Monday, March 31, 2008

Random Roundup

Every time I type the name of a particular drug company, I make the same typo. Every time, I snicker to myself and think "That's Lapine."

Speaking of nerds: private school students in New York wrote nasty Facebook pages about their teachers. One of the teachers wrote a thinly-veiled satire of the school. It all ends in tears. (Via Phoebe, who focuses on the conflict about political correctness allegedly at the bottom of it all.)

Some guy sits around waiting for people to deface Hillary Clinton's Wikipedia page. Did you know that Hillary Clinton is taller than John McCain? With heels she must be like half a head taller than him. Weird.

Also on Wikipedia: more pejorative terms than you ever knew existed.

On pejoratives: evidence that we still have a long way to go, feminism-wise: a Harvard student sex blogger debated a representative from the campus Anscombe Society (we've seen the Princeton chapter of this Junior Anti-Sex League before). The reaction by her peers to what was, by all accounts, a respectful and reasoned exchange?
[P]eople wrote in to Ivygate, calling Lena Chen a “slut,” a “whore,” a “total whore,” a “whore whore slut.” And then someone by the screen name of Sex v. Marriage wrote in to say that “most guys out there would rather end up with a girl like Janie.”
(Janie being her debate opponent, a young woman who has constructed a convoluted "feminist" argument for why she shouldn't even masturbate and who uses abstinence as an excuse to distance herself from relationships with men. Guys, the line forms to the left.)

Also, this.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Lawyers and Prostitution

From an interview with two sex workers:
1. What was the most common lawyer fantasy/role play?

A: Lawyers have one common fantasy, according to high-end sex workers: they want their lady-friend to play the role of “opposing counsel,” by visiting them in the hotel room to strike a plea bargain. I’ll leave the rest to the imagination.


Your lovers are judging you.
“I know there were occasions when I just wrote people off completely because of what they were reading long before it ever got near the point of falling in or out of love: Baudrillard (way too pretentious), John Irving (way too middlebrow), Virginia Woolf (way too Virginia Woolf).” Come to think of it, Collins added, “I do know people who almost broke up” over “The Corrections” by Jonathan Franzen: “‘Overrated!’ ‘Brilliant!’ ‘Overrated!’ ‘Brilliant!’”

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Taxpayer dollars at work

One of the things we lost with 9/11: outrage over the formation of international task forces to facilitate Jenna Bush's drinking habit.
One example of the shift: On Sept. 12, 2001, another major newspaper was set to run a story on the extraordinary diplomatic maneuverings the U.S. Secret Service had arranged with their Mexican counterparts to allow Jenna Bush, then 19, to make a barhopping trip south of the border. (She had just been charged with underage drinking in Texas.) A few days earlier, a scoop about a presidential daughter's barhopping trip getting special dispensation from the Secret Service and a foreign government might have gotten heavy treatment. But the story never ran, and the Secret Service's maneuverings remained a secret until now. In the weeks and months after 9/11, there was no longer an appetite for such stories.

50 Book Challenge #17: Matter

I suppose I should be happy that Iain M. Banks returned to the Culture universe after his disappointing departure in The Algebraist. There's nothing wrong with Matter, per se. So why was I so underwhelmed?

The draw of the Culture novels stems in part from their portrayal of a post-scarcity society and the subtle and dramatic differences this would breed in humanoid populations. To the extent that a Culture novel is set in a non-Culture society, some of the most fruitful sections come from an exploration of how the precepts of the Culture and the other community mesh. (The other main draw, at least for me, is the interactions between Culture Minds.) We get little of that here. Djan, the central character, lacks the psychological complexity of some of Banks's other protagonists and isn't forced into any significant conflict between Culture principles and her own desires. We see relatively few Minds, and, in what appears to be a concession to the idea that people just read about Minds for the funny names, their names are listed in an appendix. Does Banks expect us to skip the meat of the novel and just chuckle over them?

This book is something of a baffling mashup of other, better Culture novels. We have a generous dollop of Inversions (the struggle for power in a monarchical world) and some Use of Weapons flavor with the character of a Special Circumstances operative recruited from outside the Culture. A large part of the book plods through a fairly standard fantasy story set somewhere between sword & sorcery and steampunk. The characters in this plotline have a bit more depth, and Banks carefully changes points of view to highlight differences between self-image and reality, but this device is abandoned early on and we are then dragged along through a quest narrative that palls quickly. The impending danger becomes both obvious and uninteresting, and the necessary conditions for it are jammed in with little explanation (the Oct's actions, for example).

All this would have been fine, but after Banks turns out one of his standard Pyrrhic endings, he then appends an epilogue that is cribbed almost word for word from The Lord of the Rings. Anyone who reads Banks will know how completely disjointed and out-of-place this is. Is he tired of writing Culture novels and deliberately insulting the reader? Was this intended as some misguided attempt at fanservice? I cannot imagine any good reason why this was not scrapped. It leaves me with a poor impression of Banks, who seemed all along to be phoning it in. Recommended with reservations (check it out from a library).

Friday, March 28, 2008

Again, not new.

More lame tech reporting from the NY Times:
Flickr and Facebook allow you to share photos online, and desktop programs like Picasa, iPhoto and Photoshop Elements let you make the pictures look good before you upload. But starting today with its new Photoshop Express site, Adobe is putting the two together.
Is anyone even bothering to check this stuff anymore?!?

Grad Student Demands More Money

What do you think about the idea of paying minority grad students more as "hazard pay" for slogging through a minefield of privileged white people at faculty wine and cheese parties?

I, for the record, disagree.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Defending Karen Crowder

I finally got around to watching Michael Clayton. [Warning: spoilers ahead.] The performances were very good, but the writing was terrible. A three billion dollar class action? Eighty-five thousand documents in discovery? 30,000 billable hours? Is this supposed to be impressive? Couldn't the writer have talked to a real attorney and got a reality check for these numbers? Nothing in the movie is remotely realistic, especially the idea that a memo like the one featured would be signed by four senior executives.

The most interesting part to me was trying to figure out how much evidence they actually had on the Tilda Swinton character. She makes no admissions regarding Arthur or the attempt on Clayton during the final conversation. Clayton's statements can be interpreted as an attempt to extort the company by threatening to reveal the memo Arthur discovered to the plaintiffs or the public (notwithstanding the fact that the memo is, as she notes, privileged). The car bomb can easily be blamed on some of the mobsters and loan sharks who Clayton consorts with--do they expect to get the Greek to testify that he was paid off on time? Her acquiescence to his demands can be portrayed as caving to a shakedown artist who threatens the settlement negotiations. Am I missing something?

Market Share Liability and Anti-Vaccinators

In tort law, there's something called market share liability. Say you come down with a medical condition that you contend was caused by a certain product. If there is significant uncertainty about which entity manufactured the product that caused you to become ill, courts will sometimes calculate damages based on the market shares of the alleged tortfeasors: if Firm X made 30% of the allegedly harmful product, it is liable for 30% of the damages, and so on. This is not a liability allocation scheme I find particularly desirable, but it is often advanced by plaintiffs.

This is all brought to mind by Tom and Apollo's discussion of parents who refuse to vaccinate their children even though that puts others at risk of injury and death. Apollo grimly notes that they might become the targets of lawsuits by parents whose children contracted a fatal or debilitating disease which is generally prevented by vaccination. (Even the vaccinated can get these diseases, as protection is never 100% and the immunocompromised do not benefit.) In an outbreak scenario, it may be unclear which child actually infected the infant plaintiff. Would it be consistent with precedent to simply split the damages among the infected, non-vaccinated children? In the alternative, parents wishing to opt out of vaccination could be required to purchase a bond covering a share of medical expenses for sickened children in their school district.

Perhaps it's sufficiently straightforward to determine the infection vectors and individual suits would be better. But since the anti-vaccine crowd has been so quick to respond to the recent court decision awarding damages to a child plaintiff who contended that vaccines caused her to become ill, it would be interesting to see if they were similarly influenced by liability going the other way. Knowing that you would be responsible for a share of damages of any vaccinated children who fell ill during an outbreak might be quite motivating.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

"New" Google Search Tool Terrifies Some, Inspires Yawns in Others

The NY Times reports on a new Google search tool that allows you to search within a site.
The search box appears when someone enters the name of certain Web addresses or company names — say, “Best Buy” — rather than entering a request like “cellphones.” The results of the search are almost all individual company pages. Google tops those results with a link to the home page of the Web site in question, adds another search box, and offers users the chance to let Google search for certain things within that site.
You can see what they're talking about here. However, if you actually type a term into the new box, the results page reveals that the search being performed is one that has been available for years: " term."

Some companies are up in arms:

“Eventually this could be a huge problem if Google starts throwing this out there to all brands,” said Pinny Gniwisch, vice president for marketing of, an online jeweler. Mr. Gniwisch ... said Google’s new feature did not appear when users searched for, but he said he would object if it did. “This is essentially giving the customer a way to leave a search for your site,” he said. ...

[One internet consultant said] "For our larger clients, we’ll probably ask Google to turn this off.” That is the route that Amazon has apparently chosen. The retailer declined to comment for this article, but last week Google’s search-within-search function did not appear when users entered “” into the initial search box.

Um . . . guys? It's true that most people don't know to use the "site:" operator, but it's not a big secret either.

Random Roundup

Women are better investors.

George Orwell writes a novel. (via)

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Law School Myths and Misconceptions

I spent a fair amount of time recently trying to talk a pre-law out of going to law school. Over the course of the conversation, he was surprised several times by certain things I said about law school and legal careers. I thought I would throw the debate open to you all to discuss some ideas about law school that people not familiar with it or with practice might have. If you disagree with any of these statements, please comment; I hope this may be a useful resource or at least begin a conversation. Here are some examples of statements that surprised my listener:

  • Law school does not make you more marketable in most public policy jobs. You would be better off trying to publish, speak, and raise your profile.
  • Law school will not provide more networking opportunities in the policy community than working in that community.
  • Having a law degree may make you overqualified for some jobs and lead to skepticism about hiring you.
  • Most law schools do not teach legal writing effectively.
  • Law school teaches you to read cases, not to practice law.
  • Learning to think like a lawyer is not the same as developing a "big picture" point of view in which you see how various aspects of government and law work together.
  • Even if you have a scholarship to law school, you will probably graduate with significant debt due to living expenses.
  • Going to school in the city in which you hope to work is important, unless you attend one of a few highly-regarded schools with a national profile.
  • It is very difficult obtain a J.D., work in a public policy position for a few years, and then obtain employment at a big law firm paying NY market salaries. (The reverse is easier and common.)
  • A J.D. is not a guarantee of employment, much less a guarantee of a NY market salary.
Are these true, mostly true, mostly untrue, or entirely untrue? What are some myths about law school or law practice that you could share?

Worst Movie Ever?

Megan McArdle nominates Far & Away and The Road to Wellville for the title, based on the following criteria:
To qualify as one of the worst films of all time, several strict requirements must be met. For starters, a truly awful movie must have started out with some expectation of not being awful. That is why making a horrific, cheapo motion picture that stars Hilton or Jessica Simpson is not really much of an accomplishment. Did anyone seriously expect a film called The Hottie and The Nottie not to suck? Two, an authentically bad movie has to be famous; it can't simply be an obscure student film about a boy who eats live rodents to impress dead girls. Three, the film cannot be a deliberate attempt to make the worst movie ever, as this is cheating. Four, the film must feature real movie stars, not jocks, bozos, has-beens or fleetingly famous media fabrications like Hilton. Five, the film must generate a negative buzz long before it reaches cinemas; like the Black Plague or the Mongol invasions, it must be an impending disaster of which there has been abundant advance warning; it cannot simply appear out of nowhere. And it must, upon release, answer the question: could it possibly be as bad as everyone says it is? This is what separates Waterworld, a financial disaster but not an uncompromisingly dreadful film, and Ishtar, which has one or two amusing moments, from The Postman, Gigli and Heaven's Gate, all of which are bona fide nightmares.

Six, to qualify as one of the worst movies ever made, a motion picture must induce a sense of dread in those who have seen it, a fear that they may one day be forced to watch the film again - and again - and again.
As a teenager I voluntarily and repeatedly watched both of her nominees, albeit on cable. To be sure, both are terrible. But the worst ever? Far & Away was the Titanic of its time; twelve-year-old girls are not discerning, and the film didn't expect its audience to be. And The Road to Wellville, for those of us who read and enjoyed the Boyle novel on which it is based, is a fascinating train wreck of a film that fails utterly as cinema but does succeed in capturing some of the profound weirdness of the book. As a bonus, it offers us the pathetic spectacle of Dana Carvey dressed as a hobo, clawing desperately for the film success that would later come so easily to his SNL partner, Mike Myers.

I nominate Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, although I'm not sure how well it meets criterion #5. There's probably something out there I haven't seen that wins the prize (my money is on a movie from Robin Williams's "I IS A SRS ACTOR" period).

Monday, March 24, 2008

Paternalism and Privacy

The NYT Magazine profiled a website called, where people with certain diseases (MS, Parkinson's, ALS, and now mental illness) can document their treatment regimens and symptoms. All the information is disclosed voluntarily by the patients, and some have successfully used it, in cooperation with their physicians, to tweak their treatments. Predictably, there is already a call to regulate the site--for the patients' own good, of course.
Joe Heyman, a practicing physician in Amesbury, Mass., and the chair-elect of the A.M.A.’s board of trustees ... suggests that if physicians themselves aren’t sole stewards of the patient data — his first choice — then there should be some national standards or a law that covers a company like PatientsLikeMe that traffics in such data.
Note the total omission of the role of patients as custodians of their own data. Here we have patients sharing data with other patients, aided by tools made available on a website. Participants on the site understand that they do not have a doctor-patient relationship of confidentiality, and the site clearly discloses that anyone may join the site and view the data they post there. The site also discloses that it may share the data with other entities. How is regulation going to do anything but make it more difficult to use the pooled data? The entire point of the site is to make an end run around the poky, regulation-bound medical research establishment.

Sweater Update

Ugh! It's terrible. How did I manage, despite using the same brand of yarn and size of needles as in this pretty sweater, to make a giant blotchy puffball that makes me look even more columnar than usual?

This is more what I was trying for (the sleeves are not done--not that finishing them in the shortened version is much work--not that they're going to be finished because I have to unravel the whole thing AUGH AUGH AUGH).

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Clean Water for All?

I thought this was really amazing, but Megan will come along soon to explain why this won't save the Colorado River/Californian agriculture/Las Vegas after the apocalypse.

What I've been up to:


It is supposed to look like this. It is a bulkier yarn, though, and thus will have fewer buttons (buttons I have yet to select . . . wood? shell?).

The internet is so boring on holidays.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Friday, March 21, 2008


After about four years of nagging, Geoffrey finally started a blog. Right now he's making up words and being surly. Welcome to the blogosphere, G-off.

Cold Turkey

We no longer have cable. Also, the television broke.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Why I Love Steve

Me: Want to drive to the boondocks of Maryland to go to a Sheep and Wool festival? We can buy cheese and yarn.

Steve: Awesome. I'm in.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Prosecutorial Discretion

I don't see how this is much different from convincing people they need to pay exorbitant sums for audits and training to remove their body thetans.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

50 Book Challenge #16: Foreigner

One of the reasons SF gets a bad rap is that the aliens are all too often of the Star Trek mold: basically humans with funny eyes or green skin. In Foreigner, the aliens are sufficiently humanoid in appearance to make the reader fear that this familiar dynamic is about to replay itself, but the psychology of the alien society is, well, profoundly alien. The closest comparison is perhaps to The Left Hand of Darkness, in terms of the challenge posed by alien society to human understanding. The end is rather unsatisfying, but I understand more books in the same setting follow. Recommended for genre readers.

Monday, March 17, 2008

That Law School Guy

Law school + That Guy = Comedy Gold.

It's not just guys, of course. For every Obsessed With Female LLMs Guy or Wears a Blazer and Smokes a Pipe Guy, there's a Putting Up Darfur Flyers Girl or an I Love the Death Penalty Miss Pettigrew type.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

I like the ground.

Nothing like an afternoon of wall climbing to let you acquire new phobias.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

A higher standard should apply.

This happened in my town, so I'm doubly disgusted:
[A] former FBI official was sentenced yesterday to six years in prison for torturing his girlfriend at knifepoint and gunpoint during a six-hour ordeal in her Crystal City high-rise apartment. Carl L. Spicocchi, 55, a 19-year FBI veteran who had run the Toledo office and was on temporary assignment in Washington, pleaded guilty in Arlington County Circuit Court last year to two felony counts of abduction and using a firearm in the Aug. 23 attack.
In the statement, read by [Commonwealth's Attorney Lisa Bergman], the [victim] gave this account: When she came home that day, she found Spicocchi hiding in a closet, armed with a gun and a 10-inch knife. He stripped her and wrapped her in tape, then dragged her around the apartment by her hair. He forced the gun into her mouth and held the knife to her throat. He beat her repeatedly. He told her that he would cut open her veins and that, because of his training, he knew how long it would take the blood to drain from her body.
He told her that he planned to kill her and that she would soon join her father, who had died 10 months earlier. He said that he would write a check for $100,000 from her account and flee to South America after she was dead and that he had a plane ticket for a 6 a.m. flight.

Finally, the woman said, she escaped by running into the hall and screaming for help.
Six years, almost certainly served in protective custody, with time off for good behavior . . . that hardly seems like enough of a punishment, especially considering he attempted to use his status as an FBI agent to get off:
Spicocchi confessed only after he realized that police had enough evidence to convict him, and ... asked the police officer to let him go, as a favor, "cop to cop."

Friday, March 14, 2008

Rents are higher for a reason.

People really do discount the value of living in a particular location when discussing how rich a given person is.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Kitty Hugs

Snape does this exact thing, but it's much less alarming.

Japanese Porn Laws

Japan will outlaw possession of child porn, but with exceptions for manga comics and animated films. That would still make them more permissive than the United States, which has laws against pornographic drawings of children, as many teenage fan artists have discovered. (via)

The age of consent in Japan is 13, although local laws may effectively raise it to 17 in some areas.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Public Sex Legalized

In Amsterdam. (via Karl)

This feels like an LSAT question.

Amber likes to knit. She has 1100 yards of blue variegated yarn, 735 yards of pink variegated yarn, 576 yards of green DK variegated yarn, and 550 yards of solid jade yarn. She would like to make up to four sweaters with this yarn. She does not want to make the same sweater more than once.

The blue variegated can be made into an Hourglass sweater, a Drops jacket, or a Tempting sweater.

The pink variegated can be made into a Bad Penny sweater, a Fitted Minisweater, or a Wicked sweater.

The green DK variegated can be made into a Shapely tank, a Bad Penny sweater, or a Green Gable sweater.

The jade solid can be made into a Green Gable sweater, a Tempting sweater, a Blanche sweater, or a Fitted Minisweater.

The Bad Penny and Hourglass sweaters must be made with variegated yarn. The Green Gable and Tempting look best with solid yarn. The Bad Penny looks best with DK yarn. The Green Gable looks nice in jade, but if Amber uses the jade solid for something else then she will make the Green Gable in black later.

Amber can always buy more yarn. What should Amber make?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Bloggy Goodness

I hadn't realized that my old Crim Pro professor had a blog. He's posting on trickle-down cultural economics at the moment.

Southern Appeal is back, with a much less creepy masthead.

Belle Lettre has started a law school advice wiki to complement the discussion on her blog. I respond to the question "should I go to law school?" in roughly the same way the Social Security Administration responds to disability claims: deny the first time, look at the situation again if they aren't discouraged, and then deny them again unless there are extraordinary circumstances ("extraordinary" here typically means "actually wants to practice law").

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Wire's Women

I've kept up with the Freakonomics blog feature on what real thugs think of The Wire rather sporadically, but the last post, describing why the thugs gave up on the show two episodes from the end, gets at one thing that really did bug me about the best series on television:
“[The show should have focused on w]omen,” said Tony-T. “Where I come from, women run most of the things [that the show] talks about. It’s the women that have the power in the ghetto. This show totally got it wrong when they made it all about men. Women are the politicians; they can get you a gun, they got the cash, they can get you land to build something on.”
There were only three episodes of the entire series written by a woman, and all too often the female characters were peripheral, flat, or reactive. The show failed to explore the growing Hispanic population of Baltimore due to David Simon & Co.'s lack of expertise as well, but I cut people less slack for failing to portray half of the human species. Couldn't one of the students in Season 4 have been a girl? Did Alma the intrepid reporter have to be so one dimensional (granted, all the Baltimore Sun characters were somewhat thin)? Couldn't they have done more with Rhonda Pearlman than show her in relation to McNulty and Daniels?

A shot by shot analysis of the final montage is here.

Update: Sorry, skeptics: David Simon + actual thug > Amanda Marcotte.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

50 Book Challenge #15: In the Wake of Madness

There was something of a vogue for books about whaling voyages a couple of years ago, but I just got around to reading this book. Perhaps I'm jaded by television violence, but the voyage's murderousness only seemed remarkable due to the identity of one of the victims (the captain). The rest is what I would have thought to be run-of-the-mill nineteenth century maritime brutality and misadventure. Between this, Moby-Dick, and In the Heart of the Sea, I now know as much as anyone would want to about blubber. Recommended, but not to purchase.

Friday, March 07, 2008

50 Book Challenge #14: 1491

I usually read fiction, since it takes longer to finish a nonfiction work and my time is precious, but Steve bought a copy of this and I needed something that would last me through a couple of airplane rides.

This book is supposedly about American Indians as they were before contact was made with Europeans in the fifteenth century, but the author is forced to rely on European sources and extrapolate backwards thanks to the paucity of written material about that period. The book is readable and packed with historical tales of individual kings and leaders from the various native societies. It does tend to get bogged down in the interpersonal struggles between various modern scientists, though, which is a shame. The appendices on Inkan record keeping and Mayan calendars make much better reading than the internal politics of the early 20th c. Smithsonian. Nevertheless, this is a very enjoyable pop look at a period of history that most of our schooling gave short shrift. Recommended. You can find a longer and more substantive review (which, by the way, brought the book to my attention in the first place) here.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Why I am extremely grouchy

- A server dropped a plate on my head last night.

- Some jerks named William and Dennis Edwards stole my social security number.

- Snape locked himself in the bathroom and pooped on the mat.

- One of the buttons fell off my new coat.

What's eating you?

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Reading Memoirs, Fictional and Otherwise (Long)

There's been a huge kerfuffle stemming from the revelation that another memoirist was actually a fabulist. (This time it was a Beverly Hills rich kid pretending to have run with gangbangers in Los Angeles.)

More interesting than the pathetic flounderings of the author are bloggers' meditations on why readers embrace memoir and express anger when yet another book in the genre turns out to be make believe.

Megan McArdle weighs in, but the more interesting framing is put forth by one of her commenters, who posits a fairly realistic theory of reader psychology:
I'm making a serious attempt to parse this, but it seems like the desire to read non-fiction boils down to:

1. I don't want people to think I read crappy non-fiction, so I'll read fiction that pretends to be non-fiction.

2. I want to read something deep and meaningful but not something "made up"... so I'll read fiction that pretends to be non-fiction.

On the other hand, the author who lies about his/her memoir is basically lying to give their story credibility. In other words, he/she wants the reader to either falsely take away from the story a lesson about how people really are or excuse story weaknesses because "it's what really happened."

Any way I look at it, fake memoirs are a fraud and a bad thing. They may be a pretty trivial bad thing, but they are a bad thing. They will add false information to the common knowledge about certain people or situations. It would be like a scientist making up some good data and adding it to some big database. If it's .1% of the data and it's data on average beauty mark sizes, then it's probably not a big deal. But it's still not right.
Others have seized on this as an opportunity to castigate readers for wanting to get information about the world from such books in the first place:

bitchphd: i think people really want to read "gritty" stories? ... in any case, it's historically an ongoing problem: people want to read stories about things that are "exotic" to them.
m. leblanc: maybe people get upset because they rely on the writers of those books to tell them truths about the world.
bitchphd: and can, of course, be very gullible, precisely b/c they don't really know what the truths are.
m. leblanc: and when they find it's an unreliable narrator, those truths are suspect.
bitchphd: and being fooled forces you to face your
gullibility, your lack of sophistication? ...
m. leblanc: yeah. well it's almost like people think there should be some kind of gentlemen's agreement about the sanctity of "memoirs."
bitchphd: well, yeah. which is dumb.
m. leblanc: and we agree to take these things as empirical fact to influence our thinking about policy. which is nonsense. ... because i think it's intellectually lazy. ... they don’t want to go to the trouble of finding out whether something is an accurate representation of "life on the street" , for example. they want it all to be perfect and accurate, so they can use it as the basis for their opinions, rather than reading something boring like reports or studies. or, like we said earlier, going into those communities or schools. ... it's like.. here's an analogy: if there was a peer-reviewed journal, they would want authors to submit everything with an affidavit that says EVERYTHING IN HERE IS COMPLETELY ACCURATE. instead of reading it, using critical thinking and saying, "does this go along with what i know?" they want a seal of "authenticity" so that they can trust it completely. which, of course, is a completely foolish desire, because there is no authentic memory. ...
bitchphd: right. and! we want to believe that reading this kind of thing makes us Better People.

The comments to that post take care of the many objections that spring to mind.

I don't usually read memoirs and especially avoid the sort of movie-of-the-week ones that seem to have become so popular. I do, however, read fictional books in part to gain information about my world, and I think that makes me a much better person than someone who isn't curious at all about such things or who adheres so firmly to the idea that only first-hand experience or self-generated criticism is valuable that s/he ends up with a tiny sphere of knowledge. In part, this is an efficiency determination: I want to both inform myself and be entertained. If my interest in a topic is not intense, it may be preferable to devote my precious leisure time to something that satisfies both desires, since it takes substantially longer to read a nonfiction work than a novel or memoir.

As a former editor, I also expect scholarship to have something of an implicit guarantee that the author believes it to be accurate, as well. If I received an article that represented that Case/Experiment A came out one way when it really came out the other, I wouldn't care how much the author really thought that the former was what should have happened. If I wanted to read the primary sources, I would, but sometimes what you actually need is synthesized information, so you're not constantly reinventing the wheel.

Paging Ezra Klein

You can buy books by the foot from the Strand Bookstore. Do you want to convey that you are the type of person who collects art books? Perhaps that you treasure the classics? Or do you wish to imply that you read in several languages? The possibilities for self-invention are endless. Incidentally, most of these books were probably scavenged by the homeless and sold to stores. I suppose that's better than digging through trash for aluminum cans, so at least someone benefits from this gross exchange.

Seen on the Metro

A big guy with a mohawk and punk garb walked toward me and then passed me by. From the rear, one could see that the defiant line of his hair was interrupted by a large and growing bald spot.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Unequal Treatment

Phoebe wants to know why engaged men get to present the appearance of eligibility while their ladies advertise their unavailability on their fingers for months on end. Good question, sez I.

I want to know why men get shrugs when they express ambivalence or dislike of new fatherhood but when women do so people are so eager to claim that it's postpartum depression.* Is the theory that a woman wouldn't regret becoming a mom unless she was sick in the head?

* Not to downplay the seriousness of PPD; consciousness raising is good. Please don't have Brooke Shields attack me.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Are Romance Novels Books? (Long)

Hilzoy stirred up a hornet's nest when she declared that romance novels aren't books.
[R]omance novels* ... are not "books", as that word is normally used. They are either tools for relaxation or the female equivalent of porn. They should therefore be compared not to War and Peace, but to either Ultimate Sudoku or the Hustler centerfold. Personally, I think they come out fine in either comparison, but that's probably because I'm just a dumb woman.
She subsequently backtracked, but I'm wondering if the hole just got deeper.
About whether genre romance novels are "books", as that word is normally used: that was undoubtedly the wrong way to put what I had in mind, and I regret having put it that way. However, I also think that there is a decent point here, which I expressed in a needlessly dumb way. What I meant was:

Genre romance novels are, in my experience, written according to very serious constraints. There are plot constraints, characterization constraints, all kinds of constraints. ... When I assess a non-genre novel, I assess it as a work of imagination, in which the author is free to do as he or she wants. I take the author to have a kind of complete freedom: there she sits, confronted by a blank book, and she can do whatever she wants with it. Seeing what she ends up doing with all that freedom, and deciding what I think of it, is what criticism of normal novels is all about.

Assessing genre romances is different, precisely because there are so many rules. I do not think badly of a particular genre romance because the author should not have made the hero so strong, noble, and self-contained, or because its heroine should not be so completely ignorant of her own charms, or because some complication prevents the hero and heroine from recognizing their attraction to one another until they are forced into close proximity by some unexpected turn of events. Those are the rules. And I assess a genre romance novel not by its quality as a work of creation ex nihilo, but as a novel written according to those rules.

I think it was Tanya Modliewski who wrote that genre romance is, for this reason, best thought of as something closer to a very constrained kind of performance than to non-genre novels. If I recall correctly (can't find the book, but I am trying to give credit), she said: think of football. Football is not like a sort of spontaneous dance, nor do you assess it primarily for its imaginative virtues. In football, there are a very strict set of rules, and those rules allow a limited set of basic options for a team. You only rarely get to assess a particular player or team for something like: coming up with a whole new option, or for any other work of pure creative imagination. Normally, you assess them for the way in which they do what they have to do, within the rules. You ask: do they do it well? with flair? Are they good at picking the best of the (relatively small number of) options that the rules allow -- e.g., passing when they should, and running when they should? Do they do it with athleticism and grace and speed?

Similarly, Modliewski argued (I think), with romance novels. The basic parameters are laid down in advance, and what matters, if you're writing a genre romance at all, is the grace and style and beauty with which you do it. In this, genre romance is strikingly different from non-genre novels (I'm leaving other genres out, as I noted above).
With this as backdrop, when I said that "romance novels are not "books", as that word is normally used", I should, first of all, have said not books but novels, and specifically non-genre fiction. For better or for worse, I think that genre romance (again, I'm agnostic on, because largely ignorant of, other genres) is a different thing than non-genre fiction, and different in large part because it is best seen as a highly constrained performance -- as more like the compulsory program in figure skating, while non-genre fiction is like the freestyle part, where you really can do whatever you want.

I did not, and do not, mean this claim to imply anything at all about the merits of genre romance novels. ... I do think genre romance novels are a different sort of thing from non-genre novels. But that doesn't imply anything at all about whether the kind of thing they are is a better or worse thing to be.
I like the Modliewski theory, but this particular exercise in line drawing rubs me the wrong way. There are some pretty porny romances, but are books featuring male sexuality classified as porny? I can think of a couple of male authors whose works are, if not formally subject to a set of well-defined constraints, just as much variations on a standard (sexuality-based) theme. Are those repeated explorations of the sexual lives and misogynist impulses of middle-aged guys "books"?

Hilzoy's separate-but-unequal treatment of rule-bound fiction also doesn't seem to carry over well in other fields of art. Were the Renaissance artists who painted hundreds of portraits of Mary, Jesus, and saints mere "genre painters"? Is someone playing Hamlet not really acting? Is Michelangelo's David not a true sculpture? Are these works qualitatively different from similar works of the imagination? (This ties in to the discussion at Belle Lettre's on cover songs. Are covers of a jazz standard less meritorious than an original improvisation? Can't a cover song be more artistic than the original?)

I don't even read romance novels, but I'm not willing to cede the word "book" to lit-fic, especially since it can be just as formulaic as the most plodding mystery or bodice-ripper.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Things I did recently

  • Paid $2.69 for a 20 oz. bottle of Sprite Zero
  • Was overwhelmed with resulting airport rage
  • Joined Ravelry, which is so awesome but makes me want to knit more, which hurts my hands. Maybe I should switch to Eastern Uncrossed style. It looks it has fewer hand movements.
  • Finished a hat for someone
  • Made delicious pita chips
  • Failed to make a lemon poppyseed cake
  • Bathed Snape
  • Made plans for a blogger dinner

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Bowdlerizing my youth

I was driving around today listening to the generic rock station when that Nineties classic, You Oughta Know, came on. (Don't tell me you never sung along to this one in the wake of a bad breakup. ) As you might recall, the first verse is a little risque:
I want you to know that I'm happy for you
I wish nothing but the best for you both
An older version of me
Is she perverted like me
Would she go down on you in a theater
Does she speak eloquently
And would she have your baby
I'm sure she'd make a really excellent mother
Despite the fact that the station I had on was not Disney-affiliated, the fourth through sixth verses were completely cut. Double-you tee eff, people? Do they not play Cocaine at all anymore? You can have a guy get raped by an orangutan on television but you can't say the word "perverted" on the radio?