prolegomenon to “the american infant as manic pixie dream girl”

The title of this post presents a concept that I’ve been tossing around the last day or two. It feels like, if I’m going to bother at all, it ought to be in the context of a reasonably well-thought-out essay, rather than the off-the-cuff crap I usually post here. But, in tossing around the concept, I naturally consulted the repository of all human thought. Although the entry on “infants” contained no germane material, the entry on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl reproduces an interesting interview with Zoe Kazan on the topic:

Do you think of Ruby as a manic pixie dream girl?

[Makes a face.]

What? What do you think of that term?

Well, I am not a fan. Look, I don’t think of her as that; I hope other people don’t think of her as that. I think if they do they’re misunderstanding the movie. That term is a term that was invented by a blogger, and I think it’s more of a term that applies in critical use than it does in creative use. It’s a way of describing female characters that’s reductive and diminutive, and I think basically misogynist. I’m not saying that some of those characters that have been referred to as that don’t deserve it; I think sometimes filmmakers have not used their imagination in imbuing their female characters with real life. You know, they’ve let music tastes be a signifier of personality. But I just think the term really means nothing; it’s just a way of reducing people’s individuality down to a type, and I think that’s always a bad thing. And I think that’s part of what the movie is about, how dangerous it is to reduce a person down to an idea of a person.

Well, yeah, there’s a line in the movie that basically questions the idea of manic pixie dream girls: “The quirky, messy women whose problems make them appealing are not real.”

Sure. What bothers me about it is I think that women get described that way, but it’s really reflective of the man who is looking at them, and the way that they think about that girl. Not about who that girl really is or what her personality actually is. I think that to lump together all individual, original quirky women under that rubric is to erase all difference. Like, I’ve read pieces that describe Annie Hall as a manic pixie dream girl. Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby. To me, those are fully fledged characters that are being played by really smart actresses. I just think it’s misogynist. I don’t want that term to survive. I want it to die.

It is perhaps obvious that I use the term “interesting” euphemistically, mostly.

I mean, I’m in sympathy with the idea that seeing the world through TVTropes-colored glasses is not always a good thing. But the whole thing is such a shambles that you can sort of only begin at the beginning.

“Look, I don’t think of her as that; I hope other people don’t think of her as that. I think if they do they’re misunderstanding the movie.”

Because the creator’s conscious motivations are the Rosetta Stone? Maybe you wrote her that way unintentionally. (Really, would anyone write a character that way intentionally?)

“That term is a term that was invented by a blogger…”

Objection: Relevance?

“… and I think it’s more of a term that applies in critical use than it does in creative use.”

Right. Noticing a trend that organizes lots of art is a critical act, not a creative one. Is this a problem?

“It’s a way of describing female characters that’s reductive and diminutive, and I think basically misogynist.”

This (skipping merrily past the questionable use of “diminutive”) is the grammatical Necker cube that buys Kazan the appearance of an argument. It is correct inasmuch as the MPDG archetype is an instance or possibly a consequence of (presumptively usually unconscious) misogyny. This sentence is constructed, perhaps also unconsciously, to deflect that misogyny onto anyone who deploys the concept. It’s easy to see how this ramifies later on.

“I’m not saying that some of those characters that have been referred to as that don’t deserve it; I think sometimes filmmakers have not used their imagination in imbuing their female characters with real life. You know, they’ve let music tastes be a signifier of personality.”

Here she lets slip an understanding of the term’s actual etiology and use.

“But I just think the term really means nothing; it’s just a way of reducing people’s individuality down to a type, and I think that’s always a bad thing.”

Notice who’s being reduced. Not characters; people. Who are we talking about here?

“What bothers me about it is I think that women get described that way, but it’s really reflective of the man who is looking at them, and the way that they think about that girl. Not about who that girl really is or what her personality actually is. I think that to lump together all individual, original quirky women under that rubric is to erase all difference.”

The last sentence is plainly wrong; categorizing things doesn’t preclude acknowledging differences. But again we see it: “women” get described that way. It’s reflective of how a man thinks about “that girl,” not about who she “really” is. Kazan has taken a term explicitly defined to characterize some women in fiction and asserted that the term is pernicious because it diminishes women in reality. It goes bizarrely unacknowledged that anyone who thinks the MPDG archetype is useful would agree resoundingly that it doesn’t describe real people. The very reason to have a term for it is to make it easier to understand this particular, problematic way that fiction systematically deviates from reality.

I have no opinion about RUBY SPARKS, Katharine Hepburn in BRINGING UP BABY, or Diane Keaton in ANNIE HALL; Kazan may be more than justified in defending her movie and those actresses. But it is nothing short of fascinating to me that Kazan both wrote and played the very character who occasioned this rodomontade—and, more amazingly, that character is literally a fictional character made real. It is patently crackers and yet nearly unquestionable that this whole torrent of denial and self-contradiction is secondary to Kazan’s conflation of herself with Ruby Sparks. When Sparks is attacked, she feels attacked; when Sparks is stereotyped, she feels stereotyped.

And where I’m trying to go with this is there seems something strangely universal about it, and I’m struggling to articulate what. It’s something like: We are all romantic leads in our own movies, prey to an audience prone to “misunderstanding.” Sometimes they point out that our characters are adhering to some script that is insultingly worn-out or simplistic, so much so as to have a derogatory name affixed by a group of bronies and tentacle-porn connoisseurs. We’re insulted by this, because sometimes people really act that way or it’s subversive or if you knew what I knew you’d understand. Because we’re up to our ears in the motivation we’ve worked out in our heads, and we’ve conflated it with the script we’re reading.

But the RL Trope is one back from the TV Trope, of course. RL Tropes create TV Tropes. This is critical. The RL Trope is thinking of women as vessels of a particular kind of pleasure and redemption; the TV Trope is the MPDG. It is sexist to apply the TV Trope to a real person; to apply the RL Trope to a real person is to accuse that person of sexism, which may or may not be justified but is not of itself sexist.

But if you can’t tell the RL Trope from the TV Trope, you might think it was.

So this is where I am, some wibbly-wobbly idea that people think (e.g.) acknowledging racism promotes racism because of this confusion between script and character, essence and extension, the fundamental attribution error, something. Some idea that you can’t see fiction that way unless you see real people that way; you wouldn’t perceive these correlations if you didn’t at some level endorse them.

Which actually might arise from a certain childlike trust in the provenance of fiction.

Or maybe it’s just a backfilling Yalie phoning it in. I don’t know, and I’m up too late. But it feels like there’s something here, still waiting.

“a writer who can be so universally admiring need never lunch alone”

All the articles in SLATE’s Longform Guide to Takedowns are worth reading, but two stand out. I think their common strength is in using good writing, and insight trained by writing, to anatomize the failings (and, in a sense, the workings) of bad writing. It may help that their targets really are fish in barrels—or, perhaps more likely, that their targets come off as fish in barrels may testify to the pungency with which Taibbi and Morozov make their cases.

The significance of Columbus’s discovery was that on a round earth, humanity is more interconnected than on a flat one. On a round earth, the two most distant points are closer together than they are on a flat earth. But Friedman is going to spend the next 470 pages turning the “flat world” into a metaphor for global interconnectedness. Furthermore, he is specifically going to use the word round to describe the old, geographically isolated, unconnected world.

“Let me… share with you some of the encounters that led me to conclude that the world is no longer round,” he says. He will literally travel backward in time, against the current of human knowledge.

“Flathead,” by Matt Taibbi

Today TED is an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering—a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity, to live in the form of videos, tweets, and now e-books. In the world of TED—or, to use their argot, in the TED “ecosystem”—books become talks, talks become memes, memes become projects, projects become talks, talks become books—and so it goes ad infinitum in the sizzling Stakhanovite cycle of memetics, until any shade of depth or nuance disappears into the virtual void. Richard Dawkins, the father of memetics, should be very proud. Perhaps he can explain how “ideas worth spreading” become “ideas no footnotes can support.”

“The Naked and the TED,” by Evgeny Morozov

“Insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering.” I’ll have lunch with Evgeny Morozov any time.

Thm. ∀ w ∈ women, set H of w’s possessions, ∃ x (x ∉ H)

I had a whole thing brewing here, but Rebecca Traister got there first:

Here is what is wrong, what has always been wrong, with equating feminist success with “having it all”: It’s a misrepresentation of a revolutionary social movement. The notion that female achievement should be measured by women’s ability to “have it all” recasts a righteous struggle for greater political, economic, social, sexual and political parity as a piggy and acquisitive project.

What does “having it all” even mean? Affordable childcare or a nanny who speaks Mandarin? Decent school lunches or organic string cheese? A windowed office or a higher minimum wage? Public transportation that reliably gets you to work or a driver who will whisk you from kindergarten dropoff in time for the board meeting? Does it mean never feeling stress or guilt? Does it mean feeling satisfied all the time?

It is a trap, a setup for inevitable feminist short-fall. Irresponsibly conflating liberation with satisfaction, the “have it all” formulation sets an impossible bar for female success and then ensures that when women fail to clear it, it’s feminism – as opposed to persistent gender inequity – that’s to blame.

(Anne-Marie Slaughter approves, for what it’s worth.)

So anyway. At this point, the only thing I have to add is: While all this has been going on, the NYT has published a couple of pieces on achievement without (explicit) regard to gender: Alina Tugend’s “Redefining success and celebrating the ordinary” and Tim Kreider’s “The busy trap”. You can read them if you want, but I think the angles are pretty clear from the titles.

And it just seems funny, doesn’t it? That, although people in general need to chill out, somehow women, who are people, ought to be really focused on quantifying precisely what they can and cannot achieve and how they ought to time things to maximize that achievement? I don’t wish to pin this inconsistency on Tugend or Kreider, who have not endorsed it; it’s just funny and maybe instructive to have these two issues in the zeitgeist simultaneously.

I also don’t mean to suggest that conversations like those Anne-Marie Slaughter has sparked shouldn’t happen. Other (better-paid) commentators have already taken this angle and it’s wrong — and frustratingly wrong, because the sort of “suck it up and deal” language employed in the linked article is exactly one of the things Slaughter was, very reasonably, protesting in her own essay. The issue isn’t that we shouldn’t talk about the obstacles to women’s achievement, or try to sort out what’s reasonable and unreasonable for women or men to expect from life, or even whether some degree of gender difference in various outcomes is ineradicable. The issue is how we talk about what women want. Because it’s insulting and useless to talk as though half the world wants the same things and they are, as Traister puts it, piggy, and acquisitive, and impossible.

(Or, you know, more so than average. Women are, after all, only human.)

(The title of the post refers to a little photo collection linked by Traister, which is priceless in a sad sort of way.)

(H/T TNC, again.)

fantasy, complexity, myth-building, and ground truth

I wrote most of this a while ago and then, for reasons I don’t really understand, left it in the Dustbin of Not-Quite-Finished Drafts. But a post from Phil Tucker knocked some of these thoughts loose again. So here we go.

The first thing I did with my Christmas Kindle was download Steven Erikson‘s book, GARDENS OF THE MOON. I did this because I was in the mood for a big epic fantasy series, but I hadn’t gotten into one for a while, in part because of physical constraints on what I can carry on the train; and because I’d been hearing good things about Erikson, starting a long time ago with this SALON article by Andrew Leonard. I’m into THE BONEHUNTERS now, and my experience is more or less the opposite of Leonard’s; I think GARDENS OF THE MOON is a really excellent book, but instead of finding myself “more and more willing to trust Erikson,” I’m finding myself a little bit frustrated with the fusillade of new characters, new history, new continents, and so on — and then, when the old ones come back, I’m frustrated again because I don’t really remember what Quick Ben and Kalam were up to, what I’m supposed to know about Fiddler, &c. I say this only because some kind of reviewing sentence seems apropos here; what I’m really interested in isn’t Erikson, but Leonard.

“Successful fantasy does not require magic swords, or the triumphant overthrow of whatever Evil Dark Lord of Black Shadow Midnight Murk is currently torturing the poor denizens of Happiland. It doesn’t even require a subplot involving a teenage boy (or increasingly often, girl) who becomes a Man (or Woman) while on a dire quest to find (or destroy) the Holy Trinket.

“Give me, instead, the evocation of a rich, complex and yet ultimately unknowable other world, with a compelling suggestion of intricate history and mythology and lore. Give me mystery amid the grand narrative. There’s no need to spell it all out; no prefaces, please, elucidating the history of Middle Earth as if to students in a lecture hall. Instead, give me a world in which every sea hides a crumbled Atlantis, every ruin has a tale to tell, every mattock blade is a silent legacy of struggles unknown.”

“Readers of “Gardens of the Moon” are confronted with a world where very little is explained as it happens — like the characters in the story, we have to piece together what is going on from cryptic utterances by gods and warlocks and seers and the fragmentary record left behind by the detritus of previous empires. To leapfrog this process by making sense of it would defeat the purpose of the author.”

First, as Leonard acknowledges, there are magic swords (and at least one anti-magic sword), quests, and dragons; he does not acknowledge, although it is the case, that there is at least one Dark Lord of Black Shadow Midnight Murk, and although he observes that there aren’t many teenagers, two of them are main characters who are definitely discovering themselves and growing up. I observe this by way of suggesting, not that Erikson’s fantasy is in fact derivative or lazy, but that it isn’t the tropes per se that are the problem with the fantasy that Leonard doesn’t like.

(As an aside: Both Leonard and Stephen King tar Robert Jordan with the “peddler of derivative mass-market dreck” brush, with an explicit accusation of hobbit-baiting from King, and I just don’t buy it. Jordan has a reasonably well delineated set of Good and Evil characters, which can be tiresome, but his heroes face the kind of Sophie’s choices, realpolitik issues, and intermittently victorious inner demons that Leonard praises Erikson for evoking, and his world and cosmology are, if not his own, certainly not all that derivative of Tolkien’s. Jordan has serious problems — with women, most notably, and organization, and a certain flaccidity of prose — but, again, it’s not the tropes. And, by the way, whatever his flaws, it’s not as though David Eddings is obsessed with elves and dragons either; there’s a fair amount that’s original in his work as well. It’s tempting to use tropiness as a shorthand for poor quality because [a] it’s easier to score points on that than, say, prose style or deftness of character, and [b] everyone except nerds will believe you. But it really is beside the point. George R. R. Martin has fucking JOUSTS in his books; Pat Rothfuss’ child-prodigy street urchin has leveled up to sex with ninjas. It doesn’t have to be your thing. But it WORKS.)

Now that we’re back on the right side of the parentheses: The point of the extensive blockquoting above was to flag what Leonard likes about Erikson. He likes trope-avoidance, although again, the tropes are not all that assiduously avoided, and it’s not clear that they should be. (To be fair, Erikson also has lots of nonstandard characters, like military sappers, a fence, a sort of twisted Virgin Mary, a philosophical zombie, etc.; and his tropey characters often subvert expectations. But it’s plausibly argued that this latter treatment is more the rule for tropes than the exception.) He likes the complexity of history and society deftly suggested rather than presented as lecture or timeline; he likes the complexity of personality and moral judgment well and thoroughly explored.

Which brings me, finally, to my point — what fantasy is Andrew Leonard reading?

I have a perspective here, and by now it’s pretty obvious, so let me try to defuse accusations of bias: I know I pick books a certain way. Broadly, I go for things that Michael Moorcock praises in WIZARDRY & WILD ROMANCE and don’t go for things he pans. Moorcock introduced me to Gene Wolfe, K. J. Bishop, and Jeff VanderMeer; he speaks well of Fritz Leiber and China Mieville, and has an entire chapter on Tolkien titled “Epic Pooh,” in which I think he also lumps Narnia and WATERSHIP DOWN. The principle generalizes fairly well to, “I read what writers I like, like.” Wolfe alerted me to Jack Vance, Samuel Delany to Joanna Russ; Neil Gaiman bounced me over to Nalo Hopkinson; Pat Rothfuss has raised Peter Brett to my awareness, although I have yet to read THE WARDED MAN; another reason I picked up Steven Erikson was that he’s engaged in mutual blurbsturbation with Glen Cook. I guess the point is, I am mostly not going to the fantasy shelves and picking based on covers or blurbs or whatever; I have a reasonably-sized backlog and a relatively sophisticated scheme for adding to it, which amounts to a biased sample. And I’m aware that this is true, not because I am a superior human being, but because I am a bit of a genre whore. So when I say “what fantasy is Andrew Leonard reading?”, it’s not meant to be read with some silent pejorative (“that cotton-pickin’ muggle”) prepended to his name. But it is meant to be a gentle suggestion that, if he can’t come up with even a handful of writers who break the strictures of genre fantasy he finds so tiresome, it may not be because they don’t exist.

And it’s meant to point out that these things he’s praised in Erikson as exceptions to the rule are actually kind of viewed as best practices. And it’s meant to point out that, if I went to the “literature” shelf in the bookstore and made a bunch of generalizations about the “genre” based on random selections, a reasonable person would respond to those generalizations, not by disputing that my sample approximates the mean, but by opening up the world of possibilities — by pointing me toward the good stuff. And, along the way, that person might point out that my call of “Give me psychological depth! Give me beautiful language! Give me the human heart in conflict with itself!” is in fact amply, if not on average, answered by the body of work I thought deaf to it.

The blog hosts a fair amount of vitriol about genre these days (or did back in late 2009/early 2010). I’m not super-comfortable with the politics of the idea that sf readers have a particular skill set that non-sf readers don’t — it may be true, it just doesn’t sit well with me, especially given that sentiments of similar condescension seem to undergird the occasional spurts of intolerance from the community. And it’s not apparent to me that “mainstream” readers and viewers especially need crutches to deal with mainstream literature’s borrowing from the sf toolbox — THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN’S UNION did just fine among non-sf readers, as did THE WEST WING (which is an alternate history, with the facts of its uchronia revealed subtly and at necessity as in the best sf). As did THE HANDMAID’S TALE, as did NEVER LET ME GO, &c &c &c. And let’s not even speak of YA, which is pretty much 100% post-apocalypse and paranormal romance these days. If your common-or-garden teenage Barnes & Noble customer can read sf by the boxload, I don’t think we have much to congratulate ourselves about.

So I’m not much interested in the critique of the sf and fantasy genres from the literary side, and I’m not much interested in the critique of literary fiction from the genre side. Controversial, I know. And if I can attempt to induce a little bit of wisdom about it, I think both critiques come from a sophisticated reading of one’s own side and a nonselective or indiscriminate reading of the other.

To which, happily, the only possible remedy is more reading. Because there really is no shortage of top-shelf books out there. Not even close.


My thoughts on this feel quite derivative and much-echoed right now — it seems every other post on Twitter has a twist or insight more worthy of dissemination than what’s rattling in my head. But I think I’ll want to know what I thought today, maybe in a few years when I’m explaining to my kids what it was like to live my third decade in the middle of the War on Terror. So here it is, for what it’s worth.

Osama Bin Laden was a mass murderer of my countrymen, and if anyone can deserve to die, he did. I think the world is a better place without him in it. I don’t feel joy at his death, as many don’t, but I don’t think I can begrudge those who do. I have two hopes right now, and I don’t know which is greater or more likely: That the families of the men and women killed on 9/11 and in the Middle East derive some comfort from Bin Laden’s death, and that it signals the beginning of our withdrawal from the deserts and cities that have eaten away at our armed forces for so long that no one any longer bothers to post body counts. I hope my children will grow up in a world where young people are not sacrificed far from home for gains no one can verify or understand. And I hope that, once we’ve healed a bit from our Middle Eastern adventures, we as a country can seriously assess the virtues of a “volunteer” military drawn disproportionately from the poor, and so taxed by the efforts demanded by our politicians that it can no longer maintain basic standards of education and good conduct for those it hires to kill our enemies.

I can’t help but feel that Bin Laden’s slaying was too convenient. Not in the sense that he was killed for political gain, or that the soldiers who killed him should have held back — those are things I’ll never know. Too convenient in the sense that we can now say, and truly, that we slew the dragon in his den. And I simply don’t think we’ve earned that kind of simplicity, that catharsis. I exclude from this the soldiers who performed the mission, and just about all others; they deserve all the experience points, gold, and magical items the world has to offer. But not the rest of us. The rest of us are not warriors; we fear death too much to risk death. Our understanding of violence is denatured, and we should not exult in it as we do in lighter contests. Recent electoral politics, the mortgage crisis, and the rapidly expanding bubble in higher education point toward the same thing, an America addicted to simple answers. Simple stories. Knights and dragons.

And perhaps I’ve mined something useful from this exegesis after all, or even exposed its hidden engine. My novel — Christ, I hate to say that when it isn’t published, but that’s what it is — THE DANDELION KNIGHT, is very much about terrorism; it was conceived in the later years of the Bush presidency and concerns the relationship between an isolationist police state and a terrorist organization constructed around the image of a Robin-Hood-like folk hero. And it’s also written very much in reaction to genre tropes in fantasy and science fiction — too much so, arguably; it rears away from them with all the forethought of a horse shying from a snake, or so an uncharitable reading might reasonably say. And I never really took seriously the idea that these political and literary concerns might be related. I like China Miéville’s contra-Tolkienist writings as much as anyone else, but I read them mostly as entertainment; I’m a neuroscientist, and all this political stuff seems rather a priori to me, and quite separate from how stories do and don’t satisfy their readers. And I guess what I’m suggesting here is, maybe not. Which would come as a surprise to no one else, or at least not to most writers, but I do tend to insist on learning things on my own. I wrote a post a few months back, a word-by-word workshop on the first two sentences in Naomi Novik’s first novel, HIS MAJESTY’S DRAGON, and one of the things that rang wrong was her invocation of “the numbing haze of battle-fever,” as though geeks like her and me had any idea what that was. I suppose there’s politics in that — less in the image than the shared understanding with which it wrongly credits us. (There’s a book-length hedge that ought to follow this, which I will summarize thus: I do not endorse the dictum of writing “what you know” except in the loosest sense. I am, when I have time, a fantasist. The point is just that image should convey experience, not presuppose it. This is wrong in the limit, of course, but basically right.)

Anyway, I’ll return briefly from this narcissistic digression to issue the following qualification: I know I’m not the person to declare whether America, whatever that is, has earned catharsis. I have been housed, employed, and in the black since Osama Bin Laden became infamous; I have gone on vacations, eaten good food, published stories and papers, earned my bachelor’s and Ph.D., and married the woman I love surrounded by my friends and family. I don’t need this narrative. But maybe some people do. That’s for them to decide. For myself, I will continue to wish, faintly and with diminishing conviction as the weeks pass, that Bin Laden had been captured instead of killed. That we had found ourselves forced to treat him, not like the dragon we have made him, but like the human he had — to all our shame — been all along.

some lessons from a week with a droid

1.) When writing emails of more than one sentence, take 10 seconds to evaluate whether you could reach a wired computer with a keyboard in 5 minutes or less. If you could, do so. Learning how to use Swype does not exempt you from this rule.

2.) You probably aren’t such a good photographer that those Hipstamatic-style filters won’t improve your work.

3.) Angry Birds is crap, thank God.

4.) The Kindle app, on the other hand, is an undiluted joy — much more beautiful and responsive than an actual Kindle.

5.) And, actually, the Kindle app is much more seductive on the Droid, i.e. in a nonwork context,than Facebook, blogs, or email, which probably says something about how much you value those things intrinsically versus qua procrastination tools.

6.) What, “intrinsically” is too much for you? Stupid Swype.

7.) Speaking of Kindles, you should know that Tana French is still going strong with Faithful Place. Sure, Frank Mackey sounds just like her other POV characters, but it’s a good voice, it works. Gene Wolfe’s An Evil Guest is also quite good, although I read that in analog.

8.) The fact that I’m writing this on the Droid is actually coincidence entire — there was a random network outage halfway through. But the WordPress app is very nice. I’d almost rather use this than the standard web interface. And now I’m finishing out on the subway, and I’ll post it on the train, which is presumably the universe trying to communicate something in re point #1.

9.) Still and all, though, the damnable thing does distract from real writing — less by the provision of particular services, dopaminergic as any given one may be, and more by the general opportunity-nay-imperative to tinker and explore. It’s not that I think there’s no value in this charmingly worded little pastiche of “David Lynch Keeps His Head” (which, in truth, I only just realized is what this is), it’s just that if it’s not one thing, it’s another, the app store is always open. Perpetual connection has made me a mobile blogger, which has obvious advantages but comes at the (not inevitable but very easily paid) opportunity cost of being a mobile scientist or novelist. And, sure, I’m just rediscovering yet another delightful variant of the 21st-century American paradox of choice, don’t think I don’t get that. Peter Brett wrote a novel on his handheld and he didn’t even have Swype; we’re not talking the freaking Zahir here. But I still want to figure out how to make my phone go into silent mode by placing it face down, because how cool is that? And I’m 31, and this just isn’t the best use of my time.

10.) A few other Swype gripes: “imperative,” “dopaminergic,” the need for extreme care in not touching the screen with the fingernail rather than the pad of the finger, “Zahir.”

11.) ETA: WordPress seems insistent on stripping my links, so let me commend you to the easily-Googled “David Lynch Keeps His Head.” Good fun if you’ve got a bit of time.

confidence equals knowledge; or, the subtleties of survey design

The Christian Science Monitor publicizes a Pew Forum survey of religious knowledge in the US. First, let me say that I scored 31 out of 32, crushing even my atheistic soul-brethren and leaving the mouth-breathers of Christianity and America in the dust:

On average, Americans got 16 of the 32 questions correct. Atheists and agnostics got an average of 20.9 correct answers. Jews (20.5) and Mormons (20.3). Protestants got 16 correct answers on average, while Catholics got 14.7 questions right.

Second, let me hazard a guess as to why.

The CSM’s quiz is a pretty good reflection of the Pew Forum’s methodology (418K PDF download), which is to say that the questions take substantially the same form. That form is mostly multiple choice, with most questions having four answers and a few six, and one of the options in the multiple choice being “I don’t know.” Now, the Pew Forum is not the Educational Testing Service; they do not penalize you a quarter point for each incorrect answer. Which forces you to decide: How do you answer when you don’t know?

Actually, it doesn’t even force you to decide; I didn’t even think about this issue as I was taking the test — but there was no case in which I wrote “I don’t know” in my handy little emacs file. I took my best guess, which was in at least one case a random guess, each time. I did this because I am hypereducated: When I see a multiple-choice test, my unquestioned goal is to maximize my score. The Pew people report that the strongest predictor of correct answers is “educational attainment.” Remember: Each degree comes with its own standardized test, and you practice more as the stakes get higher. (I practiced about half an hour for the SAT; the general GRE took dainty chunks out of my life for a couple of months, and the psychology GRE took gulps for the better part of a year. Christ only knows what people do for degrees where you make money.)

“That only matters if people are really professing ignorance.” They are. I’m not going to run a histogram, but that Pew PDF linked above puts the number at, depending on the question, somewhere between 4 (“Where, according to the Bible, was Jesus born?”) and 52 (“In which religion are Vishnu and Shiva central figures?”) percent. 52 is not a huge outlier — there are many other questions in the thirties and forties. Look for yourself. Lots of people are punking out when they don’t know, or think they don’t know.

“Fine, but how much could guessing help your score?” Don’t sell yourself long, stud. Let’s work an example: Americans are reported as knowing 16 of the 32 items. If you got a score of 16 without guessing — i.e. all your errors are from professing ignorance — you could have gotten 4-5 more questions right by guessing (16 questions, each with about three answers that aren’t “I don’t know,” fudged down for the three free response questions). Conversely, if you got a score of 16 with guessing, then at least 5-6 of your correct answers were due to guessing. These are back-of-the-frontal-lobe numbers, and it’s certainly fair to fudge them down a little further for the free response questions, but they’re in the ballpark. And that ballpark is about the size of the 4-to-5-question difference between Christians/Americans and Jews/Mormons/atheists.

Speaking for myself, it would be grossly unfair to say [spoiler alert] that I “knew” anything about Jonathan Edwards, Maimonides, or the Supreme Court’s attitudes on comparative religion courses and the Bible as Literature; and if the question on the first four books of the New Testament hadn’t had that helpful hint “(the four Gospels)”, I’d have merrily recited “Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers” (for which you can thank Paul Epply-Schmidt’s eighth-grade unit on INHERIT THE WIND). Someone who knew as much as I know but felt less confident in it, or just had a non-Type-A attitude toward surveys coincidentally framed like the SAT, might have scored substantially lower.

Having said all this, I am not a survey methodologist; there may be overpowering reasons to include a “Don’t know” option in surveys (maybe people are stressed out by guessing and drop out, maybe a dozen other things). I can’t claim excessive expertise here. But the impact of guessing is bigger than you think, and a bit more deserves to be made of the fact that people’s attitudes toward guessing are allowed to vary uncontrolled. Perhaps my fellow Americans are not such mouth-breathers after all — they just don’t want to say a thing if they’re not sure.

wrongness, and how to be wrong about it

This is me coming out to defend my people. I’ll explain how in a minute; just bear that in mind as I warm up.

From The Evils of Corn Syrup: How Food Writers Got It Wrong, by James McWilliams, Associate Professor of History at Texas State University, San Marcos: wasted no time in headlining the study as a “breakthrough work on high-fructose corn syrup and weight gain.” Laskawy declared that the debate over high fructose corn syrup “may be approaching a conclusive end.” At, Scott Shaffer called the study “the nail in the coffin for the unhealthy school lunch programs that fill our kids with high-fructose corn syrup.”

Not until Marion Nestle, the noted NYU nutritionist, critically assessed the Princeton study did the feeding frenzy abate. “I’m skeptical,” she decreed. “I don’t think the study produces convincing evidence of a difference between the effects of HFCS and sucrose on the body weight of rats.” Her evaluation, which would prove to be supported by other experts, revealed that the authors failed to account for how they measured calorie intake, that the results they found were inconsistent, and that the observed differences between sucrose and HFCS were “statistically insignificant.” Exactly how the authors reached their conclusion, she added, “is beyond me.”

I am not what you’d call plugged into the network of expert opinion on nutrition (never does McWilliams name these “other experts”); and I respect Marion Nestle a lot, so I would probably have taken her word for it if Bocarsly et al. hadn’t been my colleagues back in the day. But they were. (In case you care: I took Bart Hoebel’s class, although he probably doesn’t remember me, and Elyse Powell was my student for two semesters.) So I read what McWilliams had to say, and what Nestle had to say, and what my people in Green Hall had to say.

McWilliams takes Nestle’s criticism as authoritative. Like I said, I would have been guilty of same, had things been different — but right off this is a problem, because you have a historian taking a nutritionist’s opinion as authoritative regarding an experiment by a neuroscientist. And when a nutritionist says the inference in a neuroscience experiment is “beyond her,” at least two things could be going on, only one of which is that the inference is wrong. Because:


The third study used female rats (number not given) and observed them for 7 months. At the end of the study period, female rats fed HFCS plus chow for 12 hours a day weighed 323±9 grams. Female rats fed sucrose plus chow under the same conditions weighed 333±10 grams. This result is not statistically significant. (MN)

Look at the asterisk in the table. See what that means? In the female rats, the 24-hour HFCS are significantly different from chow-fed controls. It says nothing about the difference between groups 2 and 3.

Nestle is fixated on the length of exposure, which is reasonable — but the rationale for including the 12-hour exposure is mentioned pretty plainly in the paper (previous work indicates that it precipitates binge-eating behavior), which also explains why it would run counter to her intuitions (or be, in her words, “inconsistent.”) Luckily, she and James McWilliams don’t need me to say this, because Bart Hoebel already said it in the comments. His response is pretty spot-on, which is all I really have to say —

— and thus we pop one up in the stack, to James McWilliams and how food writers got it wrong.

But is there much to be said here either? I mean, you’ve got to take my word for it or do the work yourself — Marion Nestle said that Hoebel and his collaborators got it wrong, and, quoth I, she was wrong. James McWilliams bought her wrong analysis without even bothering to read the free lesson in scientific interpretation provided by Bart, which had been hanging out there, flagged in red by Nestle, for nearly half a year before McWilliams’ piece was published. That says all I care to know about James McWilliams’ opinions on science.

Also, the study is not nearly as complicated or confusing as Nestle makes it out to be. 90% of the damn thing is in Table 1. I do think there are a few problems of exposition. It’s easy to read the sentence from the abstract, “Rats with 12-h access to HFCS gained significantly more body weight than animals given equal access to 10% sucrose, even though they consumed the same number of total calories, but fewer calories from HFCS than sucrose,” and assume it applies to all the results, even though a careful read makes it pretty clear it only applies to Experiment 1. Likewise, the literature that takes the place of the obvious sucrose controls (some of it generated by the Hoebel lab itself) isn’t perspicuously cited early in the paper, which would have helped.

And, finally, what both Nestle and McWilliams miss in the discussion section is that this paper didn’t come out in isolation. Read the discussion section: Lots of other investigators have confirmed different physiological effects of fructose relative to other sugars. Assertions that “a sugar is a sugar” (cf. the Corn Refiners Association, with whom Nestle “agree[s]… on this one”) don’t just contradict Bocarsly et al., they contradict all that stuff they cited. And maybe it is all wrong, but at that point you’re talking about a lot more than a few rogue neuroscientists at Princeton.

It’s interesting to think about the broader context here. Nestle, I think, was just asleep at the switch; she read this one wrong. McWilliams, though, I can’t help but suspect after the following: “The irony in this mad dash is that a smoking gun already exists to condemn HFCS as the embodiment of culinary evil.” Or, lightly paraphrased, “You don’t need science to hate HFCS; you already have politics.” And generalized: “Need an argument to a conclusion? Why not use mine?” Why are we so comfortable stipulating ideologies — why, that is, should we assume that the value of the political justification is equivalent to the value of the scientific justification? Not everyone is out to make someone do something; some people just want to know the truth. It’s weird that this needs to be said. This is not an argument for the superiority of science over politics — if the Hoebelian scientific concerns are dealt with, the Pollanoid political concerns remain, and vice versa. No shit. But McWilliams has elided the fact that Hoebel and Pollan are doing different things, and neither feels, nor should feel, any obligation to induce the same ideology as the other. Coordinated condemnation is not, nor should it be, their goal.

If the point doesn’t come through by now, it never will, so I’ll leave it hang. Anyway, the moral overall is simple: As Aesop once said, “Don’t trust a historian in Texas to tell you that a nutritionist in New York is right about a neuroscientist in Jersey, unless he’s done his goddamn homework.”

(I don’t take the Bocarsly study as definitive of anything in particular, by the way. I think the findings are what the authors say they are, and I think they’re consistent with the hypothesis they advance. That’s all you generally ask of a single study. This study delivers that, and it’s enough.)

(And I really do respect Marion Nestle. But if she’s going to go after my people, she needs to do it better.)

notes on a blissed-out metagraphial interval

I spend something like 98% of my writing time thinking that what I’m doing is no good or, at best, workmanlike. It’s probably been worse these days because I do a lot of it in 45-minute increments on the train, which is barely enough to upload enough information to do any of the high-level edits that need to happen. But today I spent three hours revising and extending what can’t be more than two pages of prose, and it was narcotic. I wouldn’t call it a flow state — it didn’t feel effortless — but I had a depth of concentration and grain of resolution that were just light-years better than any mental work I’ve done in a long time. I’ve been riding that high all evening. I’d post the results here, but they’re emotional scenes and key plot points and would probably make yet less sense out of context than most of the other gobbledygook I put up here, which would be an achievement.

Anyway, I suppose this is of interest to those people (of doubtful existential status, except for me) who wonder why I write. I do it because I can’t do anything else that well. I don’t often get that thrill of mastery when I do it, and it probably isn’t justified when I do — but it doesn’t really matter. John Scalzi has a sobering post, which I cannot unearth, that mentions a few best-selling novels near the turn of the century, and they ring no bells; the Oscars are likewise famous for valorizing the forgettable. The book, if it ever becomes a book, cannot be counted on to matter, although of course it will be the only thing that has a chance to matter to anyone other than me. To me, though, what’s important — not by ideology or stipulation, but by sheer ungainsayable force of impact — is the work. The lessons in balance and rhythm and image and detail. The vestibular shifts and lily-pad node-jumps in semantic space. The worm’s-eye view of language’s associative panorama, ungodly vast and yet so starkly steadily insufficient, the essence of what’s really meant when we are told that deserts, too, are full of life. The hard, gemlike flame.

Likely related: I’ve been reading Delany on his own writing, via his critical alter ego, K. Leslie Steiner (collected in THE STRAITS OF MESSINA, a “first printing O.P.” of which I purchased from Labyrinth Books in Princeton for $30, which must have been a steal for either them or me). It’s humbling — not so much the analysis, which is typically preoccupied with the dynamics of various strongly reified critical concepts that I don’t really understand, but the quotations from his fiction. It’s also exhausting, particularly “Some notes toward a reading of DHALGREN,” so today I picked up Michael Chabon on writing in general (MAPS AND LEGENDS: WRITING ALONG THE BORDERLANDS). And there I find a comment on this passage of Conan Doyle, where Holmes critiques Watson’s rendering of “A Study in Scarlet”:

Honestly, I cannot congratulate you upon it. Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science, and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner. You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid.

Holmes may or may not be right concerning Watson, but it’s an interesting take on Delany. He’s unbelievable with language, and better in fiction than in criticism, but the metaphysics of criticism remain the preoccupation of his fiction; that’s what he focuses on in his disguised self-analysis, and it certainly explains some of his novels’ cool and distance to assume that he wants them read primarily as reports of interactions among critical objects.

(The point, such as it is, ends here, but for context, here’s Chabon’s response to the Conan Doyle text he’s quoted:)

Some of us feel, of course, that the fifth proposition of Euclid would only be improved by a nice juicy elopement. This is a typical bit of good-humored self-mockery, with Conan Doyle displaying the sly with for which he is too rarely, even by his most ardent supporters, given credit.

(Euclid’s fifth proposition is the parallel postulate, which concerns a triangle, so there’s at least a little bit of sly wit going on.)

Should my unborn daughter come to avow a preference for vanilla ice cream over chocolate: An imagined conversation


“What color do you think vanilla is?” I dream of asking. This will be a lesson, if it is a lesson, in fact as metaphor, metonymy through field glasses.

“White,” I dream she answers. The color of vanilla ice cream.

In my sage’s dream, I am in the kitchen, or perhaps the dramaturgy admits a period of silent mystery: We are going to the supermarket, I can say, if we are closer to a supermarket than the kitchen, or we can go to the kitchen and I can spend longer than necessary rooting around in the cabinet that holds the spices. In any event, in due time I produce a bottle of vanilla extract. We know what color it is.

“The bottle is dark,” my observant daughter dreamishly protests. At this juncture, the lesson gains texture if we are in the supermarket: I perform a transgressive act, opening the bottle to pour a drop on the floor or on my fingertip (my skin is pale). There may be a digression at this point about the absolutism of values; a pimply-faced minimum-wage employee (“pimply-faced” is lazy shorthand; teenagers take very good care of their skin these days, I think) may bring chastisements only to be brushed off with assurances that the befouled product will be purchased; my daughter may be horrified at my breach of law and protocol, and of course she will be insensitive to the fine pedagogy of it all, her deep skin receptors as yet untuned to the dominant frequencies of the inference that has begun its heavy-footed slouch toward us.

“The vanilla bean is dark too,” I dream of elaborating, “not just the extract. The only additive is alcohol, which is clear.” (The class issue raised here cannot be ignored; inexpensive brands of vanilla extract contain corn syrup, which can be dark, and imitation vanilla, yet cheaper, has nothing to do with the vanilla bean at all. The sage must hold court in the organic aisle.) “Cacao and vanilla both originated in the Americas. They are both derived from beans that grow in fibrous pods; both are difficult to cultivate outside their native territory, although we have found ways. We use them both mostly in sweet foods. Both were imported into Europe by the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes, who killed something like 260,000 Aztecs and Tlaxcalans in the siege of Tenochtitlan.” I have brushed up on my Wikipedia for this dream-lesson. I imagine myself leaning back, spent, against a wall of spices, or of randomly collocated organic items, depending on exactly which store I have chosen as my impromptu lyceum.

What next unfurls is hard to imagine, not because there are too few possibilities but the opposite; every ensuing conversation seems to foreclose the others, and yet they all seem worthy, but to enumerate them would be to transmute this charming object lesson into lecture. We are not slaves to metaphor, begins (or ends) one conversation, but we heed its counsel. (Negative portrayals of Spanish imperialism are known as the Leyenda Negra, the Black Legend.) Or, The fantasy books were wrong: Naming is the lowest form of knowledge. (Personally, I couldn’t tell an Aztec from a Tlaxcalan if one or the other embedded a macuahuitl in my culo.) Or, Of course they taste different. They aren’t the same thing, but they aren’t opposites either. (Cortes’ victory in the siege of Tenochtitlan may have depended on his indigenous allies, dominated by Tlaxcalans but including Huexotzinco, Atlixco, Tliliuhqui-Tepecs, Tetzcocans, Chalca, Alcohua and Tepanecs, all of whom had once been conquered by Aztecs — and this alliance may account for the carnage and rapine thereafter.) Or — and perhaps this is most appropriate for my nonexistent daughter, as the entire premise of this didactic dream rests on her being too young to know the color of a basic baking ingredient — Even chocolate ice cream has vanilla in it. (This may not be true of all ice cream, but it is true of Alton Brown’s Google-topping recipe, and so it is true enough for me.)

The reverse is, of course, not true. And after all that, I still feel guilty for observing this asymmetry.

So much for racial politics. What next?


“Vanilla is the color of maple syrup.”

Close enough; I doubt I could do better. What then? There is nothing to correct. But, of course, the lesson was never about vanilla. Is this whole exercise the didactic equivalent of baking spinach into brownies? I want nothing but the best for my daughter, and if Socrates isn’t there to show her that the slave boy always knew the diagonal of a unit square was sqrt(2), I will do my damnedest with what is at hand. But Socrates had a good editor, and I am working ex tempore. (Maple syrup was first collected by the Algonquins, whose relationship with French conquerors and other Native American tribes would seem to be just as complicated as the Aztecs’ with Cortes and other local civilizations. Perhaps all is not lost.)

“Who cares?”

The gurus of the Internet economy claim that attention is a person’s most precious commodity; my daughter would be more than within her rights to deny the importance of the question. If a blight struck all vanilla beans with a true-breeding albinism tomorrow, her ice cream would taste just as good. In the meantime, her concern with the color of a flavoring agent whose name has become a synonym for mundanity competes with such pressing questions as how to amass resources, find love, forge happiness, and face death well. One must pick one’s battles.

“Why do you care?”

This is not the same as the previous question. This is the one that I would hope and fear the most to hear. It is good if she knows the fact; it is better if she knows what she needs to know, or at least is thinking about it; but it is best, it is critical, if she knows when someone is trying to manipulate her. Socrates’ slave boy, to our knowledge, did not profit from his lesson.

But this is not a question children ask, nor is it one whose answer they should credit. If adults are not to be trusted with the best interests of children, still less are children. There is an irreducible conflict at the heart of this relationship, which we maintain even through its nadirs is based on love.

And so I leave the question. Why do I care to force this cunning little parable down the throat of a girl with thoughts and passions of her own? What change am I trying to work in her, and who will benefit the most from it? I could speculate, I could defend, and so I do, in the chambers of my own mind; but, if she should not trust my answer, why should you?