Feb 102016

A few weeks ago, Stephane Dion, Canada’s new Foreign Affairs Minister, met with his American and Mexican counterparts in Quebec City. The annual Carnivale was underway, and unsurprisingly it was chosen as the backdrop for some of the grip-and-grins played out in front of journalists. And the Quebec journalists ate it up. The images were everywhere.

Here’s the thing: that night, watching Dion encourage Kerry to shake hands with the Bonhomme de neige — the mascot for the Carnivale and easily the creepiest non-clown “face of happiness” I have ever seen — I felt embarrassment — maybe even shame — as my immediate and first reaction. “We’re better than this” I thought and, once I realized that it was true, I said it to the Beav as well. “On est meiux que ça.”

Claudia Ruiz Massieu, John Kerry, Stephane Dion, Bonhomme Carnaval

Later talking with friends, the Beav presented my reaction as a sign that after 15 years in Quebec, with more than half of those as a permanent resident and then citizen, I was finally becoming a Canadian rather than an American in exile.

Anyway, I’m thinking about that this morning as I read the papers and I am trying to convince myself that the American primaries don’t matter for me anymore. But my roiling stomach isn’t buying it.

So far I’ve been fairly detached from the campaign and I know I won’t vote in November: voting is controlled at the state level and I played hopscotch for a bit before moving to Montreal; so actually casting a ballot in a US election involves an inexplicably Byzantine process. I navigated it successfully in 2008 but failed at in 2012. After that I resigned myself to just voting in Canada. Then this past week I decided to watch the last of the Republican and Democratic debates. It was a horror show and now I think I won’t be able to look away.

The Republican primary is a multiple choice test written by a lazy teacher. Most of the options are obviously, ludicrously wrong and can be immediately eliminated. Yet, in response to the question “Who should be the President of the United States of America?” the most popular answers are “more sprinkles” and “all of the above.” I mean did they circle responses at random?

The Democrats are at least dealing with a short answer question. It demands some sophistication and nuance. There’s room for some difference of opinion. But even there, I can’t help thinking that they don’t know much and their judgment is very very bad.

So I’m left with the sense that the States have lost their mind. I mean that literally: where is the public intellect? And despite living and voting elsewhere and despite knowing that this is just New Hampshire, the apparent chaos and derangement of American politics matters to me and is upsetting.

 February 10, 2016  Reflections Tagged with:
Jan 262016

Late last year, I was flipping through some passages in some of Edmund White’s books (A Boy’s Own StoryHotel de DreamProust). I was also reading a bit about him, and I realized that I hadn’t read many of the novels he claimed as antecedents. I’d dealt with queer theory and criticism at the margins of my own research but for a variety of reasons had never systematically read through the major works or the corpus that served as its rough working canon. Curious, I sat down and put together an initial bibliography and began reading. Now, a couple months on I’m still reading, I’m revising and building that bibliography and, most importantly, I’m excited.

The past couple years have not been easy ones intellectually. When I settled into a job at a non-research institution with a non-liberal arts focus, I initially felt a sense of freedom: without the burden of teaching my research, I began to read with fewer constraints than I had in years. The very specific pleasures of picking a novel for its cover and reading it blind or picking based on a friend of a friend’s recommendations became more and more my norm. I could and did read anything. Unfortunately, I think this blog shows — without me meaning it to — that this got old quickly and that I’ve read with a fair amount of boredom for awhile now.

In part, I was reading a lot of books that weren’t very good. When I read ones that that were, I often lacked a context (or even a reason) for engaging with them in a meaningful way. So I was reduced to observing, noticing, and, when something was noteworthy, calling it out. But nothing stuck or built up. I was simultaneously struggling with my seemingly ever expanding and increasingly administrative responsibilities at work. Forced to choose between unsatisfying reading (and so nothing to write about) and complicated, “important,” problems at work, I slowly and without noticing devoted more and more of my mental life to helping to run a school.

I didn’t consciously turn to White’s novels for guidance but that’s what they offered by reminding me about the manner in which I’ve always read. For good or for ill, I’ve never been satisfied with random observation. Even as a kid, I always had what I called “my research projects.” I’d be curious about something and would go to the library and check out everything I could about it and would read until I felt I knew what I wanted to know. Then I’d move on to the next project. And there was always a next project because I was always bouncing from one thing to the next as my interests led me.

Sometimes my questions were simple and easily answered; at other times, complicated and involved. Once a very young me figured out what lips were. That was pretty easy. Learning Greek mythology — a childhood passion — took time. Curiosity was my guide not seriousness, and my curiosity always provided its own context and purpose even when I couldn’t put my finger on it at first: I once spent the better part of a year in my early twenties reading crap book after crap book about astrology and the tarot, wondering why on earth I was doing it, but keeping it up until I felt done. When I finally did and looked back, I realized that I’d just explored a highly developed and convoluted instance of archetypal interpretation that was distinct from Biblical exegesis. I found that interesting.

I’ve also always been an encyclopedic reader. I stumble upon a writer, become interested, and then read in a burst, often in chronological order, everything they’ve written up to that point. The first time I remember doing this was with Lloyd Alexander when I was twelve; the next was with Stephen King the summer turned I fourteen. Sometimes this led to great things: I discovered Faulkner and spotted the patterns I wrote a dissertation about by reading in the this way. Sometimes it didn’t: my summer of Stephen King turned me off him irremediably. The thing is though, that however random these bursts were — I often discovered these writers by chance — the bodies of works provided their own context. Operating as an oeuvre, they directed my thinking about my reading in the same way that my curiosity — expressed as a question — pointed my way in the library.

All of this may sound like ridiculous nostalgia but it’s not: I’m not yearning to return to some imaginary, childlike ideal. (Blech!) Rather, I’ve realized in the past few days that flipping through White’s novels last December was the beginning of a new curiosity-based project. My bibliography is me once again working through a corpus that provides individual works with a context and that the books I’ve read are already building upon each other. Seeing this I recognize that there’s something in this arrangement of things that fits with my disposition and supports the better angels of my nature. It’s a happy recognition because, looking back over the past year and a half of this blog, I realize how very boring it is to be bored. So good riddance.

 January 26, 2016  Reflections Tagged with:
Jun 272015

Lots of great political news coming out of the US Supreme Court this week, but the decision on health care had me thinking about literary theory. Specifically, this post by Nicholas Baglay and this one by Einer Elhaug, together make a nice point about meaning as a goal in interpretation and the purposeful destructiveness of stubborn textualism. Reading it, I was reminded of the distance I felt unpacking boxes after my recent move and flipping through so much of the critical work I was assigned in the mid-90s in graduate school.

What struck me reading about the dissenting arguments in the health care case was the way Scalia’s approach feels out of time but not in the way he believes: he seems like a product of the the heyday of academic deconstruction. De Man and Scalia (and Thomas to an extent) seem to me of a kind insofar as their textual processes create obstructive rather than enabling insights, and these obstructions bring whole enterprises to a halt, prevent movement, and enforce the status quo. The result too often is a link across fields between deconstruction and the ugliest of conservatisms.

This is all very simplistic and hunch-based but it makes me wonder a bit about academic queer theory, much of which has been, sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly, opposed to the normalizing political project that led to the Court’s recognition of a right to gay marriage. The value and importance of queer theory is difficult to exaggerate, and yet, I worry when it finds itself on the wrong side of so important an argument and worry too when it’s foundational critical approach seems to align it with the methods of Scalia’s side of the court.

ps–obviously there’s a lot of nuance needed here, but in broad strokes, this is the shape of my first thoughts.

 June 27, 2015  Reflections
Apr 212015

So I’ve been reading (more on that later) and I have a dilemma: eBook or paper?

The options are pretty straightforward. I like how paper books make each book seem different from the other. I like reading EBooks in bed with the light off.

How to choose?

I feel like the potential for dealing with quotation and annotation in EBooks is greater but I feel too that, at least personally, that potential is not realized. So it doesn’t count much in the decision.

 April 21, 2015  Reflections Tagged with:
Sep 132014

The announcement of the new iPhone has sent me wandering down memory lane and has me thinking about how my not-so-long-ago, pre-iPhone mobile life was transformed by the 3G into a family project.

First Laptop

I made the leap to mobile computing in grad school when I bought my first laptop, a Toshiba PC that won me over because, at 10 or 11 pounds, it seemed light enough to carry back and forth to the library when I needed it. I was fooling myself. I live in a city. I walk, I bike, I take the metro. Bringing the machine to the library meant bringing it with me all day, every day, and it was too heavy for that and never left my desk.

Palm Pilot

When the Toshiba died enough that I felt I could replace it without guilt, I got another desktop PC 1 and a Palm TX. The Palm was a great machine. I bought a small IR keyboard that folded in half and both it and TX together could fit inside my coat pocket. I bought Documents to Go, figured out how to transfer files back and forth to my computer manually. And this changed how I worked.

Weekdays, I’d wake up at five o’clock, take a shower, grab my backpack and walk down to my favourite cafe where I’d sit at my table (I had a table) and write for a few hours before heading off to get started with the rest of my day. I wrote first drafts of my dissertation proposal, my comprehensive exams, and most of the early parts of my dissertation in that cafe on that TX.

Mac Mini

It was my Palm TX that caused me to stretch my budget and buy my first mac. Writing on the Palm I tended to write in short segments rather than in a single file: a single article might be broken into a dozen or more files that I would organize in directories on my PC and later combine into a Word document. This made sense when I was drafting on the TX but was complicated to manage back on my PC.

Then one day I stumbled across a reference to Scrivener, a then Mac-only program that let you write in non-sequential fragments easily and productively. After a week or so of hesitation, I bought a Mac mini and installed the Scrivener free trial, thinking all the time: I have a few weeks to change my mind and return this computer for a refund. But after the first day, I was sold.

Ironically, the Mac made me stop using the Palm. Scrivener was so good and the process of transferring files from the TX so clumsy that I started drafting at my computer again and the Palm found its way into a box.

Meanwhile the first iPhone came out in the States (but not in Canada) and I got a pancake sized Blackberry with a sidewheel. Using it I got a crash course on the differences between POP, IMAP and Exchange email, but otherwise it was a brief, failed experiment.

First iPhone

The first iPhone to come to Canada was the 3G. I’d imagined it would be a way to replace my Palm, that I’d be able to use it to draft on the run, but it turned out that this wasn’t possible. The 3G wasn’t much more than a tool for jotting down notes and observations. (I used the excellent Write Room from Hog Bay Software for this.) 2 Ultimately though, my 3G was less about work than it was about how my family and I kept in touch.

When the 3G came out international calling was expensive. Texting was something no one I knew did. I’d convinced my brother and my sisters to buy Minis by this time, and so to talk, my family would use iChat to access our old AIM accounts. 3 As we one-by-one got computer cameras we also began to do group video chats as well.

The 3G added a twist: here were text messages strung together like our AIM chats but we could talk throughout the day without being chained to our computers. It was amazing and revolutionary.

Family Twitter

Unfortunately for me, texting was expensive: text messages to the states cost .75$ each. So “k” and “?” added up quickly to a steep price tag.

Twitter provided a solution. It was new and I wasn’t sure what it was for, but once I got online, I realized that, regardless of it’s intended purpose, my family could turn it into a means of getting around the international text problem.

Family members who had an iPhone grabbed Twitterific and signed up for private Twitter accounts. Those who had feature phones signed up and registered their numbers to receive tweets as texts. We all approved each other as followers. And suddenly we could “iChat” all day by tweeting and our timelines would track the conversation.

The one snag was notifications: they didn’t exist on the 3G. So while everyone without an iPhone got an alert when a new tweet came in (because it arrived as a text message), everyone else had to remember to open the Twitter app. This was a pain, so I dug around and found Boxcar, a notification app that solved that problem for us and that I still keep download in iTunes as a souvenir even though I don’t use it for anything.


Subsequent iPhones made our various work-arounds obsolete. Now we iMessage and FaceTime. It’s all built in and automatic. Once the iPads came out, my grandmother (codename: TechnoGranny) also joined the party, which by then included aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews. It’s great and I certainly wouldn’t want to go back to our old system. 4

But still, that old system did have the advantage of being ours. My brother, my sisters, my mother and I had built it up together, slowly over time, based on our own experiences. It was complicated but effective, and it suited our needs. I was proud of it, even bragged about it to other people (like I’m doing now) because we were making this new technology work for us and not the other way around. We weren’t trying to be “social”; we were just trying to stay close from far away. And it turns out that that difference was enough to make a gadget into a tool.

 September 13, 2014  Reflections Tagged with:
Sep 052014

So. A chain of links and at the end, Scott Rosenberg explaining that blogging is becoming a thing again. He’s excited enough to write about it and hesitent enough to be snarky. But I think I’m rooting for the same team he is.

Rosenberg concludes (in a follow up post) that:

as waves of smart people hit the limits of their frustration with Twitter and Facebook, many will look around and realize, hey, this blogging thing still makes a great deal of sense

What will be the appeal? What will attract the people currently living their online lives exclusively in Twitter or Facebook? In a blog, they can do whatever they want in whatever way they want. That’s not really true elsewhere.

Does that mean that there will be a “blogging revival?” Rosenberg doesn’t seem to think so. Blogging is not going to suddenly become the best new (read: coolest) thing on the web.

But that’s not a bad thing. After all, who cares if blogging is “cool”? What matters is that the people you want to read are writing blogs. In my circle, that’s starting to happen. Here’s hoping that circle keeps growing.

UPDATE: Same thing (with links to more) here.

My Problem

The one Google service I used and depended on was Google Reader, and I haven’t really decided how to replace it even months and months (and months) after it’s gone. By discontinuing it, Google made following the blogs I like harder than it should be.

If I want ads in my email though, they got that covered.

 September 5, 2014  Reflections Tagged with:
May 032014

Five or six months ago I turned comments on for posts on this site. I was curious what would come of them and expected mostly silence. So I was surprised when a few comments trickled in and I was flattered beyond flattery when one eventually arrived from the blogger at Fat Free Milk, a low-key site I’d stumbled upon long, long ago and still read and had linked to in an earlier post. Comments, I decided, were awesome!

Except then they weren’t.

Spam started arriving. First just a few comments, then dozens, and I responded by closing comments on the targeted posts. That helped for a bit, but then other posts were picked up, and before I knew it comments targeting dozens and dozens of posts were pouring in, all of them selling and phishing and basically crapping on the blog I’d built.

And I was unprepared for how that felt.

I’d worked for a few years building up my little corner of the internet. Nobody visited, it wasn’t important, but it was mine. I enjoyed it and was proud. But now, subject to this deluge, my blog quickly became a demoralizing chore. Every visit to site admin meant clicking through and deleting pages and pages of pending “comments.” On good days when I was done, I’d be able to shake off the frustration and disappointment and post what I’d come to write. But in too many dark January mornings and grey March afternoons, the spam made my blog feel like a trash can in a public park and just no fun. So I started logging into my site less and less often. Because /sadmonkey.

But then today, clarity.

If Web 2.0’s promise of awesome-through-commenting doesn’t work for me, then I can take the train back to good ol’ Web 1.x. I just need to close the comments on my posts. No need to come up with spam-management strategies or deal with add-ons. I just close comments. So that’s what I’m doing. And writing that feels like sitting down at a campfire replacing wet socks with dry when you know that the rain is finally, finally gone for good.

That said, I’m not walling myself off: my email is still linked in the sidebar. If you want to comment or say hi, please send me a message. I’d love to hear from you.

But I only want to hear from you. Not from that machine that “like your writing very good but notice some spelling. will certainly read more! also having good price on guarantee seo [or hacking the Facebook, gucci bags, etc.]”

 May 3, 2014  Reflections Tagged with:
Feb 172014

For most of us, most of the time, banning books or burning them isn’t real. Not really. These acts exist for us primarily as stock melodramatic symbols in movies or on TV. In movies, calling for a book or a poem to be banned marks a villain as ignorant, tyrannical and without taste. Actually burning a book marks the villains, usually in this case a mob, as beyond hope and the situation as lost. In these stories, a banned book launches the plot; a burned one launches the third act: escape not resistance is the task at hand.

Outside of movies and TV, banned books are usually news stories and not events in our own lives. These stories are also symbols, tales of “down there” or “over there” where people who should know better but don’t, try to get away with attacking “freedom” or “free speech” or “knowledge.” In these stories, it’s the threatened abstraction–“open access to information” or whatever–that’s obvious and concrete to us. The book-banners are vague and imaginary, simple Clarence Darrow-types stepping off the stage à la Purple Rose of Cairo to twirl their moustaches and argue badly for blatantly mistaken ideas. My frustration with their villainy reassures me that these are exceptional instances and that things are ok where I live.

The closest I’ve ever been to book banning was in high school, where I discovered at thirteen that Stephen King’s novels were kept behind the front counter and that I needed a note from my parents to check them out. More recently my sister discovered that she had to write to give permission for her son to check out books on American history from his school library, apparently because history is scary and therefore inappropriate for children beneath a certain age. When my sister told me that the school understood interest in such books as a sign that a student might be troubled or depressed, my blood boiled. This book banning was still a symbol–it told me volumes about this place–but the symbol was close now and real enough to cut.

Doniger-The Hindus

Doniger’s book with a cheap statue of Ganeesh I picked up as a souvenir of how much I learned about art in India.

Now I read in the news that Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History has been discontinued in India and  existing copies pulped by Penguin, and I’ve felt it like a punch to the chest. I read this book as I travelled through India several years ago. It was clear, exciting, and it laid out the web of stories I needed to make sense of what I saw. Our trip was long, most of the summer, and archaeological: the Beav and I visited the major political and religious sites of four of the five major empires of southern India.

We were travelling on our own and without guides, so without consciously planning to do so, we divided the monumental task of understanding this distinct cultural past between us. The Beav read about the political and architectural history, and as we walked the sites, he explained to me what we were seeing. I read about literature and mythology and especially Doniger’s book, and I explained the stories the elaborate carvings found everywhere told. As we travelled, I also read Indian novels–The God of Small ThingsThe Bachelor of Arts, The Man-Eater of Malgudi–and was able to make sense of them largely because of what I’d learned in The Hindus. (I have no idea what I’d make of the final chapter of Arundhati Roy’s book without Doniger’s discussion of tantra.)

And now The Hindus is being banned in India by people trying to protect a religion I’d understand not at all if I hadn’t read the book they wish didn’t exist. And so this news story about “over there” is oddly and unexpectedly personal. Because without this book, I wouldn’t have learned as much in India as I did or have loved it as much, and I certainly wouldn’t now care as much as I do that fundamentalists have won their battle with a publisher.

The New York Times story about the ban is here and the story about Doniger’s response is here. Arundhati Roy’s letter in the Times of India is copied below the break.

Continue reading »

 February 17, 2014  Book Logs, Reflections Tagged with: ,
Jan 282014

In response to my posts about my annoyance with the move toward responsive web design and my layman’s sense that it was driven by a misunderstanding of how people access the web, a friend who makes his living designing web sites and building content writes me to fill in some additional info:

One thing I can add: while traffic numbers for mobile are way lower, ad clickthrough rates on mobile are WAY higher than any other platform. I think a lot of the new spatial mutability in design, and the expansion of white space, is to diminish the visible distinction between text and ads/social share tools. In the new paradigm, the movement between content, social media, and product websites must be fluid—one homogenous uber web constructed from calls to action, not “sites.”

The other factor at play here, one you mention, is the importance of social media in a social strategy: the majority of FB sharing happens before the user has scrolled more than 50% the way down an article. We don’t move through websites anymore as an act of exploration, but as an act of mirroring and mimicry (played out on the FB wall as a linear chronology of statements and callbacks, not a map of thought).

If this is true, and I have no reason to doubt it, then I have things backwards a bit in my earlier posts: responsive web design is for businesses not people. And the design shift works because, rather than exploring the web or making it (which I imagine to be the goals of going online), people are increasingly using the web simply to perform and participate in identities through sharing.

Food for thought…

 January 28, 2014  Reflections Tagged with:
Jan 122014

The following is a quotation from For PC Makers, the Good News on 2013 Is That It Is Over on The New York Times‘s site:

People everywhere are buying tablets and smartphones instead of PCs. … the market is still capturing a lot of people who just need to get on the Internet and do simple tasks,” Mr. Chou said. “From a strictly consumer, couch potato view, the Internet takes care of an awful lot.

This description of people accessing the internet without needing or wanting a computer got me thinking: “Using a computer” to me means using an open-ended tool to do a variety tasks in ways that imply some consciousness of the machine-medium. But the alternative described in the Times is a less about using a tool than riding a vehicle. And this oddly enough, got me thinking about students.

We don’t say of someone who takes a car to go to the mall, “They are interested in cars”; or of someone who takes a bus to go to the movies, “they are interested in public transportation.” We certainly don’t assume that, if we build a road to the dentist, these people (because they can take their car or the bus to the dentist’s office) will like getting their teeth drilled.

And yet, we see teenagers using their phone to look at their friend’s photos on Facebook or to tweet about their best friend’s latest epic fail, and we say “If we teach using phones or computers students will engage with education and learn more.” But aren’t they really just interested in their friends? Aren’t they, like the people described in the quotation,  just looking to get onto the internet in order to be social?

This is about metaphors: computer as tool, as vehicle, as window, as terminal. Which applies? Because each imply meaningfully different interpretations of students’ fascination with their cellphones.

 January 12, 2014  Reflections, Teaching