Shared posts

12 Apr 09:22

TELETUBBIES – “Teletubbies Say Eh-Oh!”

by Tom

#778, 13th December 1997

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12 Apr 09:17

The Heinlein Hormone

by Peter Watts

You all remember Starship Troopers, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enter oxytocin, back for a repeat performance.

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

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

One of several illustrations which are  clearer than the text.

One of several illustrations which are clearer than the text.

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

Call those guys the groupers.

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

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

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

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

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

I find that interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12 Apr 09:15

Geekological Determinism

by LP

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

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

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

Surely not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


12 Apr 08:55

Happy Birthday, Jane Goodall

by Emma Carmichael
by Emma Carmichael

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

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

What do you think the next phase is?

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

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

07 Apr 22:24

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

by Jia Tolentino
by Jia Tolentino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

07 Apr 22:19

Jesus On The Main Line

by LP

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

“I just knowed it.”

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

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

“What’d He look like?”

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

“So where’d you run into Him again?”

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

“Over acrost from the Peach Tree?”

“That’s the one.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“You’re shittin’ me.”

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

“So…so what happened?”

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

“Oh, Lord.”

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

“Good thinkin’.”

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

“So what’d you do?”

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

“Oh, Jimmy, you didn’t.

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


“…New York City.”


“What other choice was there, Clint?”

“Jimmy, do you know what deicide is?”

“A little bit.”

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

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

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



“I reckon.”

07 Apr 22:08

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

by Jia Tolentino
by Jia Tolentino

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

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

07 Apr 22:07

Ever Feel Like You Were Born in the Wrong Era?

by Jia Tolentino
by Jia Tolentino

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

07 Apr 06:49

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

by Jia Tolentino
by Jia Tolentino

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

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

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

07 Apr 06:41

Bomb disposal for the brain

by vaughanbell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to New Statesman profile of Henry Marsh.

07 Apr 06:40

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

by Jia Tolentino
by Jia Tolentino

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

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

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

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

05 Apr 00:55

10 Things Nigel Farage Hates #NickVNigel

by Alex Wilcock

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

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

1 – Europe


2 – Immigrants

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

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

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

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

3 – Immigrants

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

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

4 – British Industry

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

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

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

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

6 – The European Arrest Warrant

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

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

7 – British Tourists

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

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

8 – Happy Gays

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 – Immigrants

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

In case you missed it.

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

Again. In case you missed it.

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

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

But Mr Farage doesn’t hate everything.

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

‘WTF, Ukraine? I hate the EU! You provoke me too! How dare you like the EU? I’d have declared war on you too. Vlad, Vlad, you’re my best mate, you are…’
02 Apr 15:09

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

by tomstafford

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

British Psychological Society: Our subconscious mind may detect liars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Conversation

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

02 Apr 14:23

How to Bake a Planet

by Jia Tolentino
by Jia Tolentino

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

Alternately, legalize itetc. [Via]

02 Apr 14:11

Where Did “Hispanics” Come From?

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

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

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

Politics, Business, and Government

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

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

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

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

Univision social media ad (source):

Univision-Social Media Ad

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

And, so Hispanic-Americans matter a lot now.


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

Direct Marketing Ad

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

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

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

(View original at

29 Mar 12:55

It Was Really Lovely Meeting You

by Rachel Friedman
by Rachel Friedman

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

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

“Hi,” I said.

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

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

“You’re a Kiwi?” I said.



“Uhh, pretty certain,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not much,” I admitted.

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

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

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

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

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

“What? No! Of course not!” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can I…?” he said.

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

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

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

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


Photo via sergeyalifanov/flickr.

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

29 Mar 12:44

Snickers Mocks the Idea that Men Can Respect Women

by Lisa Wade, PhD

2This is one of the most demoralizing ads I’ve seen in a long time. It’s an Australian ad for Snickers in which construction workers on a busy city street yell pro-feminist comments at women, like “I’d like to show you the respect you deserve” and “You want to hear a filthy word? Gender bias” and “You know what I’d like to see? A society in which the objectification of women makes way for gender neutral interaction free from assumptions and expectations.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(View original at

29 Mar 08:04

Happy Birthday, Flannery O'Connor

by Emma Carmichael
by Emma Carmichael

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

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

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

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

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

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

29 Mar 07:08

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

by Haley Mlotek
by Haley Mlotek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February, March, April 2012


February, March, April 2013


February, March, April 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

28 Mar 00:55

THE VERVE – “The Drugs Don’t Work”

by Tom

#773, 13th September 1997

verve ddw “Whenever we played that live there would be rows of grown men crying. It was almost like these guys couldn’t cry when they needed to cry, but that song operated like a pressure valve for them and it was okay for them to cry at a big rock concert.” – Richard Ashcroft on “The Drugs Don’t Work”

The list of number ones is not a complete history of anything except itself: it’s an iceberg party, a throng of bobbing and jostling tips – rock, hip-hop, reggae, indie, cinema, politics, comedy, charity, marketing and more, each one an incomplete and distorted story. But sometimes – when a berg seems over-familiar – the tiny and partial story told by the tip can put a new spin on it.

So the rock and indie number ones of 1996-1997 have seemed to me to tell a story about anxiety, a crisis of legitimacy for rock music. “Setting Sun” brutally demonstrated that it was impossible simply to pick up where the 60s innovations had left off. “Discotheque” suggested that other musics could no longer be easily absorbed into the working practises of a rock band. And Oasis were a walking declaration that a traditional band line-up should be the centre of pop, simply by right and by confidence – and it had worked, until Be Here Now showed the limits of this fiat rock.

But there are other things rock can do beyond innovation and simple hugeness. “The Drugs Don’t Work” leads us to one of them: rock could get emotional. Specifically, rock could thrive as a venue for great big male emotions, a conduit by which confused 21st century guy feels could be expressed and released at stadium scale and numbing pace. Creation’s Alan McGee, a partisan of more swaggering styles, coined an ugly, dismissive term for it: ‘bedwetter music’. He was talking about Coldplay, but he could have been talking about Keane, Athlete, Snow Patrol – bands who, like them or not, were Britain’s main solution to the “what is rock for?” riddle.

Tying this to The Verve might seem wrong. The Verve were part of Oasis’ moment, not Coldplay’s – their previous album, A Northern Soul, used Oasis’ producer Owen Morris, and as Matt DC pointed out to me, the reason Urban Hymns ended up outselling Be Here Now was because it offered a similarly mammoth, but apparently more consistent and thoughtful, alternative for disappointed buyers.

That side of the band always fought against a still earlier incarnation. At the heart of the group was an instinct to meander. Early singles – like 1992’s “Gravity Grave” – cast Richard Ashcroft as a psychedelic pilgrim, cloudwalking wide-eyed through his band’s blown-out songs. It was an outrageously corny take on psychedelia, all the more so for its fixed-stare sincerity. At the time I thought myself far too hip for it, but secretly enjoyed it anyway.

But once they started writing more structured songs, their best tracks were usually the ones where Ashcroft tapped into this questing side. “History” wraps itself up in William Blake references and comes on like a Northern Jim Morrison, and again uses aggressive sincerity as a get-out-of-jail card to cover the track’s wayward structure: when you mean it this much, who cares that the song just fizzles at the end? “Bitter Sweet Symphony” – the breakthrough – does the same thing with a fantastic stolen hook, and a groove and theme which means the endless voyaging and the lack of resolution become the point rather than something Ashcroft is trying to front his way through. But the famous video sums up the underlying game very well – Ashcroft crashing into passers-by who get in the way of his vision quest. It’s the Gallagher attitude applied to philosophy: weaponised introspection.

That’s the link between The Verve and the Coldplay era – that sense that the singer’s giant sensitive feelings are the most important thing in the world, and that as such they deserve only the broadest, slowest, most self-serious music as accompaniment. As you’ve probably realised, I don’t like this music very much – not that this makes me a critical maverick – and “The Drugs Don’t Work” both succeeds and fails by pointing towards this glum, widescreen version of rock.

“The Drugs Don’t Work” is a small, bleak song nestled inside a larger, lazier one, and the small song takes The Verve out of their psychedelic comfort zone and back down to grey, inescapable, Earth: it’s Richard Ashcroft writing about his dying Dad. Of course, the song works if it’s just about comedowns, or a chemically-defined relationship, but this is one time when learning the song’s authorised subject improves it. It’s already got the cat in the bag metaphor – an ear-seizing image, one of the year’s most arresting lyrics – but “If you want a show / Just let me know / And I’ll sing in your ear again” becomes a devastating line when you set it in the hopeless quiet of a hospital ward. Ashcroft tones down his rock prophet style to sound confused and exhausted, and Nick McCabe drops in the occasional lonesome whale cry.

It’s sombre, effective, it’s what (I guess) the record is best remembered for, and it’s only about half the song. All the “ooo sha la la” parts, all the “whoa Lords”, and especially Ashcroft’s vamping at the end are big rock boilerplate, and for me they blow the effect. A song which works because it’s grounded in a relatable experience turns into another trot through the rock frontman playbook. The ‘Mad Richard’ urban shaman shows up again at the most inappropriate time.

The most obvious effect was just to make “The Drugs Don’t Work” longer. We are in an era of Number One bloat, where bolting on an extra minute comes as standard, and I think it particularly hurts this record. Perhaps I’d feel different front-and-centre at a Verve gig, but for me that whole string-driven coda doesn’t feel redemptive or healing, it’s just a reminder that – as with “History” – Ashcroft is awful at sticking the landings of songs and prefers to bluff his way out of them. The bluff plainly worked, but the ideas and the emotional weight of “The Drugs Don’t Work” ease up well before halfway. In the wider story of British rock, it’s a transitional Number One, a song whose hurt and confusion are sabotaged by its worn-out nods to rock enormity. The next generation of massive UK bands would smooth out these conflicting impulses, and find ways of doing emotion at arena scale. Most of their hits are as dreary and draining as “The Drugs Don’t Work” winds up being, but few are as frustrating as this song, because few of them have its kernel of quality in the first place.

23 Mar 15:38

Fred and Anti-Fred, a grace note

by Fred Clark

In writing about Fred and Anti-Fred — the polar opposite ministers Fred Rogers and Fred Phelps — I missed a felicitous/providential grace note from yesterday’s news: Fred Phelps died on Fred Rogers birthday.

Tom Junod writes:

It is eerie symmetry that the day of Fred Phelps died is also the day Fred Rogers would have turned 86. I am tempted to call it karma, and to crow that such coincidence offers indisputable proof that in the mind of God, the good Fred wins. But hey, it’s Mister Rogers’ birthday, and so I can only do what he would do:

Pray that now, with the Minister of Hate gone, some poor soldier can finally get his rest, and some poor child get her sleep.

Junod, who wrote that remarkable profile of Rogers we discussed the other day, also notes another connection of sorts that I hadn’t remembered between Fred and Anti-Fred — Phelps’ hateful crew picketed at Mister Rogers’ 2003 funeral in Pittsburgh:

The police moved in, out of fear that the confrontation might escalate into the violence that Phelps apparently craved. (What I heard, even then, was that he made his living filing lawsuits against those he’d provoked into some kind of physical response.)

But there was no violence. There could be no violence, at this particular funeral, and all the counter-protesters did was sing the song indelibly associated with both the deceased and with American childhood — because the deceased was indelibly associated with American childhood. “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood,” they sang, and I had a chance to talk to some of the people from Westboro, and to observe their own American children.

I don’t remember anything they said. What I do remember was how their children looked, and the keen and nearly overwhelming sense of loss the appearance of their children elicited. There were so many of them, for one thing; the Westboro congregation turned out to be a young one, and even some of the lank-haired women holding signs and spitting epithets turned out be, on closer inspection, teenagers. And they were all so poor. I’m not speaking simply of their clothes, and their teeth, and their grammar, or any of the other markers of class in America. I’m speaking of their poverty of spirit. Whether they were sixteen or six, they looked to be already exhausted, already depleted, with greasy hair, dirty faces, and circles under their eyes that had already hardened into purplish dents. They looked as if they were far from home, and didn’t know where they were going next. They looked, in truth, not just poorly taken care of, but abused, if not physically then by a belief inimical to childhood — the belief that to be alive is to hate and be hated.

It was the condition of those children that was the true profanation of the funeral of Fred McFeely Rogers.

The name means “peace.” Peace and Anti-Peace — those are always two available options.

See earlier:

Let’s make the most of this beautiful day

The Anti-Fred is dead. Look for the helpers.


23 Mar 15:06

Typical Mind and Disbelief In Straight People

by Scott Alexander

Lots of no doubt very wise people avoid comment threads here, but the comments on Universal Human Experiences are really worth it. The post was about how people mistake their own unique and individual ways of experiencing the world for human universals and assume anyone who says otherwise is speaking metaphorically. And boy did people have a lot of good examples of this.

I want to turn lots of them into extended discussions eventually, but for now I’ll settle for the one that reminded me how I still fail at Principle of Charity.

Principle of Charity, remember, says you should always assume your ideological opponents’ beliefs must make sense from their perspective. If you can’t even conceive of a position you oppose being tempting to someone, you don’t understand it and are probably missing something. You might be missing a strong argument that the position is correct. Or you might just be missing something totally out of left field.

People always accuse me of going too far with this, and every time I’m tempted to believe them I always get reminded I don’t go nearly far enough.

I’m pretty good at feeling tempted by most positions I oppose, which satisfies me that I understand them enought to feel justified in continuing to reject them. The biggest exception is that opposition to homosexuality has never made sense to me. I can sort of understand where it fits into a natural law theology, but a lot of anti-gay activists are, no offense, not exactly Thomas Aquinas.

Chris Hallquist commented:

I remember hearing once on Dan Savage’s podcast that he gets letters from gay men who grew up in very conservative parts of the country, who didn’t know that being straight was a thing. They assumed all men were attracted to men, but just hid it.

Martin responded:

Dr. Paul Cameron, founder of the anti-gay Family Research Institute, is quoted as saying: “If all you want is the most satisfying orgasm you can get – and that is what homosexuality seems to be – then homosexuality seems too powerful to resist… It’s pure sexuality. It’s almost like pure heroin. It’s such a rush. They are committed in almost a religious way. And they’ll take enormous risks, do anything.” He says that for married men and women, gay sex would be irresistible. “Martial sex tends toward the boring end,” he points out. “Generally, it doesn’t deliver the kind of sheer sexual pleasure that homosexual sex does” So, Cameron believes, within a few generations homosexuality would be come the dominant form of sexual behavior. Apparently, some people build their entire lives around not knowing that being straight is a thing.

So imagine that you’re one of those people Dan Savage was talking about – a closeted gay guy who doesn’t realize he’s a closeted gay guy. He just thinks – reasonably, given his own experience! -that the natural state of the human male is to be attracted to other men, but that men grudgingly have sex with and marry women anyway because society tells them they have to.

(I don’t know if this generalizes to women)

In that case, exactly the anti-gay position conservatives push makes perfect sense for exactly the reasons they say it makes sense.

Allowing gay marriage would destroy straight marriage? Yes! If everyone’s secretly gay, then as soon as gay marriage is allowed, they will breath a sigh of relief and stop marrying opposite-sex partners whom they were never very attracted to anyway.

Gay people are depraved and licentious? Yes! Everyone else is virtuously resisting all of these unbearable homosexual impulses, and gay people are the ones who give in, who can’t resist grabbing the marshmallow as soon as it is presented to them.

(I’m referring to this experiment, not some sort of creepy sexual euphemism. Get your heads out of the gutter.)

Teaching children about homosexuality will turn them gay? Yes! The only thing preventing them all from being gay already is the social stigma against it. Teaching them in school that homosexuality is okay and shouldn’t be stigmatized cuts the last thin thread connecting them to straightness.

This can’t be a universal explanation for anti-gay attitudes. Something like half the US population is against gay marriage (previously much more) and probably five percent or less is gay. Closeted gay people don’t explain more than a small fraction of the anti-gay movement.

But it’s probably bigger than the fraction who read Thomas Aquinas. Maybe all these idiosyncratic arguments that only a few people can really appreciate turn into soundbites and justifications that get used by other people who feel vague discomfort but don’t have a good grounding for why. That means they’d have an impact larger than the size of the groups that produce them.

23 Mar 15:06

A modern psychiatry

by vaughanbell

If you want to know how your average reasonable mainstream medical psychiatrist thinks about mental illness, Aeon magazine has a good piece that captures where many are coming from.

Now before you (yes you) Dr average reasonable mainstream medical psychiatrist, says that you don’t agree with all of it, I’m not suggesting it’s a manifesto, but it does cover a great deal of the mainstream.

We could argue a few points over some of the empirical claims, but it’s a surprisingly good snapshot in the round.

Probably the most important thing it underlines is that most psychiatrists are less obsessed with diagnosis than people who are are obsessed about the fact that psychiatrists make diagnoses.

Most psychiatrists typically don’t think that ‘every diagnosis is a disease’ and recognise the fuzziness of the boundaries – as indeed, do most medical professionals.

The article also highlights the fact that the medicalisation of emotional distress is driven as much by public demand as it is by drug company profiteering. People like pill-shaped convenience and drug companies make it their business to take advantage of this.

I would also say that the piece reflects mainstream psychiatric thinking by what it leaves out: a sufficient discussion of the psychiatric deprivation of liberty and autonomy – and its emotional impact on individuals.

Considering that this is the thing most likely to be experienced as traumatic, it is still greatly under-emphasised in internal debates and it remains conspicuous by its absence.

Link to ‘A Mad World’ on Aeon magazine.

22 Mar 12:45

More on 12 years a slave

by mike

There were lots of stories of slavery and escape from slavery written by the slaves themselves;  a whole genre of North American literature. You can find all the published North American slave narratives collected here, free and in digital form. It’s fantastic resource. Some of the narratives were world renowned in their day, some were obscure.

All of them are problematic. To get them published, you had to cater to a white middle class audience. There’s nothing inherently wrong with middle class white people–theaporetic is one himself. But middle class white people have a set of expectations about morality and decency and right conduct.

Slaves had no legal rights. They had no right to control their bodies or their sexuality. They had no right to compensation. Conventional middle class notions of propriety and conduct did them no good at all and possibly injured them.

But if you wanted to publish your narrative you had to appeal to readers. They wanted to know that you were pious, hard working and humble and chaste; that you thanked the lord and kindly white people for your deliverance and were living a respectable life. They were not at all interested in your critique of northern society, and the fact that, for example, segregation by law was common in the North or that you could not vote, though free.

Virtually every slave narrative starts or ends with the testimonial of one or more white persons, usually ministers, who assure the reader that not only is the story true, the author is well mannered, knows how to eat with a fork and won’t scare the livestock. Here’s a typical example, from the narrative of Henry Bibb:

DETROIT, March 16, 1845.

The undersigned have pleasure in recommending Henry Bibb to the kindness and confidence of Anti-slavery friends in every State. He has resided among us for some years. His deportment, his conduct, and his christian course have won our esteem and affection. The narrative of his sufferings and more early life has been thoroughly investigated by a Committee appointed for the purpose. They sought evidence respecting it in every proper quarter, and their report attested its undoubted truth. In this conclusion we all cordially unite….

President of the Detroit Lib. Association.

CULLEN BROWN, Vice-President.
S. M. HOLMES, Secretary.

Solomon Northup’s narrative includes an “Editor’s Preface” and then an appendix with a dozen pages of testimony from people who knew him in New York. Pretty much every time a black person appeared in print, they had to have some white person saying they were ok.


So the slave narratives are highly filtered. The most famous examples is the narrative of Harriet Jacobs, who lived a materially privileged and in many ways easy life as a favored slave, but who suffered from a sexually predatory owner. To thwart her owner, she gets pregnant by a neighboring slaveowner. Then she hides in an attic for seven years and finally escapes to the north. In her narrative, she has to spend a great deal of time justifying her conduct to her readers. We can’t read slave narratives as the direct voice of the author, we have to understand them as the voice of the author, filtered through the demands of a very specific audience.

Solomon Northup’s story is doubly problematic then. First in the way ALL slave narratives are problematic–it’s telling northern white people what they wanted to hear. And second in the fact that it’s the only example, among slave narratives, of a free person kidnapped in to slavery. For anyone interested, I’ve made a separate pages reproducing the images from Northup’s book, to show visually how it was framed for a middle class white audience. [1. Another famous example is the narrative of Olaudah Equiano, who claimed to have been kidnapped from Africa and sold into slavery. This has been proven pretty conclusively to not have been true. That Equiano felt he had to write it this way proves my point, I think]

One of our neighbors, a high school senior, put this succinctly and well in a Facebook comment:

what i learned [is] that slavery is bad, but what’s REALLY bad is when someone who’s not supposed to be a slave has to experience it. it really clarified for me that there’s a second, extra-terrible version of slavery that’s more worth making a movie about.

Here’s some of what the director of the film, Steve McQueen, said about the Solomon Northup’s book:

I read the book and immediately thought, This is amazing. The book read like a script. It was a script already—there it was, on the page.


“It’s a narrative about today,” he says of his film

“As soon as I had it in my hands,” he says, “I was trembling. Every page was a revelation.” The idea he had drummed up “was in my hands virtually in script form.” He asked the writer John Ridley to adapt it; McQueen says that 80 percent of the dialogue is lifted from the book.” 

So here’s the director telling us that the virtue of the book was that it was already a script, and it was already the idea he had dreamed up in his head, and it was already a story about today. And in fact that was exactly the point I was trying to make. The book, written to persuade middle class northern white people that slavery was bad, is now a movie that aims to tell middle class white people that slavery was bad, especially if it happened to people who were supposed to be free. Indeed. I think we all agree.

There’s no evidence that McQueen bothered to read any other slave narratives, or histories of slavery; all the evidence, from his own mouth, suggests that he saw it as a familiar modern story. To whit:

“I compare Solomon Northup’s book [Twelve Years a Slave] with Anne Frank’s diary. And because I live in the Netherlands, and I went to school with that book. Solomon’s book is amazing. It’s the same book, but written 97 years before; a firsthand account of discrimination. Those histories are so combined.”


“It’s just about a story of a man that everyone can identify with. This movie has never been an African American story, it’s never been a white American story—it’s been an American story.” 

Yikes! In both Anne Franks’ story and Solomon Northup’s story, bad things happen. And in both bad things happen more or less because of “discrimination.” But somehow Northup’s story is the story of Anne Frank, but also at the same a white american story but not just a white american story but the story of America while also being the story of Anne Frank. At the same time, the film is presented, by McQueen and by promoters and critics, as an unflinching portrait of slavery: indeed, says McQueen, I want the film to tell the story of slavery. This is the worst kind of intellectual gibberish: slipshod, making lazy generalized comparisons across genres. We would all like bad things not to happen.

So we get to what I was originally trying to argue–that the film is a uncritical restatement of present ideas in period dress.

Which is fine, I suppose, but this is a blog partly about history, and what history does and can or should do. Is it unreasonable Steve to ask McQueen to do research on the thing he is making a movie about? Maybe, but the makers of Twelve Years a Slave entered the film in the history sweepstakes, not me. It’s entirely reasonable to critique it as history, since that’s how it’s presented.

Maybe you don’t make historical films–I mean, why bother, if the story of Anne Frank is the same as the story of white America is the story of all America? I think the reason they bother with history for one thing script ideas are lying around, but for another you get the comforting sense of universality–they were just like us–at the same time that all those things are over, and we’re all where we should be.


21 Mar 11:25

The Anti-Fred is dead. Look for the helpers.

by Fred Clark

The Rev. Fred Phelps, founder and longtime leader of the Westboro Baptist Church and the crafter of its gospel of hate, has died. He was 84.

Phelps’ public persona perversely served one useful function. He provided a handy superlative for hate and bigotry, one that served as a warning sign and guardrail for other, slightly less exuberant haters, and that helped to refute their absurd claims of “persecution.” Fred Phelps lived and died a free man. That fact proves — proves, beyond any shadow of a doubt — that anyone blathering about the criminalizing of their anti-gay religious views is a liar and/or a fool.

But in keeping with what I wrote the other day — “Let’s make the most of this beautiful day” — I still don’t feel like dwelling on Phelps or his hateful message. He was the Anti-Fred, and I’d rather mark the occasion of his death by thinking about something his polar opposite — Fred Rogers — taught us.

By word and by example, Mister Rogers taught us all many things. Including this:

For me, as for all children, the world could have come to seem a scary place to live. But I felt secure with my parents, and they let me know that we were safely together whenever I showed concern about accounts of alarming events in the world.

There was something else my mother did that I’ve always remembered: “Always look for the helpers,” she’d tell me. “There’s always someone who is trying to help.” I did, and I came to see that the world is full of doctors and nurses, police and firemen, volunteers, neighbors and friends who are ready to jump in to help when things go wrong.

… To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.

That is how I choose to mark the passing of poor, unhappy Fred Phelps. Phelps refused to join the helpers. When things went wrong, he and his followers would rush to the scene to try their best to make things worse. He created another challenge for the helpers, but the beautiful thing about Fred Phelps’ ugly life was that so often the helpers rose to meet that challenge.

Phelps’ message of division ultimately wound up bringing people together. His gospel of hate became a constant reminder that we are always also able to respond with love. And so if you look back on Phelps nasty activism and you zoom out a bit to see the bigger picture, you’ll see that wherever he went there was always also someone else who was trying to help.

One of my favorite examples of that was the “angel action” staged by some good folks in Laramie, Wyoming, when Phelps and his crew arrived there to picket during the trial of the two young men who killed Matthew Shepard. Thinking of that story the other day led me to go back and re-watch the movie version of The Laramie Project, the remarkable play compiled by Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project from the actual words of actual people gleaned in hundreds of hours of interviews. The entire play is, for the moment at least, available on YouTube:

Click here to view the embedded video.

There’s a scene in The Laramie Project involving one Wyoming student who, against his parents’ wishes, won the lead role in a university production of Angels in America. That scene is a brief snippet of a play within a play, with Tony Kushner’s gorgeous language from Angels’ concluding monologue at the fountain. Those words were written by a great playwright, crafted and polished to make them beautiful and inspiring. But the astonishing thing about The Laramie Project is that there are many other scenes that include language that is just as beautiful and inspiring. Those words were not written, but spoken, unrehearsed, by ordinary people during ordinary conversation. When you watch the play, you have to keep reminding yourself of that — that these words were not crafted by poets, but simply transcribed from a recording of an ordinary conversation with an ordinary person. And ordinary people, it turns out, are capable of great and inspiring beauty. They are fabulous creatures, each and every one.

Fred Phelps has died on the first day of spring. The world only spins forward. Look for the helpers.


19 Mar 21:56

Seven Irish Women You Should Know

by Marthine Satris
by Marthine Satris

Just in case you’re planning on attending a St Patrick’s Day party where you want to gather a small group in the corner and wow them with your mastery (mistressy?) of Irish trivia and feminist history over whisky, I present you with a completely subjective list of The Greatest Women in Irish History. I suggest interrupting every rendition of “Danny Boy” with a story about one of these ladies, whose lives I have summarized below.

1. Granuaile / Gráinne Uí Mháille / Grace O’Malley / The Pirate Queen of Ireland

There is not a single mention of this bold and wily chieftain in official Irish historical records, probably because she was 1) a woman and 2) very pragmatic, and tended to side with whoever would keep her clan in power. Not exactly inspiring for later Irish rebels. But stories of her feats in the 16th century were preserved in the folk tradition and in official English records: Grainne was the annoying lady with the cunning ability to steal all their gold.

She was the only child of the chief of the O’Malleys, who ran the area of the Irish west coast now known as County Mayo. She captained a fleet of fishing boats that frequently turned into pirate ships, mostly when English ships swung too close to the Irish coast. She hit her peak after she outlived her first husband and married the chief of the Bourke clan at 36; he became her second–in-command, of course.

The coolest thing ever: when Grainne was in her 60s, she negotiated with Queen Elizabeth I—in Latin. The two powerhouses agreed to partner up against some of the more bothersome Irish clans. This was bad for the cause of Irish freedom, but quite good for Grainne herself. Although plenty of balladeers in the following centuries slapped her name onto nationalist poems and songs, the leader of the O’Malleys was a pirate and a tribal leader first, and a very tough broad. Anne Chambers’s biography Granuaile: The Irish Pirate Queen is the only real, thorough history of her life, if you can still find it.

2. Mary Kenny (really, the whole Irish Women’s Liberation Movement, but she was the face of it in the news)

The journalist worked with other rabble-rousing feminists to challenge the ban on contraception in the Republic of Ireland in 1971. The constitution, written in 1937, sanctimoniously told women they were mothers and wives first, so divorce and any kind of contraception were illegal; even advertisements for family planning were censored for immorality. But Mary Kenny and a bunch of other crazy radical womyn thought they should be able to get laid without getting up the duff, so they decided to openly defy the bishops and cranky old men running the country and (gasp!) bought contraception.

On May 22, 1971, Kenny and forty-six other women took what they dubbed The Contraceptive Train to Belfast (one benefit to losing Northern Ireland to the Unionists was that you could buy things there, like the pill and Mars bars, that were unavailable a few miles away. The downside was the 30 years of open civil war). They crowded into a pharmacy, but had been so deprived of sex ed that Mary Kenny didn’t even know what specifically to ask for. The women came back over the border waving packets of Durex in the faces of custom officers, and that night Mary Kenny went on the Irish national TV network RTE, to make the case for access to birth control.

The following years saw Ireland loosen up quite a bit, with the removal of the Catholic Church’s “special position” from the Constitution in 1972. Eight years later, having sex for funsies, not for babies, was finally, begrudgingly allowed, as long as you fessed up to your doctor and got a prescription.

3. Countess Constance Markievicz

Bored by the rituals of the aristocracy she was born into and finding their proclamations of superiority empty, the woman born Constance Gore-Booth took her considerable position and wealth and put it at the disposal of socialism and revolution. As you do. When she was an art student in London and Paris at age thirty, she met a Polish count and married him, which is why one of the leaders of the 1916 Rising sounds so oddly like an outsider.

Between 1911 and 1920, Countess Markievicz was imprisoned by the British government four times for various acts of treason. One of my favorite imprisonments was in 1920, because she had set up an Irish version of the Boy Scouts ten years earlier. Of course, she had been teaching them how to use guns and they were called Na Fianna Eirinn (Soldiers of Ireland), but still–Boy Scouts!

In a great speech of first wave feminism, Countess Markievicz exhorted college women in Dublin to “dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels and gold wands in the bank, and buy a revolver. … Be prepared to go your own way depending for safety on your own courage, your own truth, and your own common sense, and not on the problematic chivalry of the men you may meet on the way….” She also encouraged women to crush slugs in their gardens to prepare themselves for the grisly realities of revolution. In general she was a practical woman with a fondness for handguns.

Countess Markievicz was the first woman ever elected to the British House of Commons, but she was in prison at the time, and couldn’t take her seat. She was jailed for the last time in 1923 at age 55, this time for treason against the Irish government. She saw the Irish majority, who had accepted a partial freedom from the British, as traitors themselves, and told them so. That didn’t go well. Undeterred, she went on hunger strike until she was released, a month later. When she died in 1927, the city of Dublin came to a full stop. The working class, the political class, and everyone in between poured into the streets to watch her casket go by.

4. Maud Gonne

How many women have had eighty poems written about them by a Nobel Prize-winning poet? I am going to guess just one: Maud Gonne (last name sounds like “gun,” which is incredibly appropriate). Muse to Irish national poet William Butler Yeats, she comes through in his poems as a kind of wild, radical Helen of Troy who stomped all over the adoring poet’s heart. When there was a choice to be made between Ireland and anything else, she chose Ireland, every time. Sorry Willie.

Yeats proposed to his muse at least four times over twenty-five years, but she always refused him, while maintaining their “spiritual relationship” built on a shared interest in Irish mysticism and the always present suggestion she might just give in if he stuck around long enough. Yeats kept insisting she should give up her loud, angry politics, but she never would. Instead, she had a daughter, Iseult, out of wedlock with a French journalist, started Irish nationalist journals and feminist activist groups, married and divorced the Irish nationalist John McBride (executed for his part in the Irish rebellion of 1916), wrote and illustrated books, and acted in both Paris and Dublin. At six feet tall, she was a pre-Raphaelite goddess, adored for her intimidating beauty and indomitable spirit. Maud Gonne played the symbolic title role of Cathleen ni Houlihan, a play by Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory, on stage at the Abbey in 1902: a contemporary reviewer said of her role as the embodiment of the Irish spirit, “She can scarcely be said to act the part, she lived it.”

While Gonne will always be known for the men in her life, she was committed to freedom–for herself, and for her country.

5. Mary Robinson

Born into privilege, Mary Robinson has made it the purpose of her long career to give voice to the oppressed, both in Ireland and internationally. She’s been Senator and President, UN High Commissioner and University Chancellor. And she got to all those positions by constantly challenging the status quo from within the structures of power. She’s basically like a turbo-charged Hillary Clinton, with a strong dash of maverick thrown in.

Mary Robinson was born a Bourke (remember the Bourke that married the Pirate Queen? Same family, five hundred years later), and she got law degrees from the best universities in Ireland, the UK, and the US. Full Professor of Law at Trinity College Dublin by the age of 25, Robinson wasn’t yet satisfied, and campaigned for a position in the Seanad (Senate), which she won in 1969 as a totally independent candidate on the basis of her outspoken lefty stances. 1969 was a good year. She kept her job as a lecturer at Trinity and still practiced law. In all of these positions, she campaigned for women’s rights (like the right to birth control), gay rights, and the rights of the poor. Basically, if you were marginalized, she was going to put your voice front and center in the halls of power.

After twenty years sticking to her guns in the Seanad, Mary Robinson decided she wanted to be President. The presidency was usually just a ribbon-cutting position awarded to men who had been around a long time. But with backing from a coalition of the Labour party, the Green party, and the other liberal parties in Ireland, Mary Robinson was elected Ireland’s first female head of state in 1990. As a lawyer and senator, she had shaped a more liberal, secular Ireland, and then as President she led that country forward. After seven years of turning the presidency into an activist position, which included urging international intervention in Rwanda in 1994, Mary Robinson was chosen to be the United Nations high commissioner for human rights. She’s gone on to be a fighter for social justice on behalf of the world’s downtrodden, a view that evolved from her early recognition that Irish women were just not getting a fair shot.

After Mary Robinson held the presidency, another Mary followed her in the role. Two women in a row: not a bad legacy.

6. The dirty protestors in Armagh Women’s Prison 

If you picture a women’s prison full of girls in their twenties–and if you watch Netflix–you’re probably seeing Laura Prepon in her sexy glasses. Low security, thrilling hijinks, and homemade hooch might also run through your head. Unfortunately, instead you are in Northern Ireland at the height of the civil war that tore that tiny country apart for decades, and Orange is the New Black won’t come out for thirty years (and here I can barely wait for Season Two).

In Northern Ireland, women had been engaged in fighting for civil liberties for Catholic nationalists since the sixties, both as peaceful protestors and in active roles in the IRA. In 1980, the women imprisoned for terrorist activity against Britain turned abuse by the guards into an act of political protest for thirteen months. As told in a letter written on toilet paper and smuggled out to a London women’s lib newsletter, the male guards had brought all the prisoners into the common area, then trapped them there and raked through their cells in search of any contraband, tearing their personal possessions apart. The women didn’t take this violation lightly, and because they protested, they were brutally punished. Not just by having visitation denied, or by being beaten, or having shitty food served, or being denied medical service (though those happened too, of course): they were banned from access to the toilets for a week and given chamberpots instead. Those chamberpots were not collected, so they filled up and spilled over. When the women tried to dump their waste out the barred windows, boards were nailed over the openings. Instead of their spirits breaking, the women smeared their piss and shit over the walls in an organized act of “dirty protest.” As women, they also had to deal with their period, and they were given only two sanitary napkins a day, which were thrown, unwrapped, into the cells. So up on the walls the blood went, totally disgusting the guards. For thirteen months the dirty protest went on in Armagh, as the initial horrendous situation turned into a stinky power that the women held over their guards.

This exposure of women’s bodies (girls poop! and bleed!) shocked the men of the IRA too, which, like many paramilitary organizations, was actually pretty conservative. There had been similar dirty protests in the men’s prison, Long Kesh, but women weren’t seen as capable of such low tactics. Feminists rose up internationally to support the women and demand reform in the Northern Irish prisons. After the protest ended, the men of Sinn Fein (the political wing of Irish nationalism) and of the IRA recognized the important role of women in their organizations and, for the first time, included them in decision making. The protests in the Long Kesh and Armagh prisons led the nationalist movement away from violence into politics, too.

7. Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill/ Eileen O’Connell

The greatest poem from the British Isles in the 18th century was composed by a pregnant thirty-year-old, with two young kids, upon her husband’s death. “The Lament for Art O’Leary” celebrates the swaggering young aristocrat the black-haired Eibhlín loved and married against the wishes of her family. In nearly four hundred lines, she rails against the murderers who killed him when he was only twenty-six because he owned a gorgeous, expensive horse. In 1773, Catholics couldn’t own any property worth more than £5 and 5 shillings, but the defiant O’Leary refused to obey and was shot for his rebellion.

Eibhlín’s poem is the finest example of the pagan tradition of keening that priests had been trying to ban in Ireland for centuries. It is so good that she’s the only named female poet in the history of Irish language (Gaelic) poetry until the 19th century. I mean, check out these lines, which describe the young widow finding the body of her love sprawled out in the dirt: “Your heart’s blood was still flowing; / I did not stay to wipe it / But filled my hands and drank it.” Stephanie Meyer, you’ve got nothing on black-haired Eibhlín.

For over a hundred years, her poem was kept alive in the oral tradition of Irish poetry. “The Lament for Art O’Leary” is both the last known bardic poem in Irish and part of a hidden tradition of women’s voices in pre-literate Ireland.

Mostly recovered after a long bout of grad school, Marthine Satris is an editor and writer in the Bay Area. Her name is not pronounced the way you think it is.

17 Mar 08:33

Well, now. I am updating LJ drunk. This is like the good old bad old days.

I just walked home from the_meanest_cat's house after much wine and conversation. On my small hours perambulation home I mainly noticed the birdsong. Time was, when a late night walk of shame would have been proper shameful, and my ears would have been the least focused part of me.

I don't mind being 45. I mind being 45 and somewhat crippled and somewhat skint. Being old, for special values of old, is not how I thought it would be. I could, I suppose, last another 45 years. I'd rather not, unless they were a lot less exhausting than the last 45. That isn't melancholy; mostly it's laziness.

Being 45/old is not how I thought it would be. I expected, when I was young, that, right about now, I would basking on the sunlit uplands of my life. There are no sunlit uplands. I still have to watch my step down here in the valley.

I taught a boy this morning who is smarter than me. He doesn't read books, can't really write words beyond their first syllable, and yet his vocabulary, when you push him, is extensive. His verbal reasoning is superb. He's got an Oxbridge kind of brain, ticking away under his shaved eyebrows and stupid beanie hat. Give him my start in life (books, aspiration)and he'd do something good. Give him Chinless Dave Cameron's start in life (books, aspiration, money, entitlement) and he'd do something wonderful. As it is, he'll probably end up in jail.

When I was twenty I crossed the road to avoid boys like him. At thirty I taught boys like him but I didn't feel, so sharply, the waste they represented. Even at thirty, the phrase 'you only have one life' was a cliche. It meant no more to me, really, than any advertising slogan. Now, at 45, I look at a boy like him and know he only has one life and the chances are it won't be a good one, that it will have fewer opportunities and liberties and joys than mine. And the only positive I can think of when I look at him is ' At least this isn't my doing; at least he isn't my son'. I am many bad things, you see, but at least I am not my mother.

The other thing I did not - could not - anticipate about being oldish, is how I would come to feel about the past. I knew that past was another country; I read 'The Past is Myself'. I didn't expect to be a little in love with it. I remember the shape of the seventies. Not just the broad strokes of music and dress, but the weight of old money in my hand; the disappointing taste of the remnants of a Walls vanilla brick licked from its flimsy cardboard container; the school photographer telling me I should smile because I was so pretty, and telling my teacher, 'She IS pretty. Not dark enough to be offensive'; the feel of the crisp, stringy summer-of-'76 grass beneath my burning, dirty, happy, little feet.

Oh, to have happy feet again. That's what bad old is. Wishing your feet/hands/hips etc didn't hurt quite so much. Good old is realising that booze and conversation work just as well as prescription painkillers.

Oof. Too sleepy and sozzled to empty the rest of my fitful, fluttering, vanishing thoughts on to this kindly page.
17 Mar 08:17


by Peter Watts

silverback-shadesBack in 2003 I attended a talk by David Brin, at Worldcon here in Toronto. Brin had blurbed  Starfish; to say I was favorably disposed towards the man would be an understatement. And yet I found myself increasingly skeptical as he spoke out in favor of ubiquitous surveillance: the “Transparent Society”, he called it, and It Was Good. The camera would point both ways, cops and politicians just as subject to our scrutiny as we were to theirs. People are primates, Brin reminded us; our leaders are Alphas. Trying to ban government surveillance would be like poking a silverback gorilla with a stick. “But just maybe,” he allowed, “they’ll let us look back.”

Dude, thought I, do you have the first fucking clue how silverbacks react to eye contact?

It wasn’t just a bad analogy. It wasn’t analogy at all; it was literal, and it was wrong. Alpha primates regard looking back as a challenge. Anyone who’s been beaten up for recording video of police beating people up knows this; anyone whose cellphone has been smashed, or returned with the SIM card mysteriously erased. Document animal abuse in any of the US states with so-called “Ag-gag” laws on their books and you’re not only breaking the law, you’re a “domestic terrorist”.

Chelsea Manning looked back; she’ll be in jail for decades. Edward Snowden looked back and has been running ever since. All he did to put that target on his back was confirm something most of us have suspected for years: those silverbacks are recording every move we make online. But try to look back and they’ll scream terrorism and national security, and leave an innocent person on the no-fly list for no better reason than to cover up a typo.

Look back? Don’t make me laugh.

I don’t know if Brin has since changed his stance (Larry Niven just coauthored a novel which accepts the reality of climate change, so I guess there’s hope for anybody). Either way, other SF writers seem willing to take up the chorus. About a decade back Robert Sawyer wrote an editorial for a right-wing Canadian magazine in which he lamented the bad rap that “Big Brothers” had got ever since Orwell. He waxed nostalgic— and, apparently, without irony— about how safe he’d felt as a child knowing that his big brother was watching over him from the next room (thus becoming an unwitting case-in-point for Orwell’s arguments about the use of language as a tool of cognitive manipulation). Just a few years ago, up-and-comer Madeline Ashby built her Master’s thesis around a misty-eyed love letter to surveillance at border crossings.

But it’s not a transparent society unless light passes through the glass both ways. The light doesn’t do that.

Can we stop them from watching us, at least? Stay away from LinkedIn or facebook, keep your private information local and offline?

Sure. For a while, at least. Of course, you may have to kiss ebooks goodbye. Amazon reserves the right to reach down into your Kindle and wipe it clean any time it feels the urge (they did it a few years back— to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, ironically). You’ll have to do without graphics and multimedia and spreadsheets and word processing, too: both Adobe and Microsoft are phasing out local software in favor of Cloud-based “subscription” models. Even the American Association for the Advancement of Science, for chrissakes— an organization that really should know better— has recently switched to a “browser-based” journal feed that can’t be accessed offline. (And what happens if, for example, you’re out in the field doing, you know, science, and don’t have internet access? “Unfortunately, you won’t be able to download the issue on your computer,” Member Services told me, before passing on her Best Regards. “You’ll have to have internet access to view it.” Which is why I quit the AAAS, after over twenty years of membership.)

We used to own our books, our magazines, the games we played. Now we can only rent them. Business models and government paranoia both rely on stripping us naked online; but if we stay offline, we’re deaf dumb and blind. It doesn’t matter that nobody’s pretending the Cloud is anywhere close to secure. The spooks and the used-car salesmen are hell-bent on forcing us onto it anyway. I’ve lost track of the number of articles I’ve read— by such presumably progressive outlets as Wired, even— lamenting the lack of effective online security, only to throw up their hands and admit But of course we’re not going to retreat from the Cloud— we live there now. It’s as though those most cognizant of the dangers we face have also been charged with assuring us that there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it, so we might as well just give up and invite the NSA into our bathrooms. (Or even worse, embrace the cameras. Have you seen that Coke ad cobbled together from bits of faux-security-camera footage? A dozen “private” moments between people with no idea they’re on camera, served up to sell fizzy suger-water as though our hearts should be warmed by displays of universal surveillance. Orwell— brought to you by Hallmark.)

You all know this as well as I do, of course. I’m only about the millionth blogger to whinge about these things. So why do I feel like a voice in the wilderness when I wonder: why aren’t we retreating from the cloud, exactly? What’s so absurd about storing your life on a USB key or a hard drive, rather than handing it over to some amorphous webcorp that whispers sweet nothings about safe secrets and unbreakable encryption into your ear, only to roll over and surrender your most private details the first time some dead-eyed spook in a trench coat comes calling?

Remember the premise of Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica: that the only way to win against high-tech opponents is to go retro, revert to a time when no computer was networked, when you ran starships by pulling levers and cranking valves. It was an exquisite narrative rationale for the anachronistic vibe endemic to everything from Alien to Firefly to Star Wars, that peeling-paint aesthetic that resonates in the gut even though it made no real sense until Moore gave it context.

Maybe now it’s more than rationale. Maybe now it’s a strategy. Because now we know that the NSA has back doors installed into every edition of Windows from Xp on up— but not into dusty old Win-95. And while giving up online access entirely is a bridge too far for most of us, there’s no reason we can’t keep our most private stuff on a standalone machine without network access. Even if we don’t ditch facebook entirely (and we should, you know— really, we should), there’s no reason we can’t tell it to fuck off when it keeps nagging us to tell it where we went to school, or if we want to be friends with this K. Homolka character. (And you certainly don’t want to use a real picture of yourself for your facebook header; they’re gearing up to use those as biometric baselines to ID as many other pictures of you as they can find. If they haven’t started already.)

Bruce Schneier points out that if the spooks want you badly enough, they’ll get you. Even if you stay off the net entirely, they can always sit in a van down the street and bounce a laser off your bedrooom window to hear your pillow talk— but of course, that would be too much bother for all but the most high-value targets. Along the same lines, Edward Snowden recently advocated making surveillance “too expensive” to perform with a driftnet; force them to use a longline, to focus their resources on specific targets rather than treating everyone on the planet as a potential suspect on general principles. The only reason they target all of us is because we’re all so damn easy to target, you see. They don’t seriously suspect you or I of anything but impotent rage, but they’ll scoop up everything on everybody as long as it’s cheap and easy to do so. That’s why the Internet is every spook’s best friend. It takes time and effort to install a keystroke logger on someone’s home machine; even more to infect the thumb drive that might get plugged into a non-networked device somewhere down the line. Most of us are welcome to keep whatever privacy can’t be stripped away with a whisper and a search algorithm.

That’s hardly an ethical stance, though. It’s pure cost/benefit. Wouldn’t it be nice for them if it wasn’t so hard to scoop up everything, if there were no TOR or PGP encryption or— hey, while we’re at it, wouldn’t it be nice if all data storage was Cloud-based? Wouldn’t it be nice if nobody could write a manifesto without using Google Docs or Microsoft’s subscription service, wouldn’t it be nice if somehow, local storage devices could get smaller and smaller over time— who needs a big clunky desktop with a big clunky hard drive when you can have a tablet instead, an appliance that outsources its memory to the ether? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could weed out the luddites and malcontents who refuse to face reality and get with the program?

When I explain to someone why I’m not on twitter, they generally look at me like I’m some old fart yelling at the neighborhood kids to get off his lawn. At the moment, refusal to join social networks is merely regarded as quaint and old-fashioned— but social norms change over time. My attitude is already a deal-breaker in some contexts; some literary agents refuse to represent you unless you’re an active Twit. Before too long, my attitude might graduate from merely curmudgeonly to gauche; later still, from gauche to downright suspicious. What’s that guy afraid of, anyway? Why would he be so worried if he didn’t have something to hide?

It’s no secret that it’s mainly us old folks who are raising the ruckus about privacy. All the twentysomething thumbwirers out there grew up with the notion of trading personal data for entertainment. These kids don’t just lack an expectation of privacy, they may even lack a functional definition of the stuff

We all know the only people who go on about privacy issues are the ones who are up to no good…

Science fiction writers are suppose to go beyond predicting the automobile; we’re supposed to take the next step and predict smog alerts. So here’s a smog alert for you:

How long before local offline storage becomes either widely unavailable, or simply illegal?

17 Mar 07:32

The Big Idea: Denise Kiernan

by John Scalzi

This looks like a book for me!

Fiction and non-fiction are different categories of storytelling — but in both cases the author has to decide what to tell and how to tell it, shaping the story so that it is a story, rather than just a leaden bundle of information. When researching the real-life information the would become The Girls of Atomic City, author Denise Kiernan found an interesting idea… now all she had to do was make a tale out of it. Here’s how she did it.


A story without conflict is like an inhibited lover. It just lies there. No matter how hard you try to get turned on, you lose interest. It can’t be over soon enough.

What attracts me as a writer to a particular story, what inspires that chemistry, is often—on the surface at least—unpredictable. Though there may not appear to be much rhyme or reason to my tastes, the one thing that always hooks me is that those tales keep me guessing. Their conversations grab me and I keep coming back to get to know them better, to keep turning their pages.

As a writer, sometimes it is just a look—photos, specifically. That’s what happened with my latest nonfiction book. I came across a vintage, black-and-white photo of some very young women operating some very odd-looking machines. The caption explained that many of these young women were recent high school graduates from rural Tennessee, and that they were enriching uranium for the first atomic bomb. The kicker: they had no idea that that was what they were doing.

Fantastic dramatic tension! I thought. You’re working on the most destructive weapon known to mankind and you have no idea until that very same weapon is revealed to the world? I dove in, and the story kept getting better. People were recruited from all over to live and work in a secret government city not found on any maps. They were highly trained to perform intricate tasks with no idea what larger purpose those tasks served. Better yet, if they asked too many questions, their stay living and working in this mysterious town was over in a hurry.

I was hooked by the Orwellian feel of it all. Looming billboards reminding everyone to keep their lips zipped. Undercover agents and citizen informants stealthily listening in on conversations in dorms and cafeterias. While I felt the story had all the hallmarks of an engaging novel, I figured that when truth seems stranger than fiction, why not stick with the truth?

This presented a couple of challenges. First, my subjects were in their eighties and nineties. If I  was going to write a work of narrative nonfiction, I wanted the women’s experiences to move the story forward. I wanted to stay with their voices and their perspectives. While I was routinely amazed at the level of detail many of them recalled regarding events that had transpired so long ago, there were certainly gaps in everyone’s memories. In order to tell what I considered to be a complete story about the town of Oak Ridge during World War II, I had to use multiple women. There was an incredible amount of time-lining and Post-It shuffling going on all over my living room floor (no computer screen was big enough in the early stages) in order to piece it all together.

Another central challenge revolved around the book’s big idea: Only they didn’t know… I wanted to embrace the “not-knowingness” of those characters, which was going to provide the most juice, dramatically speaking. So while the reader knows the story is headed to the dropping of the world’s first atomic bombs, I still needed a way to let the main characters drive that story, even if they were essentially driving blindfolded.

I considered various approaches. Omitting the entire behind-the-scenes maneuvering of the Manhattan Project officials and scientists kept my female leads in control, in a sense, but it risked leaving the reader too far behind. If he or she knew too little about the history of the Manhattan Project, the real stakes of that moment in history would be lost. Third-person omniscient seemed promising for a bit, but whenever I heard my inner voice beginning to say, Little did they know… I started to feel as though I was writing a cheesy movie trailer instead of a nonfiction book.

So I decided to take a hint from the Manhattan Project itself: I decided to compartmentalize. One of the ways the folks in the know kept a lid on the Manhattan Project was by keeping jobs, responsibilities and access to information as limited and as separate as possible. There were two worlds, really, one in which workers toiled away with little idea what they were working on and a much smaller, more exclusive world in which strings were pulled, strategies were devised and nuclear history was made.

I decided to create two worlds, too. I wrote interstitial chapters that took the readers out of the world of Oak Ridge and gave them a peek at what the was going on at the highest levels of the Manhattan Project. I deliberately kept my women, my characters, out of that world and those chapters. That separation reinforced one of the key strategic elements of the Manhattan Project, kept my characters in control of their piece of the puzzle, while helping the reader understand the larger stakes impacting my characters’ lives.

In the end, this freed up my characters to explore their own wartime dramas, ones I found were filled with the kinds of surprising twists and challenges that we all can relate to. They found loves and lost loved ones. They faced fears and forged unexpected friendships. They wondered what was going on around them, but put their heads down and got to work and I, in turn, got to work for them. They kept me hooked, and I was happy to let them take the lead.


The Girls of Atomic City: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s 

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

16 Mar 12:47

Never uttered before

by Geoffrey K. Pullum

Last week a former Royal Marine who is the boyfriend of the model Kelly Brooks crashed into a bus stop while driving a van carrying a load of dead badgers.

I mention this solely to remind you that linguists are not kidding when they say (as they often do in introductory lectures) that your command of English enables you to understand sentences that have never occurred before in the entire history of the human species.

You don't just understand the meanings of things people have already successfully and meaningfully used in the past (I'd like to speak to the manager; Do you come here often?; I'm afraid I can't help you with that; Take your hand off my leg; Could you tell me the time?; I'll have a ham and swiss on rye; and so on); you understand things you've never heard before — and can hardly believe even after you've heard them. (See this press report for confirmation of the story.)