Well, you are in for a cruel awakening: "It turns out you've been drawing raindrops incorrectly your entire life," says Newser, which links to NASA, which illustrates rain's "hamburger bun"-type shape:
(Grabbed from this video.) This doesn't seem to be news, though, and the hamburger bun looks like it breaks into raindrop-shaped raindrops at the end, too, so who knows. No one. Meanwhile, "how is snow formed," in case, like me, you thought you knew but had no idea.1 Comments
IDW Publishing’s Star Trek comics follow the adventures of the Enterprise crew as they explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations, and boldly go where no one has gone before.
In Star Trek #29, the Enterprise continues its five-year mission under the command of Jane Tiberia Kirk.
Yup, that’s right:
The fun doesn’t end there: the entire crew, from Lea “Bones” McCoy on down to Hikari Sulu and Pavlovna Chekov, is gender-swapped. (Spock is apparently a gender-neutral name among Vulcans).
Mainstream comics have a well-earned reputation for epic fail when it comes to gender, so when I saw pages of this comic on Racebending’s Tumblr, I had a dual reaction. On the one hand, shut up and take my money. On the other: I hope this isn’t a foul mess.
I grabbed a digital copy from the publisher, and I’m happy to report that is not, in fact, a foul mess. With one glaring exception, the characters have kept the sensibilities and interpersonal dynamics of their better-known counterparts. Captain Kirk is still full of bravado, Bones is still a curmudgeon, and Spock is still Kirk’s good sense. No one’s been turned into a whiny damsel, and artist Yasmin Liang hasn’t drawn our intrepid heroes straining their backs to present their breasts and butt to a viewer they can’t perceive.
Because the characters are still so very much who they are in the normal timeline, the comic gives us a glimpse into a mirror universe I’d sure like to visit: one where a group of brilliant female cadets were given control of a top-of-the-line star ship after stopping a Romulan terrorist when no one else could. Where women can discuss engineering, theoretical physics, and the Prime Directive as readily as they talk about babies. Where Captain Jane T. Kirk’s “love ‘em and leave ‘em” approach to sex isn’t any more of a mark against her character than it is against Jim’s.
It’s a universe where Jane, like Jim, is free to be driven not by romantic prospects or the need to prove that she’s as good as any man out there, but by the desire to live up to her mother’s legacy–to be worthy of Georgina Kirk’s valiant sacrifice aboard the USS Kelvin.
But while the story is giving these women room to be whole people, it’s also not glossing over the way gendered expectations hit Jane differently than they do Jim. Where Pike pegged Jim’s tenacity and passion as leadership qualities, Jane is instead ‘headstrong’ and ‘emotional’–and catches flak for it from her superiors.
This fool just called Captain Kirk ‘emotional’ in front of the entire bridge crew. Apparently she’s not emotional enough to flip him the bird he so richly deserves for that.
One thing about the comic did give me pause: Lt. Nnamdi Uhuro. While everyone else is essentially the same person they are in the main timeline, the gender swap seems to have deprived the lieutenant of every ounce of his good sense:
I’m pretty sure that if the real Uhura heard a dude talking like that, she’d roll her eyes in twelve languages.
It isn’t just that this is out of character for Uhura, who would never brook this kind of nonsense. Uhuro is the only man of color with a speaking part in this comic. Giving him the fail-ball here has some unfortunate implications.
I’m also a bit sad about not having the real Uhura around because she holds a special place in pop culture history. Most folks have heard Nichelle Nichols’s story about Martin Luther King, Jr. personally talking her out of quitting Star Trek, and Whoopi Goldberg’s story of how powerful it was for her, as a child, to see Nichelle Nichols in that role: a black woman on TV who wasn’t playing a maid.
People of color remain underrepresented in Star Trek, but in the time since Nichols hung up her communicator, we’ve seen several Black men don the uniform: Sisko as a captain, LaForge as Chief Engineer, Mayweather as a helmsman. If we’re counting aliens, we’ve also got Tuvok and Worf at tactical. But in nearly fifty years of Trek, Uhura is the only black female Starfleet officer we’ve had in a core-cast role. Any mirror universe where she’s not rockin’ her ear-piece is the poorer for it.
And speaking of people of color being underrepresented: this Enterprise is just as white as the original. I wish we’d seen more of Sulu. In this version, she’s the only woman of color in the core cast, and she barely has one line.
But while I wish the ladies of this Enterprise were more diverse, this comic still put a smile on my face. It’s well-written, well-drawn, and funny. Jane Kirk is a great character, and one I wouldn’t mind spending a lot more time with. I’m sad that this is just a two-parter, and not an ongoing series that I can buy every copy of forever.
I’m even sadder that it takes alternate timelines like this for us to get the kind of representation that white men can take for granted. Even white as this mirror-cast is, we’d never see a crew like them on the big screen.
You can get a digital copy of Star Trek #29 directly from the publisher, or pick up a paper copy from your local comic book store.
I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “Look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. And he says, “You see, I as an artist can see how beautiful this is. But you as a scientist take this all apart, and it becomes a dull thing.” And I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people, and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is, I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean, it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting: it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery, and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.I find in this passage a helpful argument for the value of close reading. Flower: poem. To look at a poem closely is to deepen its excitement, mystery, and capacity to inspire awe.
Here is Feynman speaking. I found my way to this clip via a Jason Kottke post unrelated to poetry. The transcription and punctuation are mine.
All OCA poetry posts (Pinboard)
Richard Feynman on honors
The journal Sleep has an interesting study on how people with narcolepsy can experience sometimes striking confusions between what they’ve dreamed and what’s actually happened.
Narcolepsy is a disorder of the immune system where it inappropriately attacks parts of the brain involved in sleep regulation.
The result is that affected people are not able to properly regulate sleep cycles meaning they can fall asleep unexpectedly, sometimes multiple times, during the day.
One effect of this is that the boundary between dreaming and everyday life can become a little bit blurred and a new study by sleep psychologist Erin Wamsley aimed to see how often this occurs and what happens when it does.
Some of the reports of are quite spectacular:
One man, after dreaming that a young girl had drowned in a nearby lake, asked his wife to turn on the local news in full expectation that the event would be covered. Another patient experienced sexual dreams of being unfaithful to her husband. She believed this had actually happened and felt guilty about it until she chanced to meet the ‘lover’ from her dreams and realized they had not seen each other in years, and had not been romantically involved.
Several patients dreamed that their parents, children, or pets had died, believing that this was true (one patient even made a phone call about funeral arrangements) until shocked with evidence to the contrary, when the presumed deceased suddenly reappeared. Although not all examples were this dramatic, such extreme scenarios were not uncommon.
This sometimes happens in people without narcolepsy but the difference in how often it occurs is really quite striking: 83% of patients with narcolepsy reported they had confused dreams with reality, but this only happened in 15% of the healthy controls they interviewed.
In terms of how often it happened, 95% of narcolepsy patients said it happened at least once a month and two thirds said it happened once a week. For people without the disorder, only 5% reported it had happened more than once in their life.
Although a small study, it suggests that the lives of people with narcolepsy can be surprisingly interwoven with their dreams to the point where it can at times it can be difficult to distinguish which is which.
If you want to read the study in full, there’s a pdf at the link below.
There’s a good reason why you might not enjoy listening to music as much as you used to: It’s gotten too loud.
All music has “dynamic range,” variations in volume between the loud parts and the soft parts. People sing and play at different volumes. Individual notes have an initial attack and then a gradual decay as they fade to silence. But most of the music you hear today–and by “most” I mean “everything except classical music” has been treated to have little or no dynamic range. It’s been “slammed” and “loudness maximized.”
Audio engineers manage this with something called “compression.” A compressor is a hardware or software device that sets a limit on how loud a piece of audio can go. It sets a top range, and when the audio signal exceeds that point, it turns it down. Imagine you are listening to a piece of music, and a really loud part is coming up, and you turn the volume knob down just as that part arrives. It’s like that, only automated. How does this make things louder?
It lets you set an overall high level, and squishes everything that was over that level down. So let’s imagine a piece of music. “Ten” is the maximum volume of the loudest parts. The singer is screaming: it’s really loud. And three is the level of the quietest parts. If you increase the volume level so that the quietest parts, formerly 3, are now at 10, and the compressor is squishing the loudest parts so they stay at ten, the result is a recording that comes to your ear at ten and only ten. The hushed and quiet passages are just as loud as the crescendo. Imagine that a whisper and a scream are the same volume. That’s modern music.
Why would anyone want such a recording? Well for one thing human beings hear “louder” as better. If you play two identical pieces of music, and turn one up only very slightly, people will inevitably hear the louder one as better. Salesmen still use this trick to sell audio–turn the more expensive unit up, and it will sound “better” to everyone. For the last twenty tears, music has been getting more and more compressed, more and more uniformly loud.
And here’s a visual explanation, from Wikipedia’s excellent entry on “the loudness wars.” It’s pretty clear, showing the ZZ top song Sharp Dressed Man as it was issued, and than as it was “remastered” for reissue as a digital file. Watch the animated gif. The first version has little spikes in the waveform, but with each remaster it turns more and more into a solid block of sledgehammer volume
The reason you might prefer vinyl records is that you simply can’t do this kind of thing with a record. A record turns sounds into grooves in vinyl. As the sounds get louder the grooves swing wider. If the grooves are too wide, too loud, either the needle will jump out of the groove or you won’t be able to fit all the music on the record. So there are physical limits on how loud a record can get. Susan Schmidt Horning describes the process here.
Vinyl records have more “dynamic range,” more variation between the soft parts and the loud parts. Which in turn is closer to how we experience sound in the natural world. If you compare an old vinyl record to a digital remaster, you’ll hear the difference right away. The rule of thumb on a modern recording is that you can’t have more than about 2 db of dynamic range.
Digital music doesn’t have to be loudness maximized, and in fact lots of recording engineers want to find a way to stop the tendency. You can celebrate “Dynamic Range Day” and find an index of the dynamic range of thousands of albums.
If you find yourself preferring vinyl, dynamic range is probably why. It’s worth speculating why we create for ourselves a musical landscape crushed and hyped into a impossible level of consistency.
if you’re interested in the subject, you might take a look at a new publication we are experimenting with, American History Now. Our inaugural issue is on vinyl and vinyl records. Anyone can contribute.
"Decoding cancer-addled ramblings", Ask MetaFilter 1/20/2014:
In my grandmother's final days battling brain cancer, she became unable to speak and she filled dozens of index cards with random letters of the alphabet. I'm beginning to think that they are the first letters in the words of song lyrics, and would love to know what song this was. This is a crazy long shot, but I've seen Mefites pull off some pretty impressive code-breaking before!
My grandmother passed away in 1994 of a fast-spreading cancer. She was non-communicative her last two weeks, but in that time, she left at least 20 index cards with scribbled letters on them. My cousins and I were between 8-10 years old at the time, and believed she was leaving us a code. We puzzled over them for a few months trying substitution ciphers, and didn't get anywhere.
My father found one of the cards the other day and I love puzzles and want to tackle the mystery again. Based on some of the repeating segments (many lines start with PST, many end with PAGA, and TYAGF repeats often at the end), I'm thinking they may be song lyrics. She inserts lots of backwards commas, and strange breaks at various points that could indicate stanzas. The back of the card has two numbered lines that contain the same letters. The letters (with line breaks to match the card) and images of the cards are below.
Within 14 minutes, harperpitt had figured out the first couple of lines of the back of the card:
Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name… etc etc etc
Others jumped in as well, and decoding continues.
For some additional discussion, see Alex Goldman, "Yesterday, the internet solved a 20-year-old mystery", 1/21/2014.
Hi Captain et al,
Like a number of commenters here, I have a chronic, incurable (not deadly) illness. I am really quite ill, it has a huge effect on my life and, advances in medical science notwithstanding, I will be very ill for the REST OF MY LIFE.
But I get on with it, because there’s nothing else to do. My life is painful and exhausting and full of social security bureaucracy, medical appointments, social care, mobility aids and limits to what I can do. I can accept that and most of my friends have adapted with me to fit around what I can and can’t do and to help out when they can.
What’s upsetting me are a few friends who keep sharing pictures and statuses along the lines of “Share if you know someone with [illness]” or “Show your support for people with [illness] by putting this on your facebook wall for one hour” etc
And… those things don’t make me feel supported or cared for. At all. If anything, they remind me that those people never call or text, that they’ve never asked how they could help. It’s like… they want me to see that they’re thinking of me but don’t actually want to put in the effort to contact me or find out what I need?
How best can I say “I know this is scary but if you want to support me, actually fucking talk to me about it?” Or should I perhaps leave the issue of “stop posting things on facebook that remind me you’re not actually helping” alone and go to the effort of finding things to ask them to do? They clearly want to *feel* useful but I’m scared that maybe they just want to feel like they’re doing something and don’t actually want the inconvenience of me saying “The practical things you can do to help include making an effort to come to see me, to keep in touch with me, to take me out of the house some time and/or fix your own drinks and food if you visit me at mine. Sometimes I need people to make phone calls, to accompany me to appointments or to help buy equipment I need. There are things you can practically do to help but all of them require time, effort and money”.
I want to know what people are actually prepared to do to help but I’m scared of asking in case the answer really is: “I care about you and want to do whatever I can to help but I don’t want to do anything that takes time, effort or money”
Too Ill For This
Oh, TIFT, I would give you a solidarity fistbump of the chronically ill, but winter has come to my neck of the woods and my joints aren’t up to that kind of wild living. You are not alone, and in fact you are so not alone that a disabled friend of mine and I were just discussing this problem recently.
It is SO FRUSTRATING when non-disabled people want to make a big show of being supportive, but never so much as drop us a text message to say “Hey, I’m thinking about you.” I personally get a lot of comfort from the company of other grouchy cripples, where I can complain about this stuff. And honestly I hate that you are the one writing in here, because seriously, I feel like it should be them asking how not to be a dick to you. But you’re asking for help with solutions, so here is what has worked for me!
Unfortunately saying “what the hell, get that shit off your news feed” is unlikely to lead to a good result if you want to stay friends with these people. Which to be honest I’d seriously evaluate, because my energy is limited and I don’t want to spend it on people who are only interested in me as a public display of how virtuous they are. If you are feeling very diplomatic, have the energy, and really like this person and want to stay in touch, you can try, “Friend, I realize you’re probably doing it to be nice and because you don’t know how to deal with my illness, but I would feel so much more loved if when you think of me, you send me an e-mail or text message just to say hi rather than posting public things to your Facebook page.”
If these are people you don’t want to just unfriend, and you don’t want to get into the kind of Feelings Talk that the previous line will more than likely precipitate, then try starting them out easy with something simple and fun. “Hey, friend, would you like to come over & watch a movie on date at time?” is a good one. When they get there, say “Hey, there’s food and drinks in the fridge, please help yourself. My house is your house, my snacks are your snacks.” If they are squirrelly about so much as hanging out low-key for a couple hours, or snagging their own snacks and drinks while they’re there, then probably unfriending them is your only choice.
But possibly they will come hang out! Which opens the door to an actual friendship where they are not so weirded out by your chronic illness that they have no clue how to interact with you. But I certainly wouldn’t depend on them for something crucial like a ride to the doctor unless they’ve demonstrated they’re sincere and reliable if they offer help. We’ve all had that one non-disabled friend who flaked at the last minute requiring us to cancel something we really needed to get to, so putting your faith in untested people is risky at best.
Chronic illness/disability sucks in SO MANY WAYS and one of the worst is having to go through this sorting process. It is totally ok if you decide your time and energy are too limited for this crap and just cut those people free. You don’t have to be their way of demonstrating to the world how cool and awesome and caring they are with these meaningless public displays of glurge. There are other awesome people out there, and yes it is possible for us to find them.
And as a PS to all y’all non-disabled people out there who are wondering how to help a chronically ill friend:
1) clearly tell us what you’re willing to do. Don’t say “call me if you need anything” unless you mean “anything”. It’s ok, we understand that not everyone is up for cleaning litter boxes. Just let us know what you ARE willing to do: “Hey, I do my grocery shopping on Wednesday evenings, let me know if you’d like me to swing by & pick you up!”
2) Spontaneous help is ok, too! Just because you did something once doesn’t mean we’re going to expect you to do it all the time. If you’re over and see we need help sweeping up the dog hair because OH GOD THE GERMAN SHEPHERDS ARE BLOWING COAT. AGAIN. IN JANUARY. then just say “hey, do you mind if I sweep real quick?”
3) Remember that we do have interests & lives that are not our illness/disability. Talk to us about the shared interests that made us friends in the first place.
Here is what potential "superhabitable" planets would be like: "most likely older than Earth and two to three times bigger, the researchers say. And they would orbit stars that are somewhat less massive than our sun. Any liquid water wouldn't be in a giant, deep ocean, but would be scattered over the surface of the planets in shallow reservoirs. The planets would need a global magnetic field to serve as protection from cosmic radiation, and they would probably have thicker atmospheres than the Earth does." Wait, but what does this have to do with Jesus? [NPR]2 Comments
|Gee, golly, gosh, gloriosky! It's Lieutenant Mary Sue!|
“A Trekkie's Tale” needs no introduction. A notoriously vicious bit of satire attacking a particular trend within Star Trek fanfiction, the story is infamous for introducing the world to the hated Mary Sue. It took no more than five brief paragraphs to completely tear Star Trek fandom asunder and, as a result, “A Trekkie's Tale” has transcended fan circles to become ubiquitous in the larger pop consciousness such that it's had a truly transformative, profound, and arguably profoundly negative, effect on the way we look at genre fiction even to this day. A case could be (and has been) made that the introduction of the Mary Sue archetype is one of the largest and most sweeping acts of reactionary silencing tactics in the history of genre fandom.
And yet “A Trekkie's Tale” itself is misread and misunderstood by pretty much everyone.
First, some background for those perhaps less familiar with what this is than others. “A Trekkie's Tale” is a piece of satirical fanfiction published in 1973 and featuring a character named Lieutenant Mary Sue who is the youngest, most beautiful and most talented officer in the entirety of Starfleet. On her first day on the Enterprise, Lieutenant Mary Sue outperforms everyone else on the ship, causes Kirk to instantly fall in love with her at first sight, outwits Spock with logic (that is never fully explained) and singlehandedly saves the ship, the crew and the Federation at least twice before tragically dying randomly at the end of the story to be mourned by everyone and essentially turned into a modern-day saint. Lieutenant Mary Sue, and “A Trekkie's Tale” more generally, is fairly transparently an attack on a certain kind of Star Trek fanfiction, and is most often read as a parody of (usually female) writers who create author avatar characters as wish fulfillment, thus sidelining the original cast and narrative in the process. In the years since the initial publication of “A Trekkie's Tale”, the term “Mary Sue” has become a stock character archetype and nowadays gets tossed around rather carelessly, most typically as a knee-jerk reaction from insecure male fans to the concept of “strong female character I don't like and who makes me uncomfortable with my masculinity.”
What's the most interesting thing about the Mary Sue archetype to me, however, is how uniquely Star Trek a concept it really is. Star Trek fandom has, in my opinion, a very peculiar fascination with an *extremely* specific sort of fantasy: It's an almost omnipresent dream amongst Star Trek fans of all ages, generations and genders to be captain of their own starship, command their own crew and, essentially, to be the star of their own Star Trek spinoff. This goes totally contrary to the stereotypical conception of the obsessive fan, which would be someone fantasizing about the characters or the actors, either in a romantic or sexual way or just a desire to meet them in person. But that's not what Lieutenant Mary Sue does (indeed, the fact Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the others are largely incidental to her story is the whole point of it) and it's not what Star Trek fans seem to want either: Instead, they want their own personal slice of the Star Trek universe to themselves and they want it to revolve around them, or at least to explore it on their terms. It's the entire point of things like the Star Trek Experience in Las Vegas or the video games Star Trek Starship Creator, Star Trek Bridge Commander and Star Trek Online.
So, despite how much the fans will talk up Star Trek's commitment to strong character development, it seems that when the cards are down they're ultimately going to default to projecting themselves onto the show. To me this is very interesting and unusual, if for no other reason than it doesn't match up with my own personal history of Star Trek fandom at all. This was never a fantasy that ever would have crossed my mind for a moment: What I always liked about Star Trek was its sense of wonder and exploration, the familial atmosphere the crew shared with each other and the characters themselves. I admired Jadzia Dax and Tasha Yar, saw them as role models and wanted to be like them, so a lot of my experience with Star Trek consists of looking up to people like that and trying to learn from them to better myself, and to, in a sense, take a little bit of them into me. From my perspective, that's as fundamentally, purely Star Trek as it gets, but it seems like my emotions aren't shared by fandom at large in this case.
But the other thing that defines my experience with Star Trek is wanting to write my own version of it, and for that there is a precedent. Here's where the other half of “A Trekkie's Tale” comes into play and, for my money, it's the more interesting half. So, if we're going to get anything remotely near an understanding of what these five little paragraphs actually are and how they fit into the history of Star Trek (as opposed to merely the way people have responded and interpreted them), we need to establish some simulacrum of context. By this point in the mid-1970s, Star Trek fandom was largely clustered around a series of fan-published and distributed zines. In the 1960s, the fan culture around the show, despite how loyal and vocal it had been, was still largely a disperse mainstream phenomenon. By the 1970s with the Original Series in syndication and hardly anyone watching the Animated Series (or at least hardly anyone seemingly willing to write and talk about it), Star Trek fandom was now very definitively a niche thing, with the first proper Star Trek convention (that is, separate from larger science fiction conventions) taking place in 1972.
As such, the 1970s Star Trek fandom comprised mainly two different factions: Middle-aged women who had been general science fiction fans in the 1950s and 1960s and remembered when Star Trek first started and the scene people like Bjo Trimble belonged to (and that Gene Roddenberry overtly tried to court), and younger college-aged women who were just getting exposed to the show through syndicated reruns. Both groups were very much interested in writing their own Star Trek stories, and there was such a surplus of them the zines had trouble keeping track of them all. So a situation arose where fans would be inspired by zines and cons to write, thus necessitating the need for more zines and cons so the cycle continued to self-perpetuate in perpetuity for awhile.
Back then, there was a stronger link between science fiction fans and science fiction writers than we might think would be the case today, perhaps a holdover from the days of the Golden Age conventions where readers and writers commingled and the dividing line between was quite blurry. It was not an unheard of scenario even as late as 1973 for science fiction authors to get their start writing for zines, and the fan culture sort of acted as an unofficial pipeline to more professional gigs. The problem was, of course, there was nowhere to go if you were writing about Star Trek, because the famous live-action show had been off the air for half a decade and, once again, nobody cared about the animated reboot. So you'd frequently get a lot of writers contributing a lot of really excellent, professional grade Star Trek stories as fanfic to zines because there was nothing else to do with them. Because of this, the fans introduced a kind of loose structure of their own, with zine editors oftentimes acting as a kind of surrogate script editor. One of the most prolific and influential of these semipro writers and editors was Paula Smith who, as it so happens, wrote the story we're talking about today.
Yes, shocking as it may seem, the person responsible for giving us the insecure femmephobic fan's favourite trump card is, in fact, a woman. It's at this point I'm probably expected to pull a Margaret Armen and take Smith to task for internalized misogyny issues, but I'm not going to because I actually don't think that's what's going on here. Like all works of satire (including Gulliver's Travels), “A Trekkie's Tale” has been badly, badly misinterpreted by generations of clueless readers who don't seem to get the joke. In fact, an even better point of comparison might be Upton Sinclair's The Jungle: Intended as a condemnation of wage slavery of migrant workers in the United States, which is helpfully and blatantly compared with the literal enslavement of Africans by that same country, history has largely proven itself to be the domain of white male middle class authoritarians by comprehensively missing the point and using it as a call-to-arms against lax heath code regulations in the meat packing industry. I feel something similar happened to Paula Smith.
The key to figuring out what I think Smith is actually saying here is to keep in mind her status as a kind of D.C. Fontana for fan culture. She was responsible for vetting hundreds upon hundreds of Star Trek fanfics and giving an innumerable amount of writers tips on how to hone their craft (actually, it was from interviews with her that I gleaned the majority of the historical information I use in this post). Indeed, one of the most classic, foundational maxims of fanfic, Langsam's Law, comes largely from her. It states that (in Smith's words)
“There is a special caveat for writing media-based fiction. Don't make an established character do or say something out of line with his established character, of if you must, give good, solid reasons why."
which is frankly just good writing advice in general as far as I'm concerned. This touches on the other side of the 1970s zine culture, which was that because Star Trek was off the air, and regardless as to whether or not they knew about the Animated Series, the fans sort of saw themselves as penning if not the official continuation of it, at least one semi-proper, semi-authorized version of it. So it would kind of make sense that these people would take good care to make sure their stories could plausibly have been Star Trek episodes themselves had the show not been canceled.
And this is the nut of “A Trekkie's Tale”, because what Smith is lampooning with Lieutenant Mary Sue is not women daring to write Star Trek fanfic, or introducing new female characters, or introducing female author avatar characters or even introducing new female characters who go on to be love interests for canon characters. What Smith is lampooning is bad writing in general. As many good editors often are, Smith was a prolific writer herself, penning countless fics (debatably literally so, since she used a different pseudonym practically every single time she wrote something, making her work a headache to track down today) for not just Star Trek, but also Starsky and Hutch, Harry and Johnny, The Professionals and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.. She had written enough and been around the scene enough to know what worked and what didn't, and “A Trekkie's Tale” is her way of compiling and caricaturing the most egregious and problematic trends she noticed in an attempt to show new writers “Here: This is what not to do”.
And if we divert our attention momentarily from Mary Sue herself, who is indeed admittedly a veritable perfect storm of painful amateur writing mistakes exaggerated beyond infinity, it becomes obvious she's not the only thing we're supposed to pay attention to. The fic's dialog is stilted, repetitive and awkward, plot developments happen out of thin air, there's no sense of internal coherence or consistency, a general feeling the whole thing was banged out in a terrible rush and even the tense keeps jumping back and forth between past, present and future. Even the title “A Trekkie's Tale” itself is a dead giveaway, eschewing completely any and all pretenses that this is going to be anything remotely resembling a straightforward or recgonisable Star Trek story because, their obvious boundless energy and enthusiasm notwithstanding, this is something the writer has clearly put next to no effort into (not, it must be stressed, that this is entirely their fault, however: They're clearly too young and/or inexperienced to know any better). As the saying goes, it takes talent and skill to craft something this memorably awful.
So, while Smith did hold up the Mary Sue archetype as something to be avoided, unlike successive people who have appropriated the concept, she recognised it for what it was: One type of mistake among many that beginning writers have a tendency to make but that can be expunged through experience, guidance and support. But as noble as Smith's intentions with “A Trekkie's Tale” might have been, and I do think they were noble, the question remains: Has the story actually done what it was supposed to do and had a net positive effect on fandom such that it's help blossoming writers, fanfic or otherwise, to learn and develop their skills? Of that I'm not so sure, because the Mary Sue as it exists today is a terribly problematic concept loaded up with toxic connotations and, as is well known, a favourite silencing technique of the patriarchal hegemony. Decades of reactionary reappropriation have twisted and distorted the Mary Sue archetype into a misogynistic weapon.
It's an altogether too common story to hear female writers, even professional ones, confess that they consciously avoid having too many female characters in their cast or writing their women too strong or too independent out of a very serious and legitimate fear they'll be scorned and attacked for writing “Mary Sue stories” and will never be respected or recognised as proper writers (or even worse, have their careers completely destroyed outright) as a result. Anybody can write a character like Lieutenant Mary Sue, and such a character can be of any gender. But the “Mary Sue” archetype has become exclusively female and that's a problem. That does retroactively harm the original work and make me wonder whether the actual satire was ever all that clear to begin with. Because of that, I'm uncertain that Smith's original five paragraphs can now be taken apart from the tangible, material and very negative effect they had on female fans and writers, as riotously funny as those five paragraphs might be (and they are riotously funny: Phrases like "Gee, golly, gosh, gloriosky”, “Tralfamadorian Order of Good Guyhood” and “beautiful youth and youthful beauty” crack me up every single time).
But regardless of the quality of the actual story, let's make sure we don't damn the author as well. Good writers have bad days. We all do. The most important thing about Paula Smith is that she always kept trying no matter what: She wrote an incalculable number of stories, oftentimes just on a dare or as an attempt to do an experiment or proof-of-concept for just herself. Like anyone, she missed her target just as much, if not more, than she hit it. That's only called being a writer, after all. Because she was involved in zines and conventions to the extent she was and ran so much (and kept so much running), I'd call her showrunner of her own underground version of Star Trek. Hell, given the staggering scope of her fanfic resume even beyond Trek, Smith should probably be seen as someone just as seasoned as the most experienced TV writers and producers of her day. So, even if she did strike out with “A Trekkie's Tale”, it's ultimately one minor bump on the very long and winding path of a career that spans literally decades and frankly puts most professional writers to shame.
Paula Smith never gave up, never stopped trying to challenge and better herself and never let anyone stop her from writing what she loved. And I think that's the lesson she'd like her readers to take with them most of all.
|Paula Smith keeps the Enterprise running at warp speed.|
This piece at Jacobin, by Miya Tokumitsu, is a knockout:
There’s little doubt that “do what you love” (DWYL) is now the unofficial work mantra for our time. The problem is that it leads not to salvation, but to the devaluation of actual work, including the very work it pretends to elevate — and more importantly, the dehumanization of the vast majority of laborers.
[...] “Do what you love” disguises the fact that being able to choose a career primarily for personal reward is an unmerited privilege, a sign of that person’s socioeconomic class. Even if a self-employed graphic designer had parents who could pay for art school and cosign a lease for a slick Brooklyn apartment, she can self-righteously bestow DWYL as career advice to those covetous of her success. If we believe that working as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur or a museum publicist or a think-tank acolyte is essential to being true to ourselves — in fact, to loving ourselves — what do we believe about the inner lives and hopes of those who clean hotel rooms and stock shelves at big-box stores? The answer is: nothing.
Yet arduous, low-wage work is what ever more Americans do and will be doing. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the two fastest-growing occupations projected until 2020 are “Personal Care Aide” and “Home Care Aide,” with average salaries of $19,640 per year and $20,560 per year in 2010, respectively.
And from the end: "DWYL is, in fact, the most perfect ideological tool of capitalism. It shunts aside the labor of others and disguises our own labor to ourselves. It hides the fact that if we acknowledged all of our work as work, we could set appropriate limits for it." Yes, yes, yes, yes.
1. “It doesn't take very long for most _____ers to realize that if you wait until the day you… feel like _____ing you'll never do it at all.”
2. "If you want to become the best _____er you can be, start now. Don't spend the rest of your life wondering if you can do it."
3. “It is not so much that I began to _____, but that I continued.”
4. “It's none of their business that you have to learn how to _____. Let them think you were born that way.”
5. “And why don't you _____? _____! _____ing is for you, you are for you; your body is yours, take it.”
6. “Women _____ers make for rewarding (and efficient) lovers.”
7. "The advice I have for beginners is the same philosophy that I have for _____ers of all levels of experience and ability – consistency, a sane approach, moderation and making your _____ing an enjoyable, rather than dreaded, part of your life."
8. “The funny thing about _____ing is that whether you're doing well or doing it poorly, it looks the exact same. That's actually one of the main ways that _____ing is different from ballet dancing.”
9. “_____ing taught me valuable lessons… I could compensate for a lack of natural aptitude with diligence and discipline.”
10. “_____ing should be a lifelong activity. Approach it patiently and intelligently, and it will reward you for a long, long time.”
11. “I'll be happy if _____ing and I can grow old together.”
12. “If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn't brood. I'd _____ a little faster.”
13. “A little talent is a nice thing to have if you want to be a _____er, but the only real requirement is that ability to remember… every scar.”
14. “_____ing! If there's any activity happier, more exhilarating, more nourishing to the imagination, I can't think of what it might be.”
15. “So what? All _____ers are lunatics!”
16. “…making a decision to ______ was a lot like deciding to jump into a frozen lake.”
17. "There is an itch in ______ers."
18. “Panicky despair is an underrated element of ______ing.”
19. “Some seek the comfort of their therapist's office, others head to the corner pub and dive into a pint, but I chose ______ing as my therapy.”
20. “Do you suffer when you _____? I don't at all. Suffer like a bastard when don't _____, or just before, and feel empty and fucked out afterwards. But never feel as good as while ____ing.”
21. “What I've learned from _____ing is that the time to push hard is when you're hurting like crazy and you want to give up… Success is often just around the corner.”
22. “_____ing is a horrible, exhausting struggle… One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
23. “…there would be punishment and pain, and there would be happiness, too. That was _____ing.”
24. “_____ing… is delicious agony—delicious agony.”
25. “All I do is keep on _____ing in my own cozy, homemade void, my own nostalgic silence. And this is a pretty wonderful thing. No matter what anybody else says.”
26. “If I don’t _____ to empty my mind, I go mad.”
27. “You discover a tricky thing about _____ing; a certain amount of vanity is necessary to be able to do it all, but any vanity above that certain amount is lethal.”
28. "_____ing is a lot like life. Only 10 percent of it is exciting. 90 percent of it is slog and drudge."
29. “A _____er is someone for whom _____ing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
30. “I am the sort of man who _____s because he has made progress, and who makes progress – by ____ing.”
31. "To be a _____er, you simply have to _____. It’s not enough to dream about being a _____er. It’s not enough to plan on being a _____er. At some point, you simply have to _____.”
32. “_____ing to him was real; the way he did it the realest thing he knew. It was all joy and woe, hard as a diamond.”
33. “If you want to be a _____er, you have to _____ every day… You don't go to a well once but daily. You don't skip a child's breakfast or forget to wake up in the morning.”
34. “Now bid me _____, and I will strive with things impossible.”
35. “_____ing is not a game played according to rules. _____ing is a compulsive, and delectable thing. _____ing is its own reward.”
36. “When you _____, you log on to yourself. You flip through the pages of your being.”
37. “The true _____er is a very fortunate person. He has found something in him that is just perfect.”
38. “_____ing is not life, but I think that sometimes it can be a way back to life.”
39. “Tomorrow may be hell, but today was a good _____ing day, and on the good _____ing days nothing else matters.”
40. “Then, I started _____ing. And everything was as good as it could be.”
1. Writers/writing, Ann Tyler, “Ann Tyler: a life’s work,” The Guardian, April 2012.
2. Runner, Priscilla Welch, Runner's World Complete Book of Running: Everything You Need to Run for Weight Loss, Fitness, and Competition.
3. Run, Hal Higdon, The Gigantic Book of Running Quotations.
4. Write, Ernest Hemingway, purportedly on the loss of a suitcase containing work from his first two years as a writer, as quoted in With Hemingway.
5. Write/write/writing, Hélène Cixous, The Laugh of the Medusa.
6. Writers, Roman Payne, Rooftop Soliloquy.
7. Running, Bill Rodgers, as quoted in 1,001 Pearls of Runners' Wisdom: Advice and Inspiration for the Open Road.
8. Writing, John Green, vlog entry titled “July 19: A Day in the Life of a Writer (Who Has No Friends),” July 2007.
9. Running, Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela.
10. Running, Michael Sargent, MD, as quoted in One More Step: The 638 Best Quotes for the Runner.
11. Running, Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.
12. Writing (though technically the blank here is “type”), Isaac Asimov, Life interview, January 1984.
13. Writer, Stephen King, Misery.
14. Running, Joyce Carol Oates, New York Times article titled “To Invigorate Literary Mind, Start Moving Literary Feet,” July 1999.
15. Writers, Cornelia Funke, Inkspell.
16. Write, Maya Angelou, The Heart of a Woman.
17. Runners, Arnold Hano as quoted in The Gigantic Book of Running Quotations.
18. Writing, Dave Barry, “How I Write: Dave Barry,” The Writers Magazine, March 2003.
19. Running, Dean Karnazes, Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner.
20. Writing, Ernest Hemingway, letter to poet and critic Malcolm Cowley, November 1945.
21. Running, Sir James Dyson (of Dyson vacuums), Runners World interview, September 2009.
22. Writing, George Orwell, "Why I Write," Gangrel, Summer 1946.
23. Writing, Markus Zusak, The Book Thief.
24. Writing, Gwendolyn Brooks, Conversations with Gwendolyn Brooks.
25. Run, Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.
26. Write, Lord Byron, letter to Thomas Moore, Lord Byron: Selected Letters and Journals.
27. Fiction writing, David Foster Wallace, “The Nature of the Fun,” Fiction Writer, 1998.
28. Running, David Bedford, as quoted in 138,336 Feet to Pure Bliss: What I Learned about Life, Women (and Running) During My First 100 Marathons.
29. Writer/writing, Thomas Mann, Essays of Three Decades.
30. Write/writing, St. Augustine, letter to Marcellinus, 412.
31. Run/runner/running/run, John Bingham, The Courage to Start: A Guide to Running for Your Life.
32. Running, John L. Parker, Jr., Once a Runner.
33. Writer/write, Walter Moseley, “For Authors, Fragile Ideas Need Loving Every Day,” New York Times, July 2000.
34. Run, William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar.
35. Writing, Henry Miller, Henry Miller on Writing.
36. Run, Kevin Nelson, The Runner’s Book of Daily Inspiration.
37. Runner, George Sheehan, MD, as quoted in The Runner's Guide to the Meaning of Life: What 35 Years of Running Have Taught Me About Winning, Losing, Happiness, Humility, and the Human Heart.
38. Writing, Stephen King, On Writing.
39. Writing/writing, Neil Gaiman, blog entry titled “somewhat less sinister ducks,” April 2004.
40. Running, Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
Meghan Williams lives in Colorado, where she ran her first half marathon in October and should be working on her novel right now. If she could coin an inspirational quote for both running and writing, it would be “____ing: once you get past the self-doubt and if you can avoid a debilitating knee injury, you will really enjoy it.”8 Comments
This is a guest post by Fortister, who prefers to remain otherwise anonymous.
This was inspired by a question on Twitter by Dr. Kortney Ziegler: “so much energy focused on women in tech — rightfully so — but for trans men or other non binary gender identities…crickets…”
It is easier now that I look like a guy.
I think of myself as a shapeshifter, and with that comes shifting perspective. I am non-binary identified. I’ve kept my expressive voice and use female pronouns out of political stubbornness, because in this place, at this time, being a woman is exceptional, and I didn’t want to disappear. I spend enough time as the second woman in the room that it would feel like leaving my community to leave that role. Even as a woman, though, it is still easier now that I look like a guy. Masculine privilege is a powerful thing.
In meetings I state my opinion with no apologies or waffling and no one is taken aback. I get invited to dinners with coworkers and we talk about work instead of their wives. I don’t get hit on at industry events, and I go to hotel room parties at conferences with only lingering fear from another life. No one expresses surprise at my technical competence, and no one has yelled at me once since I shifted.
There was a time my long hair and I were assumed to be someone’s wife or girlfriend or HR rep. Now HR reps walk up to me. I know when it is time for a haircut because people start questioning my tone or dismissing my opinions. There was a time when I wondered how much makeup to wear, and which shirts were too thin. Now my clothes come from Amazon and I dress just like everyone I work with and I wake up fifteen minutes before rolling out the door.
It’s easier now.
The usual downsides of my identity don’t even seem to apply. No one questions my pronouns; after all at times I am the only example of a “woman” in the room. Neither do I feel misgendered as simply “woman”; just being a programmer queers my gender. It is convenient for the men around me to appropriate my presence and ignore the distinction. My boss doesn’t even blink when I get “Sir’ed” at a business dinner.
The women’s bathroom is nearly empty and the women there are unsurprised by my presence. We usually know each others names and at least half them are as grateful for the lack of gender police as I am. I still glance down with a self-deprecating smile, because I don’t want to make anyone any more uncomfortable than we already are.
Just because it is easier doesn’t mean it is easy. So much of my effort has gone to things that have nothing to do with tech. I choose my company for culture and the possibility of being promoted as a woman, even one who looks like a man, instead of for the technical problems that I would like to solve. I don’t move around as much because I would have to establish myself all over again. I’ve wasted countless hours to men who find it easier to ask questions of me than my colleagues, though I value the opportunities to mentor as well. At meetings I’m distracted from the topic at hand when the only other woman is ignored. “What was that?” I ask, interrupting the interrupter, but in the same moment I’ve lost the technical thread in a rush of adrenaline. At technical conferences men ask me what I think about women in tech, or guiltily admit their discomfort with our culture, instead of inquiring about my work. I’ve given up on Hacker News after yet another vicious round of misogyny and had abandoned Slashdot years before, and so my coworkers talk about things I have no energy to seek out for myself. I limit my conferences to ones where I will not be an oddity. (In the rest of the world my masculinity makes me an oddity. Here it is the vestiges of womanhood.)
Instead of spending my weekend hacking open source I spend my weekend figuring out how to defend the notion of my humanity. How to explain, just a little more clearly, why the oblivion of the men around me is harmful and destructive. How to make it about them, so that maybe finally they will care. I’m glad I’m not job hunting; instead of a github I have a portfolio of blog posts I’m too afraid to share (they are all insufficient for the impossible task of changing my world.) When people talk about wanting to only hire the most passionate, the most committed programmers I want to tell them that if I weren’t I would have never made it this far. Merely being a mid-career woman programming is a demonstration of passion the privileged men around me will never have an opportunity to display.
I can smell their fear, the possibility that their mediocrity is merely covered by privilege. When they protest that women aren’t interested, it is with the fear that their house of masculine cards might come toppling down. There is nothing manly about typing, about understanding systems, about communicating with humans and machines to create useful tools. Our work is not white-collar networking and control. It is not blue-collar physical strength. It is not pink-collar emotional labor. It is something new, beyond the gender binary. A huge amount of political work has gone into turning this profession masculine, but that distinction is precarious and some of us seek to actively undermine it. There is nothing masculine about what we do, and so the masculine performances that accompany it are beyond ridiculous. To need pictures of naked women to prove that we are all Straight Men here, we must know it isn’t true. Some of us are so anxious that if we can not use “he” in our job postings and documentation we might, what, forget that we are men?
I have no sympathy; some of us didn’t have this option. If you rely on your profession to validate your gender identity, you are setting yourself up for disappointment as well as acting like an exclusionary jerk.
The capitalists exploit men’s fear of being unmanly, offering them paltry rewards relative to the value they produce in exchange for brutal hours, insulting treatment and the inevitable eventual betrayal of their values. “Do no evil” becomes “evil is hard to define”, and if men admit they care they are considered soft. Organizing for working conditions or caring about missing your children’s childhoods would be womanly, not ruggedly individualistic. When there is any pushback, it is cloaked in the most masculine language possible, of “life hacking”, of seeking time to lift heavy objects or get trashed to cover for the lack of meaningful interpersonal relationships in our work-dominated lives. The only alternative to the capitalist-driven workplace is the even-more masculine world of VC and the near-certainty of failure, with egos protected by the knowledge that they are at least not women. They are doing something women cannot do, they assume, rather than doing something no one with any self respect would be willing to do, woman or man.
It is easier because I merely look like a guy. I do not need to protest my manliness, because I know in my womanly education and upbringing I was taught skills that are valuable here. “He” is not as valuable a programmer as “they” are, since “he” is artificially limited. The competence of women is no threat to my self-image; it is patently obvious to me that women can code because I have met good programmers who are women in the spaces where we congregate, reassuring each other of our existence when the people around us deny it. I do not need to believe that I am special, that my profession is exclusionary, in order to feel whole, nor am I willing to write off the millions of potential programmers who have never had the set of happy accidents that led me to the profession. I seek to prove neither my relevance nor masculinity, since I am confident of both. That confidence comes from having to fight for them; it is impossible to know what we are capable of if we never reach our limits.
Men still tell me openly that they think women are better at “that people stuff” than “technical things”, as though their opinion outweighs my experience and citations and as though technical problems were not caused by people. They say that boys are better at math, as though they don’t turn to StackOverflow any time they need an equation. A few brave and very ignorant men suggest that it’s my masculinity that enables me to code. I tell them the best software development class I took was Introduction to Writing Poetry and I am the only one in it who became a programmer. I tell them a story where our insistence on masculinity is bankrupting our profession. I say that there are millions of women who have been driven from the field by the ignorance and sexist behavior of people like them. Each time, I blush in fear at my audacity, but my masculinity protects me. Before the shift, they laughed at my protestations of belonging or mocked my supposed naivete. Now in person the worst they do is walk away or change the subject uncomfortably.
Online, of course, is a different story. I am either assumed male or dismissed, belittled and told to make sandwiches if I make a point to be read female (I use sex here purposefully, for lack of better terminology: online I’ve found read sex more important than identity, voice, tone or gendered behavior. That reading of sex, of course, is fraught.) The area for us shifters is erased; there is no true self for me to show because there is no space in people’s expectations for me. I am presumed to not exist.
Online it’s easy to be a man. It is also deeply uncomfortable; it feels like a lie to erase my other life. However, going out of my way to be read a woman is to cut away a part of myself as well. This is perhaps part of why I keep to the shadows, the private forums, the feminist hideaways. Among the geeky feminists, I have found a story that allows my existence. Things can be more complicated.
Editor’s note: We welcome and encourage guest post submissions from trans women, and from non-binary-identified, genderqueer, gender-fluid, and/or agender people who were coercively assigned male at birth, about their experiences in geeky communities, professions, or subcultures — as well as any other geek feminist or social-justice-related topic. We would love to feature more guest posts about the experience of being gender-non-conforming in tech, from people with a variety of lived experiences.
Gray, in turn, composed a beautiful response. Dear Earl, Thank you very much for your response to my book THREATS. One of the reason I write is to make a connection with people, and it's humbling to me that a man in Crowley, Louisiana took the time to sit down and read upwards of seventy pages of my work. Here's her full letter back to him.
A week later, Earl returned the voided check with a note that said A Time to Kill is indeed the type of reading that he preferred, and told the author that, although he appreciated her suggestion, he also preferred to do his reading on a Nook. Amelia Gray pronounced her time with Earl "a sweet exchange, all in all," and the rest of us sent her a complex sequence of high-fives and handshakes, as is typical with women, in our conversations among the insane.
In March 2013, when planning the People's History Museum's summer events programme, it seems the suggestion came forward to run an LGBT history tour, to coincide with Manchester Pride at the August bank holiday weekend. The people's history of Manchester, after all, includes a whole series of stories of our place as a key city in the country's LGBT history.
But as a social history it is fleeting and ephemeral, with some of the tales of bars and battles captured by the rainbow plaques on our city streets and many more missing, let alone how they piece into the jigsaw of the battle for liberation and equality on a wider level. If you didn't live through it all back then, then in a 2013 where one of the six parliamentary divisions on same-sex marriage didn't even go to a vote because well it's obviously going to pass why bother, it's hard to imagine how things were for queers of all stripes twenty or forty years ago. It's something that didn't hit home to me until I had the good fortune to meet and spend time with Bernard Greaves, a magnificent gay (and later LGBT) rights activist who has been fighting the proverbial good fight longer than I've been alive.
As Catherine O'Donnell, one of the exhibition organisers, blogged at the time: "(As a straight woman) I knew that there had been a struggle, however I didn’t realise the lengths that campaigners had gone through to gain rights for something as simple and natural as kissing in public, let alone the repeal of Section 28 and equal marriage."
|Most of the 'popup' LGBT history exhibition|
Catherine got the plans for an exhibition included in one of LGF's regular circulars and that's where I picked up on it, as it landed the day after I'd had a conversation about archives and the many bi banners BiPhoria has made over the years. Regular readers will know that I work a mixed week, and Wednesday is normally my day of beavering away at various bi volunteering projects at BCN Towers. By sheer chance the two LGBT history workshop afternoon PHM had planned were on Wednesdays, so I could take part without having to take leave from my paid working week. If People's History Museum had picked Fridays for this project it would probably have passed me by.
When you only have two afternoons to bring a group of a dozen or so people together, get them to go through museum archives and their own materials from home, understand broadly how to select, label and present the most important things and turn it into a ready to roll exhibition that's a tough call. While perhaps half of the volunteers contributing history and time to assembling the exhibition already knew one another from a group at LGF that the People's History Museum had done a targeted outreach evening with, the rest of us didn't know one another and there is quite a bit of needing to find a comfort level around strangers and learning to share stories and space. It worked well, though I was always worried I was hogging the floor with stories from twenty years of bi, trans and LGBT activism - or geekily correcting historical references. No, he was bisexual... of course at the time both of them were in the closet... the word dates back to the late 1800s... that's the wrong pronoun... I'll shush now.
Those exchanges of stories highlighted some of the limitations of the rapid recruit - prepare - present cycle. We had, from what I could tell, a skew toward cis lesbians and gay men among the volunteers. That's not to bemoan any of them being there, just that as so often, ideally there would have been more and different voices. Thanks to my background and extensive if ill-filed bi archives I can hold up the B end well, but I think there was only me and one ally speaking up on trans issues and representation. There was at least some B and T in there though, which was one of the things that made me glad I'd taken part. Especially seeing this little "bisexual corner" with two of my final three nominated items for the display, one of which reflecting the internal struggles within the LGBT umbrella:
|"Dear Stonewall, you say you're LGB but you keep letting bisexuals down..."|
It all came together and while it felt a little bit compact-and-bijou compared to a full museum exhibition areas, it was a grand feeling once the frenzy of Pride weekend was over to come in to the museum in September and see it in its polished final form. I got all self-referential and took photos of the projection wall where my own photos were among the rotating display running (many thanks to the kindly front desk people who noticed what I was up to and dimmed the main lights so I could get better snaps!).
|That's a photo of a projection of a photo I took of one of my teeshirts. |
This blogpost may eat itself :)
Much kudos and congratulation to Harriet Richardson and Catherine O'Donnell from the museum's Play Your Part project, who steered the whole thing through to completion. It was great to see the finished exhibit there at the front of the museum to welcome all visitors, to be a part of make it happen. Further it filled me with thoughts of how to go about exhibiting bisexual community history in particular; but that's a story for another blogpost!
Another thing which year-in-review pieces remind me about: Despair over the failure of news media does not belong under the same heading as idiosyncratic, essentially groundless usage peeves. “It’s terrible how ‘news’ is just giving blowhards unearned publicity instead of informing the citizenry! And how people use ‘impact’ as a verb.”
“Every Sperm is Sacred” is the new “Auld Lang Syne”
It went a little something like this.
First I discovered this site, which said the Internet thought I was 70% gay (albeit from only one vote). I said:
I would have placed it at more like 25 – 30 pecent, but, okay: http://t.co/F44ZZvrVXy
— John Scalzi (@scalzi) January 2, 2014
But then more people started voting!
I went from 70% gay to 22% gay in just three minutes! This sexual orientation by internet vote thing is confusing! — John Scalzi (@scalzi) January 2, 2014
I think it’s fine if the Internet thinks I’m gay, or straight, or bi, or just, you know, sexually opportunistic. — John Scalzi (@scalzi) January 2, 2014
I have to warn you that no matter what you think my sexuality is, the chance you’ll confirm it first hand is, uh, low. Sorry.
— John Scalzi (@scalzi) January 2, 2014
There are only so many hours in the day! And there are 55,437 of you! I can be quick about it BUT COME ON.
— John Scalzi (@scalzi) January 2, 2014
And then, the needle on my gay level started going back up:
Currently at 24% gay, which I think means I might up for a petting session with, like, Jeremy Renner. — John Scalzi (@scalzi) January 2, 2014
Seeing widespread approval for the proposed Petting Session With Jeremy Renner. Let me get my film/tv agent to work on this project. — John Scalzi (@scalzi) January 2, 2014
Up to 30% gay now. That means Tom Hiddleston drops by to give me and Jeremy backrubs! #ThisJustGetsBetter
— John Scalzi (@scalzi) January 2, 2014
I feel like this is like the Kickstarter of sexuality. Levels just keep getting unlocked!
— John Scalzi (@scalzi) January 2, 2014
I’m now 35% gay. This means that once Tom Hiddleston stops with the backrubs, he does a sexy pole dance to get us in the mood! — John Scalzi (@scalzi) January 2, 2014
For those of you wondering, my wife is totally down with a Scalzi/Renner/Hiddleston cuddlepile, as long as there is photodocumentation. — John Scalzi (@scalzi) January 2, 2014
I’m now at 40% gay! That means Martin Freemen arrives, topless and oiled, to sing ribald songs on ukulele! #BestDayEver
— John Scalzi (@scalzi) January 2, 2014
Just told my daughter to avoid my tweet stream, not because of the idea of me being gay, but because she’s Team Loki and won’t want to see.
— John Scalzi (@scalzi) January 2, 2014
And then it happened:
50% GAY! And now the heavens roil as Tilda Swinton and David Bowie descend on clouds to induct me into the League of Bisexuals. — John Scalzi (@scalzi) January 2, 2014
Tilda and David can’t be topped (heh), so I’ll stop here. Thanks and remember: Love is love. Love who you love. Love as you would be loved.
— John Scalzi (@scalzi) January 2, 2014
And look, here’s David and Tilda now. Enjoy.
And excellent it was. Where Paul Fairweather's talk earlier in the series rewrote identities and erased both bisexuality and large sections of queer history to fit a narrow predetermined narrative, this talk was expansive and exploratory. It left the layqueer with an appetite to read some of the subject matter, albeit if possible with some kind of Study Guide To Sly Queer Allusion In The Victorian Era at your side.
Now like any sensible person the only bit of Dickens I really have a handle on is his excellent The Muppets Christmas Carol, which he had to rewrite extensively when his publisher pointed out that the Muppets had not been invented yet and it could all lead to a complex time-travel intellectual property trial. A Christmas Carol is at the level of cultural icon in the UK and USA and perhaps some other places, such that even if you have never read it nor watched a film adaptation you've probably absorbed enough about it to have a fair idea of the characters and plot.
Dickens wrote lots of other things too though, some of it to the point and some excessively florid, verbose loquacious and wordy in the manner of a person who is being paid by the word (which as a writer for literary magazines, he often was). Like a modern TV writer he'd've been writing some excellent episodes and some that were filler to move the plot along as little as possible when a story worth five episodes was supposed to fill eight episodes.
The two main foci of the talks were A Christmas Carol (as it was the middle of December) and his unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The latter seems to have had a high profile in fanfic writing and reading circles even immediately after its publication, which was warming to hear about as someone who encountered a small amount of that sort of thing before the internet exploded it into a wider consciousness. The joy of the unfinished text for letting readers fill in the 'what happened next...'
Something touched on that had passed me by was a recent American 'gay retelling' of Christmas Carol, the film Scrooge & Marley, which rearranges some of the genders in the tale to make for a gay and lesbian variation on the story, including altering a closing line from that Bob Cratchitt is thereafter treated by Scrooge such that it is like having "three fathers" rather than "a second father".
Exploring queer readings and subtexts involved a lot of talk of homosexuality and gender transgression (though I don't think the latter phrase was ever used but this was extensively about that rather than sex and relationships) without giving specific voice to the situational and transitional bisexuality involved or suggested. I quite understand not wanting to apply modern senses and experiences of sexuality to different historical social situations, but I did think more could be made of using the B and T words to reflect and clarify what we were talking about.
An interesting aspect was that where his work included more obviously gender transgressive characters - a woman who didn't 'keep to her place' or a man who failed to be appropriately 'manly', it was apparently often followed by a more normative story without such bold characters.
It struck me - and I threw in one of those questions from the floor that is really an observation rather than a question - that this tied in with a "Queer Acceptability Curve" of how far from accepted (cishetero) gender normative behaviour a writer then or filmmaker today can go and still have enough of a broad market appeal.
Dickens could allude for the informed reader to things that might suggest a character had an interest in sex with other men or with other women, but could only push so far and then roll it back a little for the next story to make sure he wasn't getting a dangerous reputation, like a Hollywood actor who feels the need to alternate 'credible' films with ones that prove their box office acceptability.
From the description of Scrooge & Marley, which I freely admit I've not seen so am going on the outline given, that too only pushes things so far within a queer acceptability space. Same-sex monogamous couples replace mixed-sex couples, there is a simple rather than gendercomplex trans character: nothing too challenging and all keeping within the binaries that keep same-sex desire unthreatening and similar to the notional normatives of married cishetero life.
It's grand that the curve has moved as far as it has compared to Dickens' day. It still has some way to go.
The British Library has made available through Flickr more than one million images from seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century books. The image above comes from William Turner’s Journal of a Tour in the Levant (London, 1820). I like such stamps. I like circulation slips too.
This post from the British Library’s Digital Scholarship blog explains the project.
[Found via Boing Boing.]
Obamacare's death panels are alive and well -- at least among the imaginations of America's head and neck surgeons.
The journal Otolaryngology -- Head and Neck Surgery recently sent a questionnaire to to 9,972 head and neck surgeons that had 10 basic questions about the health-care law. It's one that Kasier Family Foundation created in 2010, which you can take yourself here.
The 647 responses that came back were ... depressing. Twenty-seven percent of respondents thought that the health-care law includes a "government panel [that] makes end-of-life care decisions for Medicare." This would be the so-called death panel rumor that ran rampant during the congressional debate over health care.
The Affordable Care Act did initially include a provision that would reimburse Medicare doctors for having discussions about, but not necessarily recommending, end-of-life options. But that was taken out in early 2011 after a front page article in the New York Times highlighted the issue.
The researchers also sorted the responses by doctors' opinions on the Affordable Care Act. They found that those who oppose the health-care law were more likely to believe that these panels exist. Forty-one percent of those who "strongly oppose the law" thought the panels existed, compared to 13 percent of those who are strong supporters.
The head and neck surgeons did better on the end of pre-existing conditions (93 percent knew about that provision but worse on coverage for undocumented immigrants (30 percent thought they would receive financial assistance, which they will not). The article is gated but available here.
The search engine optimization community has spent the last two years in a panic. SEO people flood our Internet with spam links and fake Twitter bots and paid traffic, to help bad websites look more popular than they are, to deliver fake viewers to web ads.
They now spend their lives on the run, Google nipping at their heels. Their biggest project? Removing all the spam links on websites like this one—the spam links that they put there.
In early 2011, Google issued an update to its search algorithm—they called it "Panda"—that elevated social media and news sites. Sites both big and small, usually spammy and sometimes not, saw major decline in their Google traffic. Companies like About and Mahalo and eHow cratered. Google said they wanted for "the 'good guys' making great sites for users, not just algorithms, to see their effort rewarded."
In spring of 2012, Google moved on from Panda to Penguin, which further refined that goal, though still the updates sometimes had a negative effect on non-spam sites, cutting traffic to older and larger sites.
But it was the Penguin 2.1, released in October, that sent spammers to the bitter edge; now they can't repent fast enough for their spammy sins.
Given how ubiquitous the act of Googling something has become, it is easy to forget how much goes into returning search results. "Google's algorithm takes into account dozens of criteria," wrote the New York Times in 2011, after J.C. Penney was penalized for having paid a search-engine optimization firm to place incoming links around the web. "But it has described one crucial factor in detail: links from one site to another."
Essentially, the more your site is linked to across the web, the higher Google will rank you, and links from sites that are similar to your own are better than links from sites that have nothing to do with anything. Over time, the quality of those links has become more and more important. (This 43-page PDF from Google is more specific, if you're really interested.)
Those links, in part, have an effect on one's placement in search results. Many of the J.C. Penney spam links were published on web sites that seemed to exist solely for that purpose: as a space for spam links to live. Out of the way, they never intruded directly on the experience of the average internet user (who may or may not be a robot anyway).
But: what's the easiest way to place a link on a site you don't own? Why, it's blog comments.
Hairpin user "michaeljohn," you will see, has a lot of substantive contributions to make to the conversation, like "buy bongs." (Fun!) We call this "black hat" linking. Web publishers—even as they pine for Google's affections, or at least play by Google's rules—are besieged by such comments.
So the black hat spam folks who spread these links across the Internet have reversed course. The Awl, and other websites like it, receive email after email each day from companies requesting that we help them clean up their presence in the comments, deleting links posted by fake accounts, the log-in information for which has long been lost or never recorded.
This isn't only happening in The Awl's inboxes, either. "The funny thing is, we don't actually want that spam lurking around in old comments," Boing Boing's Rob Beschizza wrote to me in an email. "But we obviously like seeing the spammers suffering as a result of their own misbehavior."
"So we just leave it up," he wrote, "even though we don't want it, in the hope that Google may penalize them further."
And exactly what form do those penalties take?
"For 500 keywords that we track, 90% of them were on page one," Or Hillel told me over Skype. ("Keywords" are usually the words associated with the linked site; if your link is to a gambling website, well, "gambling" is a good keyword.) Hillel has worked in SEO for the past eight years and was, a few months ago, hired to be the Inbound Marketing Manager at MyCurrencyTransfer.com—tasked to protect the brand. As is often the case, one SEO person is undoing the previous work of long-gone SEO people.
"The average drop was from page one to page five in Google," he said. In some cases they even dropped as low as page ten. How often do you find yourself on the fifth—much less the tenth—page of Google results? If you've gotten that far, you're better off just refining or revising your search terms.
"We needed to delete all of the bad links," he said. "It was a big list—a few thousand, even ten thousand links. We just moved one by one: this is a toxic link, we need to delete it; this is a good, natural link."
"We had links from the Daily Mail, Huffington Post, and we had links from profiles in shitty forums or small websites that we didn't want to get the link from," he said. Apparently by that he meant… us. So the goal clearly isn't to remove all spam links. Just the least-good ones.
This is very sneaky, what they had done here. They made a commenter profile—and then put the spam link in the commenter profile's description. Clever.
I asked Hillel whether they considered hiring the SEO company who had placed those links to begin with to clean up the mess they'd made.
"That's a problem. It's a freelance company that no longer exists," Hillel told me. "I don't know the name of the company. Is it important?"
A few minutes after I hung up with Hillel, his boss, Dan Abrahams, one of the co-founders of My Currency Exchange, called me on my phone. He asked about the article, and whether I could keep his company's name out of the story. They're very protective of their brand's identity, he said, and didn't want to be associated with these kinds of shady practices. Which is why, presumably, they paid a bunch of spammers—"freelancers from the Philippines"—in the first place.
Abrahams wasn't able to find any records of his company's business with the (allegedly) now-defunct SEO firm, either. You think there'd be a receipt somewhere.
My Currency Exchange isn't the only B R A N D to reach out to The Awl, asking for links that they paid for to be removed. (Also, not every SEO company has figured all this out! There are still people paying people to place spam comments on sites like this one.)
My favorite are the emails from OneFlare.com.au.
"We have discovered that a company we hired to help promote our website have used a variety of questionable techniques to secure links," Selena Le wrote on October 20th. "These links were placed purely for SEO purposes, with the intention of manipulating search rankings."
"We have discovered that a company we hired to help promote our website have used a variety of questionable techniques to secure links," Nick Chernih wrote on December 5th. "These links were placed purely for SEO purposes, with the intention of manipulating search rankings."
You don't say.
"The presence of these links is harmful to our site's good standing with search engines," the good people from Oneflaire.com.au each wrote. "Unfortunately, retaining them may also be potentially harmful to your own website's reputation.
Very threatening! And fairly hilarious: If you do not delete these comments that we paid to have placed on your site, Google will punish you.
That's possibly true. "Generally, it's fine for sites to have paid links as long as they're clearly labeled as ads and don't pass PageRank," a Google spokesperson wrote to me via email. "We may take action on sites that don't follow our quality guidelines."
Beschizza isn't worried. Google, he wrote, has said "they're not going to penalize users or disavowed links."
"I would hope there are still implicit consequences for asking Google to do this," he wrote. "It is a rather obvious admission of foul play, and while Google may forgive, it surely does not forget."
"www.theawl.com has a number of links pointing to our site," wrote a man named Ben, who identified himself as the owner of Identity Theft Protection dot org. "We would appreciate it if you removed them as soon as possible. We would be happy to provide you with a full count and list of the links if you would like."
"We understand that you may have not been responsible for building the link(s)," wrote "Jobs in FMCG," "but we would really appreciate it if you could remove the link(s) from where it appears on the page(s)."
Indeed, The Awl certainly was not responsible. Who was? "The excuses are always choice," Beschizza wrote. "My favorite one is that a competitor put their spam there. You know, as if a competitor would have thought, in 2007 or so, "Let's put out spam promoting our rival’s site, just on the off chance than in five years Google will penalize them!"
What then, is an SEO firm to do? "The best way to get other sites to create high-quality, relevant links to yours is to create unique, relevant content that can naturally gain popularity in the Internet community," Google says. Simple enough! If you build it, they will come, and all that. Still, even if you build it, they still need to be able to search for it, which is why they have this nice, 32-page Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide.
So the new SEO tactic is to email hustling for links—good links, not obvious spam links. "I noticed that you mentioned a page on the FDA's website—I'm not sure if you heard, but the FDA stepped down from a lawsuit with the tobacco companies earlier this year that required the graphic warning labels," a Sarah Green emailed us to say recently. (Real name? probably not.) She goes on to offer a link to an anti-cigarette lobbying group. (Barking up the wrong tree, as they say.) She closed: "Just wanted to give you a heads up ."
The other, more fascinating method, is that offered by the online marketing manager who identified herself only at "Monika" when she emailed The Awl. Now, Monika ain't no dummy. Homegirl knows what the score is.
"SEO is dead as we know it," Monika wrote. "The old math of increased back links and stuffing keywords is now a target to identify your site and bury it in the search results."
"SEO is no longer a math problem," she wrote. "It's a human one. Social indicators are becoming key to Ranking and link algorithms are being retired."
"It's time for you to see the truth about SEO and adjust accordingly."
I have seen the truth, and it's Monika's THIRTY-SEVEN POINT PLAN to get The Awl to the "1st Page at Google." (That was actually the subject line of her email.)
Here below is the content marketing activities "Monthly Task and responsibilities"
1. 200 Press Release Submissions (20 press release x 10 press release websites)
2. 20 Press releases, 400+ words written
3. 5 Unique Articles will be written
4. 5 Web 2.0 Properties will be made
5. 5 Unique "how to Articles" will be written
6. 5 Face book Pages will be created
7. 5 Twitter channels will be created
8. Will increase twitter followers?
9. 1 YouTube channel will be created
10. 10 YouTube videos will be created by Animoto.com (paid)
11. Will likes, shares, tweets, reedits, and 1+ in order to get natural back links
12. Anchor text diversity (will not use exact keywords for back links).
13. Will get Natural back links by link worthy articles
14. Will draft & submit 5 articles to Ezinearticles.com
15. Will create Google+ page for your business
16 will distribute 15 posts daily via Google+ Page
17. Will participate in Forum
18. Will create blog for your website
19. Will make 1 post daily on your blog
20. Will bookmark real content to leading 150 Social Book marking sites as dig, delicious
21. Will submit your website to 10 leading Web directories as Dmoz.org On-Page work activities "Follow only first month".
22. Meta tags/Title tag changes
23. Keyword research/Analysis
24. Competitor Analysis
25. Analysis by our Paid Seamus Program
26. Heading tag changes
27. Alt tag changes
28. Interlinking wherever required.
29. Keyword density in site content.
30. HTML Site Map
31. XML site map and Submission in webmaster tool
32. Ror.XML File creation
33. Robots.Txt File creation Extra work activities
34. Google Webmaster tools
35. Google Analytics
36. Html to text ratio optimization
37. Keyword Prominence
Sounds interesting? Feel free to email us or alternatively you can provide me with your phone number and the best time to call you.
How exhausting. But I think we should go for it, honestly.0 Comments
Instagram — the highest achievement yet in social-media voyeurism — presents a new form of torture.
A new form of torture! Kids grow up so fast these days. Here are some other, older forms of torture that have the potent lexical advantage of being real: solitary confinement, incommunicado detention, the denial of medical treatment, the denial of safe abortion and post-abortion care, the denial of adequate nutrition, excessive use of force by law enforcement. Okay, here's exhibit #2:
Instagram envy may turn out to be an epidemic with no cure.
Here we also have the opportunity to mourn the human toll left by Instagram, truly an "epidemic with no cure." Diabetes, ebola, polio, cancer and HIV have all been outpaced by the vast swath of destruction left by a picture-based iPhone app. A memorial service for approximately 26 people at the apex of neurosis and urban wealth will be held tomorrow in a hollow echo chamber at the [NYTimes].5 Comments
As you walk into the amazing Cathedrals and Churches that dot our planet, your first reaction is to look up towards the towering ceilings, the amazing stained glass, and sculptures. Photographer Richard Silver took panorama and turned it on its side to capture the magic of the vaulted ceilings and glorious testaments to religion. These photos may make you feel dizzy as you scroll through them. You feel as if you are rolling your head back to look towards the ceiling, but instead of stopping, you keep bending over until your completely reverse your view. The images capture the entire beauty of the interior of these amazing churches including, St. Vince de Paul in California, Cathedral of the Holy Name in Mumbai, Dominican Church in Krakow, and St. Mathias in Budapest, just to name a few.
The images give a magical view of the churches providing the feeling of just walking into their glory.
Church of the Transfiguration in Krakow
St. Cajetan in Goa, India
The Church of Saint Augustin in Vienna
St. Andreas in Düsseldorf
Potosi’s Convent of Santa Teresa in Bolivia
St. Mary’s Church in Poland
St. Mathias in Budapest
Iglesia de San Francisco in Mexico City
Dominican Church in Krakow
Cathedral of the Holy Name in Mumbai
St Vincent De Paul in California
Cathedral of Christ the King in Johannesburg
Franciszkanska Church in Krakow
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Some eulogize him who will never learn
from words or deeds or what he did not do.
-Six window bars, a sea more grey than blue.
White choke dust lime pit, where bright sun would burn
necks, and in winter hands numb from wet cold.
Told him the son he did not know was dead.
He wept. Three decades sitting on his bed
he taught young comrades still his comrades old,
who walked with him to freedom. Heard his voice
stern gentle. Helped him build. He gave his power
away and let successors have their hour,
yet bound their wills to this most anguished choice.
He was prepared to put men in their grave
whom, once they dropped their weapons, he forgave.
I wonder if it was like this two thousand years ago. If it was, when Jesus died, Pontius Pilate would have appeared on Sky News moments after the cross was taken down and said “The world mourns today a man of great integrity. It was an honour to have known him, and even when I sentenced him to crucifixion, he showed great forgiveness, and that shows what a great figure he was.”
On the BBC the newsreader would say “With me here is one of his closest associates. Judas, what memories do you have of Jesus?”
And Judas would say he always displayed dignity and humility, and most importantly forgave those that betrayed him, and finish with an amusing anecdote, about how pernickety he could be about which bread to break at supper.
On Radio 5 live the moneylenders at the temple would say he was a heroic figure, who may have thrown over the moneylenders’ tables in the temple, but said he was sorry for the mess that was caused, which is the main thing, then every newspaper would tell us “Tributes have flooded in from across the Roman Empire, led by King Herod who said ‘It is a sad day for Nazareth, and a sad day for Rome’.”
Many of the official tributes to Nelson Mandela, such as the one from David Cameron, have emphasised his ability to forgive, and his apparent rejection of bitterness is part of what made him extraordinary. But the reason his capacity for forgiveness towards the rulers of apartheid mattered, was that he’d organised opposition to it, took up arms against it and overthrew it. If he hadn’t, if his notable side was forgiveness, he would simply have been a kindly chap who’d passed away with no one outside his family taking much notice.
Few people now defend apartheid, but someone must have liked it at the time or it wouldn’t have been such a nuisance to destroy. Margaret Thatcher, idol of many who made tributes to Mandela, bragged with a fervour that actually made her look drunk, that she’d rejected sanctions against the regime, as the ANC was a “typical terrorist organisation.” Many sportsmen and musicians broke the boycott, repeating the sentiments of Dennis Thatcher who said “we play our rugby where we like”. There were the ‘Hang Mandela’ t-shirts, and countless commentators and politicians who belittled the demonstrations and boycotts.
I visited Robben Island prison, where Mandela had been incarcerated, in 2003. To get my ticket I visited an office in Cape Town, with glossy posters on the wall, covered in flowery lower case jolly African writing, exclaiming your trip to South Africa wasn’t complete without taking the unique opportunity of a trip to the famous island. I got on a catamaran with Americans and Germans, who smothered themselves in sun cream and took pictures of each other as they held out their arms and giggled.
Had they turned the prison into a theme park, I wondered, maybe with a water-canon-slide, and a helter skelter shaped like a giant Desmond Tutu?
But tours of the prisons are conducted by ex-prisoners. As we wandered round the cells our guide explained how he and fellow convicts had been allotted different amounts of bread according to their race, and how they were made to work sixteen hours a day on the land.
“One day”, he said, “As I was digging, on the day of the month my father was due to visit, a guard called my name. I stood before him on that spot there and he said ‘Your father won’t be visiting today as he’s been shot. Now get back to work’.”
His father lived, it turned out, but never walked again, and the guide told us the three responsible for the attempted murder were free under the rules of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, and were now wealthy businessmen.
To my left a woman in shorts and a bright silk top, put her camera away and started sobbing onto her sun cream.
On another day I was taken around Soweto, by a friend of the family I was staying with. We toured the roads from which its residents hadn’t been allowed to leave without a pass, met countless children running along dusty tracks selling water, as if auditioning for a film that Morgan Freeman will probably be in, and went round the museum built where the schoolchildren were massacred.
My host was fascinated by England and cricket and the Premier League, and overflowing with tales of his youth, of plantains and preachers, and pondering why after apartheid there were still hundreds of thousands living in squalor, in the camps outside each town.
“What a memorable day”, I said when I got back to the people I was staying with. “Marvellous”, they said, “but you were lucky today. That lad you were with was arrested in the 1980s, and tortured by the police in the station at John Foster Square. He made such a noise they called him The Screamer, and whenever they brought in new prisoners, they would torture him again, so his screams would terrify them and make them talk. Sometimes he’s still a bit jittery but he was on good form today.”
So it was indeed remarkable that Nelson Mandela endured this regime and yet displayed no malice. But the real reason he was remarkable is that he took on its wealth and weaponry and brutality, its distinguished friends and its air of impregnable authority, he became the figure of a global movement and he beat it. The kids of Soweto not legally allowed past their street, the protestor throwing flour at rugby players, the student taking their twenty quid out of Barclays, the pensioner leaving South African grapes at the checkout, The Specials, the prisoners and the screamers and Nelson Mandela were united in opposition to this heavily armed barbarity and they won.
During the campaign against apartheid Nelson Mandela was a distant figure, locked away but a name on mugs, posters and student union halls, barely more real than Batman. But the De Klerks and Bothas were alarmingly real, an air of menace in their presence, like the bouncer that orders around the other bouncers.
Now the hazy figure is revered above all, and the defenders of apartheid have to scramble in his shadow for a space to declare that really they admired him, and the people they helped to torture.
The precise nature of his legacy will be debated for centuries. His capacity for forgiveness was impressive, and perhaps it isn’t surprising if that’s emphasised by some paying tribute, rather than his role in overturning inequality, as they’re now arranging inequality of their own.
Because surely his most important achievement was to prove that bastards and their bastard regimes can be overthrown, against seemingly impossible odds, by all of us, as no one knows which unsold grape was the one that finally brought down a tyranny.
Here’s a bit from James Baldwin’s essay “Fifth Avenue, Uptown,” (collected in his 1961 book of essays, Nobody Knows My Name). If you want to understand what’s wrong with Dave Ramsey’s victim-blaming ideology of poverty, Baldwin is a good place to start.
And the others, who have avoided all these deaths, get up in the morning and go downtown to meet “the man.” They work in the white man’s world all day and come home in the evening to this fetid block. They struggle to instill in their children some private sense of honor or dignity which will help the child to survive. This means, of course, that they must struggle, stolidly, incessantly, to keep this sense alive in themselves, in spite of the insults, the indifference, and the cruelty they are certain to encounter in their working day. They patiently browbeat the landlord into fixing the heat, the plaster, the plumbing; this demands prodigious patience; nor is patience usually enough. In trying to make their hovels habitable, they are perpetually throwing good money after bad. Such frustration, so long endured, is driving many strong, admirable men and women whose only crime is color to the very gates of paranoia.
… Now I am perfectly aware that there are other slums in which white men are fighting for their lives, and mainly losing. I know that blood is also flowing through those streets and that the human damage there is incalculable. People are continually pointing out to me the wretchedness of white people in order to console me for the wretchedness of blacks. But an itemized account of the American failure does not console me and it should not console anyone else. That hundreds of thousands of white people are living, in effect, no better than the “n—-s” is not a fact to be regarded with complacency. The social and moral bankruptcy suggested by this fact is of the bitterest, most terrifying kind.
The people, however, who believe that this democratic anguish has some consoling value are always pointing out that So-and-So, white, and So-and-So, black, rose from the slums into the big time. The existence — the public existence — of, say, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. proves to them that America is still the land of opportunity and that inequalities vanish before the determined will. It proves nothing of the sort. The determined will is rare — at the moment, in this country, it is unspeakably rare — and the inequalities suffered by the many are in no way justified by the rise of a few. A few have always risen — in every country, every era, and in the teeth of regimes which can by no stretch of the imagination be thought of as free. Not all of these people, it is worth remembering, left the world better than they found it. The determined will is rare, but it is not invariably benevolent. Furthermore, the American equation of success with the big time reveals an awful disrespect for human life and human achievement. This equation has placed our cities among the most dangerous in the world and has placed our youth among the most empty and most bewildered. The situation of our youth is not mysterious. Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them. They must, they have no other models. That is exactly what our children are doing. They are imitating our immorality, our disrespect for the pain of others.
All other slum dwellers, when the bank account permits it, can move out of the slum and vanish altogether from the eye of persecution. No Negro in this country has ever made that much money and it will be a long time before any Negro does. The Negroes in Harlem, who have no money, spend what they have on such gimcracks as they are sold. These include “wider” TV screens, more “faithful” hi-fi sets, more “powerful” cars, all of which, of course, are obsolete long before they are paid for. Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor; and if one is a member of a captive population, economically speaking, one’s feet have simply been placed on the treadmill forever. One is victimized, economically, in a thousand ways — rent, for example, or car insurance. Go shopping one day in Harlem — for anything — and compare Harlem prices and quality with those downtown.
The people who have managed to get off this block have only got as far as a more respectable ghetto. This respectable ghetto does not even have the advantages of the disreputable one — friends, neighbors, a familiar church, and friendly tradesmen; and it is not, moreover, in the nature of any ghetto to remain respectable long. Every Sunday, people who have left the block take the lonely ride back, dragging their increasingly discontented children with them. They spend the day talking, not always with words, about the trouble they’ve seen and the trouble — one must watch their eyes as they watch their children — they are only too likely to see. For children do not like ghettos. It takes them nearly no time to discover exactly why they are there.
I’m not, strictly speaking, a Molly. I had a Samantha and a Kirsten, and both of them spoke volumes about who I wanted to be (privileged, so well dressed, urban) and who I was (Scandinavian, solidly built, rural). Chiara Atik has already written the definitive statement on what your doll says about you, and I don’t disagree with her assessment of Molly-owners:
If you had Molly, you probably wanted Samantha instead, but contented yourself with Molly because you too wore glasses, liked books, were bad at math, and would concoct various schemes to get attention. (Oh, Molly.) If you were a Molly, and had a Molly (as opposed to being a Molly and aspirationally owning a Felicity), you were imbued, then and now, with an immutable sense of self. At least Molly could tap dance, which is frankly more talent than any of the other girls exhibited.
Truth: Molly was the least showy and, at least of the original, lily-white, middle-class American dolls, the only one with any sort of class consciousness. It was a consciousness enforced by the war, but still, the book’s renderings of thrift were my introduction, other than A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, to what it meant to sacrifice, and how to substitute the feelings of resentment with those of purpose and solidarity.
It was, of course, propaganda—the sort of retrospective rendering of World War II and the role of the greatest generation, and their children, within it that allows us to continue allocating money towards the military industrial complex, etc. etc. But in comparison to the equally ideological and nationalistic tales of Felicity, Kirsten, and Samantha, Molly suggested, somewhat ironically for a doll that costed over $100, that the key to survival and family happiness wasn’t consumption, but the lack thereof.
As children, we papered over that contradiction, lusting after the “simple party dress” that cost (our parents) $20. And I read all of Molly’s books, even if my devotion was reserved for Kirsten and Samantha. In some ways, I think of that devotion as a personal failing: an aversion to Molly’s glasses, I think, that said more about the crippling knowledge that I was a nerd and always would be than any identification with Samantha.
But my Grandmother Helen was an actual Molly. She was a young woman during the war, but she was Molly’s age during The Depression, and that experience—a second generation Norwegian-American, second sister of three, living in rural Minnesota and, along with her older sister, tending house and caring for her baby sister after her mother passed away—would inflect the rest of her life. She never had the privilege of going to college or had a career that would grant her a pension, and spent the last thirty years of her retired life scraping by on social security. When I obliviously asked for items from the glossy American Girl catalog, all above the Christmas budget she split between six grandchildren, she did what Molly would’ve done: she made them.
My grandmother made me a fur muff for Samantha, an ACTUAL Scandinavian costume (as opposed to the cheap St. Lucia costume they sold for $20), bedding for both (why do dolls need beds, and why did I want someone I loved to pay for them?) She also taught me how to braid and pin Kirsten’s hair the way it actually would have been done and, you know, spent time with me which, at the time, I didn’t quite understand as just as valuable, if not more so, than a factory-knit set of faux-Scandinavian mini-mittens.
Grandma Helen was, after all, a Molly: she understood that time with loved ones was ultimately much more valuable than goods. She made what I thought I wanted, and she used it as an opportunity to spend more time with me.
The American Girl Company pretends like it’s about history, connection, and play, but those are all secondary and incidental to the primary goal of compelling young girls to desire as many goods as possible. Molly’s narrative provided a rupture to that narrative of celebrated consumption in a way that the original doll’s stories did not, which is part of the reason I’m so surprised that Kirsten and Samantha both went into the vault before Molly. But logistics of doll “retirement,” in which the company compels young girls into buying a soon-to-be rarified product, tantalizing them with its unavailability, and then reintroduces her to great acclaim, are so in keeping with the war-time black market, so blatantly anti-Molly, that the whole process revolts and disappoints me in a way that the retirement of Samantha never did.
I know Molly’s just a doll. But those of us who’ve owned or coveted American Girl dolls know better: she’s a message, an attitude, a way of being in the world. You might not have endured World War II deprivation, but you were attracted, for whatever reason, to its dynamics. Maybe it was the simplicity, maybe it was the unity. Maybe it was because Molly’s personality somehow seemed to matter more than what she owned or didn’t. The doll was a commodity, but Molly’s narrative so conveniently made you forget it.
I wish I could’ve just been happy to sit next to my Grandmother and sew or do puzzles or make lefse. But capitalism inculcated me otherwise, which is why I not only wanted an American Girl Doll in the first place, but wouldn’t be satisfied with one. But even if I didn’t have a Molly, I had a Grandmother who subtly modeled her values, which, ultimately, was far more instructive than a doll and her six stories. The problem, then, and the real reason I’m mourning, isn’t that Molly is retired: it’s that my Grandmother, and the rest of her generation, is gone.