Thursday, July 31, 2008

talk the talk

My homeboy Fabio Rojas articulates a theory concerning the value small talk:

  1. Verbal competence: Small talk shows that you are minimally able to carry out a conversation. If you can’t wing the weather, what else can’t you talk about?
  2. Community membership: If you talk orgtheory, then you’re definitely part of the “in” crowd.
  3. Ability signal: Witty small talk shows intelligence.
  4. Information: Sometimes your partner really doesn’t know what the weather is like. They really appreciate hearing about it from you.
  5. Social construction of reality: Small talk and gossip help people define what is real for that group.
  6. Status signals: Choice of topic in small talk can be used to assert and manage status.
  7. Friendship ritual: Small talk is a precursor to stronger relationships.
  8. Hidden Identity Game: You can use small talk to drop subtle hints about your hidden identity.
  9. Institutional maintanence: If you small talk with others at work, you signal acceptance of the order of your firm.
  10. Normative Experiment: Use small talk to test out ideas at low cost.

I agree with all of the above. And I much prefer Fabio's take to William Deresiewicz's, which while true is so insufferably stated:

It didn’t dawn on me that there might be a few holes in my education until I was about 35. I’d just bought a house, the pipes needed fixing, and the plumber was standing in my kitchen. There he was, a short, beefy guy with a goatee and a Red Sox cap and a thick Boston accent, and I suddenly learned that I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say to someone like him. So alien was his experience to me, so unguessable his values, so mysterious his very language, that I couldn’t succeed in engaging him in a few minutes of small talk before he got down to work. Fourteen years of higher education and a handful of Ivy League dees, and there I was, stiff and stupid, struck dumb by my own dumbness. “Ivy retardation,” a friend of mine calls this. I could carry on conversations with people from other countries, in other languages, but I couldn’t talk to the man who was standing in my own house.

The first disadvantage of an elite education, as I learned in my kitchen that day, is that it makes you incapable of talking to people who aren’t like you. Elite schools pride themselves on their diversity, but that diversity is almost entirely a matter of ethnicity and race. With respect to class, these schools are largely—indeed increasingly—homogeneous. Visit any elite campus in our great nation and you can thrill to the heartwarming spectacle of the children of white businesspeople and professionals studying and playing alongside the children of black, Asian, and Latino businesspeople and professionals. At the same time, because these schools tend to cultivate liberal attitudes, they leave their students in the paradoxical position of wanting to advocate on behalf of the working class while being unable to hold a simple conversation with anyone in it. Witness the last two Democratic presidential nominees, Al Gore and John Kerry: one each from Harvard and Yale, both earnest, decent, intelligent men, both utterly incapable of communicating with the larger electorate.

But it isn’t just a matter of class. My education taught me to believe that people who didn’t go to an Ivy League or equivalent school weren’t worth talking to, regardless of their class. I was given the unmistakable message that such people were beneath me. We were “the best and the brightest,” as these places love to say, and everyone else was, well, something else: less good, less bright. I learned to give that little nod of understanding, that slightly sympathetic “Oh,” when people told me they went to a less prestigious college. (If I’d gone to Harvard, I would have learned to say “in Boston” when I was asked where I went to school—the Cambridge version of noblesse oblige.) I never learned that there are smart people who don’t go to elite colleges, often precisely for reasons of class. I never learned that there are smart people who don’t go to college at all.

I'm glad that Deresiewicz regrets his elite education for making him (apparently he had no choice in the matter!) unable to talk to the masses or be down with the gente, but eeesh, Fabio's theory is so much more elegant, economical, and better theorized. Also, less insufferably narcissistic and scapegoating.


chaos theory and batman

Via WickedA:

Part I.

Part II.

Part III.

This was definitely my favorite movie of the summer, so far. I didn't blog a review, because what else is there to say but "it's AWESOME"?


twitter tweet tweet

They're twittering the American Sociological Association annual meeting. I never, ever understood Twitter--it seems enough narcissism to presume that anyone would care what I think about, do, and eat on a daily digest basis (and they don't, which is why I tend to put up reflections rather than log entries). So, moment to moment changes--eeesh, who has that kind of attention span. Then, I remember, I sort of email Amber quite a few times a day to see what she's up to at any moment and have done a fair amount of real-time Buffy emailing. So maybe I just need to change platforms. I generally prefer the process of end of day reflections. But I have to say, it is kind of fun to follow my friends' goings on since I'm not with them. I am sort of thinking of twittering "I'm not as ASA" status updates. At least I have dibs on a Scatterplot ribbon. Did you know that sociological big wigs and chairs wear ribbons? We should have Klingon/beauty queen sashes at AALS, or maybe those Gilbert and Sullivan gold arm bands and epaulets that the late Justice Rehnquist wore (designed himself) to the impeachment trials.

For some reason, I think that twittering the AALS would be either really boring or really stressful to read, or both. And for some reason, I cannot imagine any of the big blogging profs twittering, and it's not for lack of technological skillz, but rather that they have bizarre conceptions of "privacy." I joke, I joke.


random roundup, part II

1. Academic Conference Bingo! Sociologists at ASA, play along here.

2. I never played much Scrabulous on Facebook, because I have other methods of procrastination at which I suck much less. But I found law prof Mike Madison's and budding sociologist Dan Hirschman's takes on the copyright infringement issue to be very interesting.

3. I was quite plain until the age of 18. And even after the glasses, braces, and baby fat came off, things didn't really improve until I discovered makeup, running and better fitting clothes. Hotness is not the first quality that comes to mind when I think of my cosmic CV. So, I do not understand the "serene assurance" of Pretty Girls who consider admiration to be their God-given due.

4. Should murdering liberals be a hate crime? Even I say no.

5. Yet another dangerous thing to play while drinking: The Ignorance Game.


obama as law professor

First, read this article. And then read the insane amount of occasionally insightful coverage on all of the law prof blogs. I mean, this is the #1 emailed article on the NYT, so either there are a lot of law profs out there or a lot of people really care about legal pedagogy.


1. Would anyone like a roundup of coverage on this article?

2. Should I even bother opining about this? Don't know what I would say that hasn't been said already, though, other than something about critical pedagogy.


early one morning

Brief taste of Buffy blogging: This song does haunt me. I like English traditional folk music--a lingering predilection from all those years reading olde school literature and almost getting a minor in Medieval studies. The lyrics are so devastating. More to the point, what a bizarre song for a mother to sing her son to put him to sleep. It's a pretty melody, but the lyrics are so not comforting. No wonder William grew up to be a vampire with trust and intimacy issues.


Wednesday, July 30, 2008

the end

I just finished the last episode of Buffy. This has been a wildly entertaining, thought-provoking, cathartic show to watch. More later when I have finished bawling my eyes out over Xander and Anya. And blah blah, another apocalypse averted, blah blah.


pounding keys

Either I have super strength and the downward pressure my fingers exert as I touch-type with grace and agility is incredibly powerful, or I just have a cheap table and keyboard tray. In any case, the keyboard tray fell to the floor with an apocalyptic boom, and now I am typing non-ergonomically. Grrrrr.


What do you do to come up with ideas?

I attended a fascinating workshop last night called “writing the dissertation: getting started,” given by Stanford’s writing center.

Yes, fascinating. You’d expect it to be boring and blandly utilitarian, but there were high points. Possibly the highest was when the guy leading the workshop told us what certain unnamed Stanford faculty do to come up with ideas.

* One professor apparently comes up with so many ideas in the shower that she’s had a writing board installed directly in it.

* Not just one, but several professors apparently make use of a technique from Cicero and create mental landscapes — apparently, they decide that different campus landmarks represent different ideas, and then they walk through campus, and, somehow, that constitutes walking through those ideas. (I’m not sure I get this at all… does anyone have the Cicero ref.?)

* One professor “uses lucid dreaming techniques” to solve problems.

* One person (this might have been a grad student dissertating) works best on the train, so s/he bought a train pass, and sometimes works while riding up and down from Palo Alto to SF, over and over again…

So, dear readers, what crazy things do you do to come up with or process ideas?



women bloggers

I quite like this article by Rebecca Traister on blogging's glass ceiling. There's no real productive conversation about this subject. Most of the law prof ones are about "why aren't there more women bloggers" and then everyone piles on the theories that generally track already known debates about how women are over-stretched at both work and home with no time to blog and their voices are generally depreciated anyway and so what's the point of blogging?

Well, for now I'm still blogging. And, last time I checked, I am a woman. And while this blog has been incredibly trivial for a while now, occasionally I have said things of value and insight. (Ignore previous post.) I can't say I'm making any grand stand or gesture by it. I can't say that my voice and perspective are particularly valuable or distinctive. I have no idea if I would be better received if I were a male blogger.

All I can say is that for now, I am blogging. What else is there to say? All of these questions of public writing and why it done and what value there is in the enterprise are so tiresome. And they are separate from the question of why women are not well-represented in the blogosphere, which is another tiresome debate. I like Shamus's question--what are we doing about it? If it is regarded as a problem, then do something about it. I will be forever grateful to Jim Chen for inviting me to MoneyLaw (where I don't blog enough, I know) and to Jeremy Freese for inviting me to Scatterplot. We want more female bloggers. So, give them higher profile, aggregated platforms for their voices!

Maintaining a solo blog is a lot of work. This is why my blog has sucked so much lately--nothin' to say, nothin' to write, move along folks. Then I figure, "fuck, it's my blog, I will blog about breakfast if I want." And I'm not Glenn Reynolds, and so people don't come to my blog for one-line directions to links. Group blogs are great for relieving the pressure of daily blogging and allowing drop-in posting. I know that many group blogs actively recruit female voices--part of why I so enjoy Crooked Timber and The Valve. Women are not well represented in the legal blogosphere, but I know that's not intentional and probably more to do with glass ceilings at work and second shifts at home than the standby "lack of interest" argument or "no good female bloggers" excuse.

All very tiresome, as blogging itself can be. I imagine that I'll one day tire of blogging. So far, today is not that day.


Tuesday, July 29, 2008

breakfast for dinner

I am sick of one-pot meals and cereal. It doesn't seem all that satisfying to eat a couple of bowls of cereal or a burrito and call it a day. Ok, actually it's way satisfying, but it's getting old, and I am not Ms. Voracious Appetite (except for Knowledge and Buffy) these days and need to encourage the appetite so that I don't get the bulk of my calories from chocolate. I have, however, realized that I am very fond of breakfast food, and can eat it any time of the day and don't even have to force myself to eat it.

Doesn't this look delicious? I don't even like the idea of eggs + salsa (much less the blerchy combo of eggs + ketchup), but I actually went out and got corn tortillas. And, mmm, pancakes. Good thing I just bought some blueberries and buttermilk. Plus, pancakes can be frozen, and huevos rancheros can be made quickly on demand.

Any other suggestions? I did not grow up eating fancy breakfasts (mostly cereal). Perhaps I should make a strata or frittata thing.


chocolate reviews

So, the Pralus 75% Trinitario was not "life-changing," although I much appreciated the recommendation. But with such puffery, I was expecting something different. I don't know what, though. It is an interesting, complex chocolate--quite dark, a smoky, lapsang souchong taste to it, slightly acidic. Not rich or creamy, the way I prefer my chocolate. So, you know, not for me. I think I like my chocolate kind of richer and creamier on the tongue. Fattier tasting, kind of mouth-filling. Not Hershey's milk chocolate, mind you. But I am not one of those chocolate aficionados who can distinguish chocolate by region (just as I don't really buy into oenophilia) or insist that only 110% cacao is "real chocolate." Ugh, above a certain percentage and it's just not that enjoyable--and I think it's too much of a psychological metaphor to consume dark bitterness as if it were candy. I think I like my chocolate around 62%, and as low as 41%.

Notwithstanding my preference for a round, chocolatey taste with a bit of salt to urge on the sweet, I quite liked the Dolfin Noir au The' Earl Grey, which is dark but not too dark, and a prominent, flowery, bergamot flavor. It works really well, not unlike lavender and chocolate or rose and chocolate. I can't really think of another tea that would work so well, and I am somewhat of a tea fanatic. I am less fond of the Dolfin Noir au Poivre Rose, which is a bit too peppery, obscuring the chocolateyness. It's not that it's spicy, which I would like, since chocolate and chilies and cinnamon and cardamom is a wonderful, classic combination. More that it's a bit too imbalanced, like licking a dusting of pepper from your palm and being struck by the rather blunt assault on your taste buds and olfactory senses. Better was the Dolfin Noir au Gingembre Frais, which is not quite high falutin' or complex, but just plain good and oddly familiar and nostalgic. I like Asian ginger candy, which my mom eats as a digestive and tasty treat. When I'm super sick, I drink ginger root tea, and the overwhelming pepperyness is made complex by the rich and aromatic taste of the ginger. Plus, it really clears the sinuses, and smells good. Perhaps that's the difference between the fancy chocolate I like and the the fancy chocolate I like less--if you're going to add stuff to chocolate, let the result be a complex, aromatic flavor, and let the senses combine such that you are struck, at once, by taste, smell, and the tactile sensation of something rich melting on the tongue and pressed against the roof of the mouth.

Next, I might try the Zotter bars, unless someone has another recommendation. I actually haven't finished trying all of the Vosges. I have a fair amount of chocolate left, and limited funds, and so it might take a while before the next chocolate review.


Random Roundup

1. The best "yo mama" jokes, like, ever.

2. Batman was based on T.R.

3. Fuck. The only beer I can stomach (besides pricey Belgian stuff, which I only recently discovered) advocates gang banging. (H/t Feminist Law Profs.) I am totally squicked out.

4. It is a matter of general knowledge that Asians like tennis and other such racquet/paddle sports. My brothers used to be avid players of tennis, even though we were poor. You can pretty much play on any free court at school with any cheap racquet and a can of balls. After the balls are worn out, you can give them to your little sis to play with, making this an actually very economical sport. And, because we are Vietnamese, they also played badminton for their HS teams and we had all these lame ass trophies. Because I am a bad Asian and have long been accused of being "white washed" by my high school peers until I eventually became the ultimate race traitor English-literature-major-with-a-white-boyfriend, I do not do any of these F.O.Bby things. Instead, I sail, which is so SWPL until you remember that I am descended from boat people.

You think that my obviously satirical and self-deprecating statements full of stereotypes are awkward and difficult to read? Try this article. I get the point and intent, but this is wince-inducing for many reasons, namely the seriousness of tone, the undercurrent of self-loathing and the desire to be so opposite of stereotype as to promote a certain Western-centric archetype. Not that there's no such thing as the model minority stereotype, but I don't think that one must necessarily be an aggressive-on-the-court badass who marries white beauty pageant queens in order to be considered a role model for progressive, non-traditional Asian people. Very creepy, this article.

5. Augh! My heart is breaking! I am older than this millennial generation, so I definitely remember taping songs off of the radio and getting the stupid DJ commentary at the beginning and end with the crackle of the radio waves. My first mix tapes were really cassette tapes (as were my first albums), and I gave them to my first boyfriend with so much misplaced enthusiasm and hope. When he went to England for a week-long MUN conference (we met sitting next to each other on the bus-ride home from the Mission Viejo MUN conference; I failed to get the gavel representing the U.S. in COPUOS and he offered a shoulder of consolation for my dashed geek-hopes and pretty little head), I sent him off with a week's wort of mixes for his Sony Walkman. I recall that they had Semisonic and Hootie and the Blowfish and Dave Matthews Band. Oh, judge me, haterz.

Road tripping with JRO during Spring Break '04 (camping!), we listened to two books of Harry Potter on tape, which was really fun and a great way to relax in between marathon conversations. I still have a bunch of mix tapes I've received from dudes significant or otherwise in a box at my parents' house. I still refer to mix CDs as "mix tapes," such that people ask me about this and say "really?! you still own a stereo?!" No, I do not (well, not since the move), but if a dude gave me an old-school mix tape demonstrating that he took the time to listen to the songs as he dubbed them (so time consuming!) and was careful to catch the fade without too much blank space with particular attention to how one song flowed to the next, I would be utterly charmed and immediately hie myself to some store (e.g., Amazon) to get a stereo. Love, after all, is a mix tape, ready to be interpellated.


Monday, July 28, 2008

yet more on socialization

So on Friday, after the movie and bonfire, I went for a handshake and the other person (whom I met just that evening) went for a hug. I ended up kind of tossing up my hands in a "what the hell" fashion and hugging. That was an extremely awkward moment and I am still sort of wincing, but for whose sake I cannot tell. This is not the first time this has happened. I never know what to do in such situations.

I have also heard the remark, when I went for a hug (mind you, upon the second time meeting this person socially, we had hugged the last time, and it was an invite to their house for a dinner party thing), "that was weird" by the person who expected a handshake or slight hand wave. (Yes, it is kind of dickish to hear that out loud in front of others from the huggee and your then-boyfriend.) So really, I never know what to do. Heaven forbid that some non-European would throw me by going for a cheek kiss, which I am super awkward with in non-date situations. I wish that everyone would agree to stick to hi-fives or something.

I am just going to go for hugs, except for people who say expressly that they are not huggy people, in which case I would appreciate advanced warning. I received such advanced warning from TC the first time I met her, and that was really useful knowledge. I do not know if I am overcorrecting based on anecdotal data, but because the number of times I have misjudged the situation and come off stiff and not-friendly outnumber by a considerable amount the number of times I have come off too-huggy, I have decided to make hugs the default for goodbyes after social interactions. So, yesterday, I went for a hug. Score one for correct social response, or at least I think it was correct. In any case, I was not hug-blocked, so I am going to go with my mantra of "hug tight, it's alright."

I also discovered that I have no small talk skills, but okay "big talk" skills. I do not know what that means exactly, other than that when I ask "what do you do" I really am interested and then want to learn everything about neurobiology and smooth tracking eye movements. And then we can talk about what that means quasi-philosophically. I need better ice-breakers. Although perhaps asking "when's the last time you played thumb war" is not one of them.

Also, I wish I had more group hobbies. I have solitary hobbies like running, baking, and knitting. But no group hobbies. I suppose I could try to beef up my sailing skills and join a team, but I am not that great a sailor. I don't sing or play a instrument, so no joining a band. I do not have a trivia bowl team. I need to find people who think that doing 8 mile urban hikes are fun or that riding the bus around town from random stop to random stop all day would be a good way to spend a Sunday.

I do not generally wish to be less idiosyncratic, but occasionally I wish I that I was into more common pursuits--but I just don't know what they are. Perhaps I do not have it within me to be The Zeitgeist Avenger, so I may have to stick to my original Halloween costume idea of being Super Emo Girl.


Saturday, July 26, 2008

first impressions

Reason for blog absence: work, Buffy, no desire to write and the feeling I had nothing to say, and spending too much time on the phone this week.

Last night I went over to a friend and neighbor's for an outdoor projection of The Marx Brothers' "Duck Soup" on a white wall behind their house. We're talking an old school projector and a brick wall painted white--very classic. We sat on blankets and then after the movie had a bonfire in one of those portable fire pit things and made smores. There was popped popcorn, pizza, beer, and I brought strawberries and cupcakes. Why don't people do this more often?

I, being a tool, waited in my apartment an extra ten minutes so that I could arrive fashionably late by fifteen, which means, on time, sort of, for the pre-movie revelry. There was already one dude there, but as he was a visiting houseguest for the weekend, I am not sure whether one could say that he was super early or staying super late. The rest of the crowd came about an hour after. Apparently, an invite for 8 pm means that people come at 9:30 pm. And they say that Americans are the punctual types.

I found out that one guy was a union organizer and we talked about labor law and history. These are not usually the topics of first conversation. In my defense, I at first asked all the obligatory social lubricant questions in my usual stilted, awkward manner, like "where are you from" and "what do you do" and "how do you like that hipster neighborhood you live in" and blah blah blah. But, seriously, how boring are those questions. I much prefer asking people which super power they prefer--flight or invisibility? Or deciding to run with a theme and so if they do labor union stuff, they must want to talk about the NLRB, the FLSA, and great labor-themed art of the 20th century, like Rukeyser's The Book of the Dead. Somehow, saying "The Book of the Dead" feels very odd, and yet totally appropriate during a first meeting conversation. I somehow then steered the conversation to Whitney Houston: Awesome or Not.

My generally vivacious personality means that I am generally regarded as friendly and engaging; my awkward conversation topic choices, blunt delivery, rapid changes of topic and somewhat stilted manner means that I eventually come off as very weird. I wonder if I should try to change my social interaction methods, or just roll with this. My Goffmanian anxiety is not so great as to wish to micromanage every impression. Most people find me either awesome or off-putting within five minutes. I suppose that is true of most people.


Wednesday, July 23, 2008

favorite books, and why

Ok, I'm plowing through Buffy and books like nobody's business. I'm slowing down by reading really thick books like The Mill on the Floss, Bleak House, The Portrait of a Lady, etc. But I need something to look forward to when I'm done with my Victorians in a month or two (I'm also reading for work and some other lighter fiction).

Give me some recommendations of your favorite books and why you like them!


Great Books

A conversation over dinner prompted me to think about "great books"--you know, the life-changing books. The ones that not only concern important ideas, but give meaningful expression to them. The ones that prompt the reader to engage the ideas in their own way, forming a dialectic with text and author. The ones with a great story, and masterful prose.

Anyway, my dinner companion said that such books aren't really written anymore these days. Coetzee, McEwan, Roth, McCarthy--good writers, all, but not "great" in any sense. And no, this is not a rehash of the Bloom article I referred to a week ago. Bloom's standards for greatness are not what we were talking about. We were talking about truly moving literature that made you really pause and think and look at the world differently. Do the contemporary authors compare to Dostoevsky? To Kafka? To James?

Well, do they? Can you recommend any contemporary contenders for the Great Books Canon?


Tuesday, July 22, 2008

My music is worse than your music...

Oh hell yeah... I got to get in on this.

I dub thee "Conditioner Rock". Do something about those split ends already, will ya? Oh and Poison called. They want their androgyny back.

This would totally be my theme song - if I were in-shape and fashionable. On the other hand, they do steal a riff from Jimi Hendrix.

Adam Ant's album "Strip" was the only album my parents wouldn't let me listen to when I was growing up. That might explain a lot.

I actually own "The Best of Big Country" on CD, and, surprisingly, it has more than one song.

This was the very first song I ever called in a radio station to request - on a radio station called the "Mighty 690". EVERYONE in elementary school listened to that station when I was growing up - before drifting to either 102.7 KIIS-FM, 106.7 KROQ-FM, or 105.5 KNAC-FM - depending on their tastes. (This was back when KROQ didn't suck, and actually had some punk rock credibility - and back when L.A. radio actually had some variety). I was six years old.


80's>90's. Q.E.D.

There are some posts that demand a one-upping response. :-)


Monday, July 21, 2008

do you miss the '90s? i do!

Man, my brain is fried with sexual harassment cases and reading Selznick for fun (Selznick writes so well that it IS fun). So, indulge me until I get my next post on women and work up.

What do you miss most about the '90s? I wish I could upload a picture of myself from the early-to-mid '90s, when I wore flannel plaid shirts and knock-off Birkenstocks and Doc Martens (could not afford the real thing). Or, slip dresses over white baby T's. Mini jumper dresses and mini skirts. Or in the mid '90s, when I toyed with the idea of being a Goth girl, but my dad would have grounded me for even wearing lipstick and so maybe dressing up like death wouldn't fly. So instead I went for the Gap preppy look with white button-down short-sleeve shirt, khakis, a pastel cardigan, and Jack Purcell's (bought with 6 months of allowance!). Come on, you remember the Gap swing craze. And then there was the late '90s to early '00s look from college, which I recall being pretty boring and I can't recall wearing much other than whatever was selling at Esprit, Gap, and Benetton on sale (day care salary = occasional new duds). I seem to recall a lot of flower prints, even though that's not really my look.

I think I've blogged '90s nostalgia before, but let's focus on the lame-o popular stuff that we were nevertheless totally obsessed with before we got some taste. So, here's some music from my teenage years. Come on, not everyone was listening to Pavement and Sleater-Kinney. Cop to it, folks.

(I totally had a crush on Duncan Sheik)

(I wanted to look like Lisa Loeb. Oddly, now I do, except for the whole Asian thing. I really want that dress.)

(I did not find out until the follow-up album how dour the Cranberries sounded. I still love this song though.)


scary. also, how stupid do you think I am?

I don't know how this happened. My home phone is linked to the door buzzer. Some dude just called, saying that he was in room 12, and that he had forgotten his key and would I please buzz him in?

1) There is no apartment 12 in this building.
2) How stupid do you think I am? I am hanging up on you, asshole.
3) Crap, how stupid might other people be in my building?! I hate, hate feeling unsafe in my own home. Do not let strange people in! Do not buzz strange people in!

After I hung up, I peeked from a crack in my door, from which I can see the lobby door. No one there. So that means that they didn't call from the outside phone, which, by pressing a certain number, will dial my home phone. Why, oh why, am I always the target of random phone harassment. In my first apartment here, I would get a guy calling at 3 am asking me what shoes I was wearing and breathing heavily. Then, at my last apartment, my landlord entered without permission and I got a spy camera finder to make sure he wasn't well, you know, spying on us. I actually felt safe for the first time here, in this, my third apartment in two years. I hate it when things like this happen. It's very unsettling.

It's the reason why I take $7 cab rides one mile home from the train station at night. It's sort of the reason why I don't go out much at night. It's why I hate it when the phone rings at night. It's not just a "I hate feeling like a powerless girl and I live alone" thing. It's everything I hate about the feeling of fear, whether or not such fear is an overreaction.

And every time something like this happens, I get really upset even if nothing bad happened!


the law for the laity

I actually hate the term "laity," (or "masses"), because it's what faux populist elitists use to refer Everyone Else. But whatever, I'll use it anyway. Today, I write about all those books you law professors write for general audiences.

Here's some guidelines, as I have been reading several of them:

1. Footnotes are for law reviews. Use endnotes, and only for truly abstruse ideas that cannot be explained in-text.

2. And so for that matter, don't write anything that is too abstruse. This is a general audience book. I am not saying that you should dumb your book down. But if you find yourself using jargon-laced language or unable to distill an argument or theory into common language, you either don't know your audience, are writing the wrong book, or probably both.

3. Yes, there's certain terms, definitions, and ideas that are in the exclusive domain of the law. But they can be explained in common English language! I am making up examples here, but if you can't explain mens rea or res ipsa loquitur or hell, the dormant Commerce Clause in language that a college-educated person can't understand, then you are an awful writer and bad translator of Big important Ideas. I wonder if this is why legal histories are the most popular--in trying to convey law as a comprehensible narrative, those innumerable biographies of Supreme Court justices and inner workings and The Most Important Cases In History are great examples of how one should write about the law. Even a complicated idea can be told in a paragraph in which the sentences connect to one another expressing a coherent story, er, argument.

4. Read Strunk and White and Longman's Guide to English Usage and Marilyn Hacker's A Writer's Reference. Please, please, please read these.

5. I am not referring to professors who have sent me review copies. In fact, I am really happy to exclude them from my list of complaints. But I've been reading over some of old books. Eeesh.


blogging buffy: season two, thoughts and questions

On The Banality of Evil:

I am utterly confused about the principal, whom I originally believed was the epitome of Gradgrindian toolishness, but now suspect to be secretly evil and in league with the dark side. What's up with him knowing about the hellmouth? What's his vendetta against Buffy? And how is the mayor in on this? I am waiting to find out if this is merely banal evil or supernatural evil. You know, like in Roswell with the sheriff. (Did any one else watch that show?) Sometimes authority figures are duplicitous, other times they are true but still morally bankrupt.

Part of the pleasure of watching these shows is that by appearing to focuse so completely on demons, arch villains, et al., the occasional detours to the more mundane, human forms of evil are given such effective display. We expect mad scientists to take over the Empire State Building (really, why? I never understood that impulse), vampires to kill viciously, and zombies to feed on human flesh. But (in the background, watching Season 3 right now with The Angry Dude Episode Where Angel Comes Back From The Dead, WTF), do you expect your boyfriend, the person you love the most to hurt you? Do you expect your mother to kick you out of the house when she can't accept who you are? It is heartbreaking to watch such betrayals of trust, hope, and faith.

The banality of evil (most likely, coupled with emotional betrayal) is the most surprising and the hardest to fight. Authority figures are the most common ambiguous characters. It's not so much an emotional betrayal as a moral betrayal. There is a reason we have so many movies about corrupt cops and mayors too close to the mob. What is worst is when those in authority are not only tainted by evil, but when their zealotry for good becomes its own evil. (Insert inadequate, insipid metaphor about the War on Terror here.) So, I'm still waiting to see if Principal Snyder is merely an asshole, a corrupt asshole, or a truly bad motherfucker.

On Xander, Nice Guy (TM) + Douchebag

Amber was right.

On Doomed Love

Man, Buffy and Angel have it tough! I don't really think David Boreanz is all that handsome, but you know, some girls dig that big bulky, thick-necked abs of steel szhused hair look with the refugee from the Roxbury wardrobe. Yeah, yeah, his eyes are sensitive and perhaps soulful. Or perhaps he just doesn't blink much. Also, he is a kind of terrible actor. When Amber first expressed reservations about his age in-relation-to Buffy, I was thinking it was his 241 years to her 16. But yeah, this guy does look like a graduate student compared to her teenager-ness. He looks way older than 19 or 20! But I digress.

Doomed love does suck. Sometimes you just can't "make it work." It must be really hard to love someone you know isn't right for you, because he is like, a vampire, and you are like, a vampire slayer. And then be responsible for their transformation into someone you can't recognize just because you loved them too much. To be always worried about whether they'll love you enough to overcome the minor obstacle of mutually assured annihilation. And then to have them leave you, and so brutally. And then to have to give up hope that they'll ever come back to you. And then to have to give up on them completely as unredeemable and unchangeable. And then you really have to kill them in order to save the world from disappearing into a vortex into hell. Wow, Joss Whedon has like the most insight ever into male-female relationships.

Every relationship in this show is doomed. Either it's mismatched (Xander + Cordelia), unrequited (Willow --> Xander), pained by mutual betrayal (Giles + Miss Calendar), or just plain fucked up (Buffy + Angel). That Oz thing is like, whatever. I predict he will be some sort of emotional casualty, because he is actually normal and all he wants to do is love Willow. Which means, like most of us poor mortal fools/werewolves, he will be screwed over by someone else who is still trying to recover from some other messed up relationship.

At first, I was going to say that this show makes me glad I'm not a teenager anymore, but I don't think much changes, other than that the stakes are raised as you get older and while you recover faster, it still hurts the same as it did in your teenage years.

On Being a Teenager

Hell, I'll say it anyway. I am really glad that I am not a teenager anymore. I am also glad that I'm not in high school anymore, but then again all of life is a ceaseless repetition of high school. See, e.g., Sarah Vowell on this (in her book Take the Cannoli, and here and here). This is why this show is awesome! Joss Whedon knows everything.

On '90s Fashion and Music

Too much to write here. I must do a follow-up post. But man, I am ready to rock some mini skirts and y-necklaces with a baby T and some chunky heeled shoes and a vinyl jacket. Why don't I wear slip dresses more often? Also, I was wondering when Lisa Loeb would play in the background. I was expecting Duncan Sheik though. This is so awesome. Where the hell is my MAC brick lipliner and Viva Glam I lipstick?!


Friday, July 18, 2008

Morons Mutual Mentally Masturbating... My, My, My.

Some ninny, via/h/t Amber, reveals the seamy underside of the NYC literary/media scene. Some random thoughts:

  1. I refuse to believe that a n+1 party could be that good. I went to a n+1 party in San Francisco. Admittedly, it was a more formal/official/public thing. But still, various of the n+1 people were there. And it was utterly hopeless. (Ben will vouch for me -- he was there too.) Everyone and everything was painfully boring, and it was filled with 20-something aspiring writers. Dorothy Parker would cry in shame if the snarkerati of her time threw any kind of event like that.

  2. But n+1 is a frightfully good magazine nonetheless.

  3. According to the poor disillusioned NYU student
    Everything I had begun to suspect — that n+1 was a place where old guys who never got laid in high school finally have their pick of the fine young crop — felt wholly true in those moments leading up to entering Sebastian's house.

    That's revealing. She doesn't seem to be offended at the idea that women would be forced to trade sexuality for status. Rather, she seems to be offended that it's a different kind of status. There's something almost wrong about the "old guys who never got laid in high school" getting "their pick of the fine young crop," rather than the usual football-player types. Frankly, if we must objectify women to the point that someone is getting his "pick of the fine young crop," then I'd rather it be the intellectuals (or pseudo-intellectuals: she can't seem to decide).

  4. I agree with Amber completely: this kid is a truly horrible writer. That's ok. He's allowed to be a horrible writer. He's 17. But why on earth are publishers knocking on his door? It goes to show that media fame is, as I've said before, essentially random and full of vicious circles. I made that post only half-seriously, but perhaps it should have been 3/4 serious or more.

  5. I must be getting old. Because I'm starting to think things like "of course these people are disasters: look how young they are!" I'm told that the 17-20 age range is the New Hot Time for All The Cool Things, if one is rich and in NYC or LA. What a horrible idea. I spent most of that period in law school, and thank heavens -- otherwise I might have been at some ghastly coke party talking about Gaddis. Oh. Wait. Nope. Not rich. Oh darn.

  6. I can't bear William Gaddis. I got about five pages into A Frolic of His Own before collapsing into despair and utter boredom.

  7. I've also never been invited to a party at which there was cocaine. I no longer feel like I've missed out because of that.

This definitely calls for a cross-post.


do the right thing

So, my sudden inspiration to get out there and help kids is taking a little longer than I thought. My interview with 826 is on August 18. One month away, and I have some free time now. So, while I wait for that, I'm going to help out at some meal-services-for-the-homeless food preparation events, and an organization I will call GrrlQuest (for the purposes of geographic obscurity)!

Here's a description of this outdoor-adventure org:

At GrrlQuest, we are committed to helping girls sustain the clarity, voice and self-confidence that they risk losing during the difficult transition to adolescence. Our programs are designed to help each girl regain and sustain her "true self" by developing and expressing her strengths. We strive to:

  • Provide opportunities for girls to express thoughts and feelings, to work and play with a community of other girls and women
  • Facilitate a process for girls to learn about themselves through their relationships with others
  • Encourage leadership and self-discovery through outdoor adventure and creative arts
  • Help girls discover strength and talent through a range of verbal, physical and creative self-expression activities

Core to our success and unique to GrrlQuest is our commitment to bringing together girls from diverse ethnic, cultural, and socio-economic backgrounds. The rich diversity of the participants on our courses provides a rare opportunity for adolescent girls to embrace what makes each of them unique and to learn about and appreciate the differences in others.

GrrlQuest was founded on the belief that every girl has natural strengths including courage, creativity, leadership, intuition, body wisdom, and compassion that will help her develop into a healthy woman. Investing in girls—particularly in the critical pre-adolescent phase by encouraging them to stretch beyond their comfort zone and explore new physical and creative activities that nurture and exercise their strengths—can provide a lasting impact that girls carry with them throughout their teenage years. At GrrlQuest, we encourage physical and creative risk-taking in a safe and supportive environment

Through our single gender programs we explore self, community, culture, and the environment through outdoor adventure, creative arts, and group experiences. All of our programs provide our girls with opportunities to: 1) experience physical success; 2) express creativity; 3) celebrate girls' diverse identities; 4) practice group decision making and problem solving; 5) develop community responsibility; 6) engage in healthy conflict resolution; and, 7) cultivate a sense of appreciation and stewardship for nature and the environment.

Unfortunately, I can't rock climb, so I can't be a mentor. I could help out with one of the outdoor adventures, but I am sort of tied to my desk, and can't spare one week retreats to take the girls camping, hiking, etc. I am certain I could hike 10 miles roundtrip, but less certain I could do that with 50 lbs on my back, and I lack gear and money to buy that gear. Thus, I will be helping out this laudatory organization by packing lunches and supplies for the girls and greeting them warmly upon their return and helping out with "graduation" ceremonies. Pretty lame contribution, I know.

Hey, I'm doing what I can. I have very limited skills. I am a good educator, but I don't have IT skills or much physical strength. So I figure I will teach kids how to read good, pack lunches for girls with a sense of adventure, help feed the homeless at the next "A Place at the Table." Yeah I am also considering Habitat for Humanity, but I lack building skills or a sense of spatial geometry. Can anyone tell me about their experiences with HfH?


Paul Gowder Starts Own Blog: is the World About to Explode?

My experience here has been sufficiently wonderful that I've decided to step a full foot into the blogosphere, in the form of my own blog: Uncommon Priors.

That doesn't mean I'm leaving here, of course! I'll stick around here as long as Belle will have me. But perhaps I'll divide up some posts for there and some for here. And do a little cross-posting.

So if you love me, you know what to read and link. If you hate me, you know where to send the distributed-denial-of-service attacks. Selah.


Making the Transition from the Law to Grad School

This is the third in an N-part series, although it's meant to be something like the 6th. The series is meant to run something like this:

  1. Some Loosely Connected Musings on Passion, Regret, Law School, and Class Privilege, with Advice to Prospective Law Students
  2. Why You Shouldn't Go to Law School
  3. If you Must go to Law School, How do you Prepare, and What School do you Choose? (not yet written)
  4. So You Went to Law School. Now What? (not yet written)
  5. Considering Grad School: Should you do it? What Program Should you Choose? (not yet written)
  6. Making the Transition from the Law to Grad School (that is, this post)
  7. Law School and Beyond: Paul's Story (not yet written)

I won't promise to write #7, though I'd kind of like to. The other absent ones will probably be written sooner or later. This one is a slightly modified version of an e-mail that I sent someone in response to a question about going back to grad school -- that's why it got written so "soon."

You should also see Belle's How to Go Back to Grad School post, on this topic, and the Law School Advice Wiki generally.

I'm cross-posting this one to my new personal blog, Uncommon Priors (formal announcement forthcoming).

So You're Going to Grad School. What Can You Expect?
I'll assume here that you're a lawyer, and you've decided for whatever reason (to be explored in the post numbered 5 above) to go to grad school.

First, I have some good news for you. In terms of day-to-day life, there's just no comparison between grad school and legal practice. It's a wonderful refreshing breath of air to not have to keep track of time in six-minute increments, and to have deadlines that are manageable rather than insane -- to not be in a constant panic from crisis to crisis. (Admittedly, that might be a skewed comparison: my last law job was litigation in the federal courts in the Eastern District of Virginia -- a.k.a. the "rocket docket," so my law life had more panic than most.)

It's also great to be able to work on and study things that are interesting. There's some boring stuff in grad school, as anywhere, but the ratio of boredom to fascinating stuff is much higher, just because, well, one chooses what one studies. Some of that's the case in law school too, of course, but there are a variety of social and economic pressures in law school to, e.g., take lots of corporations and securities courses, so the same freedom to shape one's life isn't there. (I'm told in the hard sciences, in lab-based sorts of work, similar pressures exist to pursue topics based on the interest of someone other than oneself -- so be aware that my experiences may not generalize.) Relatedly, it's shocking how much you learn. At least, it was to me. I feel like I've learned as much in the last two years as in most of the rest of my life combined -- certainly far more than in law school.

I've also found the people more pleasant than either law school or the practice of law. I might have a skewed sample here: I'm in a PhD program that is very friendly, non-competitive, etc., with both wonderful faculty and talented students. It's important to be very careful in selecting your program. But my experience, at least, is completely positive interpersonally. Compare that to law school, where I know of at least one person who started a secret study group, to which he invited only the people he thought were smart, in 1L year.

Possibly the chief surprise is that it is a lot of work. I never did the big-firm thing, so I haven't had quite the hours in the law that some have, but I still worked pretty long days in the law. I was surprised to be spending similarly long days (and often longer nights) at work in grad school. That depends on your program in part, but it's rather a lot of work, especially at first, everywhere. Grad school can suck up all your time, as well as impose massive amounts of work and success-related stress. (In my cohort, for example, we had a massive wave of relationship breakups in the first year.)

Obviously, be prepared for a big financial adjustment. Long-term too -- academics get paid less than big-firm lawyers, obviously, and the job market is a lot tougher. But in the short term, even in a well-funded program (don't even think about going to a poorly-funded program), you'll see a massive income drop. This is so even for public-interest lawyers.

Also, and this is particularly relevant for us political theorists, be prepared for a big intellectual adjustment. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the law encourages some very bad intellectual habits, which I've had to struggle to break, and which you'll probably have to struggle to break too. For example, things like "arguing in the alternative" are totally verboten in serious academic work. Similarly, it's often the case in analytic fields (especially normative ones) that one's arguments fail (i.e., one discovers a devastating objection), or, on the empirical side, one's theories don't pan out. The natural lawyer's instinct, from someone who has been trained as a partisan advocate (that is, if you were in litigation), is to try and batter things together as well as possible, when what one ought to do is to abandon the doomed position. This is important.

How to deal with these big adjustments?

I don't have too much to say about the financial adjustment -- I'm no financial planner. The best advice on this score is to save while you still have a real income. The point isn't so much to permit a soft landing -- you shouldn't save with the intention of spending down your savings in grad school by living above your stipend means. That way lieth disaster, because you always spend more than you should. Rather, the idea is to save so that you have a cushion. Surprise expenses -- medical bills, car repairs, etc. -- can really hurt when you're on a fixed, low, income and have no time to do outside work (many grad programs don't even permit it). But generally, live within your means. And be prepared for a trade-off between time and money. This can be difficult. Do you grab the quick (overpriced, unhealthy) bite on campus, or do you cook your own food?

The time adjustment induces two basic approaches, in the experience of people I know: strict self-discipline and complete surrender. The former means setting working hours (like in the real world) and, in most cases, actually sticking to them. This means working during those hours -- not surfing the internet -- and it means stopping working after they're done. The latter, well, it's self-evident. Work when forced (i.e., constantly), stop working when you run out of things to do or are procrastinating. I suspect the former is much healthier, but I don't know many people who have the self-discipline to do it. I sure don't. In fact, I can think of two people who do -- and I have no idea how. I suspect it's set by one's personality.

As for the intellectual adjustment, the rules here are humility and patience. Recognize, that is, that you will screw things up when you start. Take the criticism to heart. You've gone from being the person who gives the orders to being the neophyte who needs to be corrected. Even as a junior associate somewhere, you still are The Authority to clients, support staff, etc., as well as The Competent Adviser, etc. But when you're a grad student (at least until you start teaching), you're the neophyte. This can be a hard transition -- there are several ways to mishandle it. One way is arrogance -- to reject criticism as contrary to your self-image. Annother is timidity -- to take criticism personally as a sign that you're stupid, etc. The right way is to recognize that you're a beginner, and recognize that this will pass (never completely, but relatively) -- that you'll attain competence in this stuff in due course and if you do the work.

This is a principle about big life changes generally. Everything has a learning curve, but you can mount it. Remember that learning curve when you started practicing law? (I sure do -- I vividly remember the terror the first time I was called upon to give someone -- some poor tenant facing an unfair eviction -- actual legal advice.)

In short
This is an awesome ride. I've liked it so far. So, perhaps, will you. And remember that you've gone through fires before. For my part, after being shouted at by the chief judge of a federal court of appeals, in oral argument, for having the temerity to sue a school in federal court, talks and teaching hold no terrors for me!



One of the reasons why I haven't written an article on bias crimes or affirmative action is that I can't make up my mind about these issues. I am ashamed to admit this. But I am struggling to find a textual basis of support backed by sound public policy concerns about effectiveness and distributive justice that is not contravened by my belief in balancing liberty concerns and other egalitarian norms.

Sigh. I hate admitting this. But hey, this is why I do very narrowly focused work nowadays. I am not as flip-floppy about pregnancy discrimination or sexual harassment. Far from it. I wonder if one needs conviction or certainty in order to stake a scholarly claim, or if by staking a scholarly claim one acquires a sense of (justificatory?) conviction.



blogging buffy: the beginning

I'm slowly making my way through all seven seasons of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer. I say slowly, and I mean it. I borrowed these a year ago, and have only now started watching them (hey, I kind of don't watch TV or movies during the school year). Also, another reason why I'm moving so slowly is that I watch an episode, turn away or do the dishes during the slaying scenes, and then take a little while to recover from it. I know, lame.

But I really am not good with gore, violence, the supernatural, etc. Which is weird, because I love action movies. But gun violence is too quick for me to register. The awesome part about science fiction is that phasers are not even like, real. Blast and incineration! Blast and a weird black scorch mark! Something like that. But anything involving ghosts, the undead, vampires, etc.--freaks the hell out of me. And yet, I'm watching Buffy. It's just too clever, and I can't not have this conversational currency with all of my best friends. I swear, this is the show that all the smartest, smug-est kids at the annual meeting conferences watch. This, and Battlestar Galactica, which I also haven't watched.

So, I have a crush on Xander, which Amber has told me is misplaced because he ends up being a douchebag who is responsible for Angel's death. Angel dies?! I thought he had a whole spin-off show. I am sort of enjoying the Buffy-Angel smoldering, because while I never got that whole bad-boy/vampire complex some women have, I kind of have a soft spot for the tortured soul emo boy. Willow rocks, of course. Buffy is kick-ass, but why is she so dumb? I would be pretty impressed if she also rocked French in addition to slayerage. Giles at first gave me the creeps, but now he is so charming with Miss Calendar. And I vaguely recall from watching that musical episode that Spike ends up being a good vampire who falls in love with Buffy, although right now he's just a really scary asshole with the ego the size of Texas, and has just killed The Anointed One. The Anointed One creeped the hell out of me anyway, since small beautiful but evil children are just fucking scary (cough Turn of the Screw cough The Others cough Poltergeist cough).

Anyway, I'm somewhere in the middle of disc one of season two. I will blog my reflections as they become more informed, and you can then tell me how incredibly late I am on the Buffy train and hopefully not spoil too much my very slowly accumulating insights and discoveries.


Thursday, July 17, 2008

links of irritation and discomfort

1. Besides the abominable cover, another offensive part of this week's New Yorker is this article. WTF is the point of this asinine report? Blah blah, the "talk of the town"--in this case, Upper West Side or whatever the bourgie part is. Occasionally I am reminded of the insularity of the New York literary glitterati, and how fucking annoying it is that they all attend the same banal parties and write about each other. And then I get all sanctimonious and want to go out and keep it real, however one does that when one is a reader of The New Yorker and writes in the first person while referring to oneself in the third.

2. Ewwww. I know that my revulsion towards consensual, non-reproductive incest makes no sense if I was only worried about genetic mutations or rape--which means that my opprobrium is morality-based. I guess I will make a non-logical argument that it is just wrong, and I can't get around that.

3. Kieran Healy on yet another case of norm enforcement. See also. I always make the joke that queues are downright un-American and too Old World for a nation of instant gratification in the age of online shopping, but I stand in plenty of lines. And I do get really, really mad when people cut in the line. There shall be a reckoning; the first shall be last and the last shall be first and the cutters-in shall be shot.

4. Blah blah, there is nothing wrong with marrying well, but this is just awful. While it does say that you should be smart as well as hot in order to attract a billionaire, I wish the article would give business planning tips to female entrepreneurs trying to attract venture capital and angel investors in order to make their own billions.

5. Stop seeing T.R. through McCain's eyes! WTF! Eric Rauchway sets you, er, Matt Yglesias, straight.


826 National Rocks!

I have decided to start volunteering for my local branch of 826 National. Well, I have applied, and will let you know how the interview goes, and whether they accept me. For three hours a week (or every two weeks, or whatever you can spare), I might be: 1) staffing the kitschy supply store (depending on your area: for all your superhero, spy, or ninja needs!), 2) tutoring kids in creative and expository writing, encouraging the literary arts, 3) helping with college prep, or 4) if I am lucky, they might let me help out with a workshop!

For more information on how YOU can donate to, volunteer for, or buy the products of 826 National:

826 National is a nonprofit tutoring, writing, and publishing organization with locations in seven cities across the country. Our goal is to assist students ages six to eighteen with their writing skills, and to help teachers get their classes excited about writing. Our work is based on the understanding that great leaps in learning can happen with one-on-one attention, and that strong writing skills are fundamental to future success.

After the founding of 826 Valencia, the flagship center in San Francisco, educators around the U.S. joined in to pursue the same goals in their local communities. Now 826 Valencia also serves as the headquarters of 826 National, an umbrella organization that coordinates the adaptation of 826’s tutoring and mentorship model in other cities. Already, 826 has sister centers in New York, Los Angeles, Ann Arbor, Chicago, Seattle, and Boston. Through volunteer support, each of the seven 826 chapters provides drop-in tutoring, class field trips, writing workshops, and in-schools programs—all free of charge. 826 chapters are especially committed to supporting teachers, publishing student work, and offering services for English language learners.

Because we believe the proof is in the pudding, 826 programs almost always end with a finished product, such as a newspaper, a book, or a film. This teaching model, known as project-based learning, encourages students to collaborate and to make creative decisions, and gives them ownership over the learning process. Working toward a goal, our students are inspired to revise until their work is perfect. They leave with new skills and a newfound passion for writing. And then they come back. Each 826 chapter is a warm, welcoming place where students can get things done. Maybe they’ll produce a chapbook. Maybe they’ll make a movie, or polish a college-application essay. We offer all of our services for free serving families who could not otherwise afford the level of personalized instruction their children receive from 826.

Our corps includes thousands of enthusiastic volunteers who make this all happen. Our volunteer tutors include law professors, college students, authors, retirees, and advertising copywriters. They come from all fields, but have one thing in common: they love to help students learn. The demand for 826’s services is tremendous. At many of our centers, our field trips are fully booked almost a year in advance, and the majority of our evening and weekend workshops have waiting lists. And new teacher requests for in-school tutor support continue to pour in.

Truly, this is awesome. The fact that this is associated with the slightly snide and twee McSweeney's people should not be a mark against so valuable a program. Seriously, how awesome would it be to help kids learn and read? It might not compare to the Derek Zoolander School for Kids Who Want to Read Good and Do Other Stuff Good Too, but it is pretty great. I would have loved to have had this resource as a kid. And they publish the kids' stories! Go volunteer for 826 National!


Thursday Thing: I Un-Ironically Like

I think I have found my Thursday Thing! The possibilities are endless!

Today, I shall admit that I un-ironically like Phil Collins. Here's my favorite song:

It is just so gaudy and awesome. It is the perfect song for heartbreak, because it is just so fucking emo before emo was ever invented. And WTF is Phil Collins doing in a tux. Check out those drums! The bizarre vignettes of some '80s adventure/romantic drama you never saw with a surprisingly hot Jeff Bridges, and a way, way hot Rachel Ward, of 'The Thornbirds" fame. I keep insisting to people that if they liked "The Thornbirds," they'd like The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, but no one takes me up on that. Anyway, for all those reasons and more, today I admit, loudly and proudly, that I un-ironically like Phil Collins.

And don't laugh, but this song helped instill in me a sense of social and economic distributive justice:

And when I was little, this song helped teach me what love means, for adults:

And I always thought this was love would be like, or at least that was the thought running through my ten year old head:

But I never really understood what this song meant. I suppose I never will:


Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Being in a well-funded program means...

that even though you're a grad student, there's still money for the important stuff. Yes, I just bought NINETEEN Woody Allen movies. For a hundred bucks! Waste of money? Yes. Wonderful? Yes. Amazon CLAIMS there's only one left...

My favorite scene from Annie Hall, for obvious academic-nerd reasons:


Monday, July 14, 2008

What "Overpaid" and "Underpaid" Might Mean.

Over on Concurring Opinions, Sarah Lawsky asks what we mean when we say that judges (and others) are underpaid, or that law professors (and others) are overpaid. She asks for an explanation of how markets fail in these sorts of cases, and what kind of an argument could justify appealing to the "intrinsic value" of various kinds of services in order to ground the claim that, regardless of whether markets are functioning well or not, someone is overpaid or underpaid.

There are two ways that we can easily make sense of such a claim. The first relies on transaction costs and externalities, and suggests that there is a market failure in such cases. The second relies on the idea that there are multiple possible efficient outcomes, and that we can make normative judgments between those outcomes. I'll summarize them here. (Application of these concepts to judges and law professors will be left as an exercise for the reader. :-) )

1. Externalities and Transaction Costs.

The first way someone can be overpaid or underpaid is if their work produces uncompensated externalities. Once we recognize externalities, and the notion that there's a difference between the social value of someone's product and the value to the buyer of someone's product, this is really easy to see.

The ultimate limiting case is the case of a mafia hit man. The hit man is obviously overpaid: he causes so much harm to the victim, and to the society, that even if the market between hit men and people who want to have people killed is perfectly efficient, the inability to make the hit man internalize the externalities means that he's getting far more money than the worth of his services. This is a market failure: there are too many transaction costs to allow the rest of us to, say, pay him to do something less injurious with his time (like sit around doing nothing, even).

For a less extreme case, consider, for example, the case of a lawyer in one's least favorite side of the Tort Wars (someone who defends tobacco companies, if one is a liberal, say, or a personal injury lawyer if one is a conservative). Again, the idea is a mismatch between social value and the incentives of the people who are doing the paying. For some reason, those doing the paying have a lot of money, and they're willing to spend it to do something horrible to the rest of us, and transaction costs are such that the market can't get some Coasean solution.

Suppose, for example, that a lawyer for the tobacco companies produces one million dollars worth of benefit for the tobacco companies, and is paid precisely that (by the tobacco companies). Suppose also that the lawyer's defense of the tobacco companies causes one dollar worth of harm to each of 10 million smokers. In a world without transaction costs, collective action problems, etc., the lawyer could be paid to stop working for the tobacco companies. Such costs exist, so the market fails. The lawyer is overpaid: he's paid a million bucks to produce nine million dollars worth of social harm.

Likewise (although slightly less obvious -- and I'm a little less sure of this), suppose that someone's job produces a lot of positive externalities. An easy case here is a private school teacher (I specify the teacher as being employed by a private school to make the question of who is doing the paying nice and simple). His services might be worth $50,000/year to a school and parents, but he might be producing many times that in social gains from having an educated population, etc. We can, I think, say that the teacher is underpaid in the sense that the market fails to capture all the value that the teacher produces.

2. Division of the Gains From Cooperation

Even without market failures, we might think that people can be overpaid or underpaid relative to some coherent normative standard if there are multiple efficient divisions of the surplus from cooperation. Suppose, for example, that Sam would be willing to take an underwater basket-weaving job for $50,000/year, and that Mary, the employer, would be willing to pay $100,000/year to hire an underwater basket-weaver. Any salary in [50k, 100k] will be efficient, and consistent with a well-functioning market.

But that doesn't mean the choice from that range is exempt from normative criticism! One of the many big ideas from Rawls's Theory of Justice is the idea that what we're doing, when we consciously arrange our economic system in the interests of justice, is establishing a fair division of the gains from cooperation. And I think that's intuitive and important. Given that our transaction produces a surplus, and given that efficiency considerations don't dictate how that surplus is to be divided, why can't we say that some divisions of the surplus are unfair? That is, there may be multiple pareto-optimal distributions, such that we have to appeal to non-market values to determine what the distribution should be.


Random Roundup

1. Is this satire? Does satire require a critical mass of people who get that it's satire? Is this good satire?

2. Professors: do NOT do this. This really creeps me out.

3. Tim Wu on property rights.

4. In-groupism and discourse on the internet.

5. The only Stanley Fish NYT Op-Ed column that I don't totally hate and scorn. Mainly because Fish made a name for himself as a Miltonist, before he got involved with topics in which he's not really qualified and then decided to become a "public intellectual."

6. This article is only mildly stupid and perhaps even charming for its obvious statements shrouded in economics, but the by-line just makes me think of the anti-evolution movie.

7. This is a better article. Sociology, word. See also, this.

8. Tim Burke on frames of persuasion.


not a false dichotomy, but perhaps an exaggerated one

I may be a relativist in many other ways and openly revile "Objectivism," but I should never be accused of making the argument that there is no such thing as "bad" literature. Whatever you think of the books I have been reading and reviewing, I come down clearly on the line of "good" vs. "bad." And I try to discuss the merits and weaknesses of each. In some, the prose is lacking, whereas in others the characterization or plot. In each case, I try to assess whether the novel in question succeeds at what it attempts. Is this a particularly good murder mystery that keeps you constantly guessing? Is this a failure of a graphic novel in integrating picture and story? Is this a novel of masterful prose and quiet meditation of big important themes? For a novel to be "good," it has to be good at what it is trying to accomplish. There are different standards for different genres, but within that modicum of flexibility there are indeed standards.

And yet, I must take issue with this, via SEK:

In an April interview concerning the three-month lag between the publication of Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day and his anxious, Gnostic appreciation of it, [Harold] Bloom confessed he finds it “increasingly difficult to remain abreast of major works of late because so many of them suck balls.” Asked to clarify, Bloom refused to mince words: “When I declared this the best novel in the history of ever, I must have been asleep. It wouldn’t be the first book I’ve composed thus.”

In a linked article, Bloom blusters on:

What's happening is part of a phenomenon I wrote about a couple of years ago when I was asked to comment on Rowling. I went to the Yale University bookstore and bought and read a copy of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." I suffered a great deal in the process. The writing was dreadful; the book was terrible. As I read, I noticed that every time a character went for a walk, the author wrote instead that the character "stretched his legs." I began marking on the back of an envelope every time that phrase was repeated. I stopped only after I had marked the envelope several dozen times. I was incredulous. Rowling's mind is so governed by cliches and dead metaphors that she has no other style of writing.

But when I wrote that in a newspaper, I was denounced. I was told that children would now read only J.K. Rowling, and I was asked whether that wasn't, after all, better than reading nothing at all? If Rowling was what it took to make them pick up a book, wasn't that a good thing?

It is not. "Harry Potter" will not lead our children on to Kipling's "Just So Stories" or his "Jungle Book." It will not lead them to Thurber's "Thirteen Clocks" or Kenneth Grahame's "Wind in the Willows" or Lewis Carroll's "Alice."

Our society and our literature and our culture are being dumbed down, and the causes are very complex. I'm 73 years old. In a lifetime of teaching English, I've seen the study of literature debased. There's very little authentic study of the humanities remaining. My research assistant came to me two years ago saying she'd been in a seminar in which the teacher spent two hours saying that Walt Whitman was a racist. This isn't even good nonsense. It's insufferable.

I began as a scholar of the romantic poets. In the 1950s and early 1960s, it was understood that the great English romantic poets were Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, John Keats, William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. But today they are Felicia Hemans, Charlotte Smith, Mary Tighe, Laetitia Landon, and others who just can't write. A fourth-rate playwright like Aphra Behn is being taught instead of Shakespeare in many curriculums across the country.

Today there are four living American novelists I know of who are still at work and who deserve our praise. Thomas Pynchon is still writing. My friend Philip Roth, who will now share this "distinguished contribution" award with Stephen King, is a great comedian and would no doubt find something funny to say about it. There's Cormac McCarthy, whose novel "Blood Meridian" is worthy of Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick," and Don DeLillo, whose "Underworld" is a great book.

Instead, this year's award goes to [Stephen] King. It's a terrible mistake.

Now, I will be the first to say that there is an extraordinary amount of shit out there, and on occasion I accidentally read it because some yet-to-be-retracted review in the NYT. The Emperor's Children, I'm looking at you. Next will be All the Sad Young Literary Men. Bloom certainly has a point, even if he gets it wrong about Aphra Behn. I hate Behn--but she's arguably one of the first novelists, and why shouldn't she be taught? She's one of the few women novelists, and the very first, and Oronoko is an important excavation of slavery and colonialism. And I simply cannot agree that those are the only living novelists deserving of praise. How about Alice Munro? Joyce Carol Oates? Annie Proulx? I am about to say something that would make Bloom smack me in the jaw: I hate that every "good" writer he cites is male, and most of the bad authors he cites are female. Bloom has always been exceedingly pompous and vaguely misognynist. Calling him "Eurocentric" is not quite enough; and silly considering he wrote the very excellent The Western Canon. But such a charge was leveled at him by my Harlem Renaissance literature professor back at UC Irvine, and it's one that's stuck with me. It's not a damning charge in and of itself, but it does speak of Bloom's myopia: good literature isn't good by any set of objective standards or genre-specific standard--it's what's good by Bloom's standards. The problem is that his words carry so much weight.

In any case, his remarks remind me of the storied conflict between novels and histories, and male and female writers (and the devaluation of the latter):

Historians and novelists are kin, in other words, but they’re more like brothers who throw food at each other than like sisters who borrow each other’s clothes. The literary genre that became known as “the novel” was born in the eighteenth century. History, the empirical sort based on archival research and practiced in universities, anyway, was born at much the same time. Its novelty is not as often remembered, though, not least because it wasn’t called “novel.” In a way, history is the anti-novel, the novel’s twin, though which is Cain and which is Abel depends on your point of view.

The transformation of history into an empirical science began as early as the sixteenth century and became entrenched only in the nineteenth century. By the time the American Historical Association was founded, in 1884, the “cult of the fact” (as the intellectual historian Peter Novick has called it) had achieved ascendancy. Ever since, generations of historians have defined themselves by a set of standards that rest on the distinction between truth and invention, even when that has meant scorning everyone who came before them.

In an 1806 essay called “Historical Characters Are False Representations of Nature,” Brown suggested that the historian’s grossest deception is promoting the idea that only the great are good: “Popular prejudice assists the illusion, and because we are accustomed to behold public characters occupy a situation in life that few can experience, we are induced to believe that their capacities are more enlarged, their passions more refined, and, in a word, that nature has bestowed on them faculties denied to obscurer men.” But great characters are not superior to obscure men, who are, alas, condemned to obscurity by history itself. “If it were possible to read the histories of those who are doomed to have no historian, and to glance into domestic journals as well as into national archives,” Brown speculated, “we should then perceive the unjust prodigality of our sympathy to those few names, which eloquence has adorned with all the seduction of her graces.”

Fiction, in other words, can do what history doesn’t but should: it can tell the story of ordinary people. The eighteenth century’s fictive history (not to be confused with what we call “historical fiction”) is the history of private life; the history of what passes in a man’s own mind; true to the Book of Nature; and written in plain, simple style, exhibiting both judgment and invention. And it is the history of obscure men. Who are these obscure men? Well, a lot of them are women.

For every Tom Jones and Robinson Crusoe, there were a dozen Clarissas, Pamelas, and Charlotte Temples. If eighteenth-century novels are history, they’re women’s history. And they were adored, above all, by women readers. “Novel Reading, a Cause of Female Depravity” was the revealing title of an essay published in England in 1797 and in Boston five years later. Everyone from preachers to politicians damned novels as corrupting of both public and private virtue and, above all, of women’s virtue. “Novels not only pollute the imaginations of young women,” one American magazine writer insisted in 1798; they give them “false ideas of life.”

What, pray, was the remedy for this grave social ill? Reading history. “There is nothing which I would recommend more earnestly to my female readers than the study of history,” Hume wrote in “Of the Study of History” (which is why he gave his lady friend Plutarch’s Lives, and told her it was a novel). But, on the whole, women were not particularly interested in reading history. Hume attributed this to the fair sex’s “aversion to matter of fact” and its “appetite for falsehood.” Men “allow us Poetry, Plays, and Romances,” Mary Astell wrote in 1705, “and when they would express a particular Esteem for a Woman’s Sense, they recommend History.” But why read it? “For tho’ it may be of Use to Men who govern Affairs, to know how their Fore-fathers Acted, yet what is this to us?” Much as writers of history tried to woo women readers, they made very little headway. Near the end of the century, Mary Wollstonecraft was left to ask of women: “Is it surprising that they find the reading of history a very dry task?” (After publishing her “Vindication of the Rights of Woman,”* in 1792, Wollstonecraft started writing a novel, “Maria; or, the Wrongs of Women,” to make sure that her arguments would reach women readers. Her husband, William Godwin, had it published in 1798, after she died, in childbirth.)

Women were not only not interested in history; they didn’t trust it. In “Northanger Abbey” (completed by 1803), Jane Austen’s comic heroine, who adores novels, confesses that she finds history both boring and impossible to credit: “It tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all—it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention.” Austen saw fit to echo this exchange in “Persuasion” (1818). “All histories are against you,” Captain Harville insists, when Austen’s levelheaded heroine, Anne Elliot, argues that women are more constant than men. “But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men,” Harville guesses, and Anne agrees. “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story,” she observes, saying, “I will not allow books to prove any thing.”

By the end of the eighteenth century, not just novel readers but most novel writers were women, too. And most historians, along with their readers, were men. As the discipline of history, the anti-novel, emerged, and especially as it professionalized, it defined itself as the domain of men. (Women might write biography, or dabble in genealogy.) Eighteenth-century observers, in other words, understood the distinction between history and fiction not merely and maybe not even predominantly as a distinction between truth and invention but as a distinction between stories by, about, and of interest to men and stories by, about, and of interest to women. Women read novels, women wrote novels, women were the heroines of novels. Men read history, men wrote history, men were the heroes of history. (When men wrote novels, Godwin suggested, this was regarded as “a symptom of effeminacy.”)

Is “history at risk”? If women barely read it at all, and if men mostly read books with titles like “Guts and Guns,” it just might be. “A History of Histories” and “The Purpose of the Past” offer a useful reminder that history is a long and endlessly interesting argument, where evidence is everything and storytelling is everything else. But, as for telling stories, maybe historians still have a few things to learn from novelists. Reading Jane Austen being I think very excusable in an Historian.

Occasionally on the literary blogs there will erupt a debate about "masculinist" vs. "feminist" literature. Why don't female readers respond to Philip Roth or Chuck Palahniuk as positively as male readers? Why didn't some women "get" Into the Wild? These debates annoy me. Fiction shouldn't essentially be limited to one gender or another, but it does speak volumes if an author's misogyny undermines his artistic endeavor. But what makes me uncomfortable about such debates is that they also track the discussion of what is good literature, and why it must be "universally" appreciated. I am guilty of it myself, but the devaluation of "chick lit" (a charge against Austen in her time) is extremely condescending. But at the same time, I wish I could shout to Harold Bloom that it is not only "masculine" prose that is great--there are plenty of excellent female writers! It seems that the "good literature" is only written by men, as are the standards for greatness, and as are the arbiters of that quality. Not too long ago, fiction wasn't even considered worthy of male attention. The literary playing field is still as gendered as it was a century ago.