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May 2009

Westport sunrise this morning

I forgot my camera when packing yesterday, and this morning's is a terrific sunrise, and so I'm going to try to describe it. Our Westport, NY living room overlooks Lake Champlain and has a wide bank of six-foot high windows facing the lake. Most mornings, I try to get up before actual sunrise to watch, though this morning I didn't get up until six, because I knew I'd left my camera home. So I arose shortly after sunrise.

My first impression was of a enchanted scene of peach and blue-gray. The sun was behind distant storm clouds beyond Vermont's Green mountains. The lake was very still, except for ripples which divided the reflected light into triangular sections of peach and blue. The creek feeding into the lake is running very high, and there were unusual circular ripple patterns where the creek meets the lake, suggesting frantic activity below the surface -- schools of fish.

The hooked outline of Camel's Hump mountain was clearly visible, the mountain is blue-gray, the sky apricot behind it. Because the lake is so still this morning, the far shore rendered as a symmetrical blue-green band, backed by a peach-tinged fog bank. Behind the fog bank rise the Green Mountains, in varying shades of pale-blue gray.

Furnace Point, on this shore to the north, also rendered as itself and its reflection, with its tree-line tall on the lake. As the sun rose higher, it warmed the surface of the lake, forming ethereal fog banks enveloping furnace point, which lasted a few minutes and then dissipated.

On the shore below my house there are three people and three dogs (who've just had a run around the beach) plus Lala (the Great White Cat of Westport) who now strolls up the road after the departure of the people and dogs in a minivan. Lala (a peculiar name for an enormous white tomcat of sturdy British short-hair ancestry) I initially mistook for a small white dog because she seemed to be with the dog pack.

The birds by the lake are relatively still except for swallows swooping over the reeds at Lee Park Beech. (The most frantic bird activity takes place at the moment of actual sunrise, and I slept through that.) There are a few Canadian geese ducking in the creek, and a small group of six geese sitting on a piece of concrete just off shore. A few swallows, gulls, and ducks are flying close to the lakes surface, presumably looking for fish.

This tableau is accompanied by the sound of the loud purring of the Ambrose, our black cat who is the same type as Lala except younger and in the opposite color, who seems to feel that all is right in the world because I got out of bed when he thinks I should, and by the cooing of pigeons who live in the unused slate-roofed building next door, plus the occasional cry of gulls.

Looking down into our yard, I see daisies and wildflowers blooming and that our yard is in intense need of mowing. The lake, now, has faded to pale yellow, the peach tones mostly gone. The sun is behind the clouds, and looks like it will stay there for quite a while. There are a few mosquitoes on the window, luckily on the outside.

I do wish I'd brought my camera. I could have taken some great pictures.

Now I get dressed and take my coffee downstairs and try to organize books in our bookstore-to-be. The kids can will come find me when they wake up and then we'll have pastries from Ernie's, next door, for breakfast.

Regaining my sense of humor about Fail Fandom

Years ago, in the Orient (or was it at an SFWA event?), Charles Platt -- who I guess was running short on conversational openers -- came up to me and told me all of the worst, most scurrilous, stories he'd heard about me since our previous encounter. I don't recall what I said to him, but I imagine I was probably at a bit of a loss for words. Then he winked, smiled, and said, "Don't worry, Kathryn. It all contributes to your already formidable reputation." And perhaps it did.

I am not going to do much to correct Fail Fandom's claims. In an odd and somewhat unpleasant way, certain tall tales contribute to what Platt called my "formidable reputation" and probably make me safer on the Internet than I would be if I revealed their scant basis. At this point, people would be very disappointed to find out that the LJ pearls of wisdom about me are mere grains of sand.

So, OK, I confess, I really do weigh the same as a duck.


In the meantime, I apologize to all the Live Journalers I turned into newts, frogs, and worms. Most of you have already gotten better. I promise to release the stragglers into their native habitat once they've recovered.

Paul Kincaid assesses my contribution to SF

Coverpage I was reading The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction in bed this afternoon, while feeling a bit unwell and testing out my brand new, very-first bifocals. I happened upon Paul Kincaid's essay, "Fiction since 1992." As Kincaid tells the tale:

The main tide of the genre during this period [since 1992], however, was the revived interest in hard sf and space opera, perhaps spurred by the monumental retrospective anthologies edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer (The Ascent of Wonder (1994), The Hard SF Renaissance (2002), The Space Opera Renaissance (2006)). (176-177)

The paragraph goes on to discuss the influence and profusion of Year's Best volumes. I think this goes into the next author bio I have to write!

Reading "Bad" Mothers: The Politics of Blame in Twentieth Century America, ed. Molly Ladd-Taylor & Lauri Umansky

Books A week or so ago, I stumbled across Annalee Newitz's essay "Murdering Mothers" on Google Books in "Bad" Mothers: The Politics of Blame in Twentieth Century America (1998), ed. Molly Ladd-Taylor & Lauri Umansky. Just when I had decided that this was a really terrific essay, Google Books refused to give me any more pages, and so I had to buy the book. Annalee Newitz is one of the editors of io9, a website about which I have ambiguous feelings because of it's excessive commercialism and Hollywood orientation. This essay raises my opinion of her substantially.

Newitz tries to make sense of pop culture's fascination with murderous moms, a fascination that I think has grown substantially in the decade since Newitz wrote the essay. (As I have remarked before, in this house, we refer to CNN as Child-Abuse News Network.) 

She discusses the cases of Susan Smith (who claimed her children were abducted but was later convicted of murdering them); Margaret Bean-Borg, a Boston psychiatrist sued for having an unhealthy personal relationship with a male patient who later committed suicide; and Hedda Nussbaum (an abused woman who allowed Joel Steinberg to beat their adopted daughter to death, for which he was convicted of manslaughter) as well as Susan Brownmiller's novel Waverly Place, based on the case.

The portion of the essay I liked best was the discussion of Brownmiller's novel, in which she discusses the Nussbaum case as emblematic of the failures of feminism:

It's ambiguous as to whether Brownmiller is suggesting  that Judith's life is a result of rejecting feminism , or as a result of feminism rejecting her. . . . That a woman like Hedda Nussbaum could exist points up the failures of feminism in a way that the defeat of the ERA never could: here was a person who should have known better, whose women friends should have known better. Traditional feminism, or what is commonly called  second wave feminism, cannot fully account for a woman like Hedda Nussbaum. (p. 384)

In 1989, Brownmiller wrote an OP-ED for the New York Times about the Steinberg trial, which she attended for 11 weeks.

. . . Mr. Steinberg had very specific requirements for a suitable mate. Hardly any woman would do for this lawyer-con man who received his gratification through violence. Mr. Steinberg needed a gullible woman who would be totally under his thumb, a woman willing to abandon her family, her friends, her career and her children for a man she considered a human god. He found his ideal in a woman so narcissistic, so empty at the core despite her beauty, her college education and her professional skills that she would willfully fail to heed the explicit warnings signs that something was terribly wrong in order to stay with her lover.

I think my own view of Hedda Nussbaum is rather more sympathetic than Brownmiller's: Brownmiller, having watched the trial, concluded that Nussbaum should not have been given immunity from prosecution. (Andrea Dworkin disagreed, strongly.) So I'll probably avoid Waverly Place, much as I like Newitz's analysis of it concerning feminism's ambiguous relationship with women and women's ambiguous relationship with feminism. My sympathy for Nussbaum comes from consideration of what a powerful influence a psychopath can exert on his target. 

The 2006 murder of Peggy Perez-Olivo by her disbarred attorney husband seems to me a companion piece to the Nussbaum situation. Though Carlos Perez-Olivo was ultimately convicted of his wife's murder, all of his children testified in his defense at his trial. Almost no one locally would speak about the case to the press. So when he was convicted, the TV camera crew showed up on my doorstep wanting me to talk about justice for Peggy, when it should have been her neighbor, Hillary Clinton, and her boss, the principal of my children's elementary school, who spoke out. That Perez-Olivo could compel his children's support speaks to his power and control over his family.

But where were the feminists of Westchester to talk about the matter as a case of domestic violence?  I seemed to be one of a very few willing to talk about the matter, so I was contacted by the press again and again. And I only faintly knew the victim, who was a well-liked special ed. teacher at my son's school. The silence was, to me, truly unsettling. 

Didn't anyone else around here (other than the press and the cops) care that she'd been murdered? That seems to me an even bigger failure of feminism than what one might extract from the Nussbaum case. Nussbaum was subject to mind-control by a psychopath, but Westchester's feminists have no such excuse. Surely, I'm not the only feminist within a 10-mile radius of Chappaqua? Surely people care if someone kills you? (Or maybe they really don't care if you live or die?)

On the other hand, the press found no shortage of people willing to vocalize about another Westchester mom, Madalyn Primoff, a Scarsdale mother whose Bad Parenting Day (she made her squabbling kids get out of the car and then drove around the block, intending to come back for them) made her world-wide infamous before the anti-climax when all charges against her were dropped. 

It's not that Westchester doesn't like to talk, it just doesn't want to talk about the murder of Peggy Perez-Olivo. Meanwhile, the Primoff case was the biggest story that our local paper has ever broken, and so they're hungry for whatever Bad Mommy Tales they can get. (Women of Westchester: Disconnect the phone, stop leaving the house, and don't answer the door; infamy awaits you!) It was, in fact, thinking about the media-mobbing of Madalyn Primoff that sent me in the direction of trying to understand Bad Mother Tales, and  to Annalee Newitz's essay.

I've now read about two-thirds of "Bad" Mothers, which is perhaps a little more than I can stand in a day. There is story after story of outrageous and unwarranted government (and sometimes media) intervention in mothers' lives. And things have gotten much worse since this book was published. How many justified reasons for paranoia can one stand in a day?

Particularly memorable essays among the others I read include:

  • Mending Rosa's Working Ways: A Case Study of an African American Mother and Breadwinner by Karen W. Tice
  • Antiracism and Maternal Failure in the 40s and 50s by Ruth Feldstein, and 
  • On Being the "Bad" Mother of an Autistic Child by Jane Taylor McDonnell

manufactroversy: a word I've been needing

From Leah Ceccarelli at Science Progress:
Manufactroversy (măn’yə-făk’-trə-vûr’sē) 
N., pl. -sies. 
1. A manufactured controversy that is motivated by profit or extreme ideology to intentionally create public confusion about an issue that is not in dispute. 
2. Effort is often accompanied by imagined conspiracy theory and major marketing dollars involving fraud, deception and polemic rhetoric.

I first encountered this in the Wikipedia entry for Artificial controversy:

An artificial controversy, or variously a contrived controversyengineered controversyfabricated controversymanufactured controversy, or manufactroversy is a controversy that does not stem from genuine difference of opinion. The controversy is typically developed by an interest group, such as a political party[1] or a marketing company, to attract media attention,[2] or to facilitate framing of a particular issue. Creating controversy is also a controversial legal tactic used to gain advantage in a negotiation or trial.[3] The controversy may stem from a minor incident blown out of proportion,[4] from a false claim of controversy where no serious dispute existed,[5] or no reasonable doubt remains,[6] or unintentionally from misinterpreting data.[7]

Writing on the politics of cancer and the influence of special interest groups on the public policy debate, Dr. Robert N. Proctorhistory of science professor at Stanford University specializing in scientific controversy and the cultural production of ignorance,[8] which he calls agnotology,[9] described the use of artificial controversy: "The relation between knowledge and ignorance in these matters is complex....The problem is partly that ignorance can be manufactured, controversy can be engineered."[10] In a 2006 interview regarding public perceptions of the press in the United States, journalist Carl Bernstein lamented, "Well, let's take a look at what we're talking about: misinformation, disinformation, celebrity stuff—gossip, sensationalism and especially manufactured controversy.... Increasingly, sensationalism, gossip, manufactured controversy have become our agenda instead of the best obtainable version of the truth. We've become frivolous."[11]  . . .

Writer Valerie Tarico, referred to Prof. Leah Ceccarelli's writings on "teach the controversy" as a manufactroversy.[35]

The Tarico reference is her article from The Huffington Post, Ben Stein: Front Man for Creationism's Manufactroversy, concerning the movie Expelled.

University of Washington professor, Leah Ceccarelli has pointed out that their "teach the controversy" strategy depends on a very specific sleight of hand: blurring the difference between scientific controversy and manufactured controversy or Manufactroversy.

You can say you first heard it here, well, if you haven't heard it already on MySpace or Facebook: Manufactroversy -- a made up word for a made up controversy. 

Going through my library

I have a lot fewer books than David, but I have been going through them, packing them up to take to our Westport, NY house. It would, of course, be most efficient if I could sort and pack them without reading them. I am not being efficient.

Unsurprisingly, I am finding some that I am glad to see, that bring back fond memories of reading enjoyment or remind me of something interesting I hadn't thought about for a while.

But some are also provoking a different reaction: looking back at lit crit books I had as text books in the early 90s, I am stunned by the extent  of the overblown hyperbole, the exploitive and appropriative metaphors. Did I notice this at the time I last read them? These were the "difficult"critical texts which we went over in grad school seminars, and for which the professor guided us line by line translating their sentences (printed mostly in the English language) into English. At the time I think I was pretty accepting of this process. 

But now -- flipping through some of this stuff 15 years later -- I find it makes me really angry. I'm finding that some of these books, with unlikely claims as to what the author hopes to accomplish (such as rid readers of our inner fascism) and over-the-top metaphors I just don't want to own anymore.

Some of these are books with major reputations, and I don't want to claim that they are just nonsense. But looking back, I wish I had been more willing to entertain the idea that they might be nonsense.

"Food is no less a weapon than tanks, guns, and planes" --Franklin D. Roosevelt

Snapshot 2009-05-13 18-10-58

Going through the shelves in this house is always an adventure. When poking through the shelves, deciding which of my text books to take upstate, I happened across the Kerr Home Canning Book (1943) which I believe came to us via David's mother's estate. (How the book got co-mingled with Curtis's Matrix Groups, Fleming's Functions in Several Variables, Toni Morrison's Beloved, and Anthony Wallace's Death and Rebirth of the Seneca I'm not sure, but such are the shifting geological strata of David's office shelves.)

The book features this interesting head-quote from Franklin Roosevelt on the weaponization of food:

Food is no less a weapon than tanks, guns and planes. As the power of our enemies decreases, the importance of food resources if the United Nations increases. With this thought in mind, we must further mobilize our resources for the production of food.

Kerr Home Canning Book

Kerr Home Canning Book

How times do change.

Food for Victory

(Of course, what is at issue is not just feeding "our" side, but starving out the enemy. Is it food, or starvation, that is the weapon?)

Marcuse & the Internet


I'm packing up a bunch of my books to take upstate, and I keep getting distracted from packing by actual books. Flipping through Herbert Marcuse's Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (1955), I found passages that could have been written now, and about the Internet. 

From the Preface :

The traditional borderlines between psychology on the one side and political and social philosophy on the other have been made obsolete by the condition of man in the present era: formerly autonomous and identifiable processes are being absorbed by the function of the individual in the state -- by his public existence. Psychological problems therefore turn into political problems: private disorder reflects more directly than before the disorder of the whole, and the cure of personal disorder depends more directly on the cure of general disorder. The era tends to be totalitarian even where it has not produced totalitarian states. Psychology could be elaborated and practiced as a special discipline as long as the psyche could sustain itself against public power, as long as privacy was real, really desired, and self-shaped; if the individual has neither the ability nor the possibility to be for himself, the terms of psychology become the terms of the societal forces which define the psyche. (p. xvii, 1962 Vintage paperback)

. . . and from the Introduction. . .

However, intensified progress seems to be bound up with intensified unfreedom. Throughout the world of industrial civilization, the dominion of man by man is growing in scope and efficiency. Nor does this trend appear to be incidental, transitory regression on the road to progress. Concentration camps, mass exterminations, world wars, and atom bombs are no "relapse into barbarism, " but the unrepressed achievements of modern science, technology, and dominion. The most effective subjugation and destruction of man by man takes place at the height of civilization, when the material and intellectual attainments of mankind seem to allow the creation of a truly free world. (p. 4)

Marcuse died in 1979.

Reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable


I realized with some sheepishness, after writing about Bruce Sterling's story "The Black Swan," that I had only read second-hand accounts of Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Black Swan idea, but not his actual book of that title. So I ordered it, and now have read the book itself. A "black swan" as defined by Taleb, is an event of "rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability." Taleb is an ex-quant turned iconoclastic mathematician. This book was a bestseller, and like many best-sellers on arcane topics, it is chatty, opinionated, and a bit on the loose and sloppy side.

As I expected, I enjoyed the book a lot. His subject matter appeals both to my taste in mathematics and my aesthetic of fiction. (My favorite section of David Hartwell's The Dark Descent is The Fabulous Formless Darkenss, which is the section for what he and I call "nature of reality" horror -- stories in which the parameters of what one thought was possible usually change for the worse.)

Other than having it confirm my belief system (always a pleasure), there were two basic things I got out of reading this. 

As I told my husband (David Hartwell) while reading the book, for me this is partly a book about how David's way of doing things is right. The way David publishes books as an editor, the way he runs our small press, the way he collects books, the way he runs the family finances, etc. all tend to limit downside risks while at the same time leaving him exposed to positive Black Swans -- serendipity. (Aren't I a good wife for blogging about how I just read a book that tells me how right my husband is?)


In the second half of the book Taleb spends a lot of wordage and emotion on condemning the "intellectual fraud" of the Bell Curve. I don't really need to be able to judge whether he is correct in terms of all of his examples. But it set me thinking about standardized testing.

Last week and this week, the school district is doing extensive testing of my son, which they do every three years. (This is separate from the group standardized testing.) When my husband I meet with the district in June, we will be presented with a sheaf of paper in which, page after page, our son will be raked in terms of percentiles and numbers of standard deviations from the norm. And we will try to make sense of all this data. Again.

Years ago, I read Stephen J. Gould's The Mismeasure of Man (another book which confirmed my belief systems) and I have a deep distrust of standardized testing anyway. And yet these tests mean something, and it is of crucial importance that I understand what. In past cycles of this, I've wasted a lot of time reading up on what is meant by "processing speed" and how to understand things like the results on subtests of IQ tests. 

My son tends to produce an anomalous pattern of results on such tests, and so far no one has yet to be able to explain what this actually means, though -- who knows -- this year's tests may be different. (We expect to be having our independent expert read the results for us this time.)

So I'm reading along through Taleb's attack on the uses of the Bell Curve, and I realize that of course all of these tests are normed to Bell Curves. They wouldn't give them if they weren't. But all around me I see human attributes that do not fit that model: the ability to draw a recognizable portrait, the ability to play the piano, gender, eye color, etc. Many human differences are not meaningfully normalized to the Bell Curve.

 And so I realized there was one further aspect of what these tests measure that I need to keep in mind: that the imposition of percentiles and standard deviations on what attributes are measured may be no more realistic than contemplating a spherical cow. We somehow need to try to consider whatever we're told each of these these tests are measuring is distributed Bell-Curve-like over the population, or whether it is a different kind of thing. I find this a bit daunting, though probably worth trying.

Reading William Gibson's Spook Country


Last summer David bought a signed copy on William Gibson's Spook County in Seattle, and I found it this weekened on the night table on his side of the bed in our house in upstate NY. I read it on Mother's Day, half in the morning before going out to brunch with the kids, and the other half when I got home to Pleasantville, waiting for David to wake up from his nap to take me out to dinner. (He didn't wake up until I was almost finished with the book, so we're having Mother's day Dinner tonight, I think.)

By chance, the book covers a lot of the same thematic ground as my blog. Odd happenings involving piracy and Somalia, clownish espionage or pseudo-espionage, data visualization, international intrigue, privatized military and intelligence operations, etc. So there were a lot of details in the book to engage me, and for me to measure against various random facts encountered during the Bush years. And it is a very Bush Era book.

There were a certain number of intriguing ideas raised but which did not pay off. The one I most wanted to hear about was the idea of a "cold civil war" going on within the United States. Maybe he'll actually use it in a subsequent book, but in this book it was a toss-off line in a bit of good dialog.

William Gibson corrupted by the influence of Charles N. Brown

The book has lots of hip characters in settings and clothes that Gibson takes the time to describe -- but which descriptions I find I mostly didn't retain because these aspects did not cling to their character in the standard Jamesian sort of way. Rather, the clothes and settings felt more like superficial packaging on physics-style Beobachters on the way to their Bush-era date with doom.

The book is a page-turner full of good scenes and snappy dialog. But in the end, except for an ex-Blackwater spear carrier or two, no one gets hurt much. Instead, they go to Canada, where the inevitable and dangerous conflicts sort of evaporate and characters from competing sides  seem to be in process of forming a band or something, leaving them all available for use in whatever book is coming next.

I'm not sure how I feel about myself for being disappointed that none of them died. Is the ending unrealistic?

The strengths of this book are in its individual scenes, in its moments of insight, glimpses of what might have been going on beneath all the layers of deception in the first eight years of the 21st century. I'll probably read the book again, going back to savor the best scenes slowly without the expectation that they will all add up.

Wiscon program item noted without comment: "Something Is Wrong on the Internet!"

Program Item
NameSomething Is Wrong on the Internet!
Track(s)Feminism and Other Social Change Movements (Reading, Viewing, and Critiquing Science Fiction)
DescriptionWhat keeps you going at 4 a.m. when there's so much fail, and only you and your fellow Internet drama addicts stand against it like stubborn superheroes? Let's talk about why Internet drama is important to us as activists and as fans, why we engage or disengage, and what it all means when ideas and personalities clash in public discussion of sf/f books, tv, fic, and culture.
LocationCapitol B
ScheduleSun 10:00 - 11:15AM
PanelistsM: Vito Excalibur, Piglet, Liz Henry, Julia Sparkymonster
UPDATE: Two accounts of the panel, one from Laura, in the audience, with several unattributed quotes about mobbing:

Hint of a fail is when a person says “There is a mob after me!”

. . . and . . .

If you never shut up about things, then you will continue to be mobbed.

And one from Liz Henry:

danny: what seems to spark a particularly bad reaction is a bunch of people's reactions being called a "mob" - it is not a mob it is a lot of individuals having their own valid reactions.