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September 26, 2010
The secret lives of fossils
Posted by Patrick at 10:40 PM * 83 comments

As previously documented on Making Light, Teresa made several items of jewelry for display and sale in the art show at Boskone this past February. In her words: “This partly grew out of a compulsion that somehow settled on me a while back: to make a rosary for Charles Darwin out of fossils. It helped that so many commonly available semiprecious stone beads are made of fossil material. I wound up making two rosaries, which turned out to be surprisingly pretty, and will probably make more. Next time around, though, I have got to get my hands on a usable trilobite.”

One of those two pieces, “The God of the Burgess Shale” (name explained in a popup footnote here), was purchased by Lis Riba and her husband as a gift for Brother Guy Consolmagno, S.J., longtime SF fan and curator of the Pope’s meteorite collection. (If knowing people with interesting jobs is the key to happiness in life, we win.)

Some months later, the relevant birthday has occurred and the recipient has described the gift. Which, evidently, now sits “just below our Moon Rock in our meteorite display case” at the Vatican Observatory, Specola Vaticana at Castel Gandolfo.

Teresa says she is “nearly limp with egoboo.” I can attest to the truth of this.

Hard-eyed enforcers of empty-minded clichés
Posted by Patrick at 05:40 PM * 128 comments

This New York Times trend piece, “Learning to Share, Thanks to the Web,” is a strained attempt, citing a miscellany of phenomena and enterprises ranging from car-pooling to Share Some Sugar to the existence of the small-but-growing urban bikeshare industry, to tease out some big-think conclusions about a possible increase in American acceptance of a “sharing” ethic. The problem with this is that most of the things discussed are are actually attempts to practically and sensibly address real needs, but the article is so determined to wedge them into a narrative about Sharing versus Individualism, to say nothing of our old friends Ideals versus Reality, that you’d be forgiven if you got the impression that an outfit like Bixi was some kind of hippie co-op dedicated to leaving bikes on the street and chanting om mane padme hum while hoping everyone will just share and be nice.

Bixi is brilliant, at least in Montreal, as far as I can tell from my several uses of it at last year’s Worldcon and this year’s Farthing Party. But it’s not based on hopes for some sort of miraculous change in the normal range of human behavior. The basic deal is this: There are about 5,000 Bixi bicycles electronically locked up at 400 stations scattered around central Montreal. To use one of the bikes, you need an account; these are $78 a year, $28 for 30 days, or $5 for 24 hours. You can pay your five bucks by sliding a credit or debit card into the Bixi station’s electronic terminal. This allows you to check out one bike at a time (you’re given a unique code to punch into the electronic dock) with no further fees so long as you don’t keep any single bike longer than 30 minutes. The bikes themselves are solid step-through three-speeds with upright handlebars, pedal-powered lights, hand-adjustable seatposts, and a hanging basket in front; pretty much anyone who can ride any kind of two-wheeled bike can ride one of these.

The elegant part of the system is the sliding fee structure. If you keep a particular bike for a half hour beyond your free first half hour, you’re charged $1.50; if you keep it for another half hour after that, it’s an additional $3 for a total of $4.50; the next half hour is $6 for a total of $10.50, and you’re charged $6 per additional half hour after that. The point is to deter people from using Bixi as a bike-rental system. (If you want to rent a bike for an afternoon or a day, Bixi’s web page recommends several businesses ready to do business with you.) Bixi is meant as a new piece of urban infrastructure, enabling short bicycle trips from point A to point B—the assumption is that you’ll return your Bixi bike to a station near your destination, and then when you need to go somewhere else, you’ll check out a different bike. Having, as central Montreal does, literally hundreds of Bixi stations, one every two to four blocks (even in residential parts of the center city!), makes this assumption quite practical. The first couple of times I checked out a Bixi bike, I consulted their map in advance in order to locate a station near my destination, but after that I didn’t bother—I just grabbed a bike, figuring that there would be a docking station within sight of where I was going, and in fact there always was. You don’t consult a map of an urban downtown to make sure the road next to the restaurant you’re driving to is paved; you just assume that it is. Likewise for the ubiquity of Bixi stations in central Montreal.

What you’ll notice about all of this is that none of it has anything to do with some kind of transformation of anyone’s attitudes about “sharing.” Bixi isn’t engaged in some kind of attempt at moral uplift, any more than people who form a car pool to save on gas are trying to transform themselves into New Soviet Men. Whether it turns out to be a long-term success or not, Bixi is an attempt to align incentives in such a way so that a few thousand bikes can be used by a few hundred thousand people—not because Sharing Is Good but because the convenience of having bikes available for quick urban errands is good, and because exercise is good and more of us would get more of it if getting it was more fun and less trouble. Also because anything that reduces the number of cars roaring around dense urban centers is good for everybody.

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This insistence on peering suspiciously at anything with the word “share” in its business model as if it were something exotic and alien was also evident in an earlier Times article about a bike-share program in a French-speaking city, “French Ideal of Bicycle-Sharing Meets Reality”, from October 31, 2009. Here we were informed that “this latest French utopia has met a prosaic reality” because, following the initial rollout of a bike-share program in central Paris, a large number of the bikes were damaged or stolen. Sociologists were quoted, Le Corbusier was invoked, cost overruns were tut-tutted, fun was had by all—who doesn’t enjoy seeing the French taken down a peg, with their loathsome ideas about good food and vacations and health care and stuff. Crazy utopian French people! Of course, not in a million years would it have occurred to that article’s author, its editors, or any of its readers that one could just as accurately write a newspaper article called “American Ideal of Freeway-Sharing Meets Reality” discussing the kooky American idea of spending billions of dollars on vast freeway systems and then allowing people to just drive all over them without paying an extra cent. Typical American hare-brained collectivism! And look, parts of the system are in terrible disrepair! That’s what you get for letting crazy idealistic Americans run anything. They’re like children, really.

Some of this no doubt comes from the success of the right-wing multi-generation project to convince Americans that ours is a history of rugged hyper-individualism only recently polluted by alien “collectivist” mind viruses. (As if we didn’t pursue things like a Federal-level industrial policy in our earliest days as a nation, and as if the industrial accomplishments of the Gilded Age were in fact the work of brilliant Ayn Rand heroes acting free of government involvement.) But I suspect a great deal of it simply comes from the basic mental mediocrity of the average modern journalist. They’re socialized by their classmates and teachers, and later their peers and bosses, to regard themselves as hard-eyed, dispassionate outsiders, viewing trends with skepticism and looking for the worm in the apple. But so many of them have minds so underfurnished that it never occurs to them to question the cookie-cutter dualisms that rush in to fill their empty imaginative space. “Ideal” meets “Reality,” trouble ensues, story writes itself…without ever questioning what gets tagged “reality” and what doesn’t, and why. In the story about the Parisian bike-share program, it’s “reality” when more bikes are stolen and damaged than management planned for at first. But as the reporter is ultimately compelled to admit, the program is now “an established part of Parisian life.” (Here’s a more recent account of it, written for visitors.) Why isn’t this fact also considered part of “reality”?

And that, children, is how ideology does its work in the world, even when nobody involved thinks that what they’re doing is ideological. Or, perhaps, especially when nobody involved imagines such a thing.

You take this sheep, see…
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 02:55 PM * 42 comments

From my book-arts mailing list, a wonderful blog post on the origin of standard book sizes. I adore the illustrations, am charmed by the prose style, and find myself tempted to go look at our Google referrals for either some penance of my own or a good parlor game. My only question, reading it, is what about the fact that some vellum* was made from cows?

The rest of the blog is also worth browsing through, from the article about Last Supper portion sizes to its intermittent reproductions of illuminated marginalia.

This is the kind of thing that makes me regret sticking to the Classical period during university.

(The title of my post here is from an overheard comment on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. The speaker continued, “…and after you’ve eaten everything edible, you take the rest…” and then drifted out of earshot. Martin and I turned to each other and said, in unison, “Fancy haggis for tea tonight?”)

* The terms vellum and parchment are hopelessly muddled in the history of bookbinding. I have heard it firmly asserted that vellum is from cattle and parchment from sheep, and I have heard that laughed out of the pub. But I have been consistently informed that, whatever you call it, the material of the Book of Kells comes from bovine sources.

September 25, 2010
An oddly familiar cover
Posted by Teresa at 04:26 AM *

This is the cover of Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment by James Patterson, which was first published in January 2001 by Little, Brown.

Meanwhile, this is the cover of Kindred by Tammar Stein, which is due out from Knopf in February of next year.

It’s hard to imagine that Knopf would intentionally buy second rights to a cover image previously used on a James Patterson novel, especially given that the James Patterson novel is still in print. There may be a reasonable explanation for it that will keep the whole episode from being labeled a prime goat-roping clusterfck.

I do hope that’s the case, because otherwise it’s possible that at this very moment, in dungeons deep beneath the gleaming glass-and-steel towers of 1745 Broadway, terrible things are being done to that artist.

September 21, 2010
Dysfunctional Families Day: No Expectations
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 01:10 AM *

My parents grew up in the middle of the last century, in very different suburbs of very different Californian cities. Both families suffered tragedies of different sorts, both struggled with deep and fundamentally irresolvable interpersonal conflicts. Both were, at times, powerfully unhappy. But the image that each presented to the world was as close to the Ozzie and Harriet ideal as they could manage, because that was what was expected of them.

Now, of course, we accept that families are more varied. Blended families, same-sex couples, lone parents, multiracial marriages (or, indeed, people of color at all): all these previously invisible families are now part of our ordinary landscape. So are unhappy families, of course: Jerry Springer, Oprah and Judge Judy have seen to that. But there are still these expectations about what it means to be in, or from, a dysfunctional family, and those can be as damaging as the complete denial of family troubles at all.

I don’t agree with Tolstoy that happy families are all alike, but it’s certainly true that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. I think we need to give more space for that idea in our society, and for the varied ways that such unhappiness leaves its marks on people.

Making Light regulars will know that September 21 is Dysfunctional Families Day, when we give some space for those in our community whose families were, in each of their distinct and different ways, unhappy. We’ve done it twice before, and it’s my intention to continue the tradition as long as it seems worth doing.

As usual, anonymous comments are welcome in this thread. Not everyone wants their everyday identity linked with the most painful stories of their childhoods. Remember that the Making Light (view all by) functionality is keyed by email address; change that as well as your name to be anonymous. To avoid confusion among different anonymous commenters, it’s useful to create a spoofed email address using your chosen anonymous name.

Also as usual, I will be patrolling the thread with extra attention, cleaning up email address mistakes and ensuring that this is a safe space for difficult discussions

September 20, 2010
Political “moderation” isn’t moderate
Posted by Patrick at 07:50 AM *

I disagree with Glenn Greenwald often enough, but he’s dead right about this. The premise of Jon Stewart’s “Million Moderate March” is vacuous. There’s no inherent virtue in political “moderation.” The “moderates” weren’t the ones who were right about whether we should have marched into Iraq; it was the so-called extremist peaceniks who had it right from the start. The “moderates” aren’t the ones who are right about the priority we should be giving to the threat of global climate change; again, the people who are correct on this issue are labelled as “extremists.” And contrary to Jon Stewart’s foolish assertion, while it may be “moderate” to reject charges that the Bush Administration committed war crimes, it’s also wrong. Because in fact they committed war crimes. (Nor are the current administration’s hands much cleaner on this score, and those who point this out continue to be marginalized.)

There are many senses in which “moderation” is a virtue. We should generally strive for equinamity in our dealings with one another. Courtesy, extending the benefit of the doubt, eschewing extreme rhetoric when it isn’t necessary—these are all things that make human social life possible. But as a term in politics, “moderate” has come to mean something quite orthogonal to all of this. When Jon Stewart claims a parallel between the racism of the “tea party” movement and its insane alternate-world beliefs (Obama is a Kenyan-born Muslim Stalinist, etc) and the idea that the Bush administration committed war crimes, what he’s promoting is a “moderation” that is about nothing more than identifying the range of socially-acceptable beliefs and planting one’s self safely in the center of that range. It has nothing to do with discerning or respecting the truth, and everything to do with assuring one’s social status. In that sense it is radically self-centered—not actually “moderate” at all.

September 19, 2010
Epistemic Openness for Passion Fish
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 11:54 AM *

I was chatting to PNH yesterday, and the topic of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ excellent article on compassion came up. Patrick pointed me to the comment thread, wherein Hilzoy, whom I know of as the much-missed Obsidian Wings front-pager, gets into an interesting discussion with Josh Jasper, whose name I’ve heard in so many contexts I can’t recall which one was first. (This was before Elizabeth Bear also made an appearance.)

That reminded me of how much, over the last wee while, I’ve noticed the same people turning up on pretty much all the blogs I currently follow. I recognized one person from Obsidian Wings in a thread here on Making Light; I’ve been watching several local regulars (plus one friend-of-friend from LiveJournal) say wise and good things in the Slacktivist comments; and a couple of names from Crooked Timber have made themselves welcome in our conversations here.

Hm, I thought later, everywhere I go, I see the same people, chewing over the same issues in subtly varying but essentially congruent fora. You know, this is probably what epistemic closure feels like.

But is it? Or is it just a survival tactic in the face of too many people wrong on the internet at once? And more importantly, what should I do about it?

These last weeks, as the Park 51 project has loosened a lot of tongues and the anniversary of 9/11 has unleashed a good deal of anger, the internet has been full of places that hurt me to read. It’s been all too easy to stay in my safe zone, in the blogs where the local views and priorities are close to mine—basically, where the stupid doesn’t burn or splash all over me.

Even so, there’s been an average one regular* per site who has come out with views that aren’t just wrong, but fractally wrong: wrong on every level from the “facts” cited to the conclusions drawn. Formerly reasonable people talk about “a proportion of Muslims” who are terrorists, and thence conclude that “Islam is a religion of violence.” The “moderate Muslims should condemn terrorism” thing comes up repeatedly (nicely skewered here today, by the way).

In some cases these views have been unassailable by factual argument, which makes me think they’re more symbolic beliefs than actual assertions of perceived truth. But even in the situation where a commenter was persuaded to reconsider (and had the grace and character to publicly apologize), the relief and pleasure of the community was as telling as failures elsewhere. They did not expect it.

Now, disagreement is the food of politics and the internet alike, but these extended and oft-fruitless wranglings, particularly in a context where beliefs are cultural markers, do not encourage me to venture past my safe circle. Even where confrontations may be successful, they are often unpleasant, and it’s all too easy to find people digging in their heels until one has to choose between correctness and community.

Me, I tend strongly toward community, which is one reason I don’t thrive on argument. I don’t enjoy participating in the cut-and-thrust of intellectual combat§. But even if I’m not trying persuade them, it’s of value to me to understand the people I disagree with. So how can someone like me† find a way to engage with painfully different perspectives?

I think we’re back to Coates again, this time to the post itself. For other reasons, the question above is exactly what he’s wrestling with in his study of the Civil War. He can’t argue with the people he disagrees with, not because he’s not prone to argument, but because they’re dead. His recommendation:

You have to remove the cloak of the partisan, and assume the garb of the thespian. Instead of prosecuting the Confederate perspective, you have to interrogate it, and ultimately assume it. In no small measure, to understand them, you must become them. For me to seriously consider the words of the slave-holder, which is to say the mind of the slave-holder, for me to see them as human beings, as full and as complicated as anyone else I know, a strange transcendence is requested. I am losing my earned, righteous skin. I know that beef is our birthright, that all our grievance is just. But for want of seeing more, I am compelled to let it go.

What he doesn’t get into is how much that hurts, the way it hurt Eustace to lose his dragon skin in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:

The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it as just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off.

Peeling off all of our carefully created coping mechanisms, leaving the community where our views and priorities don’t even need to be discussed because they’re obviously true, is like that. And that excruciating shedding-of-self is as important in its own way as the subsequent attempt to assume someone else’s worldview. Because it’s through our own pain and vulnerability that we come to understand the roots of each other’s wrongnesses.

I have come to see that our tormentors had tormentors, that the slave-holding woman was trapped by hoop-skirts and convention, that the man was trapped by lineage and human folly.

The result is what Coates calls compassion. I have another word for it, from another tradition. I call it love. But in either case, for me, it’s the way out of my own safe world.

* None here, thankfully, but enough elsewhere to keep the average up
§ however much I value the clarity it creates when others do it
† I tend to describe myself as a passion fish, which is an eggcorn I got from a children’s TV show.

September 18, 2010
Travels with Emily
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 05:55 PM * 19 comments

To my surprise, it’s been almost exactly a year since a bunch of us photographed our bike commutes for the pleasure and erudition of the assembled commentariat. I had not thought it that long.

I’ve since changed jobs and bikes. So it seemed like a good idea to document my new commute in the same manner as the old: take a photo every 50 pedal strokes. This time I had a camera I could simply hold up and shoot with as I rode, which made the process much easier than when I had to stop and pull the iPhone out for every stage.

As it happens, the route I take runs past several significant spots in recent Making Light history. (I’ve added appropriate links to the descriptions.) Cycling by them gives me a feeling of great comfort, as though I am not, in fact, in a foreign country surrounded by cultural contexts I barely understand. It’s eerily like feeling at home. I could get to like it.

It’s also a rather longer trip than the previous one. It takes me about 45 minutes from unlocking my bike to the seasonal meditations of Vivaldi or the soaring myths of Wagner* to pulling up outside my front door†. I like the feeling of being on a journey that I get from going a little further and for a little longer. The experience of the different stages of the route (from urban council housing, past farmland with goats opposite houseboats and classic Noord-Hollands dike houses, to the safe, familiar road home) imposes a similar set of transitions on my thoughts. By the time I get home, I feel truly removed from my work context, in both time and space. I could take the bus to this job (unlike the last one, where it would have easily quadrupled my travel time), but I get too much out of going by bike to consider it, even in the driving rain.

My one regret about the old commute, to my surprise, is not that I rarely have time to go through the nature reserve. The days have been too wet for that to be a pleasure. But I’ve had to abandon one of my other projects: photographing the same spot every day I commute, so I can watch the change of seasons. I don’t go by that way any more.

* I park my bike in the underground space near my employer, the main branch of the public library, and the Amsterdam conservatory. I suspect the Classical music is due to the last of these; I am certain it’s not the first.
† The photoset stops at the village crossroads. It’s about five shots short of the full journey.

Open thread 147
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 03:08 AM *

Red, black, red, black, red, black, red, black, red, black, red, black, red, black, red, black, red, black, red, black, red, black, red, black, red, black, red, black, red, black, yellow, green, brown, blue, pink, black.

Drink, wave, shake hands, carry on.

link back to Open thread 146

September 17, 2010
Making Essence of Purple
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 09:35 AM * 141 comments

So I pruned the blackberry bush in the back garden this spring, pruned it hard. It was throwing too many spiky canes toward the outside table instead of lurking demurely in the corner by the water butt like it’s supposed to. I taught it manners with the blades of my secateurs.

I wasn’t thinking of the berries, honest, but it’s produced a greater volume of them than last year as a result of my efforts at barbering†. They’re still seedy and, where their weight has dragged the branches to the ground, sandy. Maybe it’s the wet year (my tomatoes seem to have caught some kind of rot and are wilting horribly with green fruit still on the vine), maybe it’s the sparse and sandy soil the plant’s rooted in; I don’t know. I do know I’m not going to spend too much energy nursing a Himalayan blackberry bush*.

But still I have these blackberries, too numerous to waste but too seedy to put in my breakfast cereal. And so I bethought myself of something I read here once—not live, mind, since it predates me, but in one of my retrospective trawls.

Thus for this is what I am doing, or a near approximation thereof. This morning I bought a bottle of inexpensive vodka§, and some of it sits in an earthenware pot along with macerated berries and a little lemon peel. This is, I hope, the beginning of a beautiful friendship‡.

Anyone else stocking the pantry for the autumn or planning the garden for the spring?

† Or barbarous efforts, if you will.
* Some things deserve to live in a Hobbsean state of nature.
§ Not overproof, so I suppose technically this will be blackberry vodka rather than blackberry liqueur. I’m not proud; I’ll drink either.
‡ Albeit a tragic and doomed one, like Romeo and Juliet on a double date with Drusilla and Spike.

September 14, 2010
Over Kaas
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 04:45 PM * 193 comments

It occurs to me that my intermittent discursions over life in the Low Countries have not yet touched on one of the matters of greatest importance to the local culture (as it were). Being as I am at relative leisure this evening, I thought it was time to rectify that, turning my attention to the vital topic of cheese.

And cheese� is an important part of life in the Netherlands. They eat it in toasties, put it on pancakes, and combine it with all manner of things, savory and sweet, in sandwiches. There’s even a turn of phrase about it: daar heeft hij geen kaas van gegeten, “he hasn’t eaten any cheese from there.” It means that the person knows little or nothing about a subject.

Thus is it extra-ironic that having eaten cheese from the Netherlands doesn’t mean you know about Dutch cheese. Everywhere else I’ve lived, the standard Dutch cheeses for sale are Edam and Gouda†‡. Edam has the red wax around it, and is milder and slightly more elastic; Gouda has yellow wax and is stronger in flavor. If one is very sophisticated, one may also be acquainted with Old Amsterdam, a strong cheese as crumbly as aged Cheddar. Most people know Limburger cheese only by reputation (it’s the one that smells like old feet).

Well, leave all of that at the border. (Except for the initial vowel sound of “Gouda”, which you will, if you please, retain lifelong and worldwide.) When you’re buying cheese in the Netherlands, that information is less than useless. Go into a supermarket and you will look in vain for a city name on the bulk of the cheese for sale.

The commonest Dutch cheeses are variations on the ubiquitous unstated Gouda§: jong (young), various sorts of belegen (mature) and oud (old). The Dutch Wikipedia article on kaas gives a handy chart of how long each variety of cheese is aged; it ranges from 4 weeks to a year and a half. Longer ageing gives a deeper color, a crumblier texture and a stronger flavor. Jonge kaas frequently has a green paper label on the wax coating. Belegen tends to have a blue label, and oude kaas a black one.

In addition to the varieties of Gouda, there are regional cheeses such as Edammer, Zaandammer, Maasdammer, and Leidse, usually sold at markets or (in supermarkets) the deli counter. They vary in taste, but are all near cousins of one another. What’s known as Limburger in the rest of the world is called Hervekaas in Dutch, named after the region where it originates (it’s also called stinkkaas.) Unpasteurized cheese is boerenkaas, farmer’s cheese.

There are also Gouda-style cheeses with any number of herbs in them, from cloves to fenugreek. Several of my former colleagues are fond of cumin in theirs. I think it’s an acquired taste; I never acquired it.

It’s also worth mentioning that, allowing for variations in taste, all of these cheeses are delicious.

� by which I mean cow’s milk cheese. There are some goat cheeses here, but they’re negligible.
† Note that the news has just come out today that these terms (with “Holland” appended) will be given protected status by the EU.
‡ whose first syllable is to rhyme with cow, not shoe*
* No, really, please learn this. “Goo-da” inspires many Dutch speakers with the strong desire to spoon your eyeballs out.
§ “Ubiquitous Unstated Gouda” is my next rock band name

September 11, 2010
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 05:45 AM * 421 comments

My great-great grandfather, John “Jack” Foley, left County Waterford in the mid-1800’s. He was fourteen, alone in the world, and all but penniless. He didn’t have a lot of viable choices; his family was dead from the famine and he’d been turned off the farm they’d worked. So he took ship for America and landed in a cesspool of racism and discrimination.

Family tradition holds that he worked in Mississippi for a time, doing jobs that slaves were considered too valuable to be given. He married, fathered a son, and lost both wife and child to disease. He did a stint on the Pony Express, then joined the Army. Somewhere around Yosemite, after some—probably racial or religious—abuse, he left the military in rather a rush (when you fire on your commanding officer, consider yourself discharged, even if you miss the man and only hit the horse). He eventually married again and settled in San Jose, where he made his fortune (ironically) growing potatoes.

It was not an easy life, and though his descendants became lawyers and judges—respectable people—the family stories remain.

Of course, now Irish Americans are seen differently. The funny accents of our ancestors have become charming, their early squalor and destitution is now noble poverty, and that weird religion so many of us still follow doesn’t seem nearly as threatening after all this time. (It has other problems, but respected commenters rarely opine that we’re controlled by a foreign potentate). Almost all of the hateful figures of speech about us have faded from the language. There’s even a day a year when people who aren’t members of our diaspora pretend they are.*

I’ve seen plenty of commentary about how this is the American way, and a thing to be proud of. Immigrants come to the country, have a tough time of it, but eventually become accepted. Muslims, it is said, just need to be patient, and one day they too will be part of the fabric of the nation, like the Irish and the Poles, the Germans and the Russians, the Jews and the Vietnamese and the Koreans. It’s a bonding thing.†

But, you know, here’s the thing: this isn’t actually a very good way of running a nation of immigrants. If it is the destiny of each successive wave of incomers to eventually assimilate enough that it attacks the next set of arrivals, then we are not one of the great dreams of the Enlightenment made manifest. Indeed, we turn out to be nothing more than a glorified college fraternity. Upsilon Sigma Alpha. Go us.

And even the fraternities know better. They’ve been working to ban hazing, because it harms two groups of people: the victims, a certain proportion of whom are injured or killed every year; and the perpetrators, for whom the practice of tormenting and abusing other people is equally damaging. It’s a tradition that creates and strengthens bullies, valorizes cruelty (particularly carefully considered cruelty, the worst kind) and denies the value of compassion.

So why on Earth would we permit, and even celebrate, the same behavior at a national level?

Speaking personally, I can’t and won’t. The ghost of Jack Foley won’t let me, and he was always a ready man with his gun.

* It’s as if, in the future, everyone wore headscarves on Eid Al-Fitr. We’d get it all wrong (men would wear them too). The holovisions would show the parade sponsored by a major and unrelated mercantile empire. The Apple Eid Day Parade. Mark your calendars.
† Except it’s not, because the grudges against earlier bullies never really go away either. Ask the Irish about the English sometime.

September 05, 2010
Failures of cabinetry in the Low Countries
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 02:32 PM * 90 comments

Welcome to the newest episode of the Dutch cabinet formation trainwreck epic!

In the last exciting installment, we were discouraged because the Netherlands looked to be headed for a right-leaning minority government made up of the VVD (moderate right-wingers) and the CDA (Christian Democrats, pretty much centrists). To make up the numbers for crucial votes, the government was going to rely on Geert Wilders’ notorious PVV, usually referred to in the English-language press as the Freedom Party. This was widely seen as the worst of both worlds, because Wilders would not be bound by the expectations of responsible behavior that we have of ruling parties, but would still be “in power” enough to peddle his noxious blend of Islamophobia and trollishness.

The negotiations were going slowly, partly because some parts of the the CDA were getting cold feet about the price of cooperation with the PVV. In exchange for his support on economic measures, Wilders wanted to influence the way that the Dutch government treats immigrants and Muslims. The problem festered throughout August. Then, on September 1, a letter (Dutch, PDF) from Ab Klink, Minister of Health, Welfare and Sport in the last government, hit the evening news. In it, he explained in detail why spoons don’t come long enough for him to sup with Geert Wilders.

This was a particular problem, because Klink was one of the CDA’s coalition negotiators. Furthermore, he was joined in his protest by two more of the CDA’s 21 MP’s: Ad Koppejan and Kathleen Ferrier*. After swift discussions behind closed doors, the CDA replaced Klink in the negotiating team, and the three dissidents promised to await the final coalition agreement before making a judgement.

This was not good enough for Wilders, who demanded that they commit in writing to support the final coalition agreement before he would re-enter negotiations. That demand is somewhere between unethical and illegal in the Netherlands, where each MP holds his or her seat personally, and has free choice about how to vote. (It is, however, fairly close to how Wilders runs the PVV.)

So on Friday, Wilders withdrew from negotiations on the grounds that he could no longer trust the CDA. Without the PVV, the right-wing coalition has no chance of a reliable majority on contentious economic issues, so this fifth round of cabinet formation is a failure. Informateur Ivo Opstelten has so reported to the Queen.

Speculation about what happens next is rife, but the consensus seems to be that someone—either VVD leader Mark Rutte or a new agent of the Queen—will draw up a coalition accord and shop it round (since getting the parties together to draw one up collectively has failed five times now). The hope is that either the larger parties can show some flexibility on their manifestos, or that enough individual MPs will agree to the accord without full party consent. In either case, the government will be fragile and cautious.

No matter what, the chances that Wilders will end up in government, or with influence in government, are much reduced. This is both good and bad; it means his ideas (like a �1000 headscarf tax†) won’t get the respectability of public office, but it also means he and his followers can paint themselves as the brave dissidents whom no one dares listen to‡.

Stay tuned for further developments.

* No, not her, but named after her
† Not for nothing has he been called een paling in een emmer snot, an eel in a bucket of snot.
‡ You know, the kind of people whose truths are just too brave for the majority to handle. The last time I listened to a debate he was in I nearly stood up and shouted “Bingo!”

I am not an expert in Dutch politics; I just live here. Linked items are in English unless otherwise stated. Objects in mirror may be closer than they appear. Produced in a household that contains cheese. This guarantee does not affect your statutory rights.

Patrick’s won the Hugo for Best Editor!
Posted by Teresa at 07:29 AM * 94 comments

He called me just now, as soon as he got off stage. The ceremony is still going on. I am amazed and delighted, also still waking up.


And Girl Genius just won. Hurrah again!

Must go make coffee now.

Here, now, shiny!
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 05:59 AM * 45 comments

Live coverage of the Hugo ceremony, beginning now, hosted by Cheryl Morgan and Mur Lafferty: here.

Watching events half a world away, and chatting about them as we do. Very, um, science fictional.

ETA: W00000t! PNH gets another Hugo!

September 01, 2010
September: Remember
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 07:21 AM *

Hurricane Earl is going to move up the east coast of the USA this week, reaching Canadian waters, still a hurricane, this weekend.

Evacuation orders have already been given for tourists on Ocracoke Island. Other communities are considering evacuation orders.

Please do keep an ear out for orders in your community; have a plan on where to go and what to take, and stay safe.

Dire legal notice
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