December 31, 2007

Too Fool For School

From The Scotsman: Teachers' compensation payouts hit £180,000
THE catalogue of injuries suffered by teachers in Scottish schools was revealed today, with compensation totalling more than £180,000 paid out to staff this year...

Among [the successful claims] was £1,750 for a teacher who sustained serious damage after a kick to the groin, and another who received £2,300 after a punch in the face caused a fractured cheekbone and broken nose...

Ronnie Smith, the general secretary of the EIS, Scotland's largest teaching union, described the amount paid out as "extremely worrying".
Really? That's what you find worrying? Personally I was a little more concerned by the fact that teachers apparently can't go to work without having to worry about being kicked in the groin.
Meanwhile, falls were revealed to have generated the most payments for teachers. A teacher was awarded £20,000 after a slip in a corridor... and another received £1,500 after a back injury caused by the collapse of a piano chair.

One teacher received £8,500 after slipping on a wet floor, and another was given £5,000 when a trip over a schoolbag caused facial injuries and a detached retina.
Good Lord! Where do these people teach?! The McCallister house?

Maybe I'll reconsider my goal of becoming a teacher. I'm quite fond of my retina/cheekbones/groin.

December 30, 2007

In Memoriam Netscape Navigator

From BBC News: Web icon set to be discontinued

With apologies to E.J. Thribb (17 1/2)

So, Farewell then,
Netscape
Navigator,
Trailblazing browser
Of the web.

"Netscape encountered
A fatal
Error
And had to close (-307)."

That was
Your catchphrase.

Alas!, there is no
Error
In the story of
Your demise.

But you will
Always be remembered.
Thanks, Mozilla:
The little internet
Explorer
That could.

December 29, 2007

You Don't Know How to Jack

From The Daily Record: Scotch Pie Threatened By Lack Of Bakers
The Scotch pie... bridies, butteries and plain loaves [could be] threatened by a government block on food industry training grants.

Labour finance spokesman Iain Gray said: "Traditional Scottish baking icons like the pan loaf, the plain loaf, the buttery, the bridie and Scotch pie could be threatened as the skills to bake them are not passed on."

The Scottish Association of Master Bakers is fighting to overturn the decision.
Wait, the Scottish Association of what?
Master Bakers
*giggle*
Gray said: "For Scotland to perform in a competitive marketplace... it is essential that we produce the next wave of master bakers."
Well said, sir. We need to make it clear to the younger generations how important master baking is; if we don't take a hands-on approach, our children might never become master bakers. They'll be ignorant of even the most basic steps in master baking: raising their loaves, how to handle a rolling pin, and, of course, proper beating technique.

In any case, this is a dangerous precedent; if we don't take a stand on food training grants now, countless other vital programs might get stiffed. Dairy workers could end up unable to produce cream. Butchers will be incapable of tenderising their meat. Farmers won't know how to choke their chickens! Who knows what might be coming? Or not?

Sometimes they just hand you this stuff on a platter, you know?

December 28, 2007

Conversations With Greatness CLXI



Friends: why not resolve to try something new for 2008, and purchase some tasteful Conversations With Greatness merchandise? You'll be the envy of all your hipster friends!

December 27, 2007

I'm A Freud Not

Last Christmas (and I remember this quite clearly) I was at the airport on my way to Sydney and bought a copy of Jed Rubenfeld's The Interpretation of Murder, fully intending to read it. Instead, it followed me forlornly from continent to continent, always in my to-read pile, but never quite at the top. When I moved to Boston I was convinced Rubenfeld's hour was at hand, but, alas!, school and The New Yorker got in the way, and it wasn't to be. TIoM made one more transoceanic journey with me when I came home last week, and on Christmas Eve, finally, after twelve months and several thousand miles, I started reading it.

And it was awful.

Well, okay, let's be fair. It's not awful if you take it as a piece of junky airport pulp reading (and, honestly, even if that's how I had been coming at it, a year of expectation would probably still have been hard to match) — but it's certainly not packaged as airport junk. It has a tasteful, understated, artistic cover, adorned with rave reviews from every major British paper (saying things like: "spectacular", "vivid", "intelligent", "intriguing", "dazzling", etc.), and a heartily commendatory sticker from Richard and Judy's Book Club (≈Oprah's Book Club, North American readers).

Even the plot synopsis doesn't really seem like your typical pulpy crapfest: a historical novel about Sigmund Freud's only visit to America, in 1909, into which is inserted a murder mystery that Freud's American disciple (and to a lesser extent, Freud himself) is enlisted to help solve.

So what's the problem? Well, first of all (and you'll excuse me if my current studies make me think this is kind of a big deal): the writing. Rubenfeld doesn't really write that beautifully (as the Sunday Telegraph would have you believe); he's a law professor and legal writer, and, well, it shows. The prose lurches from stale to stiff to turgid — and all the wild variation in between! — and does various, fairly confusing things, like switch narrative perspective every two pages. The protagonist, Younger (Freud's American lackey), has a narrative thread all his own in which he speaks in the first person — which would be fine if he didn't also appear regularly in the omniscient third person narrative that tells the rest of the story, or if the two narrators were in any way distinguishable other than Younger occasionally saying "I".

Then there's the plot, which, I will admit, gets pretty tense in the middle third of the book, but is otherwise summarily absurd. There are so many crosses, double crosses, deceptions, hallucinations, and so forth, that by the end of the novel we discover that the murder scene that opens the book wasn't actually a murder, and the murder victim didn't actually exist (I kid you not). In the meantime the whole motive for the actual crime hinges on a bizarre and misogynistic marriage in which husband and wife have never had sex — either because the husband doesn't want to risk the wife getting pregnant and ruining her figure, or because the wife thinks she'll have more control over him this way — and instead have a bedroom life that consists entirely of him tying her up and pretending to force fellatio on her. Again, I kid you not. Apparently Rubenfeld didn't get the memo that it's, um, kind of terrible to depict women as a series of willing orifices for men's unwanted semen.

All of this does, of course, allow Rubenfeld to work in an extraordinary amount of Freudian theory, which I presume is what the reviewers meant when they said that the book works on many levels. That, and Younger's frankly mystifying ruminations on the "To be or not to be" soliloquy from Hamlet, which make up yet another narrative thread running the length of the book — and which are dull, out of place, and, as an interpretation of Shakespeare, not much to write home about, either. (There's also a tacked on subplot about the neurology-psychology wars in medicine in the early Twentieth Century.) It all comes off as an attempt at intellectual showboating, except that the showboat is a rusty canoe and the intellectual is seriously out of his depth.

When the novel's not busy trying to be clever, it's busy trying to get itself optioned by Paramount. You can almost hear Tom Hanks delivering the protagonist's dialogue, and as a Hollywood thriller this would undoubtedly work better: all the chaff of Freudian and literary theory would be discarded, and the audience would have less to time to think over the details of the mystery and realise, with a jolt, what Detective Jimmy Littlemore does in the final chapter: "That doesn't make sense."

Now, obviously the phrase "that doesn't make sense" is a pretty common gambit in mystery novels (and I won't even begin to comment on the named-for-a-Fifties-public-information-film Detective Jimmy Littlemore, who plays Tweedledee to Younger's Tweedledum). But typically, when a mystery writer resorts to such a gambit, he or she then goes on to have the protagonist explain why, in fact, everything does make sense. Not so with the normally erudite Younger, who responds to Littlemore's statement with a dismissive, "Oh, I don't know." That's a direct quote, and the conversation continues as follows:
"Some people feel a need to bring about the very thing that will most torment them."

"They do?"

"Yes."

"Why?" asked Littlemore.

"I have no idea, Detective. It's an unsolved mystery."
Which I guess Rubenfeld thought might be kind of an unsatisfying ending to a mystery novel, so he tries to distract us with the saccharine conclusion of Littlemore's closing line: "That reminds me, I'm not a detective anymore… The mayor's making me a lieutenant." Hosannah!

But I don't wish to mislead; although that's Littlemore's closing line, the novel doesn't quite end there. We are still forced to submit to the metaphorical fellatio of Rubenfeld taking us through a Dragnet style epilogue (in which each character is given a neat, one-paragraph tying-up-of-loose-ends), and a gleefully gloating Author's Note, in which we are informed that, even if the events and/or characters and/or dialogue in the book seem unbelievable (and he does explicitly mention all three), they are all drawn directly from real life! Don't we feel silly for our skepticism! The problem is, real life doesn't have to work to make us believe it, whereas fiction does — and in between writing his punctiliously researched Freud-Jung interchanges and setting the women's movement back about a hundred years, Rubenfeld has sadly skipped over that all-important element of any good mystery novel: plausibility.

Of course, I suppose this all pointless post facto sniping, because Rubenfeld has made his million already. Dan Brown would be proud; I just want to sob quietly into my unpublished manuscripts.

December 26, 2007

Epidaft

During one of my habitual late-night tours of the internet, yesterday, I came across a page of famous last words, and was pretty tickled to discover that James Joyce, that great author of impenetrable modernist gobbledegook, is reported to have uttered before dying:
"Does nobody understand?"
Yes, well, I think you brought that one on yourself, James.

Jacques Derrida, on the other hand, went positively Hollywood Tearjerker as he lay dying:
"I love you and am smiling at you from wherever I am."
Which, honestly, is kind of disappointingly diaphanous coming from the man whose major contribution to Western thought is, by his own admission, so ridiculously difficult to grasp that even he can't define it (though perhaps this explains why he is smiling at us wherever he is; maybe ROTFLHAO is more like it...).

Beethoven's last words have always charmed me:
"Friends, applaud, the comedy is finished."
But, because I feel like this could have been yanked directly from a Conversations With Greatness panel, I think my favourite discovery last night was Karl Marx's last remark:
"Go on, get out — last words are for fools who haven't said enough."
I guess it's kind of morbid that I spent Christmas looking up dying words. Oh well.

December 24, 2007

Hotscot's Directorial Debut

If you didn't know (and I'm not sure why anyone living outside Britain would), one of the longstanding Christmas traditions in this country is that the reigning monarch delivers a Christmas message to the masses every Christmas day (we make 'em work for our tax money!). George VI used to have his broadcast over the radio, but, by the time the Queen was in charge, enough people had TV that she pretty much immediately switched mediums to make herself seem like less "distant" a figure.

Anyway, now the royal family have launched their own YouTube channel so that, once again, the Christmas message will reach the public on the most modern of available mediums — this year's broadcast will be uploaded to YouTube at around the same time it appears on the Beeb. For nostalgia's sake, the original televised message from 1957 ("Heppy Christmas") is also available to watch.

The Royal Channel also includes a couple of silent news reels from the very early days of film, including this one of Queen Alexandra visiting London's West End. I thought it was a little too silent, so I took the liberty of adding in a soundtrack, in my very first YouTube video:

Incidentally, this was also my very first experience with the new iMovie included in iLife '08, and it is awful. They have managed to thoroughly ruin the UI and make it about the most unintuitive thing I have ever seen Apple's name on (indeed, the "UI" may as well stand for unintuitive). I actually had to watch a bunch of the web tutorials to even figure out how to do the relatively simple things I was trying to do. The sort of advanced editing you used to be able to do on iMovie would be virtually impossible now, which I suppose is because they want you to buy Final Cut Pro — just like the way they've disabled Mail on the iPod Touch because they want you to buy an iPhone. Frankly, this sort of money-hungry douchebaggery is getting a little too habitual for Apple. Is it really not possible to run a successful business without being evil? Sigh.

On that note: Merry Christmas!

December 21, 2007

December 20, 2007

Happy Birthday To Me

Thanks for all the birthday well wishes. As usual I spent almost the entire day in transit — left the house in Boston at 5am, arrived at destination in London at 10:30pm. I then proceeded more or less immediately to the pub to ensure that at least one birthday drink (other than the cup of British Airways coffee) would be forthcoming. Now, twelve hours later, I'm back at Heathrow to fly to Edinburgh.

For the plane I bought myself a copy of Brainiac, by Jeopardy! champ and record-breaker Ken Jennings. To my surprise and delight, it was not a quick 'n' dirty fifteen-minutes-of-fame cash-in, but rather a wry and gentle look at the history of trivia in the United States, coupled with profiles of a number of its quirkier devotees (kind of like Wordplay, but in book form). Along the way, Jennings interweaves the story of his own obsession with trivia, from his quasi-OCD childhood devotion to comics and quiz shows, all the way up to his 75-show run on Jeopardy! (which includes a number of Alex Trebek zingers that are far superior to anything SNL ever managed). The whole thing is written with deft wit, humility and even, occasionally, some poesy. Perhaps the best part, though, is that each chapter has built-in, footnoted trivia questions, so you can play along as you read.

It's a particularly interesting comparison for me, because I also just finished reading The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean (famously adapted for the movie Adaptation). Orlean makes a living from her writing (The Orchid Thief is based on a piece she did for The New Yorker), whereas Jennings is a "mere" software engineer — but although both books have a pretty similar theme and structure — personal story/reflection interwoven with in-depth history of a relatively obscure field and its fanatics — Orlean's feels stilted and overwritten where Jennings' is more varied and nimble. Not that Orlean is a bad writer or Jennings a great one (all his physical descriptions of people involve precisely two facial features, and one is almost always the eyebrows), but Jennings nails the nonfiction book format and leaves Orlean kind of floundering in her own bloated prose. (And yet, while Orlean's book is adorned with rave reviews from a who's who of highbrow book criticism, the best Jennings' manages is The Rocky Mountain News — which seems a bit ridiculous.)

Anyway, highly recommended.

December 19, 2007

Plagiarisn't

One of the classes I took this semester was called 'Teaching Freshman Writing': a course about the various pedagogies of college composition, and a prerequisite for applying for a teaching job next year (which I plan to do). It was a fun class, and the readings we had to do for it were generally interesting and thoughtful.

However, the article we had to read in the last week — "Sexuality, Textuality: The Cultural Work of Plagiarism", by Rebecca Moore Howard — was an infuriating piece of cultural studies pseudo-argument, and I can't hold off tearing into it any longer.

Its main point is actually a good one, and made convincingly right there on the first page: a survey of college English teachers all over the United States was unable to provide any meaningful consensus as to the definition of plagiarism, and if we can't define plagiarism how can we reasonably continue to punish students for doing it? From there, though, the article descends into a sticky morass of bizarre feminist rhetoric based on questionable evidence and logical fallacy.

Item: Moore points out that cultural studies scholars have long acknowledged that there's no such thing as originality, and it would be impossible for anyone, anywhere, to ever cite "all" their sources. (Such an undertaking, it is alleged, would require a full "history of the writer's subjectivity," whatever that means.) Moore also points out that plagiarism policies imply that all student work must be original and/or fully cited, which, clearly, is impossible if you maintain that the preceding point is true. Except that really what she's doing is taking concepts from two completely separate arenas (literary theory and university bureaucracy) and conflating them; "originality" in the literary theory sense is not the same as "originality" (read: "not plagiarised") in the university bureaucracy sense, and so there's really no reason why a piece of work can't be "not original" and "original" at the same time.

I could make all sorts of stupid arguments if all I had to do was compare different definitions of the same word. Like, a tiger is an animal, but some people also speak of Asian Tigers, which are rapidly growing economies in southeast Asia. But how can something be an animal and a rapidly growing economy at the same time?!! That's ABSURD! Therefore, there is no such thing as southeast Asian economic growth (or there's no such thing as tigers; take your pick).

Item: Moore begins her argument by using cultural imagery that "shows" how authorship is denied to women. For instance, a common metaphor for creative writing is the author being inspired by a muse. Because muses are beautiful females, and because "being inspired" is synonymous with boinking (Moore says; it's news to me), and because our culture requires compulsory heterosexuality, women can't have sex with muses and therefore can't be authors. I mean, never mind that these are vague cultural notions that have no basis in any kind of empirical reality and are deployed only in a tiny smattering of the situations in which authorship is discussed — apparently when Margaret Atwood turned up at the publisher's office with The Blind Assassin there was a hot lesbian sex scene before any contracts were signed.

If you think that's a tenuous argument, your head may well explode at the next one. Not only are women never authors, but, in fact, they are always plagiarists. I have to cite Moore's own words on this one, so you can appreciate their breathtaking ridiculousness:
Plagiarism is a disease; disease is of the body…; and the body, Aristotle and his successors have convinced us, is the feminine… Hence plagiarism, through its association with the female author who is mad, is a female madness. (p481)
Did you catch that? Plagiarism = disease, disease = body, body = feminine; so plagiarism = feminine.

But why stop there? I propose the following: plagiarism = disease, disease = body, body = feminine, feminine = maternal, maternal = reproduction, reproduction = creation of something new. Ipso facto, plagiarism = creation of something new, ergo thus QED. Did I just blow your mind, or what?

Item: This is actually a continuation of the last point, but is easily the pinnacle of the article's fatuity — so I thought it deserved its own subheading. After having established that authors "must" be male, Moore tells us that plagiarism is analogous with sexual transgression, and because there is only one sex act that is exclusively performed by men upon women, "plagiarism is a form of rape" (p482); "plagiarism amounts to one man's raping another man's female property" (p483). Never mind the obnoxiously sexist suggestion that men can't be raped — I wonder how Moore can reconcile the assertion that "plagiarism is feminine" with the idea "plagiarism is male sexual violence".

Actually, it's not really fair to call Moore obnoxious for saying that men can't be raped, because a mere two pages later she corrects (read: contradicts) herself: "the victim of plagiarism is the victim of homosexual rape. The male author has been raped by the male plagiarist" (p484). I don't really understand how this fits into the tangled web of syllogistic gender nonsense that Moore has spun (men are authors and plagiarists and rapists and victims; women are not authors, but they are plagiarists, but they're not rapists, but they are muses), but I think we can safely say that what Moore is really trying to do here is make a sort of metaphorical argument about how the practise of writing is maybe more complex that we might have thought.

Oh, no, wait, my bad:

Item: This is my favourite, actually:
Are sexual preference and plagiarism simply incidental associations, or are hierarchical gender and sexuality integral to our fundamental concept of plagiarism — integral to the cultural work accomplished by that concept?

My answer to this last question is "yes".
Well, it doesn't take a raped muse to tell you that Ms Moore just answered "yes" to a question that is manifestly not a yes/no question, but thankfully she goes on to elaborate that, in fact, these are not merely incidental associations: the fundamental meaning of plagiarism really is rape.

I guess my biggest problem with the whole article is that, no matter how pithily I debunk it here, Moore (or any other cultural studies wonk) can just turn around and say that of course I'm not convinced, because these cultural assumptions are so deeply ingrained that I don't even realise it — and all I'm doing by badmouthing Moore is perpetuating the very structure of gendered oppression that she is trying to destroy.

But is that really a fair argument, or is the purpose of cultural studies essays like this more accurately to demonstrate to other cultural studies scholars what a swell intellectual the author is through his or her ability to employ the abstruse language of the academy?

My answer to this last question is: (c).

December 14, 2007

December 12, 2007

Hat Trick

From Newsvine: Southern Miss Hires Fedora As New Coach

Hmmm....

(C'est un entraîneur.)
Under Fedora in 2004, the Gators led the Southeastern Conference in six offensive categories.
That year's team was controversial, of course, as many parents and health professionals insisted the players should have been under Helmet.

December 11, 2007

The Crying of Lot 11

From Newsvine: Terror Hits on the 11th

This news story lists seven terrorist attacks from the past six years that have occurred on the 11th of whatever month it was at the time.

Well, really, it only lists six, because one of them occurred on November 9, 2005 (which the AP sagely notes would read "9/11" if you used the "day-first, month-second system").

But what does it all MEAN?! That we should lock ourselves in underground bunkers on 11/11/11? That a certain chain of American convenience stores is a spawning ground for political extremists? That next year's upcoming Star Trek flick will be an act of terrorism? That it was a really slow news day at the AP?

Sorry for relative silence lately: as soon as I have my last final project out the door, I will once more be happily and excessively blogging away.

December 07, 2007

December 06, 2007

You Of Broken My Heart

Let us consider the phrase:
Please take your receipt when it's completed printing.
Here the "it's" contraction – which generally stands in for "it is" – has in fact taken the place of "it has", which in print it looks a little odd, but in speech is basically acceptable. Still, if you were going to expand the phrase fully, the grammatically correct sentence would be:
Please take your receipt when it has completed printing.
Unfortunately, someone at CVS didn't get the memo, and when I used their self-service checkout last night the friendly recorded voice said to me:
Please take your receipt when it is completed printing.
Now, it's a well-known fact that I strive to be a pompous authoritarian when it comes to correct usage, but even I would forgive this mistake if it appeared in print. This, though, was a spoken command! Countless people must have listened to this before it made it to the CVS in Central Square! And not a single one heard it and thought: "Gee, that doesn't sound quite right"?! What is the world coming to?

PS. Next semester I am taking a copyediting class, so if you don't enjoy my rants on grammar you may as well stop reading now.

December 05, 2007

Department of Tautological Politics

From Newsvine: Former Mass. Governor Endorses Romney

Umm... Of course he does?



No, obviously, the actual former governor of Massachusetts who endorsed Romney was William F. Weld, who held the office in the early to mid-Nineties. He defended Romney's tax cut record, waxed lyrical about New Hampshire, and then
the Harvard-educated Weld broke into French to say, "Each to his own."
Well la-de-da!

Weld's Francophilia actually presages a new batch of Romney ads that will appear next week, among them:
Mitt Romney: Un jour sans vin est comme un jour sans soleil.

Mitt Romney: Honni soit qui mal y pense.
And, of course:
Mitt Romney: Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir?
I wish my knowledge of French proverbs were better.

December 03, 2007

Craig's List

From Newsvine: Paper: 8 Men Claim Encounters With Craig
BOISE — Eight men say they either had sex with Sen. Larry Craig or were targets of sexual advances … at various times during his political career … the Idaho Statesman reported [Sunday].
The Idaho Statesman cited interviews with four named and four anonymous informants, all of whom described the Idaho statesman as having made sexual overtures towards them. The Idaho Statesman acknowledged that these men had little in the way of evidence, although there was also nothing in their statements to disprove their allegations about the Idaho statesman.

The Idaho Statesman contacted the Idaho statesman for a comment on the story, but he and his office declined to reply directly. Instead, the Idaho statesman emailed a statement to the Associated Press, which read:
Despite the fact the Idaho Statesman has decided to pursue its own agenda and print these falsehoods without any facts to back them up, I won't let this paper's attempt to malign my name stop me from continuing my work to serve the people of Idaho.
In an editorial, The Idaho Statesman responded in kind, saying:
Despite the fact the Idaho statesman has decided to pursue his own agenda and print these falsehoods without any facts to back them up, we won't let this senator's attempt to malign our name stop us from continuing our work to serve the people of Idaho.
In total, three men claimed to have had sex with the Idaho statesman, amongst them a former male escort who alleges he was paid $200 by the Idaho statesman (no word on how much he was paid by The Idaho Statesman).