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December 30, 2003
Consider the source
Posted by Teresa at 12:30 PM *

A number of news venues and weblogs (notably Electrolite, which picked it up from Arthur Silber) have commented on the recent AP story about how the FBI is urging the police to watch out for people carrying almanacs:

The FBI is warning police nationwide to be alert for people carrying almanacs, cautioning that the popular reference books covering everything from abbreviations to weather trends could be used for terrorist planning.

In a bulletin sent Christmas Eve to about 18,000 police organizations, the FBI said terrorists may use almanacs “to assist with target selection and pre-operational planning.” It urged officers to watch during searches, traffic stops and other investigations for anyone carrying almanacs, especially if the books are annotated in suspicious ways.

“The practice of researching potential targets is consistent with known methods of al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations that seek to maximize the likelihood of operational success through careful planning,” the FBI wrote.

The Associated Press obtained a copy of the bulletin this week and verified its authenticity.

“For local law enforcement, it’s just to help give them one more piece of information to raise their suspicions,” said David Heyman, a terrorism expert for the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It helps make sure one more bad guy doesn’t get away from a traffic stop, maybe gives police a little bit more reason to follow up on this.”

The FBI noted that use of almanacs or maps may be innocent, “the product of legitimate recreational or commercial activities.” But it warned that when combined with suspicious behavior — such as apparent surveillance — a person with an almanac “may point to possible terrorist planning.”

“I don’t think anyone would consider us a harmful entity,” said Kevin Seabrooke, senior editor of The World Almanac. He said the reference book includes about a dozen pages out of its 1,000 pages total listing the world’s tallest buildings and bridges but includes no diagrams or architectural schematics. “It’s stuff that’s widely available on the Internet,” he said.

The publisher for The Old Farmers Almanac said Monday terrorists would probably find statistical reference books more useful than the collections of Americana in his famous publication of weather predictions and witticisms.

“While we doubt that our editorial content would be of particular interest to people who would wish to do us harm, we will certainly cooperate to the fullest with national authorities at any level they deem appropriate,” publisher John Pierce said.

The FBI said information typically found in almanacs that could be useful for terrorists includes profiles of cities and states and information about waterways, bridges, dams, reservoirs, tunnels, buildings and landmarks. It said this information is often accompanied by photographs and maps.

The FBI urged police to report such discoveries to the local U.S. Joint Terrorism Task Force.
The first thing that struck me about that story was a sense of the familiar made strange. I know Kevin Seabrooke. Yon purveyor of information to terrorists used to work in Ad Promo at Tor, during which time Editorial’s nickname for him was “Captain America”. Next to Kevin, Norman Rockwell paintings look faintly debauched. It’s truly weird to run across him in the context of a nationwide FBI alert. On the other hand, it means there’s at least one quote in the story I can believe without question—not that I’d have thought anything else of the World Almanac.

That aside, this is just a phenomenally dumb move. The old hardcover family almanacs might or might not have gotten annotated, but your modern year-by-year trade paperback almanacs certainly do. If someone’s carrying an almanac around with them, there’s a good chance they’ll have jotted down notes in it. Who’s this going to catch? Schoolteachers. People with children. The more earnest sort of traveler. The last person I saw annotating an almanac in public was a nice woman who turned out to be a professional tour guide. One of her routes covers various sites and sights in my Brooklyn neighborhood. She was annotating her book because she’d just been out checking her route for changes.

What scares me, though, is how specifically the FBI has targeted almanacs, and how they haven’t mentioned travel guidebooks, high-resolution terrain maps, architectural guides, government directories, maps of underground water, power, and transit systems, lists of major industrial sites, the Yellow Pages for pete’s sake, or any of the other references that might reasonably be used at that stage.

I’m not just alarmed because this lets hypothetical terrorists escape scrutiny by taking their notes in a travel guide instead of an almanac. If you want to see how someone does research, look at how they imagine someone else doing it. If the almanac is the only documentation that comes to the FBI’s collective mind when they visualize potential terrorists engaged in “target selection and pre-operational planning,” what that suggests is that almanacs are pretty much what they’re working from when they’re doing their own target selection and pre-operational planning.

That’s unsettling. Almanacs are a great resource, a good place to start your research, but they’re the very definition of “general information.” Somehow, I feel as though I’d just found out that FBI agents were all recruited from the kids who did their class reports by copying stuff out of the encyclopedia.

December 28, 2003
One for the carpenter
Posted by Teresa at 02:27 PM *

Posted by Ken MacLeod to the Christmas 2003 thread:

One for the carpenter

Happy birthday to you,
Josh Davidson! Whoever you were, you
could never be nailed,
planed, sanded, dove-tailed
to cross or crib.
Joiner, leader, agitator, king;
teller and told in contrary
stories; healer with a sword—
here’s a word in your ear:
I wish you Merry Christmas
and a Happy New Year.

Two thousand and three
candles and counting:
we can stop holding our breath:

you’re not coming back.
But you’re still here, walking
in writing on water,
in vexed texts talking
at cross purposes.

Against the rough
places, still not smooth,
the high places, still not low
still Mary’s hand lights your candle: blow.

The joy of stitch
Posted by Teresa at 10:03 AM *

Jim Capozzola of The Rittenhouse Review tipped me off to this article in the NYTimes about a program that has half the pupils at a New Jersey elementary school learning to knit:

They sat in a circle, all eyes on their knitting, colorful yarns slowly lengthening as their needles moved rhythmically, back and forth, back and forth. They kept up a steady conversation, about what they were making, about how else they spend their lives, but the wooden No. 9 needles never stopped their quick movements.

“Knitting is like sleeping,” said one of the knitters.

“It’s so quiet,” said another. “I’m usually very jittery, but when I knit, I calm down.”

“You make a lot of friends when you knit, people you wouldn’t think you’d meet,” a third said.

They may have sounded like little old ladies at a sewing circle, but in fact they were schoolchildren at Seth Boyden Elementary School in Maplewood, N.J. Instead of going outside for recess, they were sitting on the floor in a hallway a week ago, knitting scarves, doll clothes, bags.

Judith Symonds, an instructional aide at the school, started the knitting program last year as a winter activity, something to do at recess when the playground was too wet or frozen. Ms. Symonds taught 85 children and 20 adults how to knit. As others heard about the program, they wanted in, too. It grew so popular that the sessions continued even as the spring thaw came, right up until the very last day of school. They resumed as soon as school started in September.

Now, more than 250 of the school’s 535 pupils take part in the program, which still takes place in the hallway during recess. The principal, Kristopher Harrison, has learned to knit along with the children. And sometimes, the school’s head custodian, Malik Muhammad, also sits and knits.

The program, called Knitting Together a Community, proved so alluring that Ms. Symonds started an evening session so parents and children could knit together. She has also talked to teachers and parents from other schools who want to start their own knitting programs. …

A spokeswoman for the South Orange-Maplewood School District, Michelle Loxton, said that Knitting Together a Community teaches children success through persistence, concentration, control, follow-through and mastery. Knitting itself, she said, improves fine-motor skills, hand-eye coordination and brain development.

The children say they just like it.
Later on in the story you get a ten-year-old boy, sitting there in the hallway knitting with his buddies, saying “With knitting, you don’t have a care in the world.”

From the sound of it, he and his friends have discovered one of the great truths of knitting: it feels good. Knitting is good. It produces a sort of serene buzz, and every so often you look down and find you’ve finished a cap or sweater. Knitting while chatting with other knitters is even better. (Knitting envy is not good. It’s what happens when you’re at a gathering where others have brought their knitting, but you haven’t brought yours. There’s a distinct sense of deprivation.)

Besides, knitting helps stave off Alzheimer’s. This is great news. It means all those bags in my basement aren’t too much yarn. They’re an investment in my long-term mental health.

Gardening, which is also on the list of activities that stave off Alzheimer’s, feels good in much the same way that knitting does, only you can’t carry it with you in your bag, and it doesn’t use up nearly as much wool.

December 24, 2003
Anya in re Santa Claus
Posted by Teresa at 02:43 PM *

Buffy, Season 5, Episode 16

DAWN: My nog tastes funny. I think I got one with rum in it.

WILLOW: That’s bad.

XANDER: Yeah, now Santa’s gonna pass you right by, naughty booze hound.

WILLOW: Santa always passes me by. Something puts him off. Could be the big honkin’ menorah.

TARA: (to Dawn) Oh, did you write him a letter?

XANDER: What’d you ask for?

DAWN: Um, guys, hello, puberty? Sorta figured out the whole no Santa thing.

ANYA: That’s a myth.

DAWN: Yeah.

ANYA: No, I mean, it’s a myth that it’s a myth. There is a Santa Claus.

XANDER: The advantage of having a thousand-year-old girlfriend. Inside scoop.

TARA: There’s a Santa Claus?

ANYA: Mm-hmm. Been around since, like, the 1500s. He wasn’t always called Santa, but you know, Christmas night, flying reindeer, coming down the chimney—all true.

DAWN: (smiles hopefully) All true?

ANYA: Well, he doesn’t traditionally bring presents so much as, you know, disembowel children, but otherwise…

TARA: The reindeer part was nice.

Open thread 14
Posted by Teresa at 02:37 PM *

Swift away the old year passes.

Christmas, 2003
Posted by Teresa at 02:05 PM *

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid.

And the angel said unto them, “Fear not; for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, 93Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

December 23, 2003
Varieties of insanity known to affect authors
Posted by Teresa at 11:05 AM * 199 comments

  • If I could just get people to read my manuscript, I know they’d love it.
  • You must not love my book if you want me to make all these changes.
  • My first novel took a long time to write, but now that I’ve been through the process and gotten my feet under me, the rest should go much faster.
  • If only you’d get behind my book more, I just know it could be a bestseller.
  • I got a bad copyedit. No one shall ever touch my text again, no matter how much it needs it.
  • The cover doesn’t look like I imagined it would. I must now do my best to bring Western Civilization to a screeching halt.
  • It was somebody I’ve never heard of. What can they do to me?
  • Picking up a quickie work-for-hire gig writing a media tie-in novel isn’t going to affect my productivity on the ongoing series I have under contract at another house.
  • If you don’t pay me the big advances, you won’t have any incentive to promote my books.
  • I know I’m three years late on this book, and I didn’t warn you that I’d finally be delivering it, but you’ve now had it sitting on your desk for a month! Why haven’t you read it yet?
  • My book’s been optioned! I’m gonna be a bestseller! Alternately: Hollywood beckons! So long, suckers!
  • I write brilliant sex scenes. How come you keep cutting them?
  • I’ve set my novel aside because I’m working on a nonfiction book about [some complex, recondite, and divisive subject where even the experts tread softly, about which I’ve very recently conceived an obsessive interest] that will finally Set Everyone Straight.
  • My last book actually earned out and made a few bucks in royalties. Why aren’t you doubling my next advance?
  • If you really loved me, you’d advertise my forthcoming book in the New Yorker and the New York Times.
  • Your editorial comments are brilliant. I adore them. No one has ever understood my writing as well as you have. I am now so paralyzed that I can’t revise the book.
  • I’m tired of being poor. I’m tired of writing well-reviewed books that go out of print. I’m going to sell out and write a trashy bestseller.
  • Why, when I sell this well, do I not get award nominations and prestigious reviews? Alternately: I get all these great reviews and award nominations. Why don’t I sell better? Alternately: It’s your fault I don’t sell better—my fans love me!
  • If only you didn’t insist on packaging and marketing my books in the ways that have hitherto made me a bestselling category author, I just know they could be reaching a much wider audience.
  • I want you to publish my next book under a pseudonym so I can find out whether it’s my writing or my name that’s selling.
  • I’m writing for an audience that doesn’t yet exist.
  • Yes—but when I do it, it’ll work.
Addendum: I knew there’d be some I missed.
  • This is all about me, isn’t it—me and my books? That is what you’re talking about, right?
  • Oh my god, this manuscript is awful. Why didn’t I see that before I told them it was finished? What could I have been thinking? I can’t show this to anyone. If I let them read it, they’ll never respect me again. Nobody will. I’ll have to change my name and move to Lubbock to live in a trailer and work in a hardware store and never, never, never tell anyone ever again that I’ve had anything to do with writing or publishing.
Robert Legault came up with one that made me wail in-memory-of:
  • I have a friend from my church/school/local bar who knows all about editing and is going to typeset/copy edit/proofread the book for me, so I don’t need to deal with your production staff.
Further additions:
  • He wrote that how fast? And that’s his first draft? Aaaargh! He’s the real writer. I’m just a talentless plodder who’s put together a bag of tricks.
  • I’m not a real writer. I don’t know what I’m doing. I just dash this stuff off. For some reason, people seem to like it. Or anyway, they’ve liked it so far.
  • He’s a real writer. I just make stuff up. He writes from the heart. Alternately: He’s genuinely creative—a real writer. I just endlessly rehash my own experiences.
  • Any day now, everyone’s going to see through me.

December 21, 2003
Dinosaurs of Eden
Posted by Teresa at 12:05 PM *

Kids just naturally think that dinosaurs are cool. The Creationists have noticed this; and in defense of their belief that the universe was created c. 4004 BCE have responded with a slew of sophisticated and grossly mendacious books for children (including some pseudo-SF, feh!), which explains how all the trilobites and dinosaurs and Pleistocene megafauna lived alongside humans during biblical times, were present in the Garden of Eden, and had berths on Noah’s Ark.

Yeah, I know. It does funny things to my imagination, too, especially the scene where Adam is naming the animals. It’s like the guy in GalaxyQuest who’s sure he’s going to die because he doesn’t have a last name. The beasts of Eden gotta figure that if all they get tagged with is some jawbreaking piece of binomial nomenclature, they’re not going to be there for the season finale.

I should note that some other Creationists are still sticking to the old explanations about how all these extinct and fossilized species were killed off during the Flood. I still haven’t figured out how they reconcile this with God’s commandment that Noah take all the animals with him on the Ark. Maybe they blame it on the ticket agent. I imagine it went something like the shibboleth exclusion, only they were checking for double-barrelled Greco-Latinate names:
“Name?” “Naked mole-rat.”
“Clean or unclean?”
“Go ahead. Next?”
“Camel.” (Spits.) “Unclean.”
“Uh, check. Go ahead. Next?”
“Goat … I mean, goats. Clem! Get over here! We’re boarding!”
“Clean or unclean?”
“Go ahead. Make sure you use the second ramp, and give this card to the stewardess when you board. Next?”
Acadoparadoxides briareus.”
“Uh, right. Can I get you to stand in that waiting area over there?”
“Over by the Merycoidodon culbertsonii and the Archaeopteryx lithographica?”
“That’s the one. Just find a seat and wait for your name to be called.”
When they’re not explaining away the geological evidence of glaciations as the remains of gigantic submarine landslides, the Creationists also teach that there was one Ice Age, one glaciation, during their allowable span of historic time, and that it followed the Flood. Kids can read all about it in Life in the Great Ice Age, which follows a tribe of “Japhethites” as they spread into Europe during the Big Chill. To get a real sense of the lack of scientific integrity in this field, I recommend this review of Life in the Great Ice Age and Skeletons in Your Closet, put up by National Review’s Book Service:
What really happened during the Great Ice Age

After the Flood, Noah’s descendants had to learn how to survive in a strange and hostile environment. The climate was undergoing drastic changes. The world was very different than it had been before the Flood and very different than it is now.

In Life in the Great Ice Age, Michael and Beverly Oard first take your children on a trip to a valley in central Europe thousands of years ago. There they spend a summer with 11-year-old Jabeth and his family who are living with a small group of people near a great glacier. Kids thrill to a battle with a cave bear, go on a woolly mammoth hunt, survive a saber-toothed tiger attack, and keep busy during the short summer preparing for the long, cold winter.

But where did these people come from? Why was there a big sheet of ice? How much longer would it last and will it come again? The Oards answer those questions, in the second half of the book, using the Bible, archaeology, and science. Here is a sampling of what your children (and dare we say you?) will learn from the Oards:
  • Why and how people lived inside caves, and how these cave dwellers fit into the Bible. Were they backward, ignorant savages or intelligent and skilled?
  • How people spread out all over the world after the Flood. (“But wouldn’t it take millions of years to populate the whole earth?”)
  • How the Ice Age people cooked and stored food and made tools, weapons, clothes, and musical instruments
  • The why and how of cave art
  • Siberia—warmer during the Ice Age than today
  • How the woolly mammoths became extinct, why hippopotami could have lived so far north during the early Ice Age, and other mysteries to evolutionary scientists that can be explained by the Flood
  • 60 theories proposed by baffled secular scientists to explain the Ice Age. Are any right? How scientific evidence really supports one ice age not long ago.
  • Why did the earth cool after the Flood? Where did all the moisture for the snow come from?
The missing links—still missing Then what about the “creatures” identified by evolutionary scientists as missing links—brutish, unintelligent, evolving “ape men”? Who were they? What story do they really tell? Dr. Gary Parker and his wife, Mary, have special training and experience in the study of fossils. They know all the fascinating facts evolutionists hide, and they reveal them here in Skeletons in Your Closet. What will your children say when they discover that Nebraska Man was illustrated from the find of a single tooth! Or that Java Man was constructed from widely scattered bones? The Parkers fill their book with answers to questions asked by their children, the same questions your own children may be asking right now, such as
  • Why were the Neanderthals so hairy? Could the artist who drew the Neanderthal model have given him a different shaped face?
  • Neanderthal brains: smaller or larger than today’s average-sized human brain?
  • Why could Cain marry his sister without the fear of birth defects common today among marriages between close relatives? Does this teach the opposite of evolution?
  • Since we all came from just two people, how did humans get so many skin colors? (An important lesson in genetics for children.) In how many generations could all the different skin colors have appeared?
  • What about the famous Australopithecus called Lucy? Haven’t evolutionists finally found the missing link here?
  • Evidence from bones that dinosaurs lived thousands, not millions of years ago
  • The Bushmen in Australia—once believed to be missing links (a story with tragic consequences)
  • Mary Leakey’s great discovery—that helps disprove evolution. What her son recently found that lends even more evidence to creation
  • How zoos and museums distort the facts on purpose, just to teach evolution
  • Records of ancient peoples that show evidence of abilities in art, science, business, and technology
  • The Tasaday people, pretending to be “Stone Age” to fool National Geographic
  • How a camel skull can be drawn to look like a vicious meat eater
Popular cryptozoology has more rigor.

As usual, much science they’d once have denounced as false is now acceptable, since it can be incorporated in the construction of their latest version of what the Bible supposedly says. It’s funny. These guys are constantly reshuffling their arguments on behalf of literalist readings they claim are plain, clear, and eternal. Meanwhile, they’re constantly bashing science for not having complete and true answers, first time every time: a thing which science explicitly does not claim to do.

They’re not making a defense of religion. They’re defending their own pet proposition, that the Bible should be approached via unnaturally simplified reading conventions that are less subtle than they’d use to read a paperback romance, and less sophisticated than their own face-to-face speech. I have real trouble with that.

And where’s their faith in the unmediated reading experience? If the basic deal is that you should read the Bible for yourself, as literal truth, how come so many of these guys publish books explaining what it says, and what you should understand from reading it? How come they keep telling other people they’ve read it wrong? There is no such thing as a single literal reading of a complex text. Pretending there is just puts you in the middle of a covert game of “my reading can beat your reading.”

One thought consoles me about those YA psesudo-paleontology books. Kids have a remarkable abiity to pan gold nuggets out of the mud. What they truly love in their reading sticks with them. The rest falls away. If they go on reading about dinosaurs, they’ll learn more; and when they do, the people who wrote those awful books won’t be there to intercept and reinterpret the data for them. Lies have to be constructed. Truth accretes. I put my faith in the narrative integrity of the world.

Last bit, for dessert: A long, thoughtful, and diverse list of things creationists hate.

December 18, 2003
Darn good Upper Paleolithic art found
Posted by Teresa at 01:09 PM *

As reported in Nature magazine (though you can also read about it in the NYTimes),

A set of ivory figurines found in southwestern Germany add to a growing cache of the oldest art known.

The 30,000-year-old carvings underline the remarkable creativity of our earliest European ancestors. Nicholas Conard of the University of Tfcbingen, Germany, discovered the 2-centimetre-high figures in the Hohle Fels Cave in the country’s Swabia region.

The figurines, and similar relics previously unearthed in Swabia, are the earliest known representations of living forms. “Without question, they are the oldest corpus of figurative art in the world,” says archaeologist Anthony Sinclair of the University of Liverpool, UK.

The carvings were almost certainly made by Europe’s earliest modern settlers. Their location supports the idea that modern humans migrated into Europe along the River Danube more than 30,000 years ago.

But the complexity of the findings undermines the traditional view that art began crudely and gradually acquired sophistication. “The new evidence refuses to fit,” says Sinclair. “It seems that the first modern humans in Europe were astonishingly precocious in their skills.”
As Dr. Conard described it,
The finds include the oldest known representation of a bird, a therianthropic sculpture and an animal that most closely resembles a horse.
Or, as the NYTimes more informally put it:
One of the pieces is the oldest known representation of a bird, which resembles a cormorant or a duck. The others appear to be the head of a horse and a figure half-man, half-animal.
Now, this is very interesting. What it suggests to me is that art began as a way of seeing, and of representing what you see, rather than something laboriously and rather drearily built up out of the earlier invention of circles, lines, dots, squiggles, and zipatone.

It’s possible that I think this because I’ve always been mildly irritated by the kind of deliberate primitivism in art that’s hard to distinguish from never having learned to draw. Trouble is, if I say that, I’ll get approving comments from person-or-persons who think I mean Klee or Kandinsky, whose work I do like, rather than de Kooning, whose work I don’t. So please don’t think that.

But never mind all that. Representational art from the Upper Paleolithic is just inherently cool, no matter what else is going on.

December 17, 2003
Waes thu Peter Jackson hael
Posted by Teresa at 01:49 PM *

Monday night I went out to New Jersey with fellow Toroids Jim Minz and Theresa Delucci plus Theresa’s guy Jeff. We stayed at Jim’s place, and next morning went off to see a marathon wide-screen showing of the extended versions of The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, followed by The Return of the King. Patrick, who had obligations elsewhere, joined us just before Helm’s Deep. Afterward we crashed at Jim’s house again, and came back this morning.

Initial report: It’s a swell movie. Grond is a spectacular siege engine. The charge of the Rohirrim at Pelennor Fields had an invisible caption under it that said It is more fun to be cavalry than infantry. Overall, the Pelennor Fields sequence actually manages to top the battle of Helm’s Deep, which I wouldn’t have bet on without seeing it. Denethor’s descent into madness is not as gradual as it might have been, but its full-scale version is satisfactorily disturbing. The Witch-King of Angmar looked just like the Witch-King of Angmar. Shelob was so scary I mostly couldn’t watch her. Minas Tirith is perfect. When we first saw the courtyard with the dead tree in it, I looked over at Patrick and saw he had both hands clapped over his mouth, so I judge it looked just like he’d always imagined. Oh, and Eowyn kicks ass.

As in the previous movies, Peter Jackson’s touch is surest when dealing with monsters and Anglo-Saxons.

Some Hollywood stuff snuck in, but there were also some brilliant additions. Call it even, or better than even. The second half of the book is way too rushed. I expect there’ll be a lot of restorations in the long version.

Give up now on the Shire getting scoured. It proves to be in near-pristine condition. This will upset some people more than others.

More when I think of it. I have a bunch of nitpicks, but I know myself for a history of material culture crank, so I’ll spare you. Few viewers are going to be bothered on a gut level by the sight of a pre-industrial society fielding an army whose cloaks are all the exact same shade.

Summary: I need to see it again. Several times. Soon.

Addenda: Kevin Maroney gave me this link. It’s accurate.

Patrick contributes this discreditably funny link. Note: the RotK review recommences after the digressive rant about The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Patrick also found a very interesting discussion of Tolkien’s intent and the films on Chad Engbers’ Locust Wind, and a very interesting response to it on Nate Bruinooge’s Polytropos.

Serious spoiler alert: Karadin, who’s either got a phenomenal memory or was taking notes throughout the movie, has posted a scene-by-scene description of The Return of the King.

December 15, 2003
Why we hate America
Posted by Teresa at 03:07 PM *

We don’t, of course, but dweeblings from the far right keep saying we do. It’s a bizarre but persistent habit of theirs.

Why do they do this? Simple. On the one hand, they can believe that we have a malign, groundless, irrational, and hitherto unsuspected hatred of America. This serves to explain why we keep criticising the Bush administration, the conduct of the war, and other follies and misdeeds.

On the other hand, they can admit the possibility that we had and have some good reason to be saying these things, in which case they’ve been played for suckers. If this were a Chuck Jones cartoon, this realization would briefly make them transmogrify into asses, just to make the point clear.

They don’t like that thought. It’s in breach of the basic social contract of the freepi and dittoi, which states that they always get to think they’re the smart guys, no matter how stupid they suspect they’ve been. This leaves them needing to believe that all those critics and dissidents hate America—even the ones who are lifelong public servants, or have served or are currently serving in the U.S. military, or who find the idea that they hate their country a specimen of Totally Alien Thought.


December 13, 2003
Old text, future interference
Posted by Teresa at 11:38 PM * 62 comments

The cheery news of the moment, if you’re a math historian or just have a broad streak of geek in your makeup, is that a palimpsest text of a treatise by Archimedes, lately recovered via clever image reconstruction techniques, has turned out to be a startlingly advanced piece of work:

Twenty-two hundred years ago, the great Greek mathematician Archimedes wrote a treatise called the Stomachion. Unlike his other writings, it soon fell into obscurity. Little of it survived, and no one knew what to make of it.

But now a historian of mathematics at Stanford, sifting through ancient parchment overwritten by monks and nearly ruined by mold, appears to have solved the mystery of what the treatise was about. In the process, he has opened a surprising new window on the work of the genius best remembered (perhaps apocryphally) for his cry of “Eureka!” when he discovered a clever way to determine whether a king’s crown was pure gold.

The Stomachion, concludes the historian, Dr. Reviel Netz, was far ahead of its time: a treatise on combinatorics, a field that did not come into its own until the rise of computer science.

The goal of combinatorics is to determine how many ways a given problem can be solved. And finding the number of ways that the problem posed in the Stomachion (pronounced sto-MOCK-yon) can be solved is so difficult that when Dr. Netz asked a team of four combinatorics experts to do it, it took them six weeks.
That’s from the New York Times. It’s an interesting story, and comes with a picture of the recovered text under its cross-written Greek prayerbook text, plus a couple of nifty diagrams showing what Archimedes was on about. Check it out. What really caught my attention, though, was a one-paragraph bit on the second page:
It was chance that led Dr. Netz to his first insight into the nature of the Stomachion. Last August, he says, just as he was about to start transcribing one of the manuscript pages, he got a gift in the mail, a blue cut-glass model of a Stomachion puzzle. It was made by a retired businessman from California who found Dr. Netz on the Internet as a renowned Archimedes scholar. Looking at the model, Dr. Netz realized that a diagram on the page he was transcribing was actually a rearrangement of the pieces of the Stomachion puzzle. Suddenly, he understood what Archimedes was getting at.
Uh-huh. Very likely. Just at that moment, Dr. Netz happens to get an elaborate gift out of the blue, from a “retired businessman in California” whose hobby just happens to be making cut-glass models of mathematics puzzles, and who just happened to run across Dr. Netz (I steadfastly refuse to comment on that name) on the Web, and be inspired to send him the exact thing he needed to figure out that treatise.

Bloody time travelers, tampering again. Is this their idea of circumspect influence?

(Link via Patrick, who put Buffy on Pause to read me the first few paragraphs of the article. Is he good, or what?)

Addendum: Virge commented:
An assistant professor historic rediscovered works combinatoric.
He (despite the monks’ cleaning)
gave the manuscript meaning
to further his fame meteoric.

December 12, 2003
Open thread 13
Posted by Teresa at 03:36 PM *

First one to say trskdkphb

Posted by Teresa at 01:44 AM *

Why are there no species of roses native to the Southern Hemisphere?

December 11, 2003
Xanthines of Ur
Posted by Teresa at 04:00 PM *

In the wake of my posting a link to a Sumerian Dictionary site in Particles, Dan Blum writes:

I have to say that I am a little suspicious of a Sumerian dictionary that includes the Sumerian word for “chocolate.”
By Ghu, he’s right. There it is: sukulutu. This is dubious indeed. Sukulutu is phonetically way too similar to “chocolate,” a word derived from the 16th C. Spanish word chocolatal, which was either the Spaniards’ version of the Aztec word xocoatl (or cacahuatl), or the Spaniards’ munged version of an older Mayan word, cacahuaquchtl. It gets complicated.

This known date of origin interacts badly with the history of Sumerian, which died out as a spoken language around the 18th C. BCE, though it hung on as a written language until the 1st C. CE. This misses by several centuries the earliest known Mayan use of words related to “chocolate”, not to mention the Mayans and Sumerians were on different and non-communicating continents; and even if they weren’t, you’d have the problem of how a Mayan word got adopted into a language that hadn’t been spoken for a couple of millennia.

Besides, if Sumerian had had a word for chocolate, that would have been cool, and we would have heard about it.

December 10, 2003
The longest line
Posted by Teresa at 10:59 PM *

The Longest Line is a Quicktime movie that’s about—what, five minutes long? Something like that. It was directed by Masanori Fukumoto, and was filmed on Sunday, November 30, at the opening of the new Apple store in Tokyo’s Ginza district. Review: The outside of the store looks kind of like a giant Powerbook, complete with glowy white apples. The inside of the store looks just like the Apple store in Soho. You can read more about it in Antipixel, if you’re interested.

Anyway, the movie itself is just a long, long tracking shot along the line of Japanese people, block after block of them, waiting to get into the store. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but there’s something weirdly cool about it. It’s not like they’ve got a song-and-dance number by a badger with giant balls, nothing like that, but in its own way it’s definitely trippy.

Bad pets
Posted by Teresa at 05:27 PM *

Paula Helm Murray sent me a link to the Bad Pets List, saying I should imagine that the entries are things your pet is being required to write 50 times on the blackboard. The cat and dog lists are of course extensive, but there are also lists for horses, guinea pigs, birds, bunnies, iguanas, and ferrets:

from The Bad Ferret List:

I will not steal a canister of raisins and eat till I get ill, then spend three days projectile-vomiting raisins at my humans.

I will not completely flatten myself so I can crawl underneath the bedroom door of the sleeping guest who is not fond of ferrets just so I can crawl into bed with her and lick her toes.

My human’s use of the Bad Ferret Squirt Bottle is supposed to annoy me, not be considered a new and exciting game.

It is impossible for me to steal the mouse. I will try to remember this, because my humans are never amused when they see me dangling from the edge of the computer desk.

There is nothing fun inside the printer.

December 07, 2003
Posted by Teresa at 11:56 PM *

The official measure is fourteen inches in Central Park, which is not bad for “sleety rain with chance of occasional snow showers.” I sort of wished I hadn’t worn my hiking sandals on Friday, but what the hey.

Meanwhile, if you want to feel better about this godawful mess of an early storm, it’s still snowing in Colebrook, NH, and as of 11:30 this morning it was knee-deep in Jim Macdonald’s yard and crotch-deep at the foot of his driveway.

I don’t know about you, but in about five minutes I’m going to pile all our blankets and comforters onto my bed and crawl in under them. And I’m going to stick my bedroom slippers under my pillow so they’ll be warm in the morning, and I’ll be able to put them on before I get out from under the covers.

If Patrick comes in and drops a handful of snow on me again, violence may ensue.

December 06, 2003
The 12 Days of Kitschmas
Posted by Teresa at 02:18 PM *

Ship of Fools’ “Gadgets for God” department has come out with its annual 12 Days of Kitschmas list. Sadly, none of the links I’ve sent them have made this year’s top twelve. But with a list as dazzling as they’ve put together, who cares?

If you want to read them in order, from the least to the most, um, gadgety, start with #12, the “Jesus Saves” sign for model railway layouts, then #11, the Frisbee of Faith, and work your way up to #1. The accompanying texts are, as ever, excellent.

Whoops, nearly forgot. The reason I was over at Ship of Fools was to check some links from my collection of favorite entries in their weekly caption competition.

The Bishop of Hereford meets a pig. Dubya meets the Pope. Beanie Bears’ church. The Vision Thing. Nuns with guns. More nuns with guns Even more nuns with guns. Confirmed by the Bishop of North Carolina. Blessing a horse. Base jumper. Salvation Army singles’ gathering. Skiffy bishops. Saint Dubya. Bouncing nuns. More bouncing nuns. Even more bouncing nuns. An Old Testament interaction. Amazing Grace.


December 04, 2003
Namarie Sue
Posted by Teresa at 01:55 PM * 329 comments

The Game of the Gods is a sustained act of literary criticism that also happens to be a multipart fanfic. Constance Cochrane turned me on to it. In the frame tale, Varda and Morgoth* play at chess. Varda’s pieces and moves assert reality. Morgoth’s gambits are the different varieties of Mary Sues that turn up in Lord of the Rings fanfic. The play of their game consists of Morgoth telling that particular Mary Sue’s tale, while Varda tries to counter it by invoking logic, common sense, and the narrative integrity of Tolkien’s universe.

From the sound of things, LOTR fanfic readers have had their patience sorely tried. For those who haven’t had their patience tried nearly enough, Deleterius & cronies have been collecting LOTR and Harry Potter Mary Sues.

Further words on the Matter of Mary Sue, and related issues:

A Mary Sue story is the literary equivalent of opening a package that you thought would be the new jacket you ordered on eBay, only it turns out to contain a poorly-constructed fairy princess costume made of some lurid and sleazy material. It’s tailored to fit a human-size Barbie doll, not you; and when you hold it up to the light, you can see the picked-out stitchmarks where someone else’s name used to be embroidered across the bodice. The dress has been used but not cleaned, and appears to have last been worn during a rather sloppy romantic interlude …

More formally:

MARY SUE (n.): 1. A variety of story, first identified in the fan fiction community, but quickly recognized as occurring elsewhere, in which normal story values are grossly subordinated to inadequately transformed personal wish-fulfillment fantasies, often involving heroic or romantic interactions with the cast of characters of some popular entertainment. 2. A distinctive type of character appearing in these stories who represents an idealized version of the author. 3. A cluster of tendencies and characteristics commonly found in Mary Sue-type stories. 4. A body of literary theory, originally generated by the fanfic community, which has since spread to other fields (f.i., professional SF publishing) because it’s so darn useful. The act of committing Mary Sue-ism is sometimes referred to as “self-insertion.”

As it says on The Official Mary Sue Society Avatar Appreciation Site, Mary Sue
…is created to serve one purpose: wish fulfillment. … She did not receive her current name until the early 1970s. The original was Lieutenant Mary Sue (“the youngest Lieutenant in the fleet — only fifteen and a half years old”) as immortalized in Paula Smith’s “A Trekkie’s Tale,” which she wrote and published in her 1974 fanzine Menagerie #2.
Mary Sue, as this archetype became known, was generally a brilliant, beautiful, multi-talented girl Starfleet officer who joined the Enterprise crew and usually either made off with a main male canon character’s heart (or several of them!), or died dramatically in his arms. I’m sure anyone in any fandom out there who’s read fanfiction can make a similar analogy within their own experiences. Mary Sues exist in every fanficdom:
— the pretty new Immortal who stumbles into MacLeod’s (or Methos’) arms
— the uberpowered kid who joins Generation X
— the female bronzerider with her firelizard flock
— the kitchen-drudge-cum-HeraldMage out on her first circuit
— the notorious Marrissa Amber Flores Picard Gordon…
Or, obviously, Galadriel’s secret love-child (Aragorn’s unacknowledged daughter) who runs off to join the Company of the Ring, sorts out Boromir’s problems, out-magics Gandalf, out-fights Aragorn during the melodramatic scene in which she reveals her true identity, demonstrates herself to be so spiritually elevated that the Ring has no effect on her, and wins Legolas’ heart forever. (See also the classic Nine Men and a Little Lady).

Mary Sue literary theory has changed my professional life. Before, when discussing manuscripts with my colleagues, I had to say things “You know, one of those books that keeps telling you how wonderful and talented and perfect the main character is and how much everyone loves her, but aside from that there’s nothing at stake and nothing really happens? No logic, no causality, no narrative development, just that character being wonderful every barfy step of the way?”

Generally they knew what I meant; we see a lot of books like that. But those conversations have gotten much easier now that I can say things like “See if the author will agree to rewrite it from another character’s point of view—that main character is a screaming Mary Sue.” Or: “I sent it back. The agent was all excited about how the author’s ‘expanding into a new genre’, but it’s just a Mary Sue with jousting scenes pasted in.”

So yay for the fanfic universe for putting a name to that. They came up with the idea of formalizing the role of the beta reader, too, which is another piece of really useful literature-generating technology. If that surprises you, recollect that the primary characteristic of fanfic isn’t that it’s amateurish or derivative; it’s that it’s legally unpublishable. Some very smart people read and/or write fanfic.

(Someday, not today, I’ll tell the story of how, years ago, Joanna Russ and I used Star Trek fanfic as a sort of Rosetta Stone to decipher recurrent themes and motifs in fantasy and SF written by women. It’s often easier to see underlying patterns and mechanisms in amateur fiction than in slicker commercial work. This started when Joanna identified and described some recurrent narrative motifs she’d spotted in the Trek slash of the day, of which the inverse relationship between incidence of explicit sex and liebestod denouements was the most obvious and least important. There was much more to it. She laid out her entire description; and I, considering it, said “Which is not to say that The Left Hand of Darkness is a specimen of Star Trek slash fiction.” Joanna’s jaw dropped, and we stared at each other in wild surmise. The patterns not only fitted; they explained some otherwise inexplicable plot twists in that novel. We were on to something. And—hey! What about thus-and-such story by Zenna Henderson? And that one by Leigh Brackett? And so forth and so on, ever onward. For the next few weeks we were stoned on literary theory and the codebreaker’s buzz of seeing a seemingly knotty puzzle resolve into plaintext.)

Trek fanfic writers may have identified Mary Sue and her brother Gary Stu, but they didn’t invent them. I imagine that tales have been told of Mary Sue since storytelling was invented. The folk process tends to exclude her (nothing so unattractive as using someone else’s Mary Sue), as does stern editing; but the minute you have single-author vanity publishing, lo! There she is!

Seminal fan articles on Mary Sue-ism include Dr. Merlin’s Guide to Fan Fiction, with its equally influential accompanying Original Mary Sue Litmus Test, both by Melissa Wilson; and Sebastian’s Self-Insertion and Mary-Sue-ism. For a longer view, try Pat Pflieger’s Too Good to be True: 150 Years of Mary Sue, or Writers’ University’s startlingly accurate Fan Fiction Historical Timeline.

Caches of Mary Sue-related resources can be found at The Official Mary Sue Society Avatar Appreciation Site, with its extensive links page; at Writers’ University, which has either the largest or second-largest collection of Mary Sue litmus test variants on the web; and on the website of that wicked child Mary Sue Whipple, author of The Night the Ship Exploded and Everyone “Did It”.

If you don’t have time to read all this stuff, but want to grok Mary Sue in fullness via the quick immersion method, some notably sharp-tongued and inventive Hunchback of Notre Dame fans put together a superior Hunchback of Notre Dame Mary Sue Litmus Test, plus their original Create your own gypsy character generator, complete with plot outline and important details!

Mystery Science Freezer, a site for MST3K fans, has developed a useful vocabulary of additional terms for the ways stories go wrong. See their Who Is Mary Sue? and its accompanying glossary. I particularly liked “Aura of Smooth,” which they define as “The proverbial energy field self-inserted characters generate to bend the regular cast to their wills—i.e., trusting and/or falling in love with them for no stated reason.”

Shameless Setteis and Mary Sues, a candid, thoughtful, and unsettling article, discusses “head stories,” and Japanese manga and anime’s shamelessly enthusiastic use of all the cheesiest wish-fulfillment and poor-me cliches.

In Whatever happened to Mary Sue?, Eshva argues that Mary Sues have undergone defensive diversification in reaction to the fanfic community’s greater sophistication.

If you’re a writer and are now feeling painfully self-conscious about the possibility that you could be writing Mary Sues, Meet Sarah has some good commentary on how such things get written, and B5 Help for Mary Sues has pithy advice for getting in touch with your inner Mary Sue and viciously mugging her. Alternately, just read How to Write a Mary Sue Fic in Seven Easy Steps and check to make sure you’re not following its advice.

If you’d rather just make fun of the whole thing, start by reading The Netiquette of Badfic to keep yourself in the paths of righteousness. After that you might try The Godawful Fanfic Message Board, or possibly Melvin’s Mauve Mansion of Manlove. I don’t guarantee that those sites will have the best fanfic parodies on the web, but they definitely have the best names.

Addenda: PiscusFiche, in the comments thread, has contributed a splendid link to a five-page cartoon about the metaphysical effects of having too many Mary Sues converge at one spot: Hogwarts.

Also: At least one reader has reported being puzzled at my reaction to The Game of the Gods, which he described as an inconclusive episode that’s only about one page long. He’d fallen afoul of’s visually inobvious navigation links. If you’ve had the same problem, look for the pulldown menu in the upper-right and lower-right corners of the page. If you prefer, just to the right of the pulldown menu there’s also a button marked with a tiny forward arrow. Either one of them will enable you to access all the episodes, of which there are thirty-five total.

*I was going to explain who Varda and Morgoth are, but it occurs to me that if you don’t already know that, you aren’t going to understand the rest of the frame tale anyway. Just ignore it and enjoy the parodies.

(Admit it. You thought I’d forgotten about that footnote marker.)

Posted by Teresa at 01:23 PM * 12 comments

True faith, hope, and charity: Dorothy Breininger helps Lloyd Drum clean up his home. It’s a remarkable story. (via Calpundit.)

December 02, 2003
Open thread 12
Posted by Teresa at 08:20 PM *

Be kind to your slow-modem’d friends.

Smaller type (our default)
Larger type
Even larger type, with serifs

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