26 August 2010

Exciting title: Descriptive title

A headline from The Onion that I really like:
A Statement Followed By A Question Separated By A Colon: An Effective Journalistic Technique?
We have the same colon-related cliché problem in academia. There is an unspoken rule that every conference paper title has to be both engaging and descriptive, for example
Meet the Beetles: A Prosopographic Study of Entomological References in Budge Collection Papyri 34 and 35

22 August 2010

The art of writing well and avoiding Michiko Kakutani

The myth of the novelist as genius: The writer locks himself in his chilly garret, works flat out with little sleep and less food using an outmoded instrument (a quill pen or a forty year old Olivetti typewriter), and emerges with a fully realized work that perfectly explicates the human condition. That novel then becomes a classic to be read by generations of high school students and undergraduates.

What does that version conveniently elide from the process? Advances, printing, book tours, publicity, delivery, royalties, and so on. The fact is that though things were much simpler in the fifteenth century, variations of these intermediate steps were there even when William Caxton was printing the first English books (he was in it to make money after all). We cling to the Romantic idea that if someone writes a worthy story, it makes it into the hands of the reading public with no fuss. But behind every author is a good editor and behind every good editor is a publishing company whose functionaries have decided an idea is marketable. And of course a good writer has very little chance of coming to the attention of a good editor without a good agent. Aha, you might say, but didn't Stephen King write his breakout novel Carrie in the back room of a laundromat? He had a good agent.

19 August 2010

Strange Fruit: The "Ground Zero Mosque" thing is racism...

An incident at another protest (of the non-mosque which is not actually at the World Trade Center site) as described by The Record, a northern New Jersey newspaper:
At one point, a portion of the crowd menacingly surrounded two Egyptian men who were speaking Arabic and were thought to be Muslims.

"Go home," several shouted from the crowd.

"Get out," others shouted.

In fact, the two men – Joseph Nassralla and Karam El Masry — were not Muslims at all. They turned out to be Egyptian Coptic Christians who work for a California-based Christian satellite TV station called "The Way." Both said they had come to protest the mosque.

11 August 2010

America the secular

People who invoke the Founding Fathers as evidence that our nation has slipped from an ideal sadly tend to be themselves more doctrinaire and closed-minded than the Founding Fathers were. It is an unfortunate reality that society allows people who are reactionaries to call themselves patriots, while people who think holistically about social and political problems are pushed from one unsatisfying label to another. “Liberal” went from being a positive identity to a slur and its preferred replacement, “progressive,” now too is more often employed as invective than not. Those who style themselves defenders of liberty, no matter how absurd their factual or ethical claims are shown to be, have been allowed to monopolize Americanness (which is a failure of both the Left and the Center in our politics). To my mind their narrow definitions of patriotism demean our nation because they require us to forget our history.

The abuse of history by people who should know better (Newt Gingrich, for example, has a PhD in history) warrants reflection. Consider the proposition that the United States was founded as “a Christian nation,” an erroneous assumption from which many others flow. Christianity has a privileged place in our society for legitimate historical and cultural reasons but a not insignificant minority of Americans believe our government today should be openly Christian even though the Founding Fathers explicitly rejected that option. If devout Christians feel under threat because of workplace emails explaining Yom Kippur and Ramadan (which incidentally begins today) that is only because we as a nation have forgotten our founding principles: Everyone's faith, whether familiar or unfamiliar to the majority of Americans, is equal.

08 August 2010

I don't think this would ever happen in the US...

Jón Gnarr, the Mayor of Reykjavik, Iceland, came to the city's gay pride parade dressed in drag (he's straight and married). Here's the picture of the comedian-turned-politician. But maybe this isn't a surprise from the country whose Prime Minister, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, is the only openly-gay head of government in the world.

On a very different but still Icelandic topic, I just learned that Icelanders don't have surnames. I knew there are a lot of "X-sson" ["son of X"] and "X-dóttir" ["daughter of X"] names around but I figured that was a relic like "Johnson" in English. But no, it turns out that they are real patronymics: Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir actually is the daughter of Sigurður, and you have to call her by her full name or as "Jóhanna" rather than "Ms Sigurðardóttir," which doesn't make any sense. Phonebooks in Iceland are alphabetical by first name but apparently also list a person's profession in order to reduce confusion. Having found out all of this, I really want to take advantage of one of Icelandair's cheap flights.

07 August 2010

Eerie silence from anti-same-sex marriage legal minds after Prop 8 ruling

Round one of the federal Prop 8 trial ended last Wednesday when Judge Vaughn Walker released his findings, handing the pro-same-sex marriage side a resounding victory. The trial was a historic event because for the first time in America history, homophobic people (who claimed repeatedly they were not homophobic) were forced to present evidence supporting their views in federal court and they failed spectacularly. Stripped of innuendo or recourse to religious doctrine, there was nothing for them to say. The lead anti-same-sex-marriage lawyer, Chuck Cooper, even let slip during closing arguments that felt he didn't need to offer evidence (ctd at p 10 in Walker's ruling). That won't fly anymore.

Digital ink was spilled across the web celebrating the eloquence and rational underpinnings of Judge Walker's decision, as well as its canny construction. It was designed to appeal to Justice Kennedy, who will be, as usual, the swing-vote when the case inevitably arrives at the Supreme Court in a year or two. (Dahlia Lithwick offers an excellent analysis in Slate). For me what was most interesting were the reactions from people opposed to same-sex marriage in the wake of this defeat.