogue standards while Anna Wintour gets to write editor's letters defending her humanitarian choice to give the people what they want and put Kanye and Kim on the cover. Vogue does not just exist in a tasteful vacuum; every page is carefully and painstakingly designed to be bought and sold by you, the reader, as Vogue, and when we choose to take to our own Twitter and Facebook profiles and comment sections to say that Kim Kardashian is just "not Vogue" we are doing their dirtiest work for them. We get to practice actual Vogue actions, like trying to stifle and smother and humiliate any human who deviates from the "right" kind of Vogue cover model. Meanwhile, Anna Wintour gets to float away on a money cloud to the very top of Condé Nast's chain—the number three slot in the company's power structure, listed well above the company's actual editorial director.

What I hope is that the Kimye cover is the first sign that Vogue has decided to renegotiate their place in what is the graveyard we call print media. (But not at Condé, not yet: Vogue had its second-biggest issue in its entire history last September.) Vogue will always be Vogue, but Vogue does not have to be Vogue, do you follow? The last three covers are right, the sign of a new Vogue. These last three covers show that the publication as a whole may have actually been wrong all along. This is a sign of Vogue's own way of adapting, and changing, and recognizing that the model they've created for themselves is unsustainable and often grossly narrow-minded. I cannot be Vogue, you cannot be Vogue, and now Vogue can no longer keep up with Vogue's standards—not if they want to keep their preferred spot at the front of newsstands. That is a good, positive thing, to acknowledge that no one can be just like Vogue. Vogue is dead, and Vogue should die, so long live Vogue.

Haley Mlotek has a lot of opinions. She is the publisher of WORN Fashion Journal.