Partially based on H.P. Lovecraft's work, Shilov's The Rats in the Walls is a short experimental horror adventure. Players make their way through a seemingly deserted mansion, haunted by many things, but none seem more maddening than the rattling rats.
Skelefactor's Pac-Man-like game Horror Vacui requires patience to trick enemies that roam and lasers that surround the grid you try to claim as blue. Each death resets the grid and yourself to gray, and in the case of fiendish boss fights, their health bars reset, too.
You slowly gain up speed as you claim the grid, until you get a dash of invincibility you can use to crush enemies. As long as you are blue, at any speed, you can take down the enemy spawn portals.
I would prefer to have some of the stages cut before the first boss fight, as they don't feel too varied. Those that hang in there might feel like the game was child's play up to that battle, though. It's super tough! As the trailer below shows, even crazier challenges await:
While this shares the title of Shaun Inman's Horror Vacui, a quick glance will let you know the two games are different. If you're not sure how much you want to pay for Skelefactor's Windows and Mac game, you can download it for free first and then return to pay what you want.
Here's a look at how six great independent bookstores make it in the big city, which is actually a question I have always wanted answered. The Park Slope Community Bookstore has done it in part by catering to Park Slope's child-related needs, which seems obvious; BookCourt did it by buying their building and, eventually, the building next door. PowerHouse Arena, as anyone who goes to things knows, does it by tirelessly having things to go to (and lots and lots of space rental). The lovely Greenlight books did it through canny investment and fundraising and by being a bookstore where a bookstore was needed. And Sarah McNally of McNally Jackson does it by selling a crapload of books:
She attributes more than $4 million in sales last year to an obvious factor: volume. “Instead of getting rid of shelf for display,” she says, “we’ve gotten rid of display space for shelf space.” So 65,000 books have been squeezed into 7,000 square feet (along with a café), while creative organizing keeps them compulsively browsable.
My only complaint about these bookstores is that, with the exception of BookCourt's cat (pictured!), there aren't enough cats in them.
By now you've probably heard about the massive Heartbleed security bug that may have compromised the majority of the world's web sites. Everyone should change their passwords on the affected sites—but only after those sites have patched the issue. Mashable is maintaining and updating a list of the most popular sites you should change your passwords for ASAP.
Most ebook sellers try to lock you into a particular ecosystem. If you don't mind buying from the same company every time, this isn't too bad, but you lose the ability to comparison shop, as well as making it difficult to switch apps. Fortunately, there's a way around this problem.
Noah is getting the strangest good reviews. "I’m not sure who exactly this often grimly rapturous movie was made for, but I find myself surprisingly glad that it was made," wrote Richard Lawson in Vanity Fair. A.O. Scott went with: "Mr. Aronofsky’s earnest, uneven, intermittently powerful film, is both a psychological case study and a parable of hubris and humility. At its best, it shares some its namesake’s ferocious conviction, and not a little of his madness."
These are all incredibly charitable. This is not a good movie. I wanted to bite off my fingers. From the opening sequence, which explains the silly state of the world and some fallen angels by means of text that looks suspiciously like the unholy Papyrus font, to the senseless howling and weeping and gnashing of teeth and stomping around that proceeds over the next two hours, Noah looks all around like a film gone seriously wrong. In terms of emotional pitch, it makes Black Swan look like Breakfast at Tiffany's. It's tiresome, exhausting, bizarre and self-serious. Aronofsky is pretty close to being a great director who's never actually made a great film.
In anyone else's hands, the story of grim old stick-in-the-mud Russell Crowe saving the beasts of the world from the evils of men would be extremely camp. And there are times that the movie looks like claymation or the performances turn just a bit too histrionic. But there's never anything laughable, really—ever—in even Aronofsky's most ridiculous situations. That's what makes Noah so tiring. And yet… visually captivating? I guess the upside is, it's refreshing to see a movie where you literally cannot imagine what will happen, even though you assume there's going to be, like, a big flood, and an eventual yacht collision with Mount Ararat.
I always start to suspect that it all goes wrong with his collaborators. Noah has the wonderful Clint Mansell's worst score to date (and I say this as a huge, huge Mansell fan), and Aronofsky's stuck by his production designer and editor from Black Swan and his costume designer back to The Wrestler. But that's not it: they all do great work over and over. Thérèse DePrez also did the impeccable production designs for Stoker and I Shot Andy Warhol and Happiness, and Amy Westcott did costumes for The Squid and the Whale and "Entourage" and the delightful What's Your Number? (She has the craziest job of all here: "pretend there was actually a first iron age before the one we know about and also there were magical animals and angels and stuff and they'd discovered indigo dye and invented really sophisticated looms but nothing else." You end up with a kind of Bottega Veneta as reimagined by al Qaeda members.) Likewise Noah's editor did Moonrise Kingdom, The East and Fantastic Mr. Fox. So everything wrong with this movie is Aronofsky's fault.
From the east coast, this looks like the insanely expensive end of Darren Aronofsky, with the production budget plus the marketing budget teetering quickly towards $200 million. But the studio, after some early wrestling for control of the film, gave it up and gave in, and are now 100% on-board. Probably their testing shows something we can't see for the vast multiplexes of America. A Dances with Wolves for the last of the Billy Graham set? God, it could be just the beginning.
Accessibility is still a big issue in games, physical and digital, so this is a cool idea.
Emily sez, "Working in the blindness field, my husband, Richard and I have many blind friends. We are gamers at heart and have always been dismayed that our friends couldn't play our favorite games. When Richard began pursuing game publishing our first inclination was to make all games blind accessible. However, this proved to be nigh on impossible. We discovered if we wanted our games to be accessible, we had to make accessible games ourselves."
Our plan with this campaign is to buy a braille embosser. With the embosser we can create braille stickers that will be compatible with a huge range of existing card games. This will allow blind people to play games alongside their sighted friends. If we make the goal of an embosser, we have stretch goals planned that would allow us to make braille dice as well. We even have dreams of being able to modify game boards. We know how to do it and we are hoping you and kickstarter can help us make it happen.
I am a Teacher of the Visually Impaired with 10 years experience and special certification in braille. Previously I managed national blindness education programs. Richard is a Special Education teacher with a passion for board game design. One of his designs was a finalist this year in the Hippodice Spielclub game competition. Together we have the knowledge, passion, and experience to make this a success.
Brad sez, "Trusty Sword, an Olympia, WA-based RPG developer, has posted hundreds of scanned D&D cover art from dndclassics.com [a site where you can buy all the classic D&D modules and books as ebooks, though some are larded with DRM] to Pinterest. It's awesome."
If you remember the first film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, the 1978 animated version by Ralph Bakshi–the legendary outsider director behind Fritz the Cat, Wizards, American Pop and Fire and Ice–you’ll recall the experience was a mixed bag.
The movie was a dark, moody, oversaturated vision of Tolkien’s world, with stunning design and many memorable scenes. Bakshi used rotoscoping to trace live footage for animation, and posterization to give it a rough, hand-made look. Both techniques allowed many corners to be cut, but at the time, the film’s PR claimed Rings was the “the first movie painting.”
Sadly, Bakshi’s 133-minute film left viewers stranded after the battle at Helm’s Deep, just as Gollum is about to lead Sam and Frodo into Mordor. Roughly two-thirds through Tolkien’s three-part story, Bakshi didn't get to make the final installment. Rankin-Bass, the studio behind the 1977 TV adaptation of The Hobbit, churned out The Return of the King as a “sequel” in 1980, with little artistic resemblance to Bakshi’s vision.
Now, quietly, some of the scenes from that 1978 classic have been rescued from the “cutting room floor,” Bakshi, now 75, said when I reached him via email this week.
Eddie Bakshi, Bakshi’s son, has been busy scanning in original “cel” artwork from Bakshi's archives, timing them to the cartoon’s original exposure sheets, and posting the scenes on Bakshi’s Facebook page. (The Facebook page also includes clips from Bakshi’s other films, though it appears none of these are new.)
“If you’re getting close to delivery, it’s better to cut the animation out to make the scene work, than racing to reanimate it to make the cut work,” Bakshi said, recalling the hectic atmosphere as the film’s deadline loomed.
Asked why Gandalf and the Balrog look quite different in these new scenes, compared to the rotoscoped Gandalf and Balrog seen on The Bridge of Khazad-dûm, Bakshi said, “Well, it’s hazy, but I was trying to make memories different than the real time story. I was wrestling with trying to separate the styles.”
It’s unclear what other lost scenes from The Lord of the Rings might be found, shot and posted. Due to low budgets and little wiggle room to fix, reanimate or make cuts, “Very little or nothing ended up on the floor,” Bakshi said. If any gems are discovered, Eddie Bakshi will decide whether they are worthy of reshooting. For the elder Bakshi, it’s “been there, done it.”
Bakshi fans should feel nostalgia for this old footage, which evokes the days of hand-drawn animation: “It was great to see it again,” he added, “but I got aggravated at the animator again for making the mistake 30 years later.”
Still, Bakshi was effusive in his praise for his team of artists who made the movie, which included a young Tim Burton, in his first job out of college.
“My animators–old school–were the greatest ever," Bakshi said, "barring none.”
Almost 90 years after JRR Tolkien translated the 11th-century poem Beowulf, The Lord of the Rings author's version of the epic story is to be published for the first time in an edition which his son Christopher Tolkien says sees his father "enter[ing] into the imagined past" of the heroes. [Guardian]
Writing under the rallying cry "Gender-specific books demean all our children," Katy Guest announces that the Independent on Sunday -- one of the UK's great weekend papers -- will no longer review any books that are marketed to "exclude either sex." It's tied to the Let Toys Be Toys/Let Books Be Books campaign, which petitions companies to stop tying their products to specific gender-identities. Guest characterises the segregation of products by gender as a means of "convincing children that boys and girls can’t play with each other's stuff, is forcing parents to buy twice as much stuff."
I remember being surprised when someone told me that Little Brother was a "boy book." Yes, its protagonist is a boy, but every protagonist has to have some kind of gender identity, and it's a weird world when we're only allowed to read fiction in which the lead character has the same gender identity as us. I once co-wrote a novella whose major characters are galaxy-spanning AI hiveminds -- it would have a rather small audience by that standard.
Good on the Independent on Sunday for this!
There are also those who argue that children are set upon their boyish and girly courses from conception, and that no amount of book-reading is going to change them. In fact, there is no credible evidence that boys and girls are born with innately different enthusiasms, and plenty of evidence that their tastes are acquired through socialisation. Let’s face it, any company with a billion dollar advertising budget could convince even Jeremy Clarkson to dress up as a Disney princess if it really wanted to, and probably would if his doing so could double its income. So what hope is there against all this pressure for an impressionable child?
I wouldn’t mind, but splitting children’s books strictly along gender lines is not even good publishing. Just like other successful children’s books, The Hunger Games was not aimed at girls or boys; like JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Robert Muchamore and others, Collins just wrote great stories, and readers bought them in their millions. Now, Dahl’s Matilda is published with a pink cover, and I have heard one bookseller report seeing a mother snatching a copy from her small son’s hands saying “That’s for girls” as she replaced it on the shelf.
You see, it is not just girls’ ambitions that are being frustrated by the limiting effects of “books for girls”, in which girls’ roles are all passive, domestic and in front of a mirror. Rebecca Davies, who writes the children’s books blog at Independent.co.uk, tells me that she is equally sick of receiving “books which have been commissioned solely for the purpose of ‘getting boys reading’ [and which have] all-male characters and thin, action-based plots.” What we are doing by pigeon-holing children is badly letting them down. And books, above all things, should be available to any child who is interested in them.
Mary Beard, at the London Review of Books, has written a phenomenal essay on women and speech in the public sphere. "I want to start very near the beginning of the tradition of Western literature, and its first recorded example of a man telling a woman to ‘shut up’," she writes, discussing the Odyssey, and the moment when Telemachus tells his mother Penelope to "go back up into your quarters, and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff… speech will be the business of men."
Right where written evidence for Western culture starts, women’s voices are not being heard in the public sphere; more than that, as Homer has it, an integral part of growing up, as a man, is learning to take control of public utterance and to silence the female of the species.
Beard takes a "very long view" on the subject of women who speak up "in order to help us get beyond the simple diagnosis of ‘misogyny’ that we tend a bit lazily to fall back on… if we want to understand – and do something about – the fact that women, even when they are not silenced, still have to pay a very high price for being heard, we have to recognise that it is a bit more complicated and that there’s a long back-story." She goes back through public record:
One earnest Roman anthologist of the first century ad was able to rake up just three examples of ‘women whose natural condition did not manage to keep them silent in the forum’. His descriptions are revealing. The first, a woman called Maesia, successfully defended herself in the courts and ‘because she really had a man’s nature behind the appearance of a woman was called the “androgyne”’. The second, Afrania, used to initiate legal cases herself and was ‘impudent’ enough to plead in person, so that everyone became tired out with her ‘barking’ or ‘yapping’ (she still isn’t allowed human ‘speech’). We are told that she died in 48 BC, because ‘with unnatural freaks like this it’s more important to record when they died than when they were born.’
There are only two main exceptions in the classical world to this abomination of women’s public speaking. First, women are allowed to speak out as victims and as martyrs – usually to preface their own death. [...]
The second exception is more familiar. Occasionally women could legitimately rise up to speak – to defend their homes, their children, their husbands or the interests of other women.
The whole piece is long and fascinating and disturbingly familiar, and ends on this somewhat timeless note: "For a start it doesn’t much matter what line you take as a woman, if you venture into traditional male territory, the abuse comes anyway. It’s not what you say that prompts it, it’s the fact you’re saying it." [LRB]
Mother Jones has published a heartbreaking story about the survivors of the Florida School for Boys; children who were, basically, kidnapped by southern cops and sent to a hellhole where backbreaking labor, torture, and murder were the order of the day. A state court has finally given the go-ahead to exhume the graves of the children who were killed and buried in anonymous, unmarked graves by their jailers. The survivors returned for a press-conference, but found themselves with almost no press to speak to.
Mike Mechanic writes, "Johnny Gaddy, 68, still doesn't understand how he landed at Florida's Dozier reform school. When he was 11, the police showed up at his front door. 'They told me the judge wanted to talk to me,' he recalls. 'I'll never forget it as long as I live. I was watching 'The Lone Ranger' on TV. My mama said, 'The officer going to take you down, the judge going to talk to you.' I said, 'Mama, why's he going to talk to me?' She said, 'Go ahead.' He took me to the police station, told me to get in a cell. I never saw a judge. I wasn't sentenced for anything as far as I know. I was handcuffed all the way to Marianna.'
There's been a lot of press about the alleged horrors that took place at the Florida School for Boys, a.k.a. the Arthur G. Dozier reform school, but not a lot about how blacks and whites were treated differently on the campus, which was segregated until 1967. Last August, around the time of a state hearing that granted scientists permission to exhume dozens of graves on the grounds to find out what had happened to those boys, five elderly black men returned to the site of their nightmares with photographer Nina Berman. This multimedia story chronicles their visit back, and some of what they experienced at the school.
There's nothing wrong with using placeholder text. It's hard to imagine design without it. But it creates the unique danger that you forget your text and leave it behind. Here's a rather good roundup of forgotten placeholders in contexts ranging from newspaper headlines to error messages to bottles of wine. Alas, the images appear to be uncredited ganks from around the Web (the headline above, from Cape Town, may have come from this 2011 article, though that credits a tweet as its source).
One of the many things I do that prove that I need to get out more is collect examples of placeholder text that ends up in a final interface. But I’ve also noticed that the issue happens more and more in the offline world as well. As I looked through my folder this morning I realized that, in the interest of science, I should post some of my favorites here. If you have any other good examples, please let me know!
The CPD defends the practice, and its technical champion, Miles Wernick from the Illinois Institute of Technology, characterizes it as a neutral, data-driven system for preventing crime in a city that has struggled with street violence and other forms of crime. Wernick's approach involves seeking through the data for "abnormal" patterns that correlate with crime. He compares it with epidemiological approaches, stating that people whose social networks have violence within them are also likely to commit violence.
The CPD refuses to share the names of the people on its secret watchlist, nor will it disclose the algorithm that put it there.
This is a terrible way of running a criminal justice system.
Let's start with transparency, because that's the most obviously broken thing here. The designers of the algorithm assure us that it is considering everything relevant, nothing irrelevant, and finding statistically valid correlations that allow them to make useful predictions about who will commit crime. In an earlier era, we would have called this discrimination -- or even witchhunting -- because the attribution of guilt (or any other trait) through secret and unaccountable systems is a superstitious, pre-rational way of approaching any problem.
The purveyors of this technology cloak themselves in the mantel of science. The core tenet of science, the thing that distinguishes it from all other ways of knowing, is the systematic publication and review of hypotheses and the experiments conducted to validate them. The difference between a scientist and an alchemist isn't their area of study: it's the method they use to validate their conclusions.
An algorithm that only works if you can't see it is not science, it's a conjuring trick. My six year old can do that trick: she can make anything disappear provided you don't look while she's doing it and don't ask her to open her hands and show you what's in them. Asserting that you're doing science but you can't explain how you're doing it is a nonsense on its face.
Now let's think about objectivity: the system that the CPD and its partners have designed purports to objectivity because it uses numbers and statistics to make its calculations. But -- transparency again -- without insight into how the system runs its numbers, we have no way of debating and validating the way it weighs different statistics. And what about those statistics? We know -- because of transparent, rigorous scholarship, and because of high-profile legal cases -- that police intervention is itself not neutral. From stop-and-search to arrest to prosecutorial zeal or discretion, the whole enterprise of crime statistics is embedded in a wider culture in which human beings with social power and representing the status quo can and do make subjective decisions about how to characterize individual acts.
Put more simply: if cops, judges and prosecutors are more likely to give white people in rich neighborhoods in possession of cocaine an easier time than they give black people in poor neighborhoods in possession of crack (and they do), then your data-mining exercise will disproportionately weight blackness and poorness as being correlated with felonies. Garbage in, garbage out -- there's nothing objective and scientifically rigorous about using flawed data to generate flawed conclusions.
But even assuming that this stuff could be made to work: is it a valid approach to crimefighting?
Consider that the root of this methodology is social network analysis. Your place on the heat-list is explicitly not about what you've done or who you are: it's about who your friends are and what they've done. The idea that people's social circles tell us something about their own character is as old as the proverb "A man is known by the company he keeps." Certainly, it wasn't a new idea to the framers of the Constitution (after all, the typical framer was both a member of a secret society and had recently participated in a guerrilla revolution -- they knew a thing or two about the predictive value of social network analysis).
But the framers explicitly guaranteed "freedom of association," in the First Amendment. Why? Because while "birds of a feather stick together," the criminalization of friendship is a corrosive force that drives apart the bonds that make us into a society. In other words: if the Chicago PD think that crime can only be fought by discriminating against people based on their friendships, they need to get a constitutional amendment before they put that plan into action.
Finally, this program assumes that its interventions will be positive, and this assumption is anything but assured. The idea that being told that you are likely to commit crimes will prevent you from doing so is no more obvious that the idea that being treated as a presumptive criminal will lead you to commit crimes. What's more, well-known, well-documented cognitive biases (theory blindness, confirmation bias) are alive and well in the criminal justice system: if someone on the blacklist is suspected of doing something minor, we should expect the police, prosecutors and judge to treat them more harshly than they would someone plucked from off the street. If you're already in a machine-generated ethnicity of pre-criminals, society will deal with you accordingly.
What's more, this will lead to more arrests, harsher charges and longer sentences for pre-criminals -- seemingly validating the methodology. It's the Big Data version of witchburning, a modern pseudoscience cloaked in the respectability of easily manipulated statistics and suspicious metaphors from public health.
Sherwin from Public Knowledge writes, "The Copyright Office and the Library of Congress think that copyright law and the DMCA make it illegal to unlock your phone and take it to a new carrier. This is plainly ridiculous: a year ago, 114,000 Americans wrote the White House to tell them that, and the White House agreed. So did the FCC. And, eventually, so did the phone companies, who say they'll work to unlock most consumers' phones for them. But the law has stayed the same. It's still illegal for you, even if you've paid off your entire contract, to take it upon yourself to unlock your own phone."
It's time to change that. A bipartisan bill (H.R.1123, the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act) has been proposed to reverse the decision that made phone unlocking illegal, and it's coming up for a vote in the House soon. We're asking you to support it.
We want Congress to get the message that copyright law and the DMCA aren't all-purpose tools to be whipped out anytime someone needs a way to restrict consumers. That message can start with this simple ask.
Slate’s movie critic Dana Stevens, in her review of the show, wrote that despite the show’s theme—“a defensive anxiety about the ascendant power of women”— it “was a night dominated by a trio of powerful, glittering, seemingly indomitable women.”
But the key word there is seemingly.
It’s clear it was the women who rocked the broadcast awards, from Adele to Jennifer Hudson to Michelle Obama. But when the time came to hand out statuettes, it was still the men who took home all the prizes.
Across 19 categories, 140 men were nominated for awards versus 35 women. In the end, just seven women took home non-acting Oscars. (Women won in categories for Animated Feature Film, Documentary Short, Costume Design, Makeup and Hairstyling, Sound Editing and Music, Original Song.)
It would have been great if all 35 women nominated had taken home prizes, but even that still wouldn’t have fixed the huge imbalance in the nominations. For that, we have to look deeper at the structure of Hollywood, of which the Academy Awards are really just a snapshot.
As we noted in our newly released Status of Women in the U.S. Media 2013 report, exactly how women’s voices are missing in nearly all the behind-the-scenes positions in Hollywood feature films – as writers, as editors, as cinematographers. Women were only nine percent of directors of the 250 top-grossing domestic films of 2012. Says Martha M. Lauzen, executive director of Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film, which releases an annual “Celluloid Ceiling” report, “[the] director role is traditionally the most male role. With narrative films, whether they are independently produced or produced by a studio, there is still that celluloid ceiling women have to overcome.”
Is it simply a lack of experience that is keeping women out of the director’s chair? It’s not as if resumes keep men from being given keys to big budget films. As Women’s Media Center Co-Founder Jane Fonda recently remarked onWomen’s Media Center Live with Robin Morgan, director Marc Webb made a low-budget film, (500) Days of Summer, and then was given a budget of $230 million to make The Amazing Spiderman, while Rupert Sanders had no prior feature film experience before directing the $170-million Snow White and the Huntsman.
As Robin Morgan says, the “director's chair is perceived as a place of command and control”—and studios seem to mostly perceive that role as reserved for men.
But what’s interesting is that female directors bring more women into behind-the-scenes positions. Sundance Institute and Women in Film commissioned Stacy Smith, Ph.D. and University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism for a report, Exploring the Barriers and Opportunities for Independent Women Filmmakers. They found female directors facilitate behind-the-camera equality. When compared to films directed by men, those directed by women feature more women content creators (writers, producers, cinematographers, editors) behind the camera. This is true in both narratives and documentaries.
So when we finally get to the Oscar night and find seven categories (including Directing, Cinematography, and Writing, original screenplay) that have no women nominated and five with exactly one woman nominated, we’ve come to the culmination of a long process of women’s voices being squeezed out, ignored, or entirely missing from production of some of our most influential cultural products.
This could be why the Academy Awards sees nothing wrong with picking a host who starts off the night with a joke about actresses’ breasts, makes an 9-year-old in the audience the subject of sexual innuendo, and tags a movie about a dedicated female CIA officer with an eye-roll-inducing joke direct from 1950 about how women “never let anything go.”
Normally, sexism in Hollywood hides beneath the surface, but during last’s night Oscars we got to see it on full display—a solid reminder how our sexist media culture works. Hollywood is organized by power, and the Academy Awards are a reflection of that: white men on top, women and people of color at the bottom.
It’s telling that the Academy might not even think a lack of viewpoint diversity is a problem for them. During last year’s Oscars season, the Los Angeles Times quoted the now-late Frank Pierson, a governor and former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as stating, “I don’t see any reason why the academy should represent the entire American population . . . We represent the professional filmmakers, and if that doesn’t reflect the general population, so be it.”
Still, it seems that drumbeat about the lack of women behind the camera is getting louder. Reports like The Status of the Women in the U.S. Media, Celluloid Ceiling and Exploring the Barriers and Opportunities for Independent Women Filmmakers have been making more and more people aware of the lack of women’s voices in Hollywood films. Meanwhile, during the Oscars, many other people joined our conversation at #OscarWomen on Twitter, or started their own talk about sexism, racism, and homophobia in Hollywood and in the Oscars broadcast itself. The almost instantaneous critique of sexist and other offensive commentary during the broadcast from all quarters is a good sign that change is on its way.
When the audience speaks up, Hollywood will listen. The 2014 Academy Awards show can have a less sexist host (and here, at last, we agree with Seth MacFarlane: why can’t Tina and Amy host everything?) but we’re also hoping the 2014 awards will have more women overall.
“The use of mammography to screen for breast cancer ought to be rethought,” says Anthony Miller, professor emeritus in the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.
While recognizing that these results may not be generalizable to all countries, Miller says, “In technically advanced countries, our results question the rationale for mammography screening which should therefore be urgently reassessed by policy makers.”
Published in the British Medical Journal, the study compares breast cancer incidence and mortality in more than 89,000 women aged 40-59 who did or did not undergo mammography screening.
During the 25-year study period, the number of women in the mammography group who developed breast cancer was similar to the number of breast cancers seen in women who did not have annual screening. The number of women who died of the disease was also similar.
“In addition to not changing the number of women who died from breast cancer, 22 percent of the women who had an invasive breast cancer detected by screening actually would never have been bothered by their breast cancer. They were over-diagnosed and received unnecessary treatment,” says Professor Cornelia Baines. “There’s no justification for spending in North America billions of dollars on breast screening.”
The researchers agree that education, early diagnosis, and excellent clinical care should continue, but their research shows that annual mammography “does not result in a reduction in breast cancer specific mortality for women aged 40-59 beyond that of physical examination alone or usual care in the community.”
Laurie Penny writes, "What do you give your single friends and ex-partners on Valentine's day? Cult online journal The New Inquiry has released a product line to help them keep on paying their writers and staff. Their exclusive misandrist totebag, with a design by Imp Kerr, is aimed at all those who want to smash the romantic industrial complex in style."
TED Talks, the award-winning videos produced by a nonprofit group of the same name, promise to cover “ideas worth spreading.” The videos feature public figures ranging from Bill Gates to Rick Warren, as well as leading intellectuals and scientists that don’t have as much name recognition, and they often go viral. In 2010, the organization launched TEDWomen, a spin-off intended to cover gender issues.
When Valenti asked TED’s content director, Kelly Stoetzel, whether omitting abortion is a conscious decision, Stoetzel confirmed it. “Abortion is more of a topical issue we wouldn’t take a position on, any more than we’d take a position on a state tax bill,” Stoetzel said, explaining that it simply doesn’t fit into TED’s focus on “wider issues of justice, inequality and human rights.”
TED’s stance disappointed reproductive health advocates, who believe that ensuring access to the full range of women’s health care is a critically important aspect of human rights. Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, quickly penned a letter to TED asking the organization to rethink its position. Hogue expresses concern that TED has “fallen prey to the insidious campaign by an extreme minority” to portray abortion as extreme, rather than acknowledging that it’s simply part of reproductive freedom.
“The intersection of abortion access and human rights is at the forefront of the cultural conversation,” Hogue writes. “In fact, the hesitation to discuss these issues among inspired thinkers, writers, scientists and advocates prevents us from moving forward into an enlightened future.”
Indeed, thousands of women around the world are still dying because they don’t have access to safe abortion services. The United Nations has repeatedly pointed out that oppressing women by denying them reproductive health care, including abortion, amounts to a form of torture. And this isn’t a hypothetical debate; it’s playing out on the international stage. In 2012, when a 31-year-old woman died in an Irish Catholic hospital because she wasn’t allowed to have an emergency abortion, thousands of people took to the streets in protest — and Ireland agreed to amend its stringent abortion ban for the first time in over 100 years.
Ultimately, TED’s decision to exclude abortion from its overall mission sends a clear message about the organization’s assumption that abortion is something that can’t be discussed in the open — a harmful attitude that’s deeply ingrained in U.S. society.
“Abortion stigma is the belief that abortion is morally wrong and/or socially unacceptable, and TED is reinforcing this by deliberately excluding talks about abortion,” Steph Herold, the deputy director of a new organization called Sea Change that’s working to eliminate abortion stigma, explained to ThinkProgress. “Separating out abortion in this way has real consequences — not only are they suggesting that abortion is not an ‘acceptable’ topic of conversation, but by extension, they’re implying that abortion is not as important as other human rights issues, and that abortion is a shameful experience that should be silenced.”
While the official TED-sanctioned talks shy away from abortion, the topic has made its way into other types of TED’s community products. TEDxTalks are independently organized events that don’t necessarily get approval from the larger nonprofit, and one of them covered abortion back in 2012. Herold and her colleagues wish the rest of TED would follow suit — and they’re ready to help.
Herold, whose organization has developed a theory of change for shifting the culture away from abortion stigma, would be happy to work with TED in the future. “We would love to give a TED talk about using these tools and strategies to create culture change around abortion!” she told ThinkProgress.
“I would love to see TED begin a discussion on how we support our friends and family as they experience abortion,” Renee Bracey Sherman, a reproductive justice activist who sits on the board at Sea Change, added. “When I talk to people who have abortion experiences, they say it’s the isolation, lack of support, and fear of rejection from loved ones that hurts…Being a supportive listener to someone sharing an abortion experience can be revolutionary.”
This isn’t the first time that the nonprofit has landed in hot water for declining to “spread” the ideas it considers to be too controversial. In 2012, after a venture capitalist gave a TED Talk in which he argued that taxing the rich was the best way to spur economic growth, the organization initially declined to release it. Chris Anderson, the director of TED, explained that he decided not to make it public because “it would be unquestionably regarded as out and out political. We’re in the middle of an election year in the US.” After coming under some pressure, TED later reversed its decision.
NARAL has escalated its campaign against TED Talks, launching a petition to put more pressure on the nonprofit. The pro-choice group hopes to get 30,000 signatures urging TED’s director to “change this policy and allow for authentic conversation around the issue of abortion rights.” Bracey Sherman has also initiated a petition on Change.org.
Hugh Howey, author of the bestselling, indie-original science fiction series Wool, has published an eye-popping, and important data-rich report on independent author earnings from ebooks sold on Amazon. Howey makes a good case that the "average" author earns more from a self published book than she would through one of the Big Five publishers, and, what's more, that this holds true for all sorts of outliers (the richest indie authors outperform the richest Big Five authors; less-prolific indies do better than less-prolific traditionals, etc).
Howey's report includes a lot of raw data and makes a lot of very important points. It certainly is an aid to authors wondering whether to do business with major publishers or go it alone. I read it with great interest.
I think that there are a couple of important points that Howey skirts, if not eliding them altogether. The most important of these is that all the authors Howey studies live and die by the largesse of one company: Amazon. This is the same company whose audiobook division, Audible, requires authors to lock their products to its store with non-optional DRM, and which has no real competitors in its space. So it is neither an angel by nature, nor is it subject to strong competitive pressures that would cause it to treat authors well when its own self-interest would cause it to treat them badly. As bad as it is to have a publishing world with only five major publishers in it -- a monoposony in which a tiny handful of companies converge on terms and practices that are ultimately more to their benefit than those of authors, it's even worse to have a world in which a single company controls the entire market. That's not just bad, it's catastrophic.
The second point is the opportunity cost of being your own publisher: almost all successful authors have to do things that aren't writing in order to sell their books (all the hustling, touring, etc that comprises the writerly life in the early 21st century), but if you're your own publisher, there is an order of magnitude more non-writing stuff that becomes your job. Going the traditional route makes sense for writers who can earn more by writing another book than they can by spending that writing time being a publisher; it also makes sense for writers who just aren't any good at that stuff.
Now, this second point does not militate against self-publishing per se -- rather, it suggests a new kind of service-bureau/publisher that provides services to authors that sit somewhere between self-publishing and traditional publishing. Companies like Lulu, Bookbaby and Smashwords already do this, and many of the big literary agents are starting to do this for their authors, especially with their backlists.
But the first point is a significant concern. In the 1980s, when the midlist collapsed and the number of mass-market distributors in America fell from 400+ to three, and the trade retail channels for mass-market books were dominated by Barnes and Noble and Borders, authors discovered that their careers could be suddenly and totally ended, merely because the mass-market distributor stopped carrying them, or one of the retailers stopped selling them. Writers who'd published a new novel every year for decades suddenly found themselves with no one willing to publish, distribute or sell their next book, or carry their backlists.
That's what concentration begets. It's a major problem, and an existential risk to the market that Howey has identified. There are ways to improve the odds for indie authors -- a plurality of payment systems, lots of different search- and recommendation services, more companies providing services to authors. These, of course, are exactly the sort of thing that extremist copyright proposals like SOPA and the TPP work against: by making the companies that serve authors and their audiences bear the liability for infringement, we shrink the number of companies that supply authors and ensure that only big players like Amazon, Paypal, Apple and Google can occupy those niches.
Pro-competitive ground-rules won't solve the competition problem on their own, but without them, no solution is possible. As creators -- and as audiences -- we are all best served by a churning and chaotic retail and publishing channel, in which many companies compete to offer us all the best possible deal.
You may have heard from other reports that e-books account for roughly 25% of overall book sales. But this figure is based only on sales reported by major publishers. E-book distributors like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, the iBookstore, and Google Play don’t reveal their sales data. That means that self-published e-books are not counted in that 25%.
Neither are small presses, e-only presses, or Amazon’s publishing imprints. This would be like the Cookie Council seeking a report on global cookie sales and polling a handful of Girl Scout troops for the answer—then announcing that 25% of worldwide cookie sales are Thin Mints. But this is wrong. They’re just looking at Girl Scout cookies, and even then only a handful of troops. Every pronouncement about e-book adoption is flawed for the same reason. It’s looking at only a small corner of a much bigger picture. (It’s worth noting that our own report is also limited in that it’s looking only at Amazon—chosen for being the largest book retailer in the world—but we acknowledge and state this limitation, and we plan on releasing broader reports in the future.)
There’s a second and equally important reason to doubt a 25% e-book penetration number: The other 75% of those titles includes textbooks, academic books, cookbooks, children’s books, and all the many categories that are relatively safe from digitization (for now). Print remains healthy in these categories, but these aren’t the books most people think of when they hear that percentage quoted. E-book market share is generally spoken of in the context of the New York Times bestsellers, the novels and non-fiction works that are referred to as “trade” publications. If we look specifically at this trade market, it’s quite likely that e-books already account for more than 50% of current sales (some publishers have intimated as much [link]). Factoring in self-publishing and further limiting the scope to fiction, I’ve seen guesses as high as 70%. But that can’t be possible, right?
The University of Mississippi made a Gothic discovery this week. Ole Miss turned up one thousand (1000) dead bodies under its buildings.
The University of Mississippi Medical Center planned to build a parking garage east of the dental school, but testing in the area revealed the bodies, which are believed to have been patients at the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum a century ago. none of the bodies are identified.
The competition to use this as a metaphor for any aspect of academic life has hereby commenced.
Gonna have to put this on the list for after thesis.
On paper, Fallout: Project Brazil sounds like the stuff irradiated, scorpion-coated dreams are made of. It’s a ridiculously ambitious, fan-made prequel mod for New Vegas spanning a new vault, an entire new wasteland the size of Fallout 3′s, and multiple story-driven, highly choice-oriented episodes. The team that assembled it, meanwhile, comes from various corners of the professional entertainment world, which is – in part – the reason it took so long to finally see the sepia toned light of day. But now it’s here, in the gnarled, glowing ghoulflesh. I am kind of maybe excited a little a lot. But what’s actually in this installment? Wellllll…
An Ixil woman in the genocide tribunal courtroom, one hour before the guilty verdict was handed down in the trial of Rios Montt. Photo: Xeni Jardin.
A brief update from the courtroom where former US-backed military dictator Rios Montt was convicted of genocide on Friday. The judges met today to consider reparations for victims.
The court ruled for 12 forms of reparation in the Rios Montt trial, in accordance with Convention 169, ratified by Guatemala in 1996 (same years as peace accords). The Guatemalan state must apologize to victims, and include them in Reparations Law.
But significantly, judges denied plaintiff's request that stolen land be returned.
The sole economic request made by victims was return of land stolen during the seventeen-month '82-'83 Rios Montt regime. Judges denied this. A major defeat for the victims.
In a direct response to Rios Montt's defense team, and in an indirect response to statements by conservative, pro-Rios Montt groups, the judges clarified that the state isn’t being condemned in this case.
But, Judges said that mechanisms of the Guatemalan state are being used to provide reparations. This will not include giving back stolen land.
The state is also ordered to build monuments & genocide education centers in the Ixil municipalities (where ironically, people already know very well what happened).
Judges also ordered that ceremonies commemorating the genocide take place in the Palacio National (Guatemala City, the headquarters of the government), and in Ixil municipalities.
And symbolically important, judges today ordered that personal apologies be made to Ixil women who survived sexual violence.
Plaintiffs also asked court to require executive branch of government to consult indigenous people in all actions affecting natural resources & land.
Judges in genocide trial declared March 23 “National Day against Genocide,” this was the date Rios Montt seized power in a 1982 coup.
tl;dr: No stolen land will be returned. But state has been asked by the court to build monuments, have ceremonies, and fund “genocide awareness” education programs.
In the continuing saga of "people are horrible" and also "why so many young people can't afford to move out/buy property/etc."
In The Atlantic, Jordan Weissmann does a very good job of summing up the New America Foundation's important new report, Undermining Pell: How Colleges Compete for Wealthy Students and Leave the Low-Income Behind [PDF], by Stephen Burd. The report documents how private universities in America have raised the cost of tuition to incredible heights, and reserve their "merit scholarships" (paid for with government grants) for wealthy students whose parents can pay the rest in cash, while poor students have to take out punishing loans, effectively subsidizing the rich students' education and career opportunities.
Sometimes, colleges (and states) really are just competing to outbid each other on star students. But there are also economic incentives at play, particularly for small, endowment-poor institutions. "After all," Burd writes, "it's more profitable for schools to provide four scholarships of $5,000 each to induce affluent students who will be able to pay the balance than it is to provide a single $20,000 grant to one low-income student." The study notes that, according to the Department of Education's most recent study, 19 percent of undergrads at four-year colleges received merit aid despite scoring under 700 on the SAT. Their only merit, in some cases, might well have been mom and dad's bank account.
There's nothing inherently wrong with handing out tuition breaks to the middle class, or even the rich. The problem is that it seems to be happening at the expense of the poor. At 89 percent of the 479 private colleges Burd examined, students from families earning less than $30,000 a year were charged an average "net price" of more than $10,000 annually -- "net price" being the full annual cost of attendance minus all institutional and government aid. Less technically, it's what students can actually expect to pay. At 60 percent of private colleges, that net price was more than $15,000.
In other words, low-income families are routinely being asked to fork over more than half of their annual income for the privilege of sending their child off to campus for a year.
Electronic Arts had decided that it will no longer "officially" license specific models of guns from gun manufacturers, according to this Reuters report. EA will continue to use various gun designs from manufacturers, but it won't pay any money for them. The company claims that it has a constitutional right to free speech in using the various gun-related trademarks.
Also recommend the linked Tracy Chapman article. Looking forward to the rest of this series, because oh look my adolescence.
SE: Before we can fully account for Natalie Merchant’s role in our lives, we must go back, back to a time before Lilith Fair, back to the beginning of the Reagan years, when a plucky 17-year-old community college student joined Still Life as a vocalist. Within a year, the cover band had become 10,000 Maniacs and this suicidal high school dropout had become its primary lyricist. Thus was born our Crazy Mystical Aunt Diane Aunt Natalie of Lilith Fair.
Before there was Ophelia, there was the 10,000 Maniacs MTV UNPLUGGED SPECIAL!!!!!!!!
AHP: These were my first years of MTV, when my mom said I could only watch it if she WATCHED IT WITH ME. (Vivid memory: watching video for Counting Crows' “Mr. Jones” with flamenco dancer in the background; my mom: “You know that woman is objectified to represent sex, right?”) There was some promo video for MTV Unpluggeds, and Crazy Aunt Natalie was at the end of it singing “These Are Days.”
Remember when Unplugged CDs were a thing? They were always my filler pick for my BMG 10-for-1 scams. Which isn’t to say that Eric Clapton’s Unplugged isn’t perfect and a gem, because clearly it is, but I suppose these were popular because there was not yet a robust digital trade in the outtakes, covers, and acoustic sets that would commonly occur on tour. Instead: MTV commodification.
SE: I guess this is where I mention that I was not allowed to watch MTV (or, weirdly, Laverne and Shirley). My brother did run a scam on BMG where he ended up getting a ton of shit for free. On the other hand, he’s in prison now, so I guess it evens out, spiritually.
Okay. I have always loved this song! It always makes me feel happy! I mean, it’s all major chords and whatever, so I should not be surprised by that? Also, come on, this is totally a High School Graduation Song, especially with that “when May is rushing over you” line. So maybe I should not like it as much as I do, is what I’m saying. But whatever.
AHP: Let it be known: Her outfit and hairstyle here might be — along with the outfits of the cast of My So-Called Life and Singles — the most early/mid-’90s thing I’ve ever seen.
SE: Sometimes I sort of forget that Natalie Merchant was not, like, a character on Party of Five. But also, Blossom. What about Blossom?
AHP: Simone, Blossom was a sitcom. My So-Called Life was, ahem, REAL LIFE.
SE: Okay, fine. I wasn’t allowed to watch those shows, either. But a question for our shared consideration: Is Natalie Merchant the Lilith Fair mainstage performer most likely to go shopping for healing crystals with you?
AHP: She has stiff competition — namely, Paula Cole.
SE: Oh man, do you remember that time at the Grammys when America saw Paula Cole’s hairy armpits?
SE: So braided armpit hair may be a relevant characteristic in the Healing Crystal framework. But still. Natalie or Paula? WHICH SIDE ARE YOU ON?
AHP: I think Natalie wins: an entire song about Ophelia? Plus that ethereal dance move that I most associate with the Eugene, Oregon, Farmer’s Market, an event whose defining characteristics are “hippy feather dancing,” “white people dream catchers,” and “Free Speech Zones.”
Merchant’s also got this quasi pin-up/dress-up thing going on, as evidenced by the back and front covers of Ophelia. And I know all about those covers because I scrapbooked them — and, obviously, clipped lines of the lyrics and pasted them next to sketches of the boys to whom they applied. (Nota bene: No boys were next to “Kind & Generous.”)
But this is the crux of Merchant’s image: a mix of mysticism, earnestness, and feminism, but generally cloaked in allegory, or at least discombobulating shifts in subject position. Which isn’t to say I’m not into them: Clearly I am. But please, let us talk about Tigerlily?
SE: The year? 1995. Me? Awkwardly beginning middle school at a brand new all-girls school. The cultural signifier one dropped to signal one’s sophistication? Knowing the words to “Carnival.”
This is an excellent example of the mishmash you describe, because while I like this song and I am pretty sure it makes sense to me when I'm singing along, I'm also not totally sure I understand it. Like obviously there's a narrative here that posits N. Merchant as lady flâneur in a late-20th-century kind of way, but I’m also not sure what she has been blind to, because the song kind of makes it sound like she has seen everything.
But you know who was really into this song and this album? Aileen Wuornos. She listened to Tigerlily on death row and requested that “Carnival” be played at her funeral; the song was later used in the closing credits of a 2003 documentary about her life and death. I’m just going to leave this here.
AHP: It seems that I am constantly playing the role of fan who comes in late and re-experiences classics. I think I wrote off Tigerlily because it — or, at least, its single, “Wonder,” seemed very ... Mom to me. (NO OFFENSE, MY MOM/MOMS IN GENERAL.) It lacked the “lay on the floor and weep” quality I sought at that time, which is what I did every time I listened to “Disarm” by Smashing Pumpkins on repeat.
SE: I hate myself for liking that song. But also, you have to give it to the Merchant for having an enormous emotional range. “Carnival” is kind of creepy and the entire (black and white!) video is an elaboration on voyeurism. On the other hand, you have “Wonder,” which is sort of the beginning of what I see as an adolescent self-empowerment thread running through the songbook?
AHP: YES, I SEE THIS SO CLEARLY NOW. But middle school AHP was having none of it! In today’s terms, I would’ve flatly rejected Kelly Clarkson’s anthems of empowerment. I wanted songs into which I could project my own overabundance of emotion.
SE: Okay, were you listening to Jagged Little Pill instead? (Especially the hidden track, obviously.) Because it came out THE WEEK BEFORE Tigerlily. Aren’t you glad that I am a historian?
AHP: LET US TALK FOREVERMORE ABOUT THE HIDDEN TRACK.
A cappella, HIDDEN, “Would you forgive me love/if I laid in your bed” — this is the emotive potency I was seeking. Also hidden tracks: unique to the CD era? A lost art?
SE: SIDEBAR ON THE ISSUE OF THE HIDDEN TRACK AS A LOST ART: This is a meaty question. Not unique to the CD era. But I sort of wonder if the MP3 has killed the magic, because you can see how long the song is and so there isn’t a surprise. (Confidential to Mama AHP: I just deleted a gratuitous swear word.)
Anyway. It sort of occurs to me now that maybe part of your Tigerlily aversion was that Natalie Merchant has a stronger, more classically pretty voice? Like what I mean is, Alanis really does some tortured goddamned wailing on that hidden track, and Natalie’s voice never seems weak or strained. Am I making sense here? Compare “Jealousy,” the other major Tigerlily single, to, I don’t know, the hidden Alanis track or even “You Oughta Know.” Natalie asks her ex-lover, “Is she bright/ so well read/ are there novels by her bed?” and Alanis snarls, “Would she go down on you in a theatre?” (Shout out to Canadian spellings.)
Which. In a larger way this touches on a question that I think haunts our conversations about Lilith Fair, namely: whither Riot Grrrl? Or, put another way, what happened to the expressions of anger that fueled Riot Grrrl? Are the Ladies of Lilith angry? Are the Ladies Who Love the Ladies of Lilith angry? Whatever Sarah McLachlan might claim about her feminist motivations, I wonder whether the whole Lilith Fair . . . genre, if you will, is one in which the only kinds of emotional expressions we see from women are the ones that are already socially sanctioned. Sadness and heartbreak, sure. Anger, no.
AHP: Like were they palatable, soft-core feminists in the way that, say, Gloria Steinham and her traditionally feminine appearance made people less anxious about “women’s lib” in the ‘60s and ‘70s?
SE: By the time Lilith Fair rolled around in 1997, the Riot Grrrl movement had badly splintered and mostly disappeared from mainstream media. And while many made the argument that Lilith was some sort of outgrowth of Riot Grrrl, that the two were somehow related, I don’t buy it. If you’re into subcultural formation theory (Dick Hebdige, holler at yr girl), you might interpret Lilith Fair as, if anything, a reactionary effort to co-opt, neutralize, and capitalize on the anger of Riot Grrrl. The signifiers appear the same — independent ladies singing their songs and telling their stories — but the whole package is something quite different: relieved of anger, smoothed of its DIY edges, and made into something consumable.
AHP: PREACH, COMRADE. No, seriously: I think, in hindsight, Lilith Fair is a classic example of capitalism taking hold of the radical, the DIY, and the anti-capitalist and assimilating it, commodifying it into a (relatively expensive) experience, and, as you say, blunting its sharp, provocative edges. But here’s the thing: I was living in Idaho when Riot Grrrl went down. Olympia was a six hour drive away. Yet I had zero awareness of it, in part because the internet was still full of Geocities, but mostly because I lived in a rural, working class, frightfully conservative town. I had no access to zines or Bikini Kill, but I could access mainstream (and however watered down) feminism via Lilith artists. Which I guess is another way of saying that yes, Lilith Fair was commodified, yes, it lacked the aggression and vitality and politics of Riot Grrrl, but it was also all I had. I didn’t realize it then, but my obsession with these artists clearly telegraphed my future feminist identity.
SE: That matters. And I do want to be clear that I think the Lilith artists were still playing an important role, that there is also something to be said for the mainstream commercial success of complex songs about grief and loss and sadness and even hope. I mean, just looking at the Billboard Hot 100 from 1991 (so, pre-Riot Grrrl and pre-Lilith Fair), the female artists were singing songs explicitly and nearly exclusively about heterosexual romantic relationships, though I suppose a harbinger of Things to Come was the DNA remix (note, the remix, not the original, though it is pretty catchy) of “Tom’s Diner” charting at all. I do see a broader range from the Ladies of Lilith, including the woman who has brought us here today. Who, by the way, funded Tigerlily herself in order to maintain creative control.
I guess (I mean, according to Wikipedia, in an [attribution needed] interpretation) 1998’s Ophelia was an album that attempted to work with female archetypes. The Pitchfork analysis of this conceit was scathing: “If the CD packaging (which presents her as seven women in different walks of life) and the title track are any indication, Natalie Merchant thinks her of new release, Ophelia, as the album of everywoman. And if Merchant's view of the life of everywoman is correct, we're all in trouble.” BUUUUUUUUUUUUURN. But the reviewer also seemed to think that Natalie’s music was not “celebratory,” that she only worked with “the underside of life.”
I don’t buy it. I think the irritatingly catchy and kinda vapid “Kind and Generous” is an exemplar of her self-esteem songbook. But Ophelia also has some dope jams about grief and loss and heartbreak. Like “My Skin.” Can we talk about “My Skin”? I know that we will also need to talk about the LOTR video here, but maybe listen with your eyes closed once before you watch this masterpiece.
AHP: We are going to talk about “My Skin” like it is the only song in the world, but first I have to say that this Pitchfork dude reviewing this album is a douche, and while I read Pitchfork and often agree with their reviews, its early iteration has been roundly criticized — and with ample reason — for a laughably masculinist critical stance.
Because seriously: “My Skin.” There’s the beginning, when it’s just her ethereal voice, and then “Take a look at my body/take a look at my hands/there’s so much here that I don’t understand/your facesaving promises, whispered like prayers...”
AND THEN THE MOTHERLOVING CHORUS!
SE: Realness: I listened to this song a lot (A LOT) when I was getting divorced. (And “Trouble Me,” too, actually.) This song is one in which her weird allegory-and-metaphor-driven mysticism actually works, especially with the rich depth of her voice. This song is dark and rich and very concrete in its imagery (“Contempt loves the silence/ It thrives in the dark”) — and also curiously flat in its affect in a way that I think actually works really well. There’s something really lovely here (oh God the strings just came in) in the way this song tells the story of the bottomless devastation of certain kinds of heartbreak, of what comes after the shattering: “I've been treated so wrong/ I've been treated so long/ As if I'm becoming untouchable.”
AHP: She is essentially declaring herself abject — “unfuckable,” as Jane Campion labels the middle-aged, patriarchy-defeated colony of women in Top of the Lake — but then reasserting that these women still need romance, need the bend and sway and breathlessness of passion. I love that this song is simultaneously an acknowledgment of how overpowering love can be, how selfless and frustratingly all-encompassing it can be, and a rejection of that feeling if the other doesn’t give him/herself over to it as well.
SE: She is really the queen of the emotive and swelling crescendo, isn’t she?
AHP: In “Thick as Thieves,” beginning right around 4:15 — that shit is real.
AHP: True Confessions: I had the sheet music to all of Ophelia, which I could actually play — unlike the Fiona Apple sheet music, which was all in like 17/10 time and other made-up time signatures. When I was home alone I would turn off the lights and play these songs by candlelight. I did that! No wonder I had zero boyfriends! But maybe I was doing that because I had zero boyfriends?
SE: This seems like a chicken-and-egg problem. But, full disclosure. When I was forced to take piano lessons for seven years — during which time, as an act of passive resistance, I refused to learn to read music (which is, I think, a real accomplishment) — my mom used to try to induce me to practice by telling me that when I “grew up,” I would be able to “play the piano for people at parties.” That seems like a ’40s screwball comedy kind of thing. In retrospect, I wish I had learned to play the piano so that I could play the music of Natalie Merchant at home, by candlelight, alone.
The truth is, I think “My Skin” might be the most recent song from a Natalie Merchant album that I can name. I was way more into her collaboration with Billy Bragg on the rediscovered Woody Guthrie songbook, around the same time Ophelia was released. She sang on a few of the songs released on the three (THERE’S A THIRD!!!!) Mermaid Avenue albums.
This cover of “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key” is one of my favorite songs, full stop. But it’s where my engagement with the rest of her catalog ends.
AHP: I adore that song, I adore her cover of “Birds and Ships,” I adore the thought of her and Woody Guthrie palling around and twirl dancing. But I do think people get stuck in Merchant’s early catalog, or just think that she stopped making music when Lilith Fair stopped touring. I can’t tell you how false this is. In fact, Motherland, released in 2001, might have ultimately been more important to me than Ophelia — and it’s much, much weirder.
Shout, shout your praises to the man who kissed the Lord
To the backstabbing brother that betrayed all of this world
I love it. I love it so much. I love the part at the end when she’s just randomly naming states, and ends with Carolina [pause] [pause] Carolina!
There’s something sultry and dangerous about this album — I kinda feel like the weird Blood priestess lady on Game of Thrones, you know, the one with the new religion and flaming red and smoke babies, may have participated in the making. This was not an album with a single that would become the theme song to a charming new show in the WB. But then she toured with Chris Issak, which just emphasizes how she was still marketed as her “Carnival” / “Kind and Generous” Top-Forty friendly Merchant ... not the mystical incantation Merchant who sings “The Ballad of Henry Darger.”
SE: (AUTOMATIC HENRY DARGER REBLOG.) Ugh, okay, you know what? I did hear a song off Motherland, “Tell Yourself,” which is delightfully and weirdly set to images from Ingmar Bergman’s Persona in this video:
But this song makes me nuts. I remember hearing it when I was 18 or 19 and more or less silently sobbing through my first year of college. Initially I was seduced by lines like “Ever since Eden we're built for pleasing everyone knows/ And ever since Adam cracked his ribs and let us go/ I know, oh yes I know what you tell yourself.” And I was really feeling it. “Well I know, I know that wrong's been done to you/ 'It's such a tough world,' that's what you say/ Well I know, I know it's easier said than done/ But that's enough girl, give it away/ Give it, give it all away.” GIVE IT ALL AWAY! I can do that!!!! EXCEPT then it transitions into a weird adolescent cheering session with some shit about anorexia and Barbie dolls and then and the fucking volta of the last lines is OFFENSIVE TO ME: “There's just no getting 'round/ The fact that you're 13 right now.” I remember hearing that and just being so pissed and insulted that I felt like she was really feeling me except what I was feeling was apparently pre-pubescent.
Wow, it felt good to get that out there. I do think it encapsulates the problem with her catalog, though — or maybe with the larger lyrical Lilith Fair world. That song felt infantilizing, rather than a serious engagement with what she lays out, lyrically, as a profound issue facing women early in the song. As much as she engages with some thorny, dark stuff, there’s also a weirdly casual sense that ladies just be needing a cheering section. So who is this music for? Grown-ass women with complex lives? Or girls? I’ve felt the same way about other Lilith artists, too: “I'm a little bit of everything/ All rolled into one!” LADIES! LADIES! AMIRITE, LADIES? LADIES, AMIRITE?????
AHP: But after Motherland, Merchant left her record label, released her own compilation of folk songs via her own label, let some time pass, took us all healing crystal shopping, and wrote a massive double album of songs with the central conceit of “childhood.” Old nursery songs, adapted poetry about children, conversations with her daughter “about the first six years of her life” — this is the concept album, hippie motherhood style. It’s spare and stunning, totally absent of the saccharine taste that alienated us both. The first song is named “Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience.”
I guess what I’m trying to say is that the Merchant of the late ‘90s was very much in line with the commercialized, soft-edged Lilith Fair feminism, but in the years since, she’s become weirder, less ruly, and far less amenable to adult alternative tastes. Put differently, she’s not playing at the outdoor zoo concert in the city near you. She’s taken the role-playing and experimental art theory that was clearly if sporadically manifested in her early work and turned it into her defining characteristic. She’s become, it seems, even more wholly herself.
Or at least that’s how I read it. I’ve become more wholly myself too, which means I don’t need her music as much — and I’m guessing she doesn’t need me, or us, as much either. She’s got royalty checks from all the easy listening stations that still play “Carnival” once a week, and a place to twirl, a daughter to love, intricate stories to tell, and a perfect, ageless voice that does what she tells it to do. Crazy Aunt Natalie, living the post-Lilith sweet life.
With five academic degrees between them, Anne Helen Petersen and Simone Eastman can no longer simply "enjoy" anything. They’ve lately begun composing fan fiction about hanging out with Tracy Chapman, written in the style of women’s magazine features. For details, inquire within.