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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]

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.

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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.

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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.

18 Mar 09:55

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

by Jia Tolentino
by Jia Tolentino

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

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

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

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

All of Brown's essay here on her blog.

17 Mar 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 08:05

What Bitcoin is and isn’t

by mike

After the last post on Bitcoin, I’ve been having some interesting discussion with a reader, Jonathon Duerig, about Bitcoin and money. This is the first of a two parter on money and digital technology

Bitcoin resembles the traditional gold standard, in that it’s a form of money imagined as outside government interference that can’t be inflated. It’s finite. The traditional attraction of this is obvious—for people who already have money, and especially investment capital, a scarce, finite money supply means the value of the money you hold increases. You can charge more to lend it A loose money supply tends to do the opposite. Loose money, paper money, tends to benefit the debtor and classically stimulates economic growth. Bitcoin confers most of the alleged advantages of the gold standard.1

romanThe traditional justification for gold was that it had “intrinsic value.” It was made valuable by nature, by God, by the fact that it seemed to be universally desired: gold stands in the claims of gold bugs as “outside” of the social world. It will still have value if the much-longed-for government collapse finally occurs. The “intrinsic value” of gold is the central claim of gold bugs. It’s what they answered when people (like Ben Franklin) said “how come you just arbitrily declared only gold could be money?” Gold has “value,” was the answer, in the same way it has weight and color and mass.

whey2Intrinsic value has always seemed to me to be a ludicrous idea, because “value” isn’t like weight; it’s not a physical property, it’s a cultural idea, a set of agreed-upon propositions. Saying gold has intrinsic value is like saying gold has intrinsic freedom or intrinsic cheerfulness or intrinsic creativity. Freedom, novelty and creativity are social things, not material properties. Absent people, gold has mass and atomic weight but no value at all.

Unlike gold, Bitcoin was never imagined as having “intrinsic value.” Quite the opposite: Bitcoin is a heavily heavily ideological thing, invented out of thin air by persons unknown. It’s as real as any complex number arrived at by massive calculation. It has utility–it’s useful–and it’s kept scarce. But it’s only useful to people with a digital infrastructure.  And its value derives from the beliefs of those who use it, and they tend to be libertarians or people skeptical of government.  In that sense, Bitcoin is just like paper money. It requires a “faith community.”

christitutionWe now use a pure paper money, “Federal Reserve Notes,” backed by the authority of the United States of American and our faith in its stability and prosperity. This is not a trivial thing–people regularly fight and die for the United States of America, after all, and swear they love it and insist that it has been specially blessed by God. The United States of America is  a big powerful nation with lots of material assets and a vast military. It looms large in the imagination; there’s a lot there to believe in. It’s true that the law compels us to take Federal Reserve Notes–you can’t legally refuse to accept them in payment. But this ultimately depends on faith as well. If people lost faith in the nation, they would simply start negotiating private contracts which required payment in other forms of money–like Bitcoin.

nuts2Bitcoin resembles the traditional gold standard, in that it’s a limited supply that can’t be inflated. But it very much resembles paper money in that it depends on a community of belief. In Bitcoin’s case it’s faith in technology; in the benign motives of someone who may or may not be Satoshi Nakamoto, and faith in libertarian anti government dogma. Some people believe in it as an instrument of freeing us all from state tyranny; others believe in it as a ting they can speculate in. But it only works if people believe in it, like paper money.2

wwiispendingHistory demonstrates very clearly, I’d argue, that you can’t have a money that’s based on a fixed supply, and you can’t have a money that’s limited to only one faith community. A limited supply fosters monopoly and stifles growth; it makes it impossible to fight wars or undertake large scale infrastructure and investment. You want a certain amount of flexibility in your money. For example, the US engaged in massive deficit spending to fight WWII. It would not have been able to do so under the gold standard. Does anyone think that would have been a good thing? And it’s too hard to do business outside of your faith community–Bitcoins remain difficult to buy, and limited in what you can spend them on. They mostly circulate among co-religionists. But a money based on something in unlimited supply is no good either. So we have tried basing money on metal, and basing the money supply on the alleged wisdom of elites, like, in the 1820s, Nicholas Biddle of the Second Bank of the US, or Ben Bernanke of the Fed in the early 21st century, or the community of libertarian techies.

gopsoundBitcoin is yet another attempt to manage the fact that we want money to do multiple, contradictory things. We want it to be scarce and abundant at the same time. We want to have a lot of money ourselves, but if everyone has a lot of money then its value goes down, because it’s not scarce anymore. It might be more accurate to say that what we want is a situation where I (you) have a lot of money and most people have only a little. But that’s not an attractive society, for most of us. Balancing the relative scarcity and abundance of money is the heart of the whole problem that Bitcoin addresses–addresses very badly, in my opinion. I have an alternative coming in the next blog post.




  1. one interesting difference is that we know exactly how finite the Bitcoin supply is going to be. We know the supply of gold is limited, but we don’t really know how limited. There may be huge amounts of gold under the sea floor, or bubbling in molten rock: we don’t know. One of the advantages of gold, you could argue, is that it’s finite in supply but we have no idea how finite. But the maximum number of Bitcoins is set at 21 million. There will never be more than that, and in fact, because some are lost, there will never be even that many.
  2. This is true of all money, in fact; gold only has value because people agree to believe it has value
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.

17 Mar 07:29

Should There be Trigger Warnings on Syllabi?

by Tressie McMillan Cottom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(View original at

17 Mar 07:27

Sensor Scan: Burnham's Celestial Handbook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We are beginning a journey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inspiration Disinformation

by LP

Joy:  Still got your seaman’s papers?

Lllewyn:  Yeah.  Why?

Joy:  If the music’s not…

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

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

– from Inside Llewyn Davis

Lately I’ve been thinking about Zen Pencils.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.)

16 Mar 12:42

Dogs I Saw This Week, Rated

by Lauren O'Neal
by Lauren O'Neal

5-star dogs

A scruffy gray mutt tied to a parking meter. V. old, had to lie down by scooting paws forward in several stages. ★★★★★

A friendly pit bull begging for food outside the local teen boba-tea hangout. Apparently v. fond of tapioca balls. ★★★★★

A golden retriever going jogging with its owner. Seemed v. enthusiastic and smiley about going jogging with its owner. ★★★★★

A boxer puppy tied to the leg of a table on a restaurant patio, begging for food. Looked v. soft and floppy. ★★★★★

A pit bull with a homeless owner on a bus going down Haight Street. V. well-behaved even though people were always almost stepping on her. ★★★★★

A Cavalier King Charles spaniel that a woman brings to one of my classes every week. Stays completely quiet and still, but still v. distracting because extremely cute. ★★★★★

A Chihuahua mix trotting alongside its owner, and instead of stepping with its right front leg and left back leg, it used both its right legs and then both its left legs, so that it was sort of hopping from one side to the other while moving forward. V. waddly and roly-poly. ★★★★★

[Image via.]

16 Mar 11:42

Let's All Call Our Grandmothers Today

by Jia Tolentino
by Jia Tolentino

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

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

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

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

12 Mar 17:50

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

by Firinn Asch
by Firinn Asch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12 Mar 17:47

Grateful for the Opportunity

by Megan Reynolds
by Megan Reynolds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Megan Reynolds lives in New York.

12 Mar 17:46

The Filter Bubble Is a Misguided, Privileged Notion

by gfguestblogger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does this mean for the internet?

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, hey, filter bubbles, amirite?

12 Mar 16:02

Is This Pickup Artist Actually… Helping People?

by Sharon Adarlo
by Sharon Adarlo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The course started unceremoniously.

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

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

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

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

“My God,” one overwhelmed student whispered.

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

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

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

There were instructions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was cold and dirty snow littered the ground.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You suck at this,” I told him.

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

“Hi. I am married,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking at white, Asian, and Hispanic women:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why the marked preference for white men?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Their success on the second night out was gratifying.

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

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

“Even I was jealous,” said Drew.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what about the master himself?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

01 Mar 23:11

Sitting Out Sochi

by John Scalzi

Exactly what I thought.

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

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

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