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22 Mar 12:34

Til human voices wake us, and we drown…

by missheenan

My friend Ed Whatley wrote this for me on the occasion of my 40th birthday, other than not not having an Avril or an Anne in my class and Jo liking Hawkwind for some unknown reason, it’s terrifyingly accurate.

“Here is your Birthday Poem per your instructions like TS Eliot The Wasteland about Girls at school liking Bros and Wet Wet Wet when you liked Duran Duran. ”

1) The Burial Of The Dead

Avril is the biggest cunt, I mean
Her and Anne and Jo, giving
Me a mouthful for, lurching
When I see Nick Rhodes
I’ve not ever said that she, really
Is crap for liking Bros, although
They are crap and that is true

How could they not like Rio, Really?
Or bless them for Save A Prayer?
Matt Goss looks like an angry dong,
Placed next to my Le Bon

I feel sorry for them really,
But more so for myself,
I’m here among these heathens who
Like Pellow, pillow, wept

2) A Game of Chess

The boat they rode on, like a battleship at sail,
Made her nascent ember glow, as she grew from a frail
A bedroom wall studded, bloodied, uncovered, here
Was John and Nick on Smash Hits poster, grinning ear to ear
Playing chess against herself, in one way or another,
And thinking ‘Roger is my favourite of/this dandy band of brothers’
Mother calls up ‘turn it down’, and she internal seethes
As DD passion trumps the need to keep the fam’ly pleased
‘Mum, it’s not even loud, and anyway, don’t be such a pill/
This is the Bond one, you said you like it – ‘ A View To A Kill’
‘You heard me, Sarah, turn it down, or I shall do you wrong
And dinner’s ready here, my love so, HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME
So Heenan, crossly, picks up ‘phones and crossly plugs them in
O O O O that Birmingham Brag,
It’s so elegant
So intelligent

3) The Fire Sermon

And her friends, who loitered with airs are now City directors;
Departed, to NL address,
By the waters of Lehman I sat down and wept…
Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song,
Delivered to men upon me they run,
The Fire Exits are hither, thither and thon,
And I hope I won’t be here for too long

Highbury Bore me, and I wrote a story,
Of Tony and Di and so on,
It undid me and hid me, and what could I do
But sail on the joy of my self-hewn canoe

Burning, burning, burning, burning,
The stage show has tuckered me out
Oh Lord please pluckest me out

4) Death By Water

Wild boys – Wild Boys! never lose it
Wild boys – Wild Boys! ever choose this way?
Wild boys – Wild Boys! Did you close your eyes
Wild boys which is mine?

5) What The Thunder Said

Barbarella didn’t turn up
No luck
And no rock, if there were rock,
As the rock rolled to 2014,
As the pop dreams of 30 years hence and ago,
Look more like a lurid dream
What was it what was it what did I say,
To the small girls long long ago?
To Avril I said that Duran is the best,
And I said that to Anne and to Jo

London Bridge is falling down
Under the weight of The Shard
We murmur our Sanskrit remedies
But our hearts still keep getting too hard
Oh for a taste of those days in the spring
When we thought we’d been dealt a bad card
Oh to just say let’s just like what we like
Because soon we pass out of the charts
So you like what you like, and I’ll like it too
Not because it brings joy to my ears
Because one day too soon we will miss what we knew
As we enter the Autumn of years

18 Mar 09:55

On Lupita Nyong'o: "Blackness, in a context of white American oppression, is a role. It is not intrinsic to her identity"

by Jia Tolentino
by Jia Tolentino

Stacia L. Brown writes wonderfully about what it means when a "(comparatively) carefree black girl wins an Oscar."

Our ingenues rarely win Oscars. It is our seasoned comediennes, sassing their way through lines like, “Molly, you in danger, girl!” or throwing frying pans at their pregnant daughters, who take home the gold. It is the reality star who belts a gut-wrenching beggarly torch song to a man already walking away or the naked grieving mother sexing the guard who executed her husband, the round, battered, quick-witted maid who bakes her own excrement into pies. They are the ones who win. And we are proud of their achievements. We take everything we get, and we are glad for, if critical of, it.

By "carefree" here Brown means that Nyong'o is privileged (family support, an MFA from Yale), beloved by media, apparently effortless under the weight of having become the "boilerplate of every blackgirl dream deferred," gracious in processing a breakout role that asked her to "deeply [connect] with part of the diasporic experience that is foreign to her family in ways it is not to the American black’s." Unlike black American actresses, Nyong'o is not "saddled with centuries of diminishing returns." Brown quotes Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie saying, "When I came to the United States, I hadn’t stayed very long, but I already knew that to be 'black' was not a good thing in America, and so I didn’t want to be 'black.'"

While I don’t get the impression that Nyong’o, having spent the last two years of her life immersing herself in study and portrayal of the American slave experience, would hold the same perception of American blackness as Adichie initially did, it is safe to say she can still hold herself aloft from it. For her, blackness, in a context of white American oppression, is a role. It is not intrinsic to her identity. [...] I already know what Hollywood will try to make her. I know the gradations of blackness they will implore her to learn. But I do not know how she will resist. I do not know what she herself will teach. But she is entering the field with just enough privilege and confidence to inspire my hope that she will do just that: instruct rather than simply accept — and learn from black actresses (rather than white directors) how best to navigate this space.

All of Brown's essay here on her blog.

17 Mar 07:29

Should There be Trigger Warnings on Syllabi?

by Tressie McMillan Cottom

Apparently universities are issuing guidelines to help professors consider adding “trigger warnings” to syllabi for “racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression,” and to remove triggering material when it doesn’t “directly contribute to learning goals.” One example given is Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” for its colonialism trigger. This from New Republic this week.

I have no desire to enter the fray of online discussions on trigger warnings and sensitivity. I have used trigger warnings. Most recently, I made a personal decision to not retweet Dylan Farrow’s piece in the New York Times detailing Woody Allen’s sexual abuse. I was uncomfortable shoving a very powerful description at people without some kind of warning. I couldn’t read past the first three sentences. I couldn’t imagine how it read for others. So, I referenced the article with a trigger warning and kept it moving.

But, I’m not sure that’s at all the kind of deliberation universities are doing with their trigger warning policies. Call me cynical, but the “student-customer” movement is the soft power arm of the neo-liberal corporatization of higher education. The message is that no one should ever be uncomfortable because students do not pay to feel things like confusion or anger. That sounds very rational until we consider how the student-customer model doesn’t silence power so much as it stifles any discourse about how power acts on people.

I’ve talked before about how the student-customer model becomes a tool to rationalize away the critical canon of race, sex, gender, sexuality, colonialism, and capitalism.

The trigger warned syllabus feels like it is in this tradition. And I will tell you why.

In the last three weeks alone: a college student has had structural violence of normative harassment foisted on her for daring to have sex (for money), black college students at Harvard have taken to social media to catalog the casual racism of their colleagues, and black male students at UCLA made a video documenting their erasure.

It would seem that the most significant “issue” for a trigger warning is actual racism, sexism, ableism, and systems of oppression. Cause I’ve got to tell you, I’ve had my crystal stair dead end at the floor of racism and sexism and I’ve read “Things Fall Apart.” The trigger warning scale of each in no way compares.

Yet, no one is arguing for trigger warnings in the routine spaces where symbolic and structural violence are acted on students at the margins. No one, to my knowledge, is affixing trigger warnings to department meetings that WASP-y normative expectations may require you to code switch yourself into oblivion to participate as a full member of the group. Instead, trigger warnings are being encouraged for sites of resistance, not mechanisms of oppression.

At for-profit colleges, strict curriculum control and enrollment contracts effectively restrict all critical literature and pedagogy. We elites balk at such barbarism. What’s a trigger warning but the prestige university version? A normative exclusion as opposed to a regulatory one?

Trigger warnings make sense on platforms where troubling information can be foisted upon you without prior knowledge, as in the case of retweets. Those platforms are in the business of messaging and amplification.

That is an odd business for higher education to be in… unless the business of higher education is now officially business.

In which case, we may as well give up on the tenuous appeal we have to public good and citizenry-building because we don’t have a kickstand to lean on.

If universities are not in the business of being uncomfortable places for silent acts of power and privilege then the trigger warning we need is: higher education is dead but credential production lives on; enter at your own risk.

Tressie McMillan Cottom is a PhD candidate in the Sociology Department at Emory University in Atlanta, GA.  Her doctoral research is a comparative study of the expansion of for-profit colleges.  You can follow her on twitter and at her blog, where this post originally appeared.

(View original at

17 Mar 07:27

Sensor Scan: Burnham's Celestial Handbook

by (Josh Marsfelder)
This one is going to take some explaining.

For me, Star Trek and astronomy are connected in a particular and important way. Not because of the material connection between Paramount's PR wing and NASA; it's debatable whether that can even be called astronomy in the first place. No, the reason why I think of astronomy when I think of Star Trek is quite simple: My love for one inspired my love for the other, and I feel the true strength of both can be found in wayfinding.

Though I've mentioned it several times before, my personal connection to and relationship with the realm of the sky is going to become a major, central theme in my reading of not this next phase of Star Trek's history, but definitely the one directly after it. One of the benefits of living where I live is that my relative distance from urban civilization and comparatively high altitude mountain residence means that I have access to something that's sadly not afforded to many people these days anymore: A truly vast and open night sky free of light pollution. On a clear night, it seems like you can look into infinity, with layers upon layers of countless stars and the dazzling ribbon of the Milky Way winding its way across the celestial sphere. The cliche is that looking up at the night sky is a humbling experience that makes people aware of their cosmic insignificance, but that's not how I've ever seen it: To me, spending a really good night under the stars here is a truly profound experience that makes me aware of the Cosmic Whole, and our interconnectedness with it. When I was younger it would also fire my imagination, causing me to dream of travelling amongst those stars.

The very first thing that struck me about Star Trek: The Next Generation was a captivating, hypnotic sense that permeated throughout the whole show: Everything about it seemed to exude an awareness and embrace of the mystical vastness of the universe, and to say that humanity is not in fact dwarfed by it but belongs to it, as much a part of it as the inspired planets, comets, nebulae and other cosmic wonders that sailed by in the show's intro sequence, which remains possibly the single piece of visual media that inspires and means the most to me to this day. I guess I may have been immediately drawn to this and had the kind of reaction I did because it reminded me so much of the way I felt when looking at the real sky at night in my backyard. Considering we only got Star Trek: The Next Generation in syndication late at night, that just compounded the effect and to me created the perfect mood to get lost in the imaginary dreamscapes the show would evoke at me. Sometimes I'd go out at night, look up at the Milky Way and imagine the Enterprise and all those who lived on her sailing to all those different stars.

Astronomy is said to be the oldest science and the oldest scientific pastime, and to me this sense of rapturous awareness is central to what it is. Among my many dead-end career paths prior to becoming an anthropologist who writes about pop culture, I briefly attempted to be an astronomer because of my own love for the Celestial Sphere, but also partly inspired by Star Trek. Funnily enough, real astronomers tend to hate Star Trek because real astronomers are actually physicists, and physicists get very upset when fiction is not 100% scientifically accurate. This gets at an interesting point about the technoscientific side of Star Trek fandom: It's almost exclusively made up of engineers and computer people, and nobody else. A number of books and documentaries have been written about why this is, but in brief, a lot of it comes back to the tech-inclined youth growing up with Star Trek and being inspired more by the cool imaginary technology than anything else, and then dedicating their lives to making it a reality. Apple in particular seems almost entirely staffed by these sorts of people, because Quicktime, the iPod, the multitouch interface and the iPad can all be directly traced back to someone watching Star Trek and saying “I want that”.

Suffice to say, my breathless, heartfelt stories about the borderline spiritual way I've been inspired by the heavens and parts of Star Trek did not go over terribly well with my astronomer colleagues. It's one of the many reasons I'm not a professional astronomer and the exact type of thing that makes me extremely difficult to get along with. But there is a visible trend, if rather small, in amateur astronomy that does seem at least somewhat aware of the more primal and fundamental aspects of it, and that brings us to Robert Burnham, Jr. and his Celestial Handbook. Burnham was a passionate amateur astronomer in the purest sense: He received no formal training and was a chronic loner, but by his twenties had already discovered a comet. This led to him being picked up by the Lowell Observatory, who wanted his help in compiling a survey of stellar proper motion, where he discovered five more comets with his co-worker (a fellow astronomer by the name of Norman G. Thomas). While at Lowell, Burnham began work on his masterpiece, a three-volume set meticulously cataloging every single star and deep sky object (galaxies, nebulae and globular clusters) it was possible to observe with backyard telescopes, alphabetized by constellation. Burnham's Celestial Handbook is truly an amazing accomplishment, made even more so by the fact that it was entirely self-published without any backing or support from Lowell and, despite the last revision coming out in 1978, it still remaining an indispensable staple of amateur astronomers all over the world.

What makes Burnham's Celestial Handbook so unique, apart from the staggering scope of the thing, is that it somehow manages to be and do everything: All the information a beginning astronomer could possibly want about history, terminology and methodology is all here, written in engaging and easy to digest prose, but Burnham also combines this with exhaustive data tables, charts and diagrams alongside achingly gorgeous exposure photographs of every single object that would have looked absolutely unbelievable in 1978 and still look a million times better than anything you can actually see through a telescope with your naked eye. On top of that, Burnham fills out the handbook with lore and mythology about the stars from around the world (which is precisely the sort of thing professional astronomy severely frowns upon because it's unscientific and superstitious), actual poetry (some of it his own: One of my favourites is the prefatory poem “Midnight” that opens Volume 1) and Native American proverbs.

Every ounce of Burnham's love of the night sky and the universe is on display on every page of the handbook. I was of course particularly moved by how much Burnham stresses the primacy of humanity's connection to the Celestial Sphere, and how indigenous people throughout history and around the world have found enlightenment and truth in the stars. Like Star Trek: The New Voyages, I once again find myself wanting to quote everything because it's all so genius, but that would be ludicrously impractical, especially as the majority of the handbook has been archived on Google Books, so you can go read it over there (seriously, if you take nothing else away from what I say here, please do yourself a favour and at least read the first two chapters of Volume 1). What I will do is cite two of my favourite passages from the introduction. Firstly, in regard to the all-too-familiar argument that humans have no business engaging with outer space in any fashion and should concentrate on the problems we've made for ourselves on Earth, Burnham has this to say (emphasis his):

“Yet it sometimes happens, perhaps because of the very real aesthetic appeal of astronomy and the almost incomprehensible vastness of the Universe, that the more solidly practical and duller mentalities tend to see the study as an 'escape from reality' - surely one of the most thoroughly lop-sided views ever propounded. The knowledge obtained from astronomy has always been, and will continue to be, of the greatest practical value. But, this apart, only the most myopic minds could identify 'reality' solely with the doings of man on this planet. Contemporary civilization, whatever its advantages and achievements, is characterized by many features that are, to put it very mildly, disquieting; to turn from this increasingly artificial and strangely alien world is to escape from unreality; to return to the timeless world of the mountains, the sea, the forest and the stars is to return to sanity and truth.”

In my mind, this is just about the definitive response to the perceived split between the Space Age and the Environmentalist Age, and speaks real, hard truth about Westernism that's even more valid today than it was in 1978. No matter what your views are on politics or social justice, it's tough to argue human civilization as it currently exists is built around recognising the interconnectedness of being and living in harmony with ourselves and the rest of the world. Again, the takeaway here isn't that humans are insignificant specks of dust against the unknowable cosmic vastness, its a reminder that our identity and being are part of, and irreducible from, the cosmos, and that understanding this is the first step towards healing, peace and enlightenment.

Along those lines, the opening to chapter 2 means a great deal to me, for reasons that are hopefully obvious to most by this point in this project:

“We are beginning a journey.

It will be a journey both strange and wonderful. In our tour of the Universe we shall travel the vast empty pathways of limitless space and explore the uncharted wilderness of creation. Here, in the dark unknown immensity of the heavens, we shall meet with glories beyond description and witness scenes of inexpressible splendor. In the great black gulfs of space and in the realm of innumerable stars, we shall find mysteries and wonders undreamed of. And when we return to Earth, we shall try to remember something of what we have learned about the incredible Universe which is our home.”

In my experience, the best astronomers are also mystics. It's one of the very few widely known and accessible hobbies and professions that, if not actively encourages this sort of thing, at least offers an easy pipeline to a more spiritual way of viewing the world. This is something that I find extremely evident in Burnham's work, and perhaps this is why I find myself drawn to him above and beyond many others who've written on astronomy, either the professional or amateur kind. And this is also a philosophy and worldview I have always found in the Star Trek from the Long 1980s, but really seen the most clearly in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Not the Original Series or the Original Series movies-I've always found, and even still find after revisiting them in this manner, them to be far too much Golden Age technologistic and militaristic Hard SF for my tastes. In my personal interpretation and headcanon, Burnham's words above are precisely the sort of thing Jean-Luc Picard would say. Perhaps I'm wrong to project that onto the show, but by this point in my life it's been so firmly linked to Star Trek: The Next Generation in my mind there's simply no way for me to separate them anymore. This is what it means to gaze upon the Celestial Sphere, and this *is* Star Trek: The Next Generation to me.

But what this also is, I think, is a sentiment that would be very much understood by the ancient navigators. The Polynesian Wayfinders were, and are, of course, extremely well versed in their own form of astronomy. Navigators use the positions of the Polynesian constellations to determine with peerless accuracy the locations of the islands they voyage to. But the sky in general has always played a very important role in Polynesian mythology, with many variants referring to the Sky Father and Earth Mother. In Hawaiian spirituality in particular, practitioners are taught that we are all part of the stars in some form. Ancient Hawaiian custom dictates the centrality of night to the division of time, because only at night is it possible to distinguish between days as each night the sky is ever-so-slightly different. Hawai'i is also, of course, home to Mauna Kea: Geologically speaking (and counting from the sea floor) the tallest mountain on Earth and in traditional Hawaiian belief the realm of the gods, most notably the Sky itself, Wākea. Today Mauna Kea is the home to a collection of observatories and considered to be the best place for astronomical observation on the *planet*.

One has to be somewhat careful when speaking in generalities about modern astronomy and the astronomy practiced by the navigators. There's a risk of falling into the trap of projecting onto the ancient traditions, or worse, appropriating their concepts and imagery and distorting them into a defense of the increasingly indefensible state-sponsored space programmes (NASA in particular is not above dabbling in this). That said though, there is a strong enough connection to astronomy and the sky in Hawai'i that the existence of the Mauna Kea observatories tend to feel a little more like an extension of pre-existing cultural systems then imperialist Western cultural appropriation. As part of their somewhat excellent interactive exhibit on Polynesian Wayfinding, the Exploratorium (linked to the side on this blog) has a video interview with a native Hawaiian astrophysicist who works at the observatories, claims to be descended from one of the oldest clans of Hawaiians and who sees his work in astronomy as a logical extension of his deeply held cultural beliefs and personal feeling of connection to the Sky. Though, full disclosure, the Exploratorium gets some of its funding from NASA, there does seem to be an underlying truth this exhibit is at least trying to touch on.

And this is the same truth Robert Burnham, Jr. knew. We are all stardust. We are of the Earth and the Sky. And we voyage to reaffirm this to ourselves and to each other. Burnham's books themselves know this as well: These are books with genuine soul and character. Even the layout seems to have a personality: The entire handbook is done on a typewriter in the same distinctive Arial, the charts and diagrams feel either literally cut-and-pasted or otherwise carefully arranged by hand in a notebook and the whole thing has a charming and endearingly analog feel that evokes images of a tirelessly dedicated person from the early Long 1980s working patiently throughout the night in a tiny, dimly lit wood-paneled workshop striving to produce something that captures some part of the profound love and meaning that inspired it. It's a bit rough-around-the-edges and much of it is very outdated today (not just in data, but in language, tone and attitude), but absolutely none of that matters. Burnham's Celestial Handbook feels like nothing if not an artefact of this era that, through reading it, allows us to cross the gulf of time and connect with the person whose unique love it's so very much the product of: The love of someone who's been able to touch the transcendent immortal and been, if you will, transformed. But though an artefact it may be, it's an artefact that still speaks a profound truth that ought to be heard and taken to heart.

In some ways then, perhaps much like Star Trek itself.
17 Mar 07:18

Inspiration Disinformation

by LP

Joy:  Still got your seaman’s papers?

Lllewyn:  Yeah.  Why?

Joy:  If the music’s not…

Llewyn:  What, quit?  Merchant marine again?  Just…exist?

Joy:  ’Exist’?  That’s what we do outside of show business?  It’s not so bad, existing.

– from Inside Llewyn Davis

Lately I’ve been thinking about Zen Pencils.

Normally, I don’t give this site — featuring the competent but often spectacularly point-missing cartoons of Gavin Aung Than, who specializes in lifting ‘inspirational’ quotes from famous figures and threading them into some fatuous narrative of his own invention — a second look.    But a recent series (I won’t link to it, for reasons that should be clear enough), in which he joins the ranks of those dreary souls who posit an eternal war between ‘artists’ and ‘haters’, got me examining my own problem with our culture’s elevation of ‘creativity’ — at least as it is perceived by the people who stand to make money off of it — and why I have such a negative reaction to ‘inspirational’ literature (scare quotes to be justified in time; bear with me).

Ever since the rise, starting in the late 1990s of the ‘creative’ class, not coincidentally alongside the ascendance of the Internet as a cultural and economic force, there has been an epidemic of aspirational thought amongst the self-perceived elite.  It’s not entirely new to America, which has long been in love with the notion of the self-made man, of transcendence through capitalism, of the meritocratic elite; we rid ourselves of the European belief in a hereditary aristocracy, but could never quite escape the belief in some kind of natural-born haut monde that is entitled to success.  It echoes through the ages, from the rags-to-riches stories of Horatio Alger to the explosion of motivational camp in the 1980s, as embodied by “Successories”.  But the message — that success is your birthright, and all you have to do is want it bad enough — didn’t become truly ingrained in the mythos of the creative class until the Web economy, with its instant billionaires, TED Talks, and curious combination of making vast corporate profits while maintaining the air of a subversive anti-corporate rebel, really took hold.

Now, everywhere we turn, from the lower echelons of Web entrepreneurs like Aung Than, who use it to cash in on their cartoons and pretend they are doing some vital service to mankind, to the upper atmosphere of privileged tech millionaires who urge us to “do what you love and the money will follow”, we are drowning in a flood of aspirational libertarianism.  This is not the cruel, hard-edged objectivism of Ayn Rand that scorns charity and embraces social Darwinism; it is a feel-good philosophy of wealth as a byproduct of passion, always equipped with a quote from Einstein or Vonnegut or Deepak Chopra to ease our conscience about using capitalism as a method of spiritual enlightenment.  It is a gospel of achievement, not of domination.  It paints the lower orders not as moochers and leeches, forever begging their betters for a handout, but as non-creatives and under-achievers, whose greatest crime is not wanting it bad enough.  But while it couches its message of attainment uber alles in (literal) terms of art, the message is essentially the same:  you deserve success, and it is your talent that entitles you to it.  And if you fail, it’s because you’re just not trying.

If there is a unique development in the most recent manifestation of the gospel of entitlement, it is who has become the villain.  If Alger’s short stories were characterized by sneering and obvious villains of the old school who gained an advantage by taking shortcuts and behaving like heels, and Rand’s monsters were embodied as cynical collectivists wanting to tear down greatness to satisfy the envy of the lunk-headed masses, the new ways teach us that villains are people we used to think of as heroes:  average, hard-working Joes and Janes.  In a spectacular co-option of the socialist contempt for the bourgeois, but with the rich taking the place of the working class as the triumphalist heroes, these narratives truly fit the zeitgeist.  Even as the middle class disappears as an actual economic category, the inspirational tales of the new creative class and its artistic dupes portray the honest and loyal white-collar worker as the new kulak, an enemy fit only to be destroyed.  Ordinariness is the greatest heresy; existence is the gravest crime; providing for one’s family and future is the ultimate betrayal.  The villain of the story is never a successful capitalist (who is, as always, sacrosanct) or a jealous laborer (who is, as always, invisible), but a man or a woman who fails to pursue his or her most special and wonderful dream, thus depriving the world of not only the salvation of art, but also the inevitable financial gain that always comes from following that star.

For me, the strangest thing about this mutation of the fairy tales of the upper classes is how close it comes to the gospel of Marxism — and even closer to something yet more close to my heart, the critique of everyday life by the likes of Debord, Vaneigem, and the rest of the Situationist International.  Like the technocratic libertarians of the new creative class, they railed against boredom as a cardinal sin, despised the life-wasting rot of the office job and the daily grind, and encouraged an embrace of creativity, art, and wonder as a means of navigating the world of the ordinary.  But while the Situationst critique was always and inextricably socialist in nature, the new creatives have flipped the script into a story about the inevitability and desirability of the preservation and accumulation of capital.  The Situationists wanted to destroy the existing order so that every man and woman, no matter how ‘ordinary’, could live a life of creativity and discovery; they wanted to tear up the sidewalks and discover the beach underneath it.  The new creatives want the beach all to themselves, as a reward for converting creativity and discovery into cash; the sidewalk, one assumes, is to be patrolled by non-creative goons whose job is to keep the equally non-creative masses at arms’ length.

The end result of all this is not the uplift and glorification of the common man; it is his eradication.  So pervasive has this cult of creativity become that you hear it even from artists and writers, who, struggling on their own against a hostile world of indifference, disrespect, and theft, ought to know better.  Instead, they embrace the myth wholeheartedly; if they are failures themselves, it is not because of a mass media that renders them a grain of sand on a vast digital beach, or a cynical ‘disruption’ of the creative market that turns people from artists and writers to ‘content providers’, reducing their passion to a commodity, their protection to a fantasy, and their compensation to a joke.  Instead, they focus their anger on other artists, on critics and ‘haters’, and, especially, on non-creators, who are thought to be unworthy of their own thoughts and opinions because of their inability to write or draw or create.  That this description also includes a good 99% of their audience, and thus their entire reason for existence, is something far too crass to mention.

This sort of message creep, this twisting of the ideal of artistic achievement as a blessing meant to shed light on the darkness of mere being into an entitlement for which one deserves personal reward, this idea that failure is not the child of a thousand fathers but a manifestation of weakness or lack of will on the part of those who foolishly don’t think they deserve success, has even spilled over into other areas of life.  Despite ample evidence that it is the product of innumerable genetic conditions, environmental factors, and lifestyle conditions that can barely be fathomed, obesity is almost always framed as the consequence of a lack of discipline.  Mental illness, too, is often chalked up to a lack of will, an unwillingness to ‘get over it’.  Even physical health is coming under the rubric of the overachievers brigade:  cancer, one of the most heinous and random afflictions that can lay a human being low, is often the target of slogan-yelling and aspirational bugaboo.  ”Stand up to cancer”, the bus ad reads, as if it’s a balrog, and we simply have to draw a line in the sand; “cancer stops with me,” screams the commercial, as if it were in our power to end it all along and we didn’t realize it until someone told us; “I stared down cancer, and it blinked”, says the man on the billboard, not so subtly implying that anyone who has had the bad taste to actually die of cancer just wasn’t trying hard enough.  (This naturally makes an appearance in Zen Pencils, where a quote from Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture is illustrated in the usual dismayingly literal-minded way:  ”The brick walls are there to stop people who don’t want it badly enough.”  One supposes it would be crass to suggest that Pausch failed to scale his own personal brick wall, in the form of a malignant neoplasm of the pancreas, in 2008 because he didn’t want to live badly enough.)

And here, of course, is where we find the tell.  The problem isn’t the idea of aspiration itself, or of dedication and perseverance, or of inspirational quotes.  The problem isn’t the belief that relentlessly pursuing one’s dreams can lead to success, though it should be approached with the recognition that it takes a lot of good fortune and the right opportunities, and the empathy to understand that those who never have those breaks should not be figures of contempt or object lessons in failure.  The problem isn’t even the idea that people of unshakable will can change the world, though this should be tempered with the recognition of a moral context:  the unshakable will of Gandhi to change the world had a very different endgame than the equally unshakable will of Hitler to change the world.  The problem is that none of these are being presented honestly.  They are, instead, being presented in the form of marketing, in the form of advertising.  They are not personal messages of achievement and inspiration; they are commercials.  They are meant only to sell you something, whether it’s trinkets for a particular charity, or treatment at a particular hospital, or the idea that you should give up on such quaint notions as job security and benefits in our bold new digital economy.  Whatever they’re specifically selling, they are commercials, and commercials are never to be trusted, especially when the message delivered is one of contempt for the ordinary man, the average citizen, the person who could be you if you weren’t so unique and special.

“We are even oppressed at being men, men with a real, individual body and blood; we are ashamed of it, we think it a disgrace and strive instead to be some sort of impossible generalized man,” Dostoevsky wrote in Notes from Underground.  ”Soon we shall contrive to be born, somehow, from an idea.”  Even being a great man in our culture is a near impossibility; rising above mere ordinariness is so difficult it sometimes seems unattainable.  Truly great human beings, those whose works or ideas somehow, madly, raise the level of their fellow man to something more elevated, those who leave humanity in a less degraded and animal condition than which they found it, can be counted one in a billion, and when was the last time someone praised Martin Luther King’s singing voice?  Our artists, too, pour every thread of their soul into creating art that reminds us that we are capable of being something more than jealous apes; this leaves them drained of almost every other human characteristic, and when we insist that they must also be people of high moral character, it is we who look foolish, not they.  It is hard enough just being alive, just living and trying to be a decent person without being overwhelmed by shame and guilt and the demands of the world; the last thing we need is someone who got a few extra pulls of the handle at the cosmic slot machine telling us we’re doing it all wrong.  If there is something we should aspire to, it certainly cannot be a position from which we look upon ordinary people, people no less miraculous but perhaps just a little less lucky than ourselves, as a lesser form of life.


17 Mar 07:09

Happy Birthday, W.H. Auden

by Jia Tolentino
by Jia Tolentino

The British-American poet was born today in 1907. From his great, "frightfully long" poem "The Age of Anxiety":

Let us then
Consider rather the incessant Now of
The traveler through time, his tired mind
Biased toward bigness since his body must
Exaggerate to exist, possessed by hope,
Acquisitive, in quest of his own
Absconded self yet scared to find it
As he bumbles by from birth to death
Menaced by madness; whose mode of being,
Bashful or braggart, is to be at once
Outside and inside his own demand
for personal pattern. His pure I
Must give account and greet his Me,
That field of force where he feels he thinks,
His past present, presupposing death,
Must ask what he is in order to be
And make meaning by omission and stress,
Avid of elseness.

He's writing about the '30s: la plus ca change, etc. More of his poetry here.

16 Mar 11:42

Let's All Call Our Grandmothers Today

by Jia Tolentino
by Jia Tolentino

If, of course (big if!) we are lucky enough that they are still around. Grandfathers too. Or even just our parents, I don't even do that enough either! Casey N. Cep wrote this beautiful thing for Pacific Standard about the general neglect of the elderly that made that Roger Angell essay hit so hard for so many people, and she starts by describing her maternal grandmother, the only one still alive when she was born:

She was, in the way grandparents are meant to be, a living encyclopedia of years I’d only ever read about in history books. She grew up during the Great Depression and could recall in rich detail when Neil Armstrong took his giant leap for humankind; she could remember using outhouses and riding to town by horse-drawn wagon. Her hobbies in the years I knew her were playing bingo and looking through photographs of her seven children and 21 grandchildren; in my lifetime, she had knees replaced and arteries cleared, walked first with a cane, and then with a walker.

I have photographs of her, but also, because a few years before she died I bought a digital camera that was capable of making short videos, a little film of her talking to me. It’s only 20 seconds long, but it can, no matter how many times I watch it, bring me to tears. There’s the excitement in my voice as I start recording too soon: “OK, go!” And then her hurried tenderness because I wasn’t sure how long a recording I could make with the small memory card: “Casey, when you go to college, don’t forget that you have a grandmother that loves you. You be sure and write to her, and remember to pray for her. I love you very much.”

She also discusses the enduring popularity of Golden Girls, and the whole piece is lovely; read the rest of it here.

12 Mar 17:50

"We Must Do Better": In Praise of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

by Firinn Asch
by Firinn Asch

When I first discovered the existence of Beyoncé’s surprise self-titled album this past December, I dissolved into a fit of grateful, relief-filled screams usually reserved for for grad school admissions letters. That is to say, I reacted like most people did. And when I saw the words, "Feat. Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche,” I screamed again. (Never mind that her name is actually spelled "Adichie.”) By now, you’re likely familiar with the snippet of Adichie's Ted Talk, "We Should all be Feminists,” that 'Yonce sampled:

We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls: 'You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful, otherwise you will threaten the man.'…Feminist: The person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.

This quote is far from the most interesting thing Adichie has said. To begin and end your explorations of Chimamanda with Beyoncé, I’d argue, is to miss out on some of the best work that contemporary literature has to offer—especially outside of the tired perspective of the white male American novelist. Adichie is a feminist writer, as her famous TED Talk confirms, but she also takes down cultural and social norms without catering to the expectations of "global" literature, educating readers swiftly and expecting a lot of us, guaranteeing that we come away with a different set of perspectives and opinions than when we first cracked open the spine of her book.

Adichie was born in 1977 in Enugu, Nigeria. The child of two Igbo intellectuals, she was raised in the academic environment of Nsukka's University of Nigeria. At 19, she came to the States to complete her undergraduate degree, a move that would forge her previously overlooked Nigerian, or even African, personal identity. Adichie, who "didn't consciously identify as African" until her arrival in the U.S., speaks of the embarrassing assumptions her uninformed but well-meaning classmates had about the "country" of Africa and its inhabitants—that everyone had AIDS; that machete-wielding tribal warfare was rampant; that it was up to white people to step in and save the day.

In one TED Talk, Adichie refers to these misconceptions and the "patronizing well-meaning pity" of her classmates as the consequence of the "dangers of the single story." Americans tend to get a singular view of Africa: the poverty-stricken and dependent continent, barely changed from the one so contemptuously illustrated by Rudyard Kipling. These types of stories survive because they "emphasize how we are different, not how we are similar." Once, the writer was told that one of her novels wasn't "authentically African" because her characters were too "educated and middle class," and "drove cars," instead of "starving."

Adichie calls herself a "Happy African Feminist who does not hate men and who likes lip gloss and who wears high heels for herself but not for men," but her ethos as a thinker and writer is one where every definition can be refined and questioned. She recalls moments in Nigeria where, entering a hotel alone, she was assumed to be a sex worker; she questions why, when she enters a restaurant with a man, the waitstaff enthusiastically greets the man rather than her. She also wonders, as most of us have, when the word "feminist" became an especially dirty one, and why it seemed to be held in a particular kind of contempt by males. “Feminists,” a colleague reminded her growing up, "are women who are unhappy because they can't find husbands."

This sort of received ignorance on the subject of gender roles makes Adichie not bitter but fierce, and her critical lens never wavers. "We teach boys to be afraid of fear…weakness…and vulnerability," she reminds us, which forces girls to forever "cater to the fragile egos of men." She suggests that respect—that idea so seemingly crucial to maintaining a happy marriage—often only goes the way of the woman respecting, or obeying, the man.

As a result, many of Adichie's female characters live alongside men without ever marrying them, despite the unsavory opinions of their families and friends. They engage in premarital sex and explore bodies with rabid curiosity. Her characters proudly flaunt their defiance, put education at the forefront of their lives, and rarely cater to the expectations of others. They are also vulnerable in a way that makes their strength not simply believable, but enviable. They feel conflicted in creating a cultural identity; they weigh the permanent consequences of pursuing romances, they are political dynamos and writers themselves. In short they are just as multifaceted as their real-life counterparts, so underrepresented in the larger and more homogenous realm of contemporary culture, where visible women are still mostly white, still mostly vehicles to further the actions or satisfy the needs of male protagonists.

Adichie writes for Nigerians first, a slant evident in the way she prioritizes but refuses to sensationalize immigrant life, civil war and Nigerian politics. But her work is so far-ranging socially that Western readers will find themselves recognized, even if (how novel!) decentralized. In fact, her work insists on a radically inclusive involvement of the reader. Yet Adichie would most likely scoff at the idea of a fad-based "globalization of literature." If others are surprised or guilted or transformed by the experience of reading something other than the single story, that's their business, and secondary to her own.

When I read Adichie's work, I sometimes find myself guilty of just the kind of thought patterns of her non-Nigerian characters, and if Adichie has taught us anything, it's to use this moment: to recognize that we are being manipulated by exoticized and even outwardly racist depictions of cultures outside of the "norm." Do men feel this same pang of self-critical recognition of bigotry and guilt when they read about male privilege? Adichie would suggest that they do, and that in recognizing it, they play a part in changing it. What Beyoncé left out of "Flawless" was Adichie's personal definition of the word feminist: "A feminist is a man or a woman who says, yes, there's a problem with gender as it is today, and we must fix it—we must do better."

Firinn Asch is the pseudonym of a Southern-born, Manhattan-based writer.  She is pursuing a Master’s in non-fiction with an interest in extreme religious communities and cults. When she’s not writing she can be found continuing her search for the best Bloody Mary in New York. You can follow her on twitter at@firinnasch or read her at to learn more.

12 Mar 17:47

Grateful for the Opportunity

by Megan Reynolds
by Megan Reynolds

I took my first job like many people do, fresh out of college and sick of working in a coffee shop, fetishizing the trappings of a 9-to-5 lifestyle, the desk, business cards, the quiet self-satisfaction that comes with having a cubicle and health insurance. Mostly, I was scared, and grateful that someone wanted to hire a 23-year-old with no relevant experience to do a job that was salaried and not hourly.

Work is work—we do it to pay the bills, we do it because we are grateful for the opportunity. Getting out of bed, putting on a coat and shoehorning yourself into a crowded subway train makes you feel like you’re worth something, and that is one of the best things a job can offer. Months of unemployment slowly chip away at your resolve, each day that passes without an offer, a promise, a glint of hope or potential removes another tiny brick from the wall of self-sufficiency. When an opportunity is presented, without fanfare, the instinct is to take it because who knows when another opportunity will come your way.

My father was a professor who left teaching and fell into a variety of smaller, different jobs to pay rent and raise two young girls by himself. I watched him do work that made him sad, work that made him angry, work that didn’t fall within the skillset he had worked so hard to achieve. He worked these jobs because they let him put food on the table and pay rent and raise two girls by himself. A job is a job, he told me. We need to work because we need to take care of ourselves. This attitude is my birthright.

One or two jobs in a field is a coincidence, three or four jobs in that field is a steady, and solid career. With each job I took, I found myself continuing on a career path that I didn’t really want. Every time I got a new job, it never felt like my choice, because these jobs were the only ones presented, because I had run out of money and because I needed to continue to pay rent, and work. You go on interview after interview, taking control of your life in the way you choose what you apply for, but not being able to control the outcome.

It’s a powerful and frightening thing to recognize that you want more than you have, and it’s even scarier to take the steps necessary to actually get it. For some, this is the only way they operate, and for others, it’s a fear that hovers just out of reach. It is okay to admit to yourself that you want something. It is okay to acknowledge disappointment when you don’t get what you want. When it relates to a career, choosing what you want to do is borne of privilege — the financial security that comes from a trust fund, or a parent with deep pockets, willing to let you putter around until you find the "right fit." The eternal dilettante, skipping from career to career with no real focus can do so because there is security to fall back on.

I was offered a job that I was not excited about, another notch on the bedpost of a career that I had no interest in furthering. I was off the heels of what felt like a promising first interview in a field that I was excited about. When I was offered with the first job—but left to mull over the prospect of turning down a sure thing in the interest of not settling—I struggled. I had some money in the bank, I was okay for the next three months, but when you’ve been looking for work and have been for a while, three months is both very long and very short. After what felt like years of settling for things I didn’t want out of necessity, out of the need to continue to keep a roof over my head, I wanted to have the ability to make a choice. Then, the second job was dead in the water. I took the job offered. When the opportunity is presented, we take these opportunities, because a steady paycheck and money in the bank enables you to do better.

We can choose to be happy, holding out for the one job that meshes neatly with our interests, our skills, our talents, our intended path for ourselves. Or, we take work where we can get it, grateful to be employed. Decisions are made out of fear or out of choice. It’s easy to qualify these decision as good or bad, but the fact of the matter is that a decision is a decision, neither good or bad. We cannot predict the outcome, because no one can see the future. We just have to be willing to take the risk.

Megan Reynolds lives in New York.

12 Mar 17:46

The Filter Bubble Is a Misguided, Privileged Notion

by gfguestblogger

nina de jesus is a digital projects librarian on Mississauga land. Interests include digital preservation, information ethics, and long walks on the beach. nina conducts experiments on her life as performance art in an attempt to resist, challenge, and inspire discourse on #libtechwomen. This post originally appeared on nina’s blog.

The basic notion of the filter bubble is that personalization on the internet (with google search, facebook, etc) creates this individualized spaces where we only see things we already agree with, stuff that confirms our points of view, rather than stuff that challenges us or makes us uncomfortable.

The first and most glaring problem with this idea is that it wholly makes this into a technological problem when it is a social problem.

On the whole, we actually know this. Idioms like “birds of a feather flock together” suggest that we have a very basic, folk understanding that people tend to stick with other people who are like them. This is something that holds true in pretty much every social arena that you care to pick. From the moment we are born, we already exist in a filter bubble. A bubble that is determined by many factors outside of our control: race, gender, class, geography, etc.

Eli Pariser mentions that he is from Maine. Which is one of the least racially diverse states in the US, with 95% of the people in the 2010 US Census reporting that they are white. The fact that he is able to posit filter bubbles as a predominantly technological problem while growing up in one of the most racially segregated and homogenous states in America is… well. Exactly how my point is proven.

The thing is. Say he successfully solves the technological problem. How will this, in anyway, deal with the fact that his home state’s demographics precludes most of the white inhabitants from ever actually encountering a person of colour in real life? Where, arguably, it is far more critical that we don’t have filter bubbles so that we can experience the humanity of other people, rather than just being exposed to facts/articles/whatever.

This also explains why his solution won’t work. As the recent piece about polarization on Twitter demonstrates… Most people don’t bother seeking out stuff that disagrees with them. This is stark on a site like Twitter, where your timeline is still chronological feed, rather than one decided by relevance. You can follow people you don’t agree with, see what they post, etc. But most of us don’t bother. And this isn’t going to change anytime soon and no amount of tech whatever will change it either.

Second. Only the most privileged of people are truly able to exist within a filter bubble.

The other main part of his notion of the bubble is that it is good for ‘democracy’ and ‘responsible citizenship’ for people to be exposed to contrary view points that make them uncomfortable or challenge them.

The fact that, in his narrative, he has to describe how he used the internet, as a youth, to seek out these contrary viewpoints demonstrates, more than anything, the amount of privilege he has as a (presumably) straight, white, cis d00d.

This is a problem I often find with people who are similarly privileged.

Existing in the world as a marginalized person means that there is never a filter bubble. You don’t get protection like this.

And it doesn’t deal with the biggest culprit of filtering: the public education system. This is something particularly relevant given that it is February, Black History month. The solitary month every year where Black people get to show up in history. And we also know that every single time this month comes around, white people complain and ask why they can’t have all twelve months for white history (re: white mythology).

Then we can talk about the media in Canada. About how most of the books I read in or out of school had white men/boys as protagonists. Or how most TV shows, movies, etc. and so on likewise not only have white men/boys as protagonists, but also very much serve to emphasize this point of view as default, normal, unmarked.

I have literally spent my entire life listening to, learning about, being exposed to ideas, thoughts, worldviews that make me uncomfortable and that I do not agree with.

Instead of having to expend effort to find stuff that disagrees with me, I’m always on an eternal search for information that agrees with me. As soon as I was able to access the internet, visit the library on my own, have any amount of agency and control over the information I consumed, I have been seeking things that let me know that I am a human being. That I (and people like me) actually exist. That we live, breath, have adventures, have a history, that we have fun, that we are sad — just that we are human. That we exist.

Last, what are, precisely, the viewpoints that disagree with me or make me uncomfortable?

On the first pass, I’d say it is probably the points of view of the people who shout things like “ft” “chk” or “t**y” at me when I’m moving around and existing in public space (so happy that these people are excersing their good democratic citizenship by treating me to their challenging viewpoints in public!).

What does this mean for the internet?

Maybe it means reading sensationalized and dehumanizing stories about the death of a trans Latina, Lorena Escalera from notorious liberal/left media news rag, the New York Times.

Maybe it means reading an imperialist post when I’m just trying to learn about Ruby.

Or perhaps seeing something about how because some men are sexual predators, trans women deserve no public protection or acccommodatons.

Does it mean that I should spend my time reading the content at stormwatch or Fox News?

Or maybe it could mean that the internet is one of the very few places I have any real amount of control to filter out these points of view so that I can find people who agree with me. People I can build community with. People I can rant to/with. Find support for things that most of the world refuses to support me for.

Because, at the end of the day, I do, in fact have to live in the real world. The world where (this was me yesterday at Ryerson) I have to spend 15 minutes looking for a gender neutral washroom (and another 10 waiting for it to be unoccupied) because using either gendered washroom makes me uncomfortable and feel very unsafe. The world where if I want to regularly watch TV shows with PoC, I have to watch them in languages I don’t understand. Where I get stared at all the time in public — which does nothing to help my agoraphobia. Basically the world where — almnost my entire life — I’ve felt unsafe in most public spaces.

But, hey, filter bubbles, amirite?

12 Mar 17:39

Sexist or Insensitive? Either way – It’s just lazy, and it is keeping women from taking part.

by gfguestblogger

This post is by a guest blogger who wishes to remain anonymous.

I recently received an invitation to attend a guest lecture in my research institute entitled: “Tits struggling to keep up (with climate change)”. Is this funny? Is it a clever pun? Is it sexist? Is it insensitive?

I have seen many cases of scientists trying to make their topics more inviting with a ‘sexy’ title to a paper or talk, and, if followed through properly, it can be a very effective way of engaging an audience who might otherwise be bored by the topic. This example, however, does not qualify in my mind as an effective tool for communication. Instead, I would say that this is exactly the kind of lazy title-tweaking that makes up some of the subtle sexism that continues to pervade the higher education research environment.

I call this lazy for two reasons: first, because it cashes in on the sexist structures which are widespread in our society, and the assumption that simply linking an idea to female sexual organs will be enough to make it interesting to the masses; second, because in order for a ‘sexy’ title to be truly effective, it needs to be placed in the context of a larger theme within the paper or talk, which will continue to highlight the ‘fun’ side of the research while presenting the relevant data. I hardly think that the presentation is peppered with pictures of the breasts of aging women instead of birds.

Recently it was mentioned to me by (male) senior members of staff that the institute is trying to encourage women to enter and remain in research. So, a female colleague and I discussed the sexist/insensitive attitude of the title and decided to comment. The institute’s response? “There is no pun.”

Now, I find this hard to believe, considering the construction of the sentence. If there were no pun, the use of parenthesis would be unnecessary. However, it is just barely possible that the scientist in question has a poor understanding of parenthetical usage. It is also possible that the title was meant as a joke, which we were meant to find mildly amusing, and enticing enough to attend the lecture.

In the end, it doesn’t matter; whether the title was meant as an ‘inoffensive’ joke, or was simply insensitive, these are the small pin-pricks that jab at female scientists on a daily basis. To be reminded that your worth as a human being, in a societal context, is still largely based on your appearance and adherence to strict sexual and social norms, despite your ground-breaking research, and to have this happen while you are at work, and to be expected to laugh at this reminder, rather than mention how unwelcome it is, is not acceptable. It is this laziness and this insensitivity that subtly reminds women of ‘their place’ in even the most prestigious labs and universities.

12 Mar 16:02

Is This Pickup Artist Actually… Helping People?

by Sharon Adarlo
by Sharon Adarlo

“Once you go Asian, you can’t go Caucasian. Once you go yellow—hello!” JT Tran told his audience of hopeful men.

This was in a Manhattan conference room on Valentine's Day, and JT was running a weekend-long bootcamp with a simple mission: to help Asian men get some skin in the dating game, and maybe even get laid.

The class's methods and language were taken straight from the pickup artists' world. And yet, the course also resembled a rollicking post-grad symposium on race. Yellow fever. That infamous OKCupid survey that showed Asian women overwhelmingly preferred white men. The culture clash between an Asian upbringing and a Western world that has different expectations for success. And the ease with which people speak racistly of Asian men—like the way Lorde and her Asian boyfriend were recently torn into on Twitter. 

Laboring in a dating world that seems stacked against his kind, JT, whose name is Jerry and who bills himself as a transformational figure in the Asian community, is a man on a mission to transform the Western image of Asian men from asexual nerds into shagworthy dating material—all through the science and/or art of picking up women.

The depth of subjects covered during the course belied the sleazy promotional photos of JT and his students, bathed in the sharp light of a camera flash, sucking face and embracing mostly white, leggy women at clubs and bars, as displayed on his dating company website, ABCs of Attraction.

As a Filipino American woman and feminist, these photos were a problem. Are white women the ultimate, idealized dating goal? Aren’t pickup artists inherently scammy and sleazy? It was troublesome. But I'm the wife to another Filipino, and the sister of five brothers, one of whom is comically inept with women, and so I came with an open mind. Can a pickup artist actually make men into better, more confident versions of themselves?

“If you want the girl of your dreams, you have to be the man of her dreams,” JT said, during his lectures. That's a non-gross principle that just might work. Throughout the weekend's bootcamp, the eight men in attendance actually changed. A tall and shy Chinese student talked to the most girls during the group's first nightclub outing. On the next night out, another student, who had a halo of scruffy black hair around his bald head, underwent a makeover, danced with girls, and managed to score a phone number. There was even kissing.

Often clothed in a sports coat with a dress shirt unbuttoned almost mid-chest, his hair styled into a small quiff, JT has a round, open face and is stockily built. He is five foot five. He is 35, from Los Angeles, and Vietnamese American. He is a short, average-looking Asian guy.

But he also has a certain panache. He moves like a man completely sure of himself—a turn-on for some women. A skilled flirt, he doesn’t let his physical attributes deter him.

Raised in a poor family with two brothers and a tiger mom (speaking of stereotypes!) who emphasized school, JT was a cliché: a nerdy, studious, shy Asian boy. He went to prom by himself, before jetting off to major in aerospace engineering at the Florida Institute of Technology.

After college, he worked as a subcontractor for NASA and the Air Force—literally as a rocket scientist, he said—and settled in Los Angeles. He was working out. Driving a Mercedes. A nice pad at the beach. But he had zero luck in the dating game.

“I tried everything. Speed dating. Match. eHarmony rejected me. They told me I was too cerebral and analytical. ‘We have no matches for you,’” he said. “What’s wrong? No girls chose me. It was brutal that my market value in the dating world was non-existent.”

Things changed when he became a student of Mystery, the infamous, funny-hat-wearing pickup artist who was immortalized in Neil Strauss’ book The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists. The lessons, which encompassed psychology and self-improvement, changed his life.

“My God, this is possible," he said. "This was like discovering light and fire. It was the first time I ever thought that talking to girls is a learnable skill."

He gave himself the nickname the Asian Playboy and started a blog detailing his successes and failures—a kind of "Sex and the City" chronicle for Asian men.

His recreational pickup practice turned into a profession when he answered a call from a Chinese woman who begged him to help her son, who was getting harassed by neo-Nazis in Toronto. He helped his first student gain confidence to deter his bullies along with the skills to talk to girls.

“I never really thought of making this into a career,” said JT. “Just fighting racism and being a role model to other Asian men.” But by 2005, he'd started his company.

The boot camp had eight students. The men were a motley group. A doctor, a scientist, and everything in between, they made up various ethnicities from Filipino to Chinese. One had come from Newfoundland, Canada. They were of varying levels of attractiveness and fitness, some handsome, some overweight. They had differing levels of experience with women, from limited exposure to a few coming off long term relationships. Their names have been changed to protect their identity.

There was Eugene, the balding Chinese scientist with the heavy Fresh Off the Boat (FOB) accent. He came in wearing a wrinkled military-style shirt that made him look like a reject from the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band. Total ladyboner killer.

Derrick was a cute Korean American who had traveled to the boot camp from Northern Virginia and had told no one about his weekend plans. He was coming off a long-term relationship and was ready to branch out beyond dating other Koreans.

Chris, the Filipino from Montreal, probably had more experience with women than the other guys. He had long-term relationships before and was comfortable in clubs, but felt like he needed a refresher course due to a demanding job.

Henry, the tall shy guy from mainland China, had the same deep voice as Dolph Lundgren.

One student, Ken, was Jewish—and was taking the course a second time. The 20-something sported a nimbus of blonde curls and social skills that deteriorated under a punishing 60-hour work week on Wall Street. JT said he's had white students like Ken take the course before, which is marketed to not just Asians but also other ethnicities and “not classically good looking” men. (“Imagine if we taught clients who didn't have any unfair disadvantages (like stereotypes) and all they needed were the techniques. It's like throwing gasoline and napalm all at the same time on a 10-foot bonfire,” JT once wrote.)

The course started unceremoniously.

“I call this a tough love program but without the love,” said JT, who pointed to a message on the computer screen: “If you are not ready for constructive criticism, then you should not be here! Over this weekend: I may hurt your feelings.”

What followed was a lecture on self-improvement, about putting in the work to become better, more attractive men, and psychological principles about dealing not just with women but also with other guys. JT rattled off his success stories: the virginity lost, the multiple sexmates, students who dated celebrities, serious girlfriends, the weddings. One student repaired his relationship with his parents. Another quit drugs.

“It’s how much you put in,” he said. “The possibilities of your success are limitless.”

Befitting his background as an engineer, he put up sine wave charts on the dance and pull of flirtatious encounters. There was a flood of material. There were intricate tips to remember about voice tonality.

“My God,” one overwhelmed student whispered.

JT had his students act in role-playing games with his trainers and his designated wingwoman, Katie.

Katie was a tall, pretty brunette who exuded an unforced sensuality. In a past life, she was a pageant queen. With her face framed by wavy brown hair, she made the perfect wingwoman as she gently corrected the students with a flirty, sweet smile.

There were three other trainers, all former students: Andrew, an elfin Taiwanese American, was a daredevil. He had played with poi and had old burn marks on his chest that looked like mild eczema scars; Drew, the beefy bro-ish Vietnamese American guy, with the strong, empathic handshake; Jared, the handsome Jewish guy, who had a bedroomy stare and a fine, slender figure.

There were instructions:

“Body language is more important than what you say.”

“If you feel nervous, wiggle your toes. Nobody can see your toes.”

“Attractive women are very rarely single for long. There's an infinite supply of desperate horny men.”

“Nice guys. They don't rock the boat, but nobody likes them. It's okay to be polarizing.”

They also did “kino exercises,” a PUA classic, where the students practiced getting a woman’s attention by turning her shoulder to pivot towards them. They all practiced on Katie and the trainers, who corrected them on their touch, approach, and all the cues of the body.

Two hours in, JT deemed the men ready to hit the field.

It was cold and dirty snow littered the ground.

That night, the DL on Delancey Street on the Lower East Side was full of couples, packs of drunk single chicks coming off work, men prowling in groups, and us. I met up there with my friend Emily Chu, who is Chinese American, pretty, and a lesbian, and who was just as excited and curious about the outing as I was.

After smokes in a chilly patio with a few of the men, JT parked himself next to a lounge area and set his students loose in the loud nightclub.

They approached girls one after another. They kinoed. A few were brushed off by women; the the trainers stood by to quickly give advice to the rejected students. Henry, the Chinese Dolph Lundgren, started talking to a tipsy black woman, who looked like she'd just left her cubicle farm. She exhibited actual interest.

One of the students, a chubby doctor from the hinterlands of Canada, disappeared with a woman to the dance floor. Eugene—poor Eugene!—stuck out like a sore thumb with his baggy military-style clothes and bad haircut. He would approach women but couldn't sustain a conversation.

The other students had varying levels of success. A few got phone numbers. Henry won the distinction of approaching the most girls that night.

And whenever I approached the bar for a drink, men—white, black, and Asian—would try to kino me. One young Asian guy with a weird Donald Trump pompadour grabbed me by the arms and led me to his group of other Asian friends.

“Did you know you look like this Anime character?” he said, showing me a picture of a short, four-eyed Asian anime girl with black bangs and wearing kiddie clothes; a chibi.

“You suck at this,” I told him.

One 20-something white man pivoted me on the shoulder and introduced me to his other white male buddy.

“Hi. I am married,” I said.

It was strange and funny. I wasn’t trying to attract attention. I had greasy bangs (I was on a no-shampoo kick) and I thought I looked rather innocuous with jeans, leather jacket, and my heavy Harvard Bookstore bag slung over my shoulder. I'd fancied that would serve as a chastity belt—no man shall pass.

“They are wannabes,” said JT, about these other would-be pickup artists at the club.

Despite being subjected to the same maneuvers myself in the club, it was actually gratifying to see JT's guys approach women, fall, and dust themselves off again—and then succeed. I actually clapped when Henry did a successful pivot on a woman and engaged her in a long chit chat.
Emily spent the night alternately chatting with JT and the students and thumbing through girls on Tinder. She was impressed too. “Online dating has made me lazy,” she said.

The night ended at a pho place in Koreatown, where the students and trainers dissected their encounters or “sets.”

The outing could be summed up by that Samuel Beckett quote: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

If it had not been for the pickup scene, JT would have probably fulfilled his childhood dream and trained to be an astronaut, instead of teaching Asians the finer points of approaching women, seduction, dating, and grooming.

But there is a need. His company’s mission dovetails with certain facets about being yellow in a Western hegemony, where white men are at the top of the social and economic pecking order.

Let’s get to the facts first: In that OKCupid survey that basically showed everybody is racist, white men got the most replies from women of every ethnicity.

Looking at white, Asian, and Hispanic women:

“These three types of women only respond well to white men. More significantly, these groups’ reply rates to non-whites is terrible. Asian women write back non-white males at 21.9%, Hispanic women at 22.9%, and white women at 23.0%."

Specifically, Asian women responded to Asian men 22% percent of the time, and to white men, 29% of the time.

“White women prefer white men to the exclusion of everyone else—and Asian and Hispanic women prefer them even more exclusively,” OKCupid concluded.

Data from the Facebook app, Are You Interested, showed that white, Latino, and Asian women again responded most frequently to white men. All the men, except for Asians, responded the most to Asian women. Tellingly, Asian men responded the most to Latinas.

A study on intermarriage by Pew showed that Asian women are twice as likely to marry outside of their race than Asian men.

This data is borne out in the field during boot camp. The Asian women JT and his cohorts encountered during class outings either walked away or explicitly said they were not into Asian men.

“I used to obsess over it,” said JT, about being snubbed by Asian women and the many Asian women with white men he would encounter. “I saw it constantly.”

Why the marked preference for white men?

Is it a Western culture that glorifies white men and stereotypes, slanders and marginalizes other races? Asian men are seen as nerdy, feminine, short nobodies with small penises, black men as loudmouth gangbangers with not much income potential, Hispanic men as short, creepy guys who beat their girlfriends.

I see this stereotyping at my husband’s work, where his non-Asian, mostly white co-workers call him “a small Filipino guy.” (My husband, five foot seven, has the same build as Bruce Lee, slender and muscular.)

“You lose status when you date an Asian guy. Socially, you are at the bottom of the pecking order,” said JT.

Case in point, the vitriol directed towards Lorde and her boyfriend James Lowe, who's been called every name in the book online.

“That upset the natural order of things,” said JT, who called Lorde’s boyfriend a hipster.

JT also believes Asian American women imbibed this cultural stereotype of weak Asian men and implicitly prefer white men because they are at the top of the power structure in this country. Tall white guys are the type that Asian women go after, at a significantly higher rate, he said.

A dirty little secret in the pickup world is that white professional pickup artists can inflate their success numbers if they just target Asian women, said JT, who described it as a "cheat code." Many white pickup artists have yellow fever, which is a whole different can of worms.

JT described many professional white pickup artists as former nerds, like himself, and they gravitated towards Asian girls because they are seen as studious and nerdy like themselves. And there’s the whole image of Asian woman that they are drawn to: different and exotic.

“He has social status as a white male. It’s easy to pick up girls, of course, because you are a decent looking white guy and you are targeting Asian women,” said JT.

I asked him repeatedly: “Are Asian women easy?”

“You are marrying into the ruling class,” JT said. “I am not blaming Asian women because they use it to make life easier.”

As for the snubs from Asian women, JT left those hang ups a long time ago.

“Nowadays I don’t give it much thought. The only thing you can control is what you do,” said JT. He himself has a thing for blondes.

He encourages his students, who are mostly Asian, to branch out and see women from other races. A great deal of Asian men in the U.S. will never get married, he said, citing census figures. (In 2012 government data, 36% of Asian men in the U.S. aged 30 to 34 have never married, compared to 22% of Asian women the same age.) So it’s best to expand your dating pool, he said.

“The biggest misconception about Asian men is that they only date Asian women,” said JT, more than once during the boot camp.

The strangest thing happened during boot camp. I found that many of the lessons he gave to his students could apply to me, an Asian woman.

Like many Asian families, my parents were strict towards me and my five brothers—probably stricter than other similar families. They forbade us to hang out with friends and made it difficult for us to participate in after school activities. Academics and church were to be the main focus of our lives.

When I went to college and into the workplace, I was ill-equipped and socially inept. I felt out of place, an alien in my own country.

“They taught us to survive, but not to thrive,” JT said about Asian immigrant parents.

Drawing from the same conclusions as that Wesley Yang story on Asian Americans in New York magazine, I also decided that the tools and standards of success my parents had instilled in me were not going to help me in the workplace or the social arena. I was great dealing with institutions that had quantitative measurements, like earning grades. But navigating the social minefield of college and work was tough. It was difficult for me to make friends and allies in either place, and difficult to make my voice heard above the din of more socially skilled peers.

Some people call this barrier to achievement for Asians the bamboo ceiling—a series of factors and processes that impede the advancement of Asians in the working world. Sure there's racism in this process, but I blame mostly cultural reasons. We're taught to be quiet and diffident to authority. There’s a mindset that many Asians take on that hurts their self-esteem: not being white enough, not being American enough.

When I was a crime reporter, I could be assertive and aggressive when I interviewed people in the streets. When it came to dealing with difficult bosses or coworkers, I was meek, and I hated myself for it.

This learned cultural behavior doesn’t help us in the Western working world, and also doesn’t do Asian American men any favors in the dating realm, where they are seen as quiet, weak and passive. Easily cowed. All the while, they're battling an internal racism that they don’t quite measure up.

So I couldn’t help but see pieces of myself in the students. The goal here, after all, even when couched in the language of pick up artistry, was to better themselves and overcome whatever cultural or learned behavior that was thrown up in their path.

Their success on the second night out was gratifying.

Eugene got a haircut (thank fucking God!) and he bought new, more stylish clothes. He had much better luck on the second night's outing. At one point, two blondes were vying for his attention.

And Chris chatted up and then made out with a model-beautiful Indian woman on the second club outing.

“Even I was jealous,” said Drew.

Three girls were looking for Max, a Chinese guy. Two girls kissed Derrick.

“Yes, it was awesome,” he said, and smiled.

“There were multiple people on fire,” said Andrew.

After the boot camp was over, I asked JT, “Have you thought of modifying your classes for the corporate world? For both men and women, to combat the bamboo ceiling?”

Taking a course like that would have probably saved me many years of trial and error. The journey to be surer in myself might have been shorter.

I told friends and relatives that I was following these guys, and they chimed in with their take on JT and pickup artists.

A few asked for JT’s contact information. My shy brother, a gifted artist and illustrator, wanted me to give him the skinny on JT and his cohorts.

Another friend, who shall remain nameless and is clumsy with women, said: “I am horny. And I want to get laid. Do you think he can help me?” (“Uh, thanks for telling me,” I said.)

One of my best friends, Suleman, a Pakistani Canuck, wrinkled his nose at the numerous pictures of white women draped over the arms and laps of JT’s Asian students.

“They are just picking up drunk, stupid white girls,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any achievement in that. I think it says more about their racial insecurities than their ability to talk to woman.”

One female friend had strong negative feelings about the whole pickup scene. She called it predatory and manipulative—especially after the dustup over a Kickstarter campaign last year to fund a seduction guide that ostensibly encouraged rape and other creepy behaviors.

“They are objectifying women. We become interchangeable commodities,” she said.

That can be true. The PUA world runs the gamut from the horrific to the fascinating, with lots of stops in-between. (Reading materials on JT's website, you can get all of it at once: the mercenary methods are also mixed with insight, like that a woman might resist hopping into bed with a strange man because of "the hazards it presents to her mind and body.")

To me, pickup seems innocuous to other methods of snagging a mate, such as mail-order brides. I have a friend with an Asian fetish who has been cycling through long distance girlfriends from Philippines to Thailand. He would share photos of girls he was talking to online. At one point, he even shared a photo of me on his Facebook wall without my permission.

In light of exploitive practices such as those, JT is closer to someone with his heart in the right place.

“I thoroughly condemn any use of force against women, having been raised by a single mother myself who had to deal with domestic violence. As you yourself saw during the last day of the ABCs Of Attraction lecture, I always tell my students that when a woman says no, you stop (if, in fact, you as the man don't stop first before she even says it),” he wrote to me.

After talking to girls he dated, he learned more about the vast extent of sexual assault. He took those lessons and the trials his mother had suffered to heart.

“The world is a dangerous place for women,” he told his students during a bit on how to make women feel comfortable and safe during the course of a hookup or date.

This talk, though, preceded a lecture on how to take a (consenting!) woman’s clothes off in two easy steps. In case you need to know: 1. After asking her to take off her shoes, slip off her thong and skirt in one move and 2. Unhook the bra and lift that off along with shirt. (My very deep thoughts on this matter: there should be a merit badge for that.)

When it was all over, students said they would recommend the course.

“I definitely learned a whole lot. If I didn’t take boot camp, I wouldn’t have learned this by myself for sure,” said Chris, the Canadian Filipino, probably the most experienced student.

“I took another boot camp but with a white guy. But I wanted something Asian specific,” said Eugene, the FOBish scientist. “It’s really good with social skills.”

The boot camp’s influence is more evident in JT’s former students turned trainers, who took the class’ lessons to heart. Drew turned his life around because of the course. Before he was henpecked and emotionally abused by his tiny Vietnamese girlfriend, who used her size to demonstrate her power over him, he said.

During a lull in the course, he showed me photos of women he had dated—all who appeared to have the same curves as Daphne Joy, cover model and rumored mother of a child with 50 Cent. Drew's last girlfriend was a busty, pretty black woman.

Andrew, JT’s Taiwanese American trainer, said the course changed him from a sad college student who was friendzoned a lot to the more confident man he is today.

“I was very good at hiding my emotions, but in reality I was really depressed,” he said. “I took the course and I admitted to myself I had to put the effort in to change.”

This was the same guy who, on the first night of boot camp, necked with a woman he had just met at the bar. Photos of him getting kissed by leggy white chicks adorn the company website.

And there is Jared, the 20-something Jewish trainer with the soulful eyes. It was hard for me to believe that he was a shyer, more diffident person in the past.

But what about the master himself?

While running his dating business, he has had serious relationships, mostly with white women, one of whom got involved in the company. But he said he's learned to separate “church and state,” especially after the relationship ended.

He’s said he's looking to get married, but isn't in a hurry.

“I'm looking for an almost impossible alchemy of class and crass, beauty and practicality, style, wickedness and sexiness with an irreverent attitude who thumbs her nose at the establishment and healthy love of fun,” he wrote to me after boot camp. He described his ideal woman to be in the mold of Audrey Hepburn, whatever race she happens to be.

Most likely she will be non-Asian. He admits to liking taller, gregarious women, but it also comes to simple practicality, he wrote. There are many Asian women who don’t want to date Asian men, he again reminded me.

“Am I little jaded? Sure. It's hard not to be after 10 years of socializing and seeing female behavior condensed into a four-hour Darwinian struggle for survival that exposes the harsh, hypocritical and politically incorrect side of dating and sexual preference,” he wrote. “But I'm still that rocket scientist who dreamed of being an astronaut when I was younger. I may not be as big of a romantic as when I was younger, but he's still there. The biggest difference is that I no longer put girls in the ‘fantasy girlfriend zone’ and instead treat them as normal human beings with all their flaws and foibles.”

In March and April alone, JT will be teaching in San Francisco, Miami, Las Vegas and Atlanta. He may teach again in New York in the fall. Prices for the bootcamps are tiered by access, ranging from $499 to $2999.

At the end of the boot camp in February, JT turned to his students and gave them his version of a commencement speech.

“How many days are in a human lifetime? If you live to 100 years, that’s 36,000 days. That’s not a lot. Time is the most important non-renewable resource that you can never get back. You have already spent one third of it. Those first 12,000 days are gone. The best 12,000 days are right here, right now. Do it now. It’s your turn to fulfill your destiny and not just lazily lay back.” He paused. “Congratulations, you are all graduates.”

Sharon Adarlo is a writer and artist based in Newark. She can be found at her personal website or on Twitter.

12 Mar 13:46

The Privilege of Assuming It’s Not about You

by Lisa Wade, PhD

Haley Morris-Cafiero is an artist, a photographer, and a scorned body.  Aware that her appearance attracts disgust and mockery from some, she decided to try to document people’s public disdain.  The result is a series of photographs exposing the people who judge and laugh at her.  She chose to publish several at Salon:

5 6 7 8

Dmitriy T.C. was the last of many who’ve suggested I write about this.  I’ve decided against it in the past because I anticipated a critique, one that dismissed the project on the argument that we can’t really know what is going through these people’s minds.  Maybe that cop is just a jerk and he does that to everyone?  Maybe the gawkers are looking at someone or something on the other side of her?  Where’s the proof that these are actually instances of cruel, public anti-fat bias?

In some cases, Morris-Cafiero has a story to go along with the photo.  The girl waiting to cross the street with her, she said, was slapping her stomach.  In another instance, she overheard a man say “gorda,” fat woman.  This type of context makes at least some of the photographs seem more “legit.”

But, as I’ve thought more about it, I actually think the project’s strength is in its ambiguity.  The truth is that Morris-Cafiero often does not know what’s going on in the minds of her subjects.  Yet, because she carries a body that she knows is disdained by many, it is perfectly reasonable for her to feel like every grimace, look of disgust, laugh, shared whisper, and instance of teasing is a negative reaction to her body.  In fact, this is how many fat people experience being in public; whether they’re right about the intent 100% of the time is irrelevant to their lived experience.

And this is how people of color, people who speak English as a second language, disabled people and others who are marginalized live, too.  Was that person rude because I speak with an accent?  Did that person say there was no vacancies in the apartment because I’m black?  Was I not chosen for the job because I’m in a wheelchair?  Privilege is being able to assume that the person laughing behind you is laughing at something or someone else, that the scowl on someone’s face is because they’re having a bad day, and that there must have been a better qualified candidate.

For many members of stigmatized groups, it can be hard not to at least consider the possibility that negative reactions and rejections are related to who they are. Morris-Cafiero’s project does a great job of showing what that looks like.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

(View original at

12 Mar 13:31

The Stubbornest Little Isopod in All the World

by Jia Tolentino
by Jia Tolentino

From NPR, this tremendously weird and moving story about a foot-long crustacean who refused food for five years running:

Giant Isopod No. 1 arrived in Japan, settled in, and at first everything was fine. It ate normally, did all the things one would hope a giant isopod would do (stay still, then scuttle, wave its front legs, stop, stay still) until one day, on January 2, 2009, something happened.

It was mealtime, and after nibbling lightly on some horse mackerel, No. 1 stopped eating and walked away from its food. It wouldn't finish.

The isopod's caretaker tried everything, but to no avail.

Months went by. Then years. No.1 didn't eat anything for all of 2010, then for all of 2011, then for all of 2012. By this time, word got out that a big crab was on some kind of hunger strike at Toba Aquarium, and people began showing up for its feedings, or rather, not-feedings, to see if it would finally break fast.

It didn't. [...] According to Rocket News, "Over time, the animal learned how to seem to appease its human keepers by moving its mouth and front legs around the food pretending to eat. In the end, it never actually took a bite. … No. 1 would simply play with its food."

No.1 didn't eat for all of 2013. That's five years without a meal. No animal in captivity has refused food for that long, the Japanese press said. This was some kind of record. Why wouldn't the animal eat? Nobody knew.

The caretaker discovered the isopod's death this Valentine's Day, after lowering in the last mackerel the creature would ever get the chance to refuse. [NPR, photo via]

12 Mar 13:22

The Society of Mutual Autopsy

by vaughanbell

The Society of Mutual Autopsy was an organisation formed in the late 1800s to advance neuroscience by examining dead members’ brains and to promote atheism by breaking sacred taboos.

It included some of the great French intellectuals and radicals of the time and became remarkably fashionable – publishing the results in journals and showing plaster-casts of deceased members brains in world fairs.

In October 1876, twenty Parisian men joined together as the Society of Mutual Autopsy and pledged to dissect one another’s brains in the hopes of advancing science. The society acquired over a hundred members in its first few years, including many notable political figures of the left and far left. While its heyday was unquestionably the last two decades of the century, the society continued to attract members until the First World War. It continued its operations until just before World War II, effectuating many detailed encephalic autopsies, the results of which were periodically published in scientific journals.

The quote is from a fascinating but locked academic article by historian Jennifer Michael Hecht and notes that The Society was partly motivated by self-nominated ‘great minds’ who wanted to better understand how brain structure related to personal characteristics.

It was no backwater project and attracted significant thinkers and scientists. Most notably, Paul Broca dissected brains for the society and had his brain dissected by them, despite apparently never joining officially.

Part of the motivation for the society was that, at the time, most autopsies were carried out on poor people (often grave robbed) and criminals (often executed). The intellectual elite – not without a touch of snobbery – didn’t think this was a good basis on which to understand human nature.

Also, these bodies usually turned up at the dead of night, no questions asked, and no one knew much about the person or their personality.

In response to this, the Society of Mutual Autopsy functioned as a respectable source of body parts and also requested that members write an essay describing their life, character and preferences, so that it could all be related to the shape and size of their brain when autopsied by the other members.

There was also another motive: they were atheists in early secular France and they wanted to demonstrate that they could use their remains for science without consideration of religious dogma.

As with most revolutionary societies, it seems to have fallen apart for the usual reasons: petty disagreements.

One person took exception to a slightly less than flattering analysis of his father’s brain and character traits. Another starting flirting with religion, causing a leading member to storm off in a huff.

In a sense though, the society lives on. You can donate your body to science in many ways after death:

To medical schools to teach students. To forensic science labs to help improve body identification. To brain banks to help cure neurological disorders.

But it’s no longer a revolutionary act. Your dead body will no longer reshape society or fight religion like it did in 1870′s France. The politics are dead. But neither will you gradually fade away into dust and memories.

Jennifer Michael Hecht finishes her article with some insightful words about The Society of Mutual Autopsy which could still apply to modern body donation.

It’s “both mundane – offering eternity in the guise of a brief report and a collection of specimens – and wildly exotic – allowing the individual to climb up onto the altar of science and suggesting that this act might change the world”.

Link to locked and buried article on The Society of Mutual Autopsy.

12 Mar 11:21

2700 Years of Female Silence

by Jia Tolentino
by Jia Tolentino

Mary Beard, at the London Review of Books, has written a phenomenal essay on women and speech in the public sphere. "I want to start very near the beginning of the tradition of Western literature, and its first recorded example of a man telling a woman to ‘shut up’," she writes, discussing the Odyssey, and the moment when Telemachus tells his mother Penelope to "go back up into your quarters, and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff… speech will be the business of men."

Right where written evidence for Western culture starts, women’s voices are not being heard in the public sphere; more than that, as Homer has it, an integral part of growing up, as a man, is learning to take control of public utterance and to silence the female of the species.

Beard takes a "very long view" on the subject of women who speak up "in order to help us get beyond the simple diagnosis of ‘misogyny’ that we tend a bit lazily to fall back on… if we want to understand – and do something about – the fact that women, even when they are not silenced, still have to pay a very high price for being heard, we have to recognise that it is a bit more complicated and that there’s a long back-story." She goes back through public record:

One earnest Roman anthologist of the first century ad was able to rake up just three examples of ‘women whose natural condition did not manage to keep them silent in the forum’. His descriptions are revealing. The first, a woman called Maesia, successfully defended herself in the courts and ‘because she really had a man’s nature behind the appearance of a woman was called the “androgyne”’. The second, Afrania, used to initiate legal cases herself and was ‘impudent’ enough to plead in person, so that everyone became tired out with her ‘barking’ or ‘yapping’ (she still isn’t allowed human ‘speech’). We are told that she died in 48 BC, because ‘with unnatural freaks like this it’s more important to record when they died than when they were born.’

There are only two main exceptions in the classical world to this abomination of women’s public speaking. First, women are allowed to speak out as victims and as martyrs – usually to preface their own death. [...]

The second exception is more familiar. Occasionally women could legitimately rise up to speak – to defend their homes, their children, their husbands or the interests of other women.

The whole piece is long and fascinating and disturbingly familiar, and ends on this somewhat timeless note: "For a start it doesn’t much matter what line you take as a woman, if you venture into traditional male territory, the abuse comes anyway. It’s not what you say that prompts it, it’s the fact you’re saying it." [LRB]

12 Mar 11:19

Kansas Christianists seek monopoly on worldly honors and emoluments

by Fred Clark

Initially, it looked like a bill to provide sweeping sectarian exemptions to civil rights laws was going to easily become law in Kansas. It sailed through the state legislature’s Republican-controlled lower chamber, and was expected to cruise through the Republican-controlled Senate and then be signed into law by the state’s Republican governor.

But it turns out this bill wasn’t just a Very Bad Idea, it was also a Very Badly Written Very Bad Idea. Once some of the big-business, Chamber-of-Commerce types actually read the bill and understood what it would do, they scurried to put the kibosh on it in Kansas’ state senate. That version of the bill seems dead, but Kansas Republicans still seem intent on pursuing this Very Bad Idea in some revised and rewritten form.

This bill is the epitome of the recent effort to redefine “religious liberty” as a way of enshrining the privileges of the privileged. It is an attempt to, in Thomas Jefferson’s phrase, secure a “monopoly on worldly honors and emoluments.” The thing about monopolies, of course, is that unlike liberties, they can’t be enjoyed by everyone — only by the select chosen few.

Mark Joseph Stern provided one of the clearest introductions to this Kansas bill earlier this month in a piece bluntly titled, “Kansas’ Anti-Gay Segregation Bill Is an Abomination.” He’s talking about the same piece of legislation. The “religious liberty” bill is also the “anti-gay segregation” bill — that’s the point. It’s an attempt to monopolize religious liberty — to monopolize religion itself and liberty itself — so that they are solely the property of one class of people. And LGBT people would not be a part of that class or of that monopoly.

Here’s Stern:

On Tuesday [Feb. 11], the Kansas House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a measure designed to bring anti-gay segregation — under the guise of “religious liberty” — to the already deep-red state. …

When passed, the new law will allow any individual, group, or private business to refuse to serve gay couples if “it would be contrary to their sincerely held religious beliefs.” Private employers can continue to fire gay employees on account of their sexuality. Stores may deny gay couples goods and services because they are gay. Hotels can eject gay couples or deny them entry in the first place. Businesses that provide public accommodations — movie theaters, restaurants — can turn away gay couples at the door. And if a gay couple sues for discrimination, they won’t just lose; they’ll be forced to pay their opponent’s attorney’s fees. As I’ve noted before, anti-gay businesses might as well put out signs alerting gay people that their business isn’t welcome.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to barring all anti-discrimination lawsuits against private employers, the new law permits government employees to deny service to gays in the name of “religious liberty.” This is nothing new, but the sweep of Kansas’ statute is breathtaking. Any government employee is given explicit permission to discriminate against gay couples — not just county clerks and DMV employees, but literally anyone who works for the state of Kansas. If a gay couple calls the police, an officer may refuse to help them if interacting with a gay couple violates his religious principles. State hospitals can turn away gay couples at the door and deny them treatment with impunity. Gay couples can be banned from public parks, public pools, anything that operates under the aegis of the Kansas state government.

This is not a new idea. Religious liberty was part of the argument for previous iterations of laws exempting select majorities from permitting select minorities from access to public spaces, services, goods and accommodations. This law would have the same effect as those laws. It would be, as Jamelle Bouie writes, an “Anti-Gay Jim Crow“:

While the bill is presented as a measure directed explicitly at same-sex couples, the language is much more ambiguous. One clause allows discrimination as long as the transaction is “related to the celebration of, any marriage, domestic partnership, civil union or similar arrangement.”

Dimmitt, Texas, 1949.

There’s no way to know if a given transaction is related to a gay partnership. In most cases, there’s no way to know if someone is gay. But that doesn’t matter. Under this bill, if you believe someone is gay and purchasing something or making arrangements for the sake of a civil union or same-sex marriage, you can deny them service. Indeed, they don’t even have to be gay. Anyone suspected of working towards those ends could be subject to legalized harassment.

To put this simply, the Kansas House has just endorsed a comprehensive system of anti-gay discrimination. If it becomes law … it will yield a segregated world for gays and their allies, as they are forced to use businesses and other services that aren’t hostile to them.

Looking at this bill, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to call it a close cousin — if not sibling — of Jim Crow (natch, for black gays and lesbians in the state, there’s little difference). Like its Southern predecessors, this proposal is meant to isolate and stigmatize a despised minority, under of the guise of some higher priority (“religious liberty”). And while this bill doesn’t sanction violence, that was also true of Jim Crow.

Or, as Andrew Sullivan put it, “If you were devising a strategy to make the Republicans look like the Bull Connors of our time, you just stumbled across a winner. If you wanted a strategy to define gay couples as victims and fundamentalist Christians as oppressors, you’ve hit the jackpot.”

I also like what Sullivan had to say about the disgraceful guise of “Christian” religious liberty as the pretext for this bill:

As for the allegedly Christian nature of this legislation, let’s not mince words. This is the inversion of Christianity.

Even if you believe that gay people are going to Hell, that they have chosen evil, or are somehow trying to subvert society by seeking to commit to one another for life, it does not follow that you should ostracize them. The entire message of the Gospels is about embracing those minorities despised by popular opinion. Jesus made a point to associate with the worst sinners – collaborating tax-collectors, prostitutes or lepers whose disease was often perceived as a sign of moral failing. The idea that Christianity approves of segregating any group is anathema to what Jesus actually preached and the way he actually lived. The current Pope has explicitly opposed such ostracism. Christians, far from seeking distance from “sinners”, should be engaging them, listening to them, ministering to them – not telling them to leave the store or denying them a hotel room or firing them from their job. But then, as I’ve tried to argue for some time now, Christianism is not Christianity. In some practical ways, it is Christianity’s most tenacious foe.

But Christianism was precisely the driving force behind this proposal. It’s part of the fearful politics of resentment determined to “Take Our Country Back.” Self-identification as a particular kind of Christian is part of what that “our” signifies.

Part of the problem, though, was that the not-very-bright folks who drafted this attempt to legislate Christian privilege imagined that they could correct — or, at least, mask — the bill’s brazen violation of the Constitution if they just avoided spelling out that it was only meant to apply to their favorite variety of Christian. They seemed to dimly perceive that saying that explicitly would be unconstitutional, so they were cautiously vague about just what they meant with their redefinition of “religious liberty.”

And that, happily, is why the conservative Republicans of the Kansas Senate killed this bill.

Republican Sen. Jeff King, who chairs Kansas’ Senate Judiciary Committee, said, “The bill was not as narrowly tailored as it needed to be. … We need razor precision in the language of the bill as to what religious liberties we’re trying to protect and how we protect them in a nondiscriminatory fashion.”

That’s from John Eligon’s New York Times report, which goes on to explain what King means by all of that:

Opponents included the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, which said that the measure could lead to increased costs for businesses. The chamber took particular exception to a provision in the bill that said that if an employee of the government or “other nonreligious entity” objected to providing a service based on religious beliefs, the employer would have to find another employee to fill in or find some other way to provide the service.

Businesses aren’t keen on the idea of redefining “religious liberty” to provide a sectarian exemption to everything. Once you tell sectarian believers that they’re free to disregard the law and the civil rights of others, they may get the idea that they’re also free to disregard orders and instructions from their employers.

(That’s why big business isn’t rushing to support Hobby Lobby and the other for-profit companies fighting for a corporate version of this elastic exemption. Hobby Lobby says it should be exempt from the law because it has a sincere religious belief that abortifacients are immoral and also a sincere religious belief that contraception is an “abortifacient.” It doesn’t matter — to them or to their legal claim — that contraception doesn’t work like that, all that matters is the sincerity of their belief that it does. Plus, “abortifacient” is a really big word, so it must be true. If that argument wins the day, then employers are in for a major headache — dealing with employees who can now refuse to do their TPS reports because they have a sincere religious belief that TPS reports are an “abortifacient.”)

Kansas senators also heard from other groups who objected to this bill. The Episcopal bishops of Kansas publicly and angrily denounced the bill, saying it was “reminiscent of the worst laws that permitted discrimination against people on the basis of color, sex or nation of origin” and “an affront to the beliefs of all Kansans who support equal treatment under the law for every human being.” And other religious leaders in Kansas also chimed in to oppose it.

I like to think those efforts made a difference, too, but mainly it was the business lobby’s opposition that killed this thing.

And that’s a problem, because it means that this bill may simply get reworked to address the very specific self-interested concerns of the business community and then reintroduced, otherwise unchanged. It will remain an affront to anyone who supports equal treatment under the law, but not in a way that would cause any problems for the Chamber of Commerce.

In an excellent write-up on this bill’s progress and possible demise, Doctor Science writes “What’s striking to me is that the Kansas bill is incompetently written, even though it comes out of a high-powered national group.”

That incompetence was surprising to me as well — until I realized who that national group actually is. It turns out that this bill was not written by anyone in the Kansas legislature:

Rep. Charles Macheers, R-Shawnee, who introduced the bill … did not write the bill and said he did not know its origin. It was crafted by the American Religious Freedom Program, an organization based in Washington D.C. Similar bills are being considered in Tennessee and South Dakota.

And not just those three states – Dylan Scott reports that similar efforts are also under way in Idaho, Arizona, Mississippi and Kentucky.

Anyway what is this “American Religious Freedom Program”? Doctor Science tells us that it’s “part of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, ‘dedicated to applying the Judeo-Christian moral tradition to critical issues of public policy.’”

Ah, OK. Now the bill’s incompetence, clumsy overreach and vapid attempts at cleverness make sense. The Ethics and Public Policy Center — sometime home of former Sen. Rick Santorum — is basically George Weigel, Inc. Weigel is part of the First Things clique, but more importantly here, he was also one of the three writers and proponents* early signatories of the Manhattan Declaration. So that explains that.

- – - – - – - – - – - -

* Edited: Weigel was an early signatory of the Manhattan Declaration, and is a buddy of the writers, but those were Chuck Colson, Robert George and Timothy George. Got my pseudo-intellectual, right-wing apologist Georges mixed up. (Wrong George.)

12 Mar 11:08

Lucky Louie

by Ryan Bradley
by Ryan Bradley

In the flatlands between Mill Basin and Marine Park, just before the avenue arrives at the golf course and Jamaica Bay, you’ll find VERG South, an emergency hospital for pets. Inside is a dog, which isn’t very surprising, this being a place for treating dogs and cats. Only this dog is famous.

The dog came to VERG—that's Veterinary Emergency and Referral Group—in a roundabout way. First the dog arrived at a vaccine clinic, probably hosted at a PetCo; the story is fuzzy at the beginning. One thing is certain, and terrible: the dog had owners. They brought him to get shots, which they thought might cure him. He was clearly very, very sick. Shots wouldn’t fix him. A veterinarian at the clinic saw the dog that wasn’t so much a dog as it was a bag of bones and knew she needed to step in. So she called Sean Casey, who does animal rescue all over Brooklyn. He came by at the end of the day, saw the pitbull mutt, saw that it was in a bad way, and told the owners they needed to relinquish their dog, that is: give it up. It wasn’t hard to do. He just told them how much medical treatment the dog would need, and how expensive that would be, and how neglectful they had been. Casey took the dog from them and named him Louie. 

Louie went from PetCo to Pet Haven, another clinic, where he lived for three days. While he was there, another veterinarian, Dr. Ford, took a picture of Louie and posted it to Facebook under which she wrote something like this is upsetting, people are terrible. Brett Levitzke, the medical director at VERG, saw the post and pictures of the dog and got really upset too. Levitzke has a springer spaniel named Toby and a cat named Broccoli. He got so upset at the pictures of Louie (emaciated, pockmarked, pitiful) he decided to take on the case, the case being Louie. That’s how Louie came to VERG South out near Jamaica Bay.

What you have to worry about with a dog that’s been starving all its life is the the same thing you worry about with a starving human—a problem called refeeding syndrome. The patient’s body cannot process the sudden influx of food, becomes overwhelmed, and the patient dies. So the team at VERG had to be careful about how to go about feeding Louie. This wasn’t a problem on Louie’s end. His teeth were broken (from trying to eat rocks, most likely), he had worms, he wouldn’t drink, and he couldn’t lift his head, much less walk. He was just in rough, rough shape, everyone recalled. But the thing about this dog in particular was that he was so, so trusting. They had no idea what his past life might have been like, what abuse he suffered, but his eyes stayed bright and alert all the way through. You could tell by his eyes he knew what was going on, but he couldn’t move, could barely lift a paw, much less his whole head. He was maybe 10 months, a year old at most.

They started him on fluids, calculated out how much food they could give him, tiny amounts, day by day. For the first ten days his tail stayed tucked between his legs. They put him through physical therapy, which was really just holding his body in place and moving his limbs, to begin to get his muscles back. They put him on antibiotics, which they delivered through a steam mask. They rubbed and smacked his chest to break up the fluids caught in his lungs from pneumonia. They bathed him, repeatedly, because he smelled awful. The first breakthrough came when he started to walk again. There’s a video of that moment. He only takes a step or two on his own, and the steps are wobbly and unsure. He looks a little like a newborn deer.

VERG’s head of communications, Maria Moss Davidson, shot the video, and still takes lots of photographs of Louie, which she posts on Facebook and Instagram. “He’s kind of been my life for the last month,” she said. This is how Louie became famous. He’s photogenic. Those puppydog eyes, that wrinkled brow, he looks thoughtful and trusting and extremely sweet. Likes piled up by the thousands. People from all over the U.S., and then the world, wrote VERG. Many wished to adopt. A woman from Sweden persisted and had to be told, well, this wouldn’t be the best thing for Louie, seeing as he’d have to sit in quarantine for months just to enter her country. Also the fact is Louie wasn’t quite ready to go.

Louie has a parasite still, and they’re treating him for diarrhea. He weighed 11 pounds when he first came in to VERG; he weighs just a hair over 30 pounds today. He’s nearly at optimal weight, but not quite leash trained, and not at all house trained. He has the run of the hospital. King Louie is what they call him now. They aren’t ready to let him go, either.

“I think he gives people hope, something to believe in,” Davidson said. “We’re kind of going through a… I don’t know how to put it… an emotional thing. It’s hard for us to let go of anything right now.” One of their colleagues, Dr. Danny Gray, has had non-Hodgkin lymphoma for some time. He died this past Saturday. “This dog is just bringing so much joy. We can wait a few more weeks. It’s not like he doesn’t get the run of the hospital.”

Louie is incredibly food motivated, which means he’ll do just about anything for a treat, which means he can do some pretty good tricks. Sit, shake, and weave, but he can really only do the weave with Marina Kviker, who’s an assistant at the hospital. She’s the one holding Louie up in the photo above. “Weave, weave, weave,” Kviker said at the end of each of her strides, pausing when her foot hit the floor so that Louie might lower his head and dash between her legs. Davidson asked: “The way you point your toes, you used to be a dancer?”

“In a previous life, yeah. Ballet," Kviker said. She’d like to bring in a hurdle and tunnel so she can do serious agility training with Louie. “He’d be really good at that," she said. Kviker has been training dogs since she was 10. Just dogs in the neighborhood, then puppies that could become seeing eye dogs. “Now I only take on interesting cases,” she said. “A puppy is boring. My dog tries to eat people, or is terrified of everything—that’s interesting. What works is very, very slow desensitization, which means that if a dog attacks skateboarders, you get a skateboard and roll it across the floor very, very slowly, never going to a point where the dog is overwhelmed. And lots of food. Whatever motivates that dog, it doesn’t have to be food, but I’ve only met one or two dogs where food didn’t work." She finished doing the weave trick.

“I really want this dog, but I can’t have this dog," she said. Louie stayed close beside her, slumped against her legs, panting contentedly, his head just above Kviker’s left kneecap. “I want to go to vet school maybe, and I can’t drag two dogs across the country, or the world. It’s going to be hard enough with my dog. He’s 13. I use him a lot with dogs who are special cases, who are terrified of other dogs, because he doesn’t care about anything. This dog”—that’s Louie—“this is what I would call a boring dog. There’s no challenge. This dog would be really good if someone were to do freestyle, where they like, dance with the dogs. He might also make a good therapy dog. He likes people so much.” Then she looked down at him, and he looked up at her. “You get dogs who are so badly abused where you’re like, 'Oh God, when this dog gets better he’s going to eat everyone,’ and then they end up like this. Honestly I don’t know why people are so shocked by his progress. He was starving and we fed him.”

Ryan Bradley is a writer and editor in New York.

12 Mar 10:49

"If America is freedom, and liberty, and equality, then it’s also racism. It’s our heritage."

by Jia Tolentino
by Jia Tolentino

At the Daily Beast, Jamelle Bouie's written the best thing I've read yet on the verdict in the trial of Michael Dunn for the murder of Jordan Davis. "The jury is a historically contingent group working in a historically contingent system," he states. "For as much as we’d like to believe otherwise—hence the disappointment over the ruling—the institutionalized impartiality of our courtrooms isn’t equipped to deal with the fallout of our long, national romance with white supremacy."

I can already imagine the howls from angry readers. “Why must you bring race into this?” But I haven’t brought race into anything. It’s already there. If a fourth dimensional being came to our planet, looked at the United States, and unfurled our four hundred years of history, it would see a single constant: The steady effort to make pariahs out of black people. And if it zoomed into the current moment, and looked at the Dunn trial, and read the decision, it would come away unsurprised. Knowing what it knows about America, what else could have happened? Like the Zimmerman verdict, the Dunn verdict fits our pattern of legal injustice. And when another black boy is killed for believing he’s human, as will happen, we shouldn’t be surprised when that also fits the pattern.

If this sounds like resignation, or fatalism, it isn’t (I was surprised by the ruling). It’s simply an attempt to look with clarity. If racist outcomes are a problem we want to solve—or if not solve, ameliorate—then we owe to ourselves to dismiss our illusions. If America is freedom, and liberty, and equality, then it’s also racism. It’s our heritage. But it doesn’t have to be our inheritance.

Here's the rest of the piece, and Jessica Williams was similarly great on this subject on last night's Daily Show.

11 Mar 13:19

Hockey Happened

by Emma Carmichael
by Emma Carmichael

After the jump, the GIF that shows how close the American women were to winning gold in today's hockey final. The goal on the open net would've put the U.S. up 3-1 with just a few minutes remaining in regulation; instead the puck hit the post, rather improbably, and Canada tied it up and won in overtime. Congrats to our neighbors to the north, I GUESS. 

Did you watch? Things got emotional. Hockey overtime, especially in the Olympic format, is the most stressful. They go sudden death with four players from each team on the ice (not including goalies), which means that things move incredibly quickly. Could've gone either way, of course, but that was a hell of an assist by the Canada goal post. The Canadian and American men will get a rematch of sorts in tomorrow's semifinal at noon. I don't know if I can take another one.

GIF viahere's an alternate angle.

10 Mar 21:24

Loving Wins in Virginia

by Jia Tolentino
by Jia Tolentino

Last night, federal judge Arenda Wright Allen struck down Virginia's ban on same-sex marriage, invoking Mildred Loving in the opening to her long and grand opinion. If the Court of Appeals upholds Wright Allen's decision, similar bans will likely be voided in North Carolina, South Carolina and West Virginia, and other discriminatory marriage laws have recently been or are currently being challenged in Louisiana, Alabama, Missouri, Texas, Utah, Oklahoma and more.

10 Mar 21:17

So You Think You Can Draw a Raindrop

by Edith Zimmerman
by Edith Zimmerman

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.

10 Mar 20:56

Star Trek’s ‘Parallel Lives’ and The Awesome Women In The Mirror

by Annalee

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:

an image from a parallel, gender-flipped version of the Star Trek universe, where the Enterprise is under the command of Captain Jane Tiberia Kirk.

Captain Jane Tiberia Kirk, Lt. Commander Spock, and Yeoman Jason Rand.

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.

Admiral: "Everyone at starfleet command is confident in your abilities, Kirk, despite your headstrong reputation. But we are not oblivious to the fact that you are the youngest captain in the fleet..." Kirk: "You can lose the code words, admiral. 'Emotional.' 'Headstrong.' Just come out and say it. A young female captain makes the bigwigs back in San Francisco nervous."

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:

Uhuro: "Or maybe I just want to protect the woman I love. Must be an Earth thing. The gallant knight always wants to save the pricess, y'know?"

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.

10 Mar 20:36

Richard Feynman and close reading

by Michael Leddy
Richard Feynman speaking:
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.

Related reading
All OCA poetry posts (Pinboard)
Richard Feynman on honors

You’re reading a post from Michael Leddy’s blog Orange Crate Art. Your reader may not display this post as its writer intended.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons 3.0 License.
01 Mar 23:14

A reality of dreams

by vaughanbell

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.

Link to locked study at Sleep journal (via @Neuro_Skeptic)
pdf of full text.

01 Mar 23:11

Sitting Out Sochi

by John Scalzi

Exactly what I thought.

I was asked via email if I had any thoughts on this year’s Winter Olympics. The short answer is yes: I’m sitting them out. The longer version is that the unfathomable graft and incompetence and horrible homophobic bigotry that surrounds this particular iteration of the Olympics has massively swamped my usual benign indifference to the thing. Usually I don’t care about the Olympics, but I see them as harmless and don’t mind if they occasionally impinge on my consciousness. This time I’m actively disgusted by them and will go out of my way to avoid them. I’m not going to be entirely successful because I live in the modern world, where unless you choose to crouch in a hole, information will find you. The difference is that the information is going to have to work to get itself in front of me, and I will resent it when it does.

This is the point at which one swans about the need to reimagine the Olympic games, to get them back to their ideal of friendly competition between nations, blah blah blah insert Chariots of Fire soundtrack here, but, come on. It’s too late for that. The Olympic Games are what they are: a floating, rotating boondoggle-shaped shitcake of graft, venality and cronyism, with a spotty icing of athleticism spread thinly on the top to mask the taste of the shit as it goes down the gullet. Barring some sort of active revolution, that’s not going to change. Sochi’s problem is that this time, they heaped extra shit into the cake and skimped on the icing, and what icing it has is also made of shit. You can’t mask the taste. At this point it’s not worth it to try.

So I’m out. The Olympics won’t miss me, to be sure. The feeling is mutual.

01 Mar 23:08

Why you don’t listen to music

by mike

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.

Here’s an excellent illustration on video 

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.

21 Jan 18:07

Heart-warming tale of crowd-sourced decipherment

by Mark Liberman

"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.


21 Jan 18:03

#537: How Can I Suggest Ways for People to Actually Be Supportive?

by Goat Lady

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.

21 Jan 18:00

Hibernating Spacecraft Wakes Up, Sends Signal To Earth

ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft has awoken from its 957 days in slumber on Monday.